Nationalizing Education Through National Defense?

This month, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report calling in the name of national security for national curriculum-content standards on science, civics, foreign languages, technology, creativity, and problem-solving – for elementary and secondary education.

Co-chairman of the task force that sponsored the report was Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City’s schools.  Klein told PBC Newshour in a March 20 interview that one of the most important levers that the report focuses on is the “whole nationalization” of curriculum-content standards through the national Common Core standards for English and math, which are endorsed by the Obama administration and whose implementation is  currently being supported by millions in federal funds.  Klein and his task force want to extend the current national English and math standards by adding science, civics and the other curriculum subject-matter.

The Council on Foreign Relations report also criticizes multiple-choice questions and short essays and calls for replacing these, to the extent possible, with federally-funded national tests that are “interdisciplinary” simulations of “real world” circumstances.  They call for national tests of “decision-making” and “problem-solving.” (Such simulation-based tests are fraught with difficulties, and inter-disciplinary tests will obscure how well students are doing in actual academic disciples like math and biology.)

Curriculum-content standards are what people in education policy-making call a formal list of topics that teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn.  The Council on Foreign Relations report says – in direct contradiction to America’s federal system and the primary responsibility of the states for public education – that “clearly” there cannot be “cannot be different standards and expectations” in “a single country.”

The Council on Foreign Relations calls for the U.S. Defense Department to evaluate and “periodically” review the new national curriculum standards in science, civics, foreign languages, technology, creativity, and problem-solving.  It wants to add federally-run accountability in the form of an annual U.S. Department of Education audit of K-12 public education, to be done in collaboration with the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. intelligence agencies.  At the same time, the report is careful to add that it opposes releasing information on individual-teacher effectiveness based on student test scores.  (Teacher union leader Randi Weingarten was a member of the Council task force.)

This Council on Foreign Relations proposal sounds like a much more ambitious re-run of the federal foray into K-12 education after the launching of Sputnik back on Oct. 4, 1957.  Sputnik was the first satellite to orbit the earth and it was launched by the Soviet Union, a Communist country and America’s principal international rival in the Cold War. The launch of Sputnik back then was what historian and renowned textbook writer Thomas A. Bailey called “a psychological Pearl Harbor” for U.S. officials and the American public.

Sputnik led Congress to pass the 1958 Na­tional Defense Education Act, which funded programs in math, sci­ence, and Cold-War-related foreign-languages. But such activity did not go unchallenged. Conservatives and libertarians who were strict constructionists complained that when the federal government used conditional grants-in-aid to promote physics and like subjects, the federal authorities were determining the make-up and content of curriculum. These conservatives and libertarians said that the control of curriculum content was the most complete, most thoroughgoing sort of control of education and hence the least desirable sort of control for the federal government to have.

Many conservatives and libertarians — then and now — doubt that the federal government should have an extensive say in the K-12 curriculum in civilian schools in the name of providing for the “common defense.”  Such an extensive say is what the Council on Foreign Relations is proposing.

These conservatives and libertarians say that such a notion is overbroad and hence constitutionally dubious.  If the federal government can sponsor K-12 curriculum in the name of providing for defense, it can do anything in the name of defense, and we no longer — these conservatives and libertarians say — have a federal government of limited powers.

Because of Cold War concerns and as a follow-on to the Sputnik panic, there were numerous federally-funded exemplary K-12 curriculum back in the early 1960s, especially in math and science, but eventually in the social sciences as well. Although creating this new national curriculum and putting it in place were subsided with federal money, the 1960s curriculum was said to be “voluntary” – rhetorical terminology that was frequently used then and is frequently and misleadingly used today by proponents of a national curriculum.

Yet critics back in the 1960s said the federally-sponsored reform was coercive because adoption of these curricula met conditions for eligibility for other federal grants and contracts and districts sometimes adopted them, in historian Jon Schaffarzick’s words, “for fear of losing other federal support.” Making adoption of a national curriculum in effect a necessity to compete for federal grants was a strategy also to be used by the Clinton administration in the 1990s and by the Obama administration today.

While this post-Sputnik national curriculum left a residue of influence in future state and local curricula, it is mostly remembered as an example of federal over-reach and because of the local dissent it provoked.  The New Math curriculum (characterized by set theory, working with numbers in bases other than 10, and formalism) was even satirized for its complexity and difficulty in a song by mathematician and comedian Tom Lehrer.

Historian Diane Ravitch noted that, for a while, “every textbook series” (because of fashion and federal incentives) adhered to the New Math, but teachers “complained that it was too difficult to teach,” mathematicians “found it too abstract,” and parent found it too different from the mathematics they were familiar with.

The 1960s federally-funded middle-school social-studies curriculum produced a hostile reaction in Congress, in part because the National Science Foundation’s efforts to create, support, and publicize this curriculum were seen as crowding out noncompliant private publishers and imposing a uniform curriculum across the country with federal funds. Newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote at the time that “once the notion is accepted” that government has legitimate authority “to commission and to subsidize” textbooks in history and social studies, America will have moved “a significant step down the road to 1984” (an Orwellian date that in those days was decades in the future).

When that social-studies curriculum was imposed in West Virginia, it provoked many people in that state to rise in rebellion, in part, because the curriculum taught cultural relativism. As acknowledged by course-developer Jerome Bruner, the children were supposed to come to certain conclusions about social-studies topics through a process in which they were to be manipulated by the curriculum materials and through the efforts of their teacher – an engineering of supposed “discovery” by the children in a “context of problem-solving,” to use Bruner’s own jargon.

Over the next few years, these increasingly unpopular curriculum programs faded from the scene. George Weber of the Council for Basic Education wrote afterwards that when you consider that these innovative national curricula math and in the social studies “not only didn’t deliver what was promised” but instead may well have “even left us worse off than we were before,” there is natural proclivity on the part of the public to say, “We’ve been conned.”

The experience of the attempt to put in place the new national curricula in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the name of national security probably contributed to future skepticism about a federal role in curriculum. The experience in the 1950s and 1960s definitely led to the prohibition of such efforts in federal statutes – prohibitions that the Obama administration has violated in recent years by endorsing national curriculum standards and funding national tests and national curriculum frameworks together with related teaching materials and lesson plans.

What can we learn from what was tried in the name of national security back in the 1950s and 1960s?  What will be the outcome of the current effort at national curriculum in English and math, supported by the Obama administration?  What should we think about the Council on Foreign Relations effort to urge national curriculum standards in science, civics, foreign languages, technology, creativity, and problem-solving?

We can learn from the effort in the 1960s that federally-supported curriculum, once it is in place, is likely to be controversial.  We can learn that federal education programs that look mighty and inevitable can collapse quickly and largely disappear in a few years.  We can learn that even in the height of the Cold War, rhetoric about education and national security could not spin straw into gold.

We are living in Obama era of federal over-reach, and we don’t know how influential these current efforts at federal direction of K-12 curriculum will be.  But the lesson of history is that what looks like a federal educational Juggernaut today can crumble tomorrow.

-Bill Evers

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