Bill Bennett, James Madison, and National Curricular Materials

The big fuss about “national curriculum” has lately slid into an argument about whether the federal government may—and should—have anything to do with “curriculum.” Actually, it’s an argument limited to the Education Department, which has in its founding legislation a specific prohibition on “controlling or directing” curriculum. (Other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and Arts and Humanities endowments have engaged for decades in the funding, development, evaluation, and encouragement of curricula.)

A whole bunch of folks, mainly conservative policy wonks and grumps, have spent a whole bunch of time in recent weeks declaiming that Arne Duncan is a sinner if not a lawbreaker because his Race to the Top program encouraged states to adopt the new “Common Core” academic standards and because he gave a bit of federal money to the two assessment-development consortia to help pay for instructional supports and curricular materials related to their forthcoming tests (which are, in turn, supposed to be aligned with the dreaded Common Core).

This debate is no longer confined to the blogosphere and think tanks, however. In the last couple of days it has drawn in Duncan himself as well as House education chairman John Kline.

I guess people were born too late—or have short memories. Arne Duncan has plenty of precedents in both parties—and none of them were jailed, impeached, or even criticized, save perhaps for their curricular judgment. Because there have been umpteen earlier efforts by the federal Education Department to develop, foster, encourage, and evaluate specific academic standards and curricular materials for U.S. schools. Consider, just for starters, the old National Diffusion Network and the dollars that Secretaries Lamar Alexander and Dick Riley committed to the early-1990’s development of national academic standards in history, English, etc. Some of these turned out to be big wastes of money, even damaging, but that speaks to judgment rather than law.

A still earlier example, with which I was involved and then-Education Secretary Bill Bennett was deeply involved, was the promulgation of recommended K-8 and high school curricula by Bennett and the Education Department in the late 1980s. Dubbed “James Madison High School” (1987) and “James Madison Elementary School” (1988), these were, in fact, detailed and explicit curricular recommendations, developed and paid for by the Education Department and bearing the Secretary’s very own name as author. And pretty good curricula they were—and are—if I say so myself.

This was so long ago that Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the internet but fugitive copies of both reports can be found online if you search hard enough. (See, for example, here and here.)

And if you look on page three of the high school document, you’ll find Bennett’s careful distinction between “recommending” a curriculum that has merit and “imposing” one on the nation’s schools. That distinction was genuine a quarter century ago and it remains legitimate today.

The paranoids among us will reply that what Duncan is about is trying—without acknowledging it—to IMPOSE a curriculum. The Secretary can, of course, speak for himself, but I think—and am pretty sure Bill Bennett thinks—that this is utter nonsense.

And if you want a pretty darn good example of a pretty darn good curriculum, developed, paid for, and promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education, check out James Madison. I wouldn’t change a word of it today. And our kids would be better off if schools all over the land were to put it into practice.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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