From Sea to Shining Sea?

From Sea to Shining Sea?

Let's abandon the idea we can't create a national k-12 system and decide instead if we want to.

Sometimes the passage of time makes an idea that you once gave up for crazy, not only practical, but probable. Think about the ability to buy a 2-gig hard drive that's the size of your thumb, for just one example. The latest idea to fall into this category might just be the notion not only to create a national curriculum, but also a national school expenditure plan. OK, I'll wait while you roll your eyes, say it'll never work and that it never should work. In the end, you may be right, but after I make my case, you'll agree that whether we ever get there or not, our country is certainly headed in this direction.

First, let's consider the financing. At any given time, there are a handful of lawsuits out in various states alleging, usually accurately, that the state education allocation is unfair. In my small state of Connecticut, for example, there are 160-some school districts using a combination of federal, state and local funds. Since I'm a New Englander, I do cherish local rule, but I have to admit that there's something wrong when the cities that can least afford it end up with the bulk of poor or special education children, while rich suburbs sometimes double the same cities' per-child spending.

In Jonathan Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation, he argues that by the end of this century, the country will fund education equitably nationwide. (For more on this see "Jonathan Kozol Takes on the World,") He's gone so far to suggest a constitutional amendment to make this happen. While he admits the idea won't fly today, there are a growing number of congressmen who agree with this idea.

Second, consider the standards. Well, No Child Left Behind, whether you love it or hate it, has certainly put a national stamp on this issue. But the national law does allow each state to set its own standards. However, a new national report from the Center for American Progress--called The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity--goes further. Its conclusion reads: "While student achievement in the United States is inching up and state standards and accountability systems are being tweaked, the global society is racing ahead with improved education opportunities for its citizens. To continue competing successfully worldwide, the United States needs to ratchet up its education expectations and make them national."

Now I admit, the idea of trying to piece together a national curriculum sounds about as possible as getting Reg Weaver and Margaret Spellings to settle their differences by playing rock, paper, scissors. But inside this issue, on page 18 to be specific, there's proof it can be done. Three states--Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont--have developed one math and reading assessment exam.

"Based on our previous work with state consortiums, I thought it would be a problem to get all three states to agree on anything," says Stuart Kahl, CEO of Measured Progress, a provider of customized assessments. But the states shared content standards, agreed on grade-level expectations, and created The New England Common Assessment Program.

So obviously the argument that this can't be done is obsolete. I think the debate now should shift to whether it should be done. And to me, that's a much more interesting discussion.


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