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The wrong lesson on national standards

Posted by Jim Stergios  May 21, 2012 04:49 PM

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Dear David,

Congratulations on becoming the new head of the College Board. I know, as a Founding Father of the national standards effort, you may have read certain things I have written that you do not agree with. While I haven’t met you personally yet, I look forward to it. I have heard universally that you are a smart guy and reputed by all to be a nice person.

I hope you and the Coleman family are well, and I am writing to say I’m sorry.

In addition to writing about school innovations, charter schools, vocational technical schools, school choice, accountability to results, and teacher quality issues, I’ve written with some frequency about academic standards and curricula—and especially recently about the effort to advance national (Common Core) standards.

I’m sorry because I think I may have gotten some of the intentions of Common Core's supporters wrong. Considering the heavy hand of the Gates Foundation and DC-based trade groups and their support of an effort that violates three federal laws; the imposition of $16 billion in new unfunded mandates on states and localities; and the feds’ shoehorning of states into adopting mediocre/community college readiness academic standards; I thought there may have been a well-thought-through plan at work. I thought the fact that many of the same players were involved in the 1990s in similar efforts meant that they had learned from past mistakes and decided to bypass congressional scrutiny and state legislative processes.

I thought they (and by association perhaps you) were consciously flouting the rule of law, the Constitutional Framers, and 220-plus years of American constitutional history. After all, supporters of national standards know their history and what is legal and illegal, and why all this was a bad idea.

Well, I just watched this national standards promo video by a couple of Gates Foundation clients—the Council of Chief States School Officers (CCSSO) and the Jim Hunt Institute, what I have affectionately in the past termed the EduBlob (perhaps too often uploaded with cheesy 60s’ movie posters). The video features you and it illustrates to me how I was wrong on the question of intention.

The video (see especially 2:07 to 2:49) does not dissuade me from my view that the national standards are a mediocre race to the middle, or that they are illegal, or needless centralizing and expensive.

In it, you articulate how you would use Madison’s Federalist #51 to teach students and teachers about carefully reading primary sources like Madison’s work and how to understand concepts like “faction” as the authors themselves understood these terms. The video comes with a nice-looking pictorial text of Federalist #51 on the screen. Listening for a few minutes, I thought it sounded good, especially where you note:

I want to say a little more about what we mean by building knowledge through reading and writing. It doesn’t mean simply that students can refer to a text they’ve read in history and social studies and mention that in Federalist Paper 51 someone named Madison had some ideas about faction. To be able to read and gain knowledge to analyze that document would be as the [national] standards require to examine precisely what Madison said or didn’t say about faction and from reading that document carefully having a rich and deep understanding about precisely what Madison thought about faction. It’s about the close study of primary documents to understand from whence they come and what they might mean and not mean.

David, I think at this point it would be helpful to introduce you to James Madison. Another Founding Father—but he was a key drafter of the United States Constitution. He drafted the 10 initial constitutional amendments, which we call the Bill of Rights.

He was the co-founder of a major political party. Author of the Virginia Resolution. Secretary of State (1801-1809). Fourth President of the United States of America (1809-1817). Unlike a president before him (John Adams) and many after, even in times of existential crisis for the nation (the War of 1812, when Washington, D.C. was being burned by the British), Madison didn’t abuse executive power to abridge the US Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He knew better than most the power of the Constitution and was its faithful implementer.

Despite almost incomparable Founding accomplishments, Madison is best known for essays he, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote called the Federalist Papers, the most enduring articulation of American constitutional principles ever committed to paper. It’s the kind of stuff our kids (and we) need to know.

I’m not sure if Yale and Oxford, while you were there as a Rhodes scholar, forgot to tell you this, but Madison’s Federalist #51 isn’t about “faction.” I know you repeat this point over and over in the video tutorial. But, as any well-educated 10th-grader knows (at least in Massachusetts before we switched to the national standards), Federalist #51 is actually about checks and balances. Here’s the title and most famous lines from Federalist #51:

The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others...

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition...

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

In fact, David, I hope you and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Hunt Institute, and the whole swarm of national standards proponents will take the time to read Federalist #10, which, incidentally is the most famous of all of Madison’s works. The term “faction” is mentioned 18 times (including the title) and is the major topic of Federalist #10. Madison’s views on “faction” are thoughtful and far-sighted. Let me share a section with you:

The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued)

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it...

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community...

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time...

David, I truly hope you and other supporters of the Common Core will come to read the Federalist Papers and demonstrate the skills to understand James Madison’s original intent. I further hope you will gain the ability to reflect on the premises of the American constitutional republic. Perhaps close attention to the section of Federalist #10 regarding not serving as judge in your own case would help you and the Gates Foundation understand that advancing a policy with hundreds of millions of dollars and then paying others to support that view is a no-no. I am convinced that, with this reading and study complete, you will understand why national education standards are anti-constitutional, illegal, and violate the public trust.

In truth, when crafting the Constitution and the Federalist Papers Madison and the Framers very much had in mind the reckless ambitions of the recklessly ambitious. The drive to advance the Common Core outside the boundaries of the Constitution and legal restrictions is just what Madison had in mind. And the EduBlob represents exactly the types of dangerous “factions” whose “common impulse of passion, or of interest” were contrary to the public good and the “aggregate interests of the community.”

The next time you would like to opine about why you and others should set national standards, curricula, and testing for America’s 50 million schoolchildren, I would ask you to reflect on your and your peers' lack of even the most basic understanding of our Founding principles.

Respectfully,

Jim

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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