The Atlantic has a piece by Matt Miller that made for some great plane ride reading last night. The article “A Modest Proposal to Fix the Schools: First, Kill All the School Boards,” gives a quick overview of Horace Mann’s desire to bring a Prussian system of nationalized schooling to America before lamenting the effects that the local control we ended up with have had on our educational aspirations.

Mann’s epiphany that summer put him on the wrong side of America’s tradition of radical localism when it came to schools. And although his efforts in the years that followed made Massachusetts a model for taxpayer-funded schools and state-sponsored teacher training, the obsession with local control—not incidentally, an almost uniquely American obsession—still dominates U.S. education to this day. For much of the 150 or so years between Mann’s era and now, the system served us adequately: during that time, we extended more schooling to more people than any nation had before and rose to superpower status. But let’s look at what local control gives us today, in the “flat” world in which our students will have to compete.

The United States spends more than nearly every other nation on schools, but out of 29 developed countries in a 2003 assessment, we ranked 24th in math and in problem-solving, 18th in science, and 15th in reading. Half of all black and Latino students in the U.S. don’t graduate on time (or ever) from high school. As of 2005, about 70 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in reading. By the end of eighth grade, what passes for a math curriculum in America is two years behind that of other countries.

Dismal fact after dismal fact; by now, they are hardly news. But in the 25 years since the landmark report A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm about our educational mediocrity, America’s response has been scattershot and ineffective, orchestrated mainly by some 15,000 school districts acting alone, with help more recently from the states. It’s as if after Pearl Harbor, FDR had suggested we prepare for war through the uncoordinated efforts of thousands of small factories; they’d know what kinds of planes and tanks were needed, right?

When you look at what local control of education has wrought, the conclusion is inescapable: we must carry Mann’s insights to their logical end and nationalize our schools, to some degree.

I’ve been constantly amazed at the wide variety of emphasis different schools in different parts have when it comes to curriculum and assessment. Equally inconsistent, obviously is the way districts approach technology implementation and professional development and goodness knows what else. The lack of consistency you see when you travel around is acute, and on many levels, frustrating.

What continues to interest me, however, is that even though Miller states that a majority of people now agree we need a national curriculum with national standards, no where does this conversation (or anything close to it) show up in any of the presidential debates or party agendas. Anyone want to bet that education won’t be mentioned tonight in the Republican debate (which I’m steeling myself to catch since I can’t be in Philadelphia where the REAL conversations about schools are already starting)?

While I’m not a fan of testing, seems to me that if we gotta have it, we’d be a lot better off getting everyone on the same page in terms of where we want to get while letting individual districts have the ability to decided the best way to get there.

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