If there’s a bright side to the past week’s uproar over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren it’s this: when was the last time we had a robust national debate about what our kids actually do in school? A Niagara of ink was spilled debating whether the speech and a set of recommended classroom activities represented political propaganda, indoctrination or an abuse of presidential power. But here’s an overlooked, yet indisputably accurate description of Obama’s speech and those controversial lesson plans:
The draft national standards in reading, writing, speaking and listening worked up by National Governors Associations (NGA) and The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), specify only the skills our children should be able to demonstrate. Whether President Obama and the Department of Education realize it or not, they are revealing exactly how empty and meaningless these “standards” are as currently written. For example, in order to be “college and career ready,” the draft standards hold that students must be able to “listen to complex information and understand what was said, identifying main ideas and supporting details.” This is a standard you can apply to today’s speech by President Obama, a Glenn Beck talk show rant, the films of Michael Moore, or the conspiratorial ravings of the 9/11 “truth” movement. So while conservatives can rest assured that Obama’s speech to schoolchildren will not be a part of the emerging national standards, neither is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In fact, no speech, book, poem or play is required. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all speeches are created equal.
But wait a minute, you might be thinking, “isn’t that what national standards are supposed to do? Doesn’t it mean that kids from Maine to Montana are learning the same thing?” No, that’s what a national curriculum would do. It’s become distressingly clear that even people in education who should know better use the terms “standards” and “curriculum” interchangeably. Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University wrote in the Detroit Free Press last week that national standards “stifle creativity and reduce diversity of talents by instilling a single view of worthwhile knowledge” thereby doing “irreversible damage” to American education. There are many criticisms one can level at the national standards movement. That’s not one of them.
What conservative critics like Beck, Michelle Malkin and others might have focused on but did not is that the Administration’s suggested activities meet literally every one of the draft common core standards. In order to be “college and career ready” students should be able to “sustain focus on a specific topic or argument through careful presentation of essential content;” “support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details and examples;” and “represent and cite accurately the data, conclusions and opinions of others” among other skills. Even the “inartfully worded” suggestion, that students ”write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president” is not in conflict with such standards.
This is the dilemma of process standards: they are aggressively, adamantly agnostic on the content of a good education. Anything goes. What speeches and texts are important to know? Right now, the official answer is “none.” Perhaps that’s a silver lining in this otherwise strange and irritating controversy that has greeted the President’s speech to school children. If you don’t think that listening and responding to a Presidential address is a productive use of school time, the question you need to address is, “What exactly do you think your child should be reading and listening to all day?”
It’s a debate that is worth having. At present, 46 states and the District of Columbia are close to answering the question “What should children learn in school” with “whatever.” If you don’t think “whatever” is a good or helpful answer, then your choices quickly narrow to two: You can fight to define what is (or is not) the appropriate content of a sound, well-rounded public education. Or you can keep your child home every time he or she is assigned a text that you don’t like.
Update: Jay Greene comes at this from a similar angle. “Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school,” he notes. “This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.”