National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018
Hardcover. ix+201 p. ISBN 978-1421424637. $24.95
Reviewed by Laurie Béreau
Université Rennes 2
In the US context, national and education are two notions that seldom collocate. The 10th amendment theoretically precludes the federal government from meddling in that area: with education not formally identified as a federal jurisdiction in the Constitution, it has long been considered a state prerogative. It is no wonder then that the recent push for national standards in education has been met with resistance. While the first major federal forays in education derived from a concern for social justice and racial integration, their philosophy morphed with the neoliberal shift of the 1980s and 1990s. Ever since, performance and accountability have taken center stage in the discussion over education, all the more in a globalized economy requiring human capital. Anxious to compete in this new global environment, the US federal government has bet on national standards in education to foster improved performance in the schools. That accountability-driven mindset has translated into a heavy emphasis on standardized testing, whose results can make or break public schools.
With Common Core : National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy, Nicholas Tampio offers a review of the existing national standards and a critique of their disruptive influence on democratic vigor. The title singles out the Common Core, an initiative that emerged in 2010 under the impulse of the National Governors Association. Those guidelines detail what American K-12 students should know by the end of each grade in mathematics and English. They were actively promoted by the Obama administration and its Race to the Top, a competitive federal grant program incentivizing states to adopt certain reforms including the Common Core Standards. Tampio actually tackles the “national education standards paradigm”  more generally, including various other initiatives in his argument.
The book offers a straightforward organization. The introduction is followed by two chapters detailing respectively the main arguments in favor of and against national education standards. The next five chapters cover the implementation of national standards in a specific field each. Chapter 3, devoted to English standards, stresses their tendency to favor mechanical functioning over critical thinking. Tampio is less severe on math standards in chapter 4, but regrets how their testing format puts English learners at a disadvantage with a reliance on linguistic skills to explain mathematical reasoning. Chapter 5 dwells on science, the counter-productive compartmentalizing of the disciplines, the orthodoxical dimension of the standards and their disconnection from local contexts. The section on history standards echoes criticisms of English standards and their spiritless formatting. The standardized testing that has accompanied the implementation of standards in these four disciplines concentrate most of Tampio’s grievances. Finally chapter 6 covers sexuality, gender and religious standards. Here Tampio focuses on the political dimension of the standards in a field where he believes parental involvement is particularly critical. The conclusion reviews the history of the introduction of standards at the national level and the limits of such standards, with an epilogue developing local attempts at resisting them.
While Tampio briefly reviews the arguments in favor of national standards, the core of his argument is an exposé of their shortcomings. As suggested by the title, his point is not to provide a nonpartisan report and Tampio does not shy away from taking a stand. Part of his interest in the topic stems from his personal position as a parent prompted to write out of concern for his two sons’ experience in school. This is not to say that his is not an academic work. Still one might regret the one-sided dimension of the chapter devoted to arguments for national standards, dwelling on a single source for each and thus making the arguments quite plain and lacking in depth.
The originality of this reflection on national standards lies in Tampio’s background in political science. Here national standards are primarily considered through the prism of their compliance with the demands of true democracy. In that regard, Tampio provides a fresh lens that completes that of educators such as Diane Ravitch. While Ravitch looks at national standards from an ideological perspective, pointing out their function as vehicles for advancing neoliberal corporate education reform, Tampio investigates their impact on democratic life in the United States. The core of his argument is that those standards participate in dulling active participation of the people in government. In his own words, Tampio defines his position as both liberal and democratic . Borrowing from James Madison’s case against factions, Tampio argues that national standards amount to unilaterally imposing the will of a few and disenfranchizing families when it comes to education. National standards stiffen pluralism, depriving the nation from a vital local input.
A discussion of the loss of democratic vitality in the context of American education logically involves John Dewey. The pragmatist philosopher insisted on the essential connection between schools and their immediate environment, a condition for progressive education. Tapping into children’s surroundings and practical reality is crucial to make them active learners, but also active citizens. Tampio regularly invokes Dewey and the progressive creed, regretting the way national standards sever the links between schools and actual experiences while promoting prepackaged one-size-fits-all standards. Those standards are detrimental to active engagement from the students and the development of critical thinking. Parents, teachers and local school board are best-equipped when it comes to assessing what will work best for specific children in a specific environment.
While Tampio makes a strong case for local control and its virtues in terms of democratic engagement, little is said to address the risk of such devolution. The book tends to steer away from the potential matters of contention that could stem from increased local sovereignty over schools, often dispensing with them in a couple of sentences. What of instances in which families and communities would not be equipped to assess and address the needs of students and / or sufficiently available to act as “energetic” citizens in the control of the schools? Though full of shortcomings, national standards and federal initiatives may have a role to play as levelers. What of the curriculum? Tampio quotes a former Department of Education official arguing that national standards risk turning curriculum wars into “nuclear holocausts” , pitting conservatives against progressives. Yet the alternative raises concern about what is taught in schools. Science, history, or sex education, all granted a chapter, are particularly ripe for clashes. Tampio argues that “communities should have a right to decide for themselves how to tell their histories” . In that case, the question of the Civil War for instance might receive greatly divergent treatment depending on the location. While pluralism and vigorous debate are desirable in education, the input of national experts should not always be discarded on the grounds of its top-down dimension. How strong can American democracy be in a context of exacerbated disunity?
Such points do not diminish Tampio’s achievement in offering a fresh perspective on national standards and the role of education in fostering active political participation. The scale of the United States does make national decisions alienating while parental involvement is a key ingredient in educational achievement. The short format, 216 pages, does not lend itself to balance and comprehensiveness, leaving quite a few blind spots when it comes to the limits of local control. Still, this work provides an effective introduction to the debate with its detailed review of the existing standards and food for thought on the way we engage with education as parents or community members, a conducive incentive to participation.
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