California Provides the Case in Point Against National Curriculum

Last week I signed onto a manifesto opposing ongoing federal government efforts to create a national curriculum and testing system with a broad coalition of over 100 educational leaders.

The manifesto, is entitled Closing the Door on Innovation. It argues that current U.S. Department of Education efforts to nationalize curriculum will stifle innovation and freeze into place an unacceptable status quo; end local and state control of schooling; lack a legitimate legal basis; and impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students.

Congress is now preparing to debate renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main law authorizing federal aid to K-12 education. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been quietly funding efforts by two assessment groups to develop a national K-12 curriculum, along with a national testing system that tests every public-school student multiple times each year. This federal initiative will create a national system of academic-content standards, tests, and curriculum.

While I oppose National standards for a variety of reasons, I offer up a personal example from my children’s experience in California public schools as to why I am certain that setting a nationwide ceiling for academic standards is a bad idea and will pointlessly limit academic potential and achievement.

While California has many shortcomings in how we educate children, the one bright spot has been the state’s high academic standards. On the one hand, California provides a case in point on the folly of equating strong standards and a solid curriculum as the primary path to higher- quality education. It is simply not enough. California has some of the strongest standards, curriculum, and tests in the nation and yet the state is still plagued by poor student performance.

On the other hand, California’s strong standards have provided many children with opportunities that they would not have under the consensus -based common-core standards being proposed for the nation. More specifically, the common core standards do not have the strong preparation for Algebra that is currently the norm in California.

Algebra is where the debate over a national standards, curriculum, and tests gets personal for my family. Both of my children have been fortunate to have completed Algebra during middle school. During my children’s elementary school years Algebraic concepts were an important element of the school curriculum. In other words, because of California’s strong emphasis on Algebra in middle school, they introduced Algebraic functions at a much earlier age as part of a normal elementary school math curriculum. Every state test, even in third grade, had test questions based on Algebraic functions. By the time California kids reach middle school Algebra is expected and familiar.

This year my daughter is doing very well in a 7th grade honors Algebra class. By the time she reaches high school she will start with Algebra 2. If a national math curriculum based on common core were currently the new norm, it is doubtful that California middle schools would regularly offer 7th grade honors Algebra classes. My children have not been the only beneficiaries of California’s strong math standards.

In a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece “National standards would harm math curriculum,” Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers explain the real gains California students have made because of the states tougher math standards:

Over the past decade and a half, California’s Latino student population has almost doubled from 30 percent to over 50 percent, many of them facing special learning challenges. Yet the number of students taking algebra by eighth grade has jumped from 16 percent to 60 percent, while the success rate has jumped from 39 percent to 48 percent since 2002. In 2002, only a third of high school students took Algebra 2 by grade 11; now more than half take it, and with increasing success rates.

More importantly, between 2003 and 2009 the number of African American students successfully taking Algebra 1 by grade 8 more than tripled from 1,700 to 5,400; the jump among Hispanic students was from 10,000 to 45,000; and for students from low-income households, from 12,000 to 49,000. Algebra 2 in high school shows similar results. Finally, since 1997, California State University freshman enrollment has doubled from 25,000 to 50,000, while remediation rates in mathematics have dropped from 54 percent to 37 percent.

While there are many reasons to be skeptical of the claims made for the advantages of a national curriculum, California students have made real progress in math because of California’s tougher standards. It seems unconscionable to subvert this progress because of a lower federal standard.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.