Friday, March 19, 2010

one classroom from sea to shining sea

NYTimes | AMERICAN public education, a perennial whipping boy for both the political right and left, is once again making news in ways that show how difficult it will be to cure what ails the nation’s schools.

Only last week, President Obama declared that every high school graduate must be fully prepared for college or a job (who knew?) and called for significant changes in the No Child Left Behind law. In Kansas City, Mo., officials voted to close nearly half the public schools there to save money. And the Texas Board of Education approved a new social studies curriculum playing down the separation of church and state and even eliminating Thomas Jefferson — the author of that malignant phrase, “wall of separation” — from a list of revolutionary writers.

Each of these seemingly unrelated developments is part of a crazy quilt created by one of America’s most cherished and unexamined traditions: local and state control of public education. Schooling had been naturally decentralized in the Colonial era — with Puritan New England having a huge head start on the other colonies by the late 1600s — and, in deference to the de facto system of community control already in place, the Constitution made no mention of education. No one in either party today has the courage to say it, but what made sense for a sparsely settled continent at the dawn of the Republic is ill suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy.

Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support to attract smart young people to the teaching profession all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments. So does a financing system that relies heavily on local property taxes and fails to guarantee students in, say, Kansas City the same level of schooling as students in more affluent communities.