Over the next several weeks I plan to devote some space here to unraveling the tangled web of Common Core, the educational standards for math and English adopted by 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). The attempt to blanket the country in national standards as a way to improve educational achievement has become one of the great political and philosophical debates of our time and it deserves a serious and substantive discussion apart from the hyperbole and the talking points on both sides of the issue.
Should there be common standards so student achievement can be compared across state lines? If so, who should decide what the standards are and how should achievement be measured? Should the federal government have a say in the process? How about the states? If not, what should be done instead? How should taxpayer-funded schools be held accountable and how will parents know if their local schools can provide a quality education for their children? How can parents be assured that the teachers are skilled at teaching and imparting knowledge to children?
About the only thing that nearly everyone agrees on is that U.S. standards and student achievement have been heading in the wrong direction for decades. Beneath the surface of these debates we are faced with more important philosophical questions. What is the purpose of education in the first place? What does it mean to be an educated person? Does the meaning change as technology (and society) evolves or is there a static definition for what we consider to be an educated American? Is it based on some set of measurable, testable skills and something education reformers like to call “college and career readiness” or should career preparation be secondary to more intangible qualities like morality, love of country, and preparation for self-government?
Even if Americans could agree on what a good education should include and which standards to use, there is a separate discussion related to Common Core about accountability. Should teachers be held accountable when students fail to learn or progress and should tests be the way we determine a student’s success or failure? Should the federal government, which contributes 7-8% to most state education budgets, hold states accountable for how those dollars are spent through testing or should they just let the states determine how to spend the money, free from federal oversight?
These are all important questions that deserve more than soundbite answers and random examples of incomprehensible classroom lessons. Moreover, it is important to examine the history of American education — and education reform — so that we can move forward instead of repeating the same mistakes and failing another generation of children.
Just for the sake of comparison, let us consider the nation’s first comprehensive education law. The Massachusetts School Law of 1789 (passed just two years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified) gives us some insight into what the Founders thought the purpose of education was and explained why education was important to the success of the state and the nation. The law noted the duty the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had (as expressed in the state constitution, penned by John Adams in 1780) to provide for the education of youth because “a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue is necessary to the prosperity of every State, and the very existence of a Commonwealth.” The law declared that school masters of good morals should be appointed to teach children “to read and write, and to instruct them in the English language, as well as in arithmetic, orthography, and decent behavior.”
Teachers were admonished to “take diligent care” to instruct students in,
the principles of piety, justice, and a sacred regard to truth, love to their county, humanity, and universal benevolence, sobriety, industry and frugality, chastity, moderation and temperance, and those other virtues which are the ornament of human society, and the basis upon which the Republican