Friday, August 28, 2015

Why Are We Afraid of National Educational Standards?

You no doubt think I have lost my mind by considering this topic in my blog.  I want to assure you that my mother did not raise a fool!  Most answers to this question are filled with emotion and political exaggerations with very little honest analysis.  I want to remind you that “Simpson” is Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish, take your pick), and my sub-conscious mind is filled with distrust of any national government.  This attitude was born and nurtured in the treatment of the Scots-Irish by the British in Europe and Colonial America.  It was the population in the back country dominated by the Scots-Irish that led revolts against the British power structure located in the coastal plain because of the way the colonial governments neglected and used them as a buffer against the Indians.  In Virginia this grievance led to Bacon’s Rebellion and the Parson’s Cause, and in North Carolina it ignited the Regulator Movement.  In our day this distrust is often expressed in the battle over who controls education:  “Just leave us alone; we know what’s best for our children.”

We have this political conflict because of the Constitution of the United States.  Education is not mentioned in the Constitution, and for this reason, the Reserved Powers Clause of the 10th Amendment applies.  Any powers not given to the Federal Government in the Constitution are reserved for the people and the states.  For strict constructionists this means that the Federal Government has no business being involved in the governance of education.  This does not mean that the Founding Fathers were not concerned about education in this new Republic; in fact, many were very concerned, including Thomas Jefferson.

On the other side, broad constructionists will take the General Welfare Clause, Congress shall have the power to provide for the general welfare (Article I Section 8), and argue that having an educated population promotes the general welfare of the country, and the federal government must be involved.


Historically, we have looked to other countries and envied their educational systems.  In the 1800s we were envious of the educational system in Prussia, which by 1871 was the leading state in the imperial German Reich.  Before World War II and the self-destruction of Germany by the Nazis, German education was the envy of the world.  In the more recent decades of the 1970s and 1980s, our envy was Japan and later Singapore, or any other nation in Asia whose students scored much higher in math and science than our students.  Most recently our envy has been directed toward Finland.  What is most interesting to note is that most of these countries had or have well defined national educational standards.    


In the current political climate, we hear politicians proclaim, “The Federal government has no business running education; leave it to the states.”  Let the states govern education, establish assessment policies, and set proficiency levels on state exams, not national exams.  This all sounds good except for one reality: states have a tendency to cheat, including Tennessee.  Just a few years back, Tennessee had set the scores for demonstrating proficiency in the academic fields so low that 70% and 80% of our students were classified as proficient in the core academic subjects.  Everyone knew it was a lie.  But most of the other states were doing the same, so we jumped on the same band wagon. 

However, we were exposed!  We do have national tests:  the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are administered by the Federal government to samples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12.  Instead of having proficiency rates of 70% and 80%, our proficiency rates were 20% and 30%.  A few months back I was in a meeting with our Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen.  She had met recently with a group of corporate leaders, and they were discussing the level of education needed for their future workforce.  They informed our Commissioner that they looked only at NAEP scores to determine the educational level of the population because they could not trust the proficiency levels determined by state exams.  This is a sad state of affairs.
How often have I heard, “Washington should not tell us how to run our schools; we know what’s best for our children!”  Do we?   I have devoted my entire adult life to education.  Since 1973, I have observed, worked with, or worked against state departments of education and local school boards in two different states.  I have known some of the most remarkable officials in state departments of education and on local school boards.  They have worked selflessly to improve our schools.  But on the other side, I have witnessed some of the most educationally unsound policies imaginable come from state departments of education and local school boards.  These policies usually originate from individuals so limited in their life experiences that they have no idea what is going on around the world.  I have to conclude that local people do not always know what is best for their children.  Our competition is not with the local community a few miles down the road or even with the schools in another state.  The competition is global, and the losers will be left in the wake of the educational systems in countries whose students perform at the highest levels.  Too few of our students perform at the highest levels.  We are not number one, two, or three. 


I don’t ask you to agree with everything I have said in this blog, but I do ask you to consider the points I have made.      

Bless you my children, 

Dr. Terry L. Simpson

Director of Teacher Education
Maryville College

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