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Expert Opinion

A response to Educating a Democracy, by Deborah Meier.

Gary B. Nash

I write this response to Deborah Meier’s indictment of the standards-based "reform movement" as someone who was deeply involved in constructing national standards in United States and world history and at the same time a critic of the California History Standards. While I agree mostly with Meier’s concern about what has happened in Massachusetts in the last few years, and almost entirely with her principles regarding education in a democracy, I believe she is much too categorical in her criticism of what is happening nationally in standards-based reforms. Particularly distressing is her disdain for the efforts of university-based scholars to involve themselves in K-12 education.

Among the hundreds of teachers, administrators, and academic historians involved in constructing the National History Standards, there was a general agreement–clearly stated in the introduction to the published standards–that they were meant "to promote equity in the learning opportunities and resources to be provided all students in the nation’s schools." The standards were meant to provide guidelines, and perhaps some inspiration, for those interested in: "defining for all students the goals essential to success in a rapidly changing global economy and in a society undergoing wrenching social, technological, and economic change"; and "establishing the moral obligation to provide equity in the educational resources required to help all students attain these goals." Those who constructed the National History Standards (teachers, academic historians, and curriculum specialists) knew that they would have little effect in raising historical literacy across the country unless teachers were better trained in subject areas, rich curricular material were available in all the schools, and equity was established in the public schools where inequities are glaring.

Meier believes that standards-based education has led to standardization that has "shifted the locus of authority to outside bodies" and turned "teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally-imposed judgment." What has happened in Massachusetts gives her plenty of reasons for such a view. As Dan French, a leader of the state’s Department of Education has spelled out, a vigorous, forward-looking, and highly participatory attempt to create discipline-based standards was undermined by a sudden change in political leadership.1 When Governor William Weld put John Silber in the driver’s seat, he scuttled the work of thousands of teachers and parents and replaced their efforts with a rigid, prescriptive framework which has placed "innovative schools and teachers" (of the sort that Deborah Meier leads) "in the difficult position of having to modify their full curricula in order to align them with the new standards."

The Massachusetts standards are indeed lamentable. In history, it is absurd to hold students responsible for world history to 500 AD at the fourth grade level and United States history until 1865 at the fifth grade level. And if Meier is correct that Massachusetts state tests based on these standards will be the single criterion for rating schools and admitting students to Massachusetts public colleges, then I join her in protest. Meier is wrong, however, to believe that authority exercised at the state level in creating standards cannot work to the advantage of equity in the schools. French’s view, one that I share, is that in a society stratified along racial and economic lines "the absence of [state] standards guarantees that educational opportunities for students will be stratified according to where one lives and what one’s background is."

Meier offers a scary vision of centralized authority where "experts"–she defines them as "educators, political officials, leaders from industry, and the major academic disciplines"–have been busily suppressing teacher innovation and democratic education. This is a caricature of how discipline-based national standards were constructed and how they work at the state and local level. History, math, science, and other discipline-based standards vary widely from state to state (Iowa has opted to have none) in the skill with which they have been constructed and in the degree to which they are mandated to operate at the district or school level. In California, for example, sturdy history standards have been constructed through a long and sometimes contentious process, and local schools have constructed their own standards, which have drawn on the National History Standards as well as the California state standards. In Fairfax County, Virginia, teachers and curriculum specialists have constructed a fine set of history standards, precisely because they found the state standards unacceptable. Around the nation, cities and school districts do not blindly follow "externally imposed" standards. Rather, they are writing their own. Her description of public schools as "increasingly organized as interchangeable units of a larger state organism, each expected to conform to the intelligence of some central agency or expert authority" bears little resemblance to how public education works in California, or in many other states where I have worked in an effort to improve history instruction in K-12 schools.

What especially dismays me is Meier’s linking of officious centralized agencies of educational authority with "academic expertise." For one thing, state departments of education are not necessarily backward-looking; that wasn’t the case in Massachusetts when the standards-making process began. But more to the point, why does Meier so distrust academic experts in subject areas? A major problem in history education in the last half-century is that professional historians walked away from involvement in K-12 education. Now they are returning from "the long walk." For example, the National History Standards project drew upon the expertise of dozens of specialists in the many fields and eras of world and US history, but the academic historians worked closely, cooperatively, and cordially with the teacher task forces involved. It is hard to imagine how history standards faithful to the best scholarship of the last several generations would have been constructed without this expertise. Does Meier really want to mirror William Buckley’s classic statement that he would trust the first one hundred names in the Boston telephone directory over the faculty at Harvard University on almost any topic? Where is the evidence that "university experts," whom she lumps together with "corporate CEOs, federal and state legislators, and presidential think tanks," are making "more and more of the daily decisions about schools"? Her argument that "in fundamental questions of education experts should be subservient to citizens" reminds me of Chester Finn’s advice to the thirty national organizations that participated in building the National History Standards that "if Joe Sixpack in Dubuque, Iowa, doesn’t like them, they aren’t going anywhere." Finn’s view was roundly dismissed by groups as varied as the National Catholic Education Association, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.

Are national standard-setting and national assessments around the corner, as Meier seems to believe? None of the national standards–in civics, geography, science, math, history, the arts, and economics–were ever imagined to be mandatory national standards. They were constructed for those who cared to look at them for guidance in building state or local standards or refashioning individual school curricula. That is how they have been used. Every state and district I have encountered is grateful for them. As for national assessments, is there any evidence that either political party is plumping for this? In a nation dedicated for several centuries to locally controlled education, high-stakes national assessments are not going to appear any time soon.

Meier believes in local control and local empowerment. So do I–to a degree. But the United States also has a long history of vicious and retrograde local school boards. Meier’s position awkwardly places her in company with many figures on the religious right who aim to control local school boards in order to banish evolution in science classrooms, scrap critical thinking, circumscribe world history, and re-institute prayer in the schools. Local control cuts both ways–for progressive or retrograde education. In her own school, she seems to have found local empowerment strategies possible in spite of the misguided attempts of Weld and Silber to reconstitute public education. So perhaps the balance between central authorities and local communities is working better than she allows.


1 See "The State’s Role in Shaping a Progressive Vision of Public Education," Phi Delta Kappan (November 1998).

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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