Should Government Be Involved In Setting Educational Standards?

The short answer is yes.

It might seem like it makes sense to jump straight into the most famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) current example of educational standards – the Common Core State Standards, but when examining the CCSS (or any standards for that matter), it is helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger question: to examine whether government should be involved in setting educational standards in the first place. An answer to that question will help us approach discussions about any particular standard, like the CCSS, in a way that generates more light than heat.

Government has at least three key responsibilities in setting educational standards. These include being part of the political community’s decision about what constitutes a well-educated mind (and ensuring the participation of other institutions), articulating its mandates clearly once educational standards are determined, and ensuring that standards or benchmarks remain as such and do not then determine the worldview or curriculum taught in classrooms or homes.

The decision as to what constitutes a well-educated mind is not one limited to the government, but is a task for an entire political community that includes institutions and individuals with an interest in the education of the children within it. Citizens in a pluralistic society have different ideas, and with no neutral means to determine what constitutes a well-educated mind, the answer must be determined by all the stakeholders in the political community-- parents, businesses, civil society institutions, teacherseducational experts, and government.

In fulfilling its role to uphold public justice, it is indeed appropriate for government to clearly articulate what constitutes a well-educated mind.  In setting out mandates that apply to all citizens, government should allow schools and families to fulfill these standards and to go beyond them as they choose.

Without promoting specific ideas, government can say that in order for citizens to have equal opportunities to participate in the political community and obtain employment (among many other things), those responsible for their education (families, schools, churches, etc.) must demonstrate that students can show proficiency in meeting articulated benchmarks or standards. The government can require that any school or family must choose some publicly recognizable test and use it to measure this proficiency. 

In addition, government should ensure that educational standards remain limited to benchmarks or standards, and should not promote or establish a common curriculum or curricular framework. This takes into account the differences among individual states and among individual schools within each state, as well as the differences in worldview that animate various types of schools and families.

Standards allow for equity while meeting the specific needs of specific school communities, but they fail to allow for equity if they hinder those who operate schools (or who choose to educate their children at home) from doing so in a manner in keeping with their beliefs.  As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Education states, “Those who educate and establish schools should be free to decide on the philosophical and pedagogical approaches they offer, the curricula they adopt, and the means of governing and administering the schools they open to the public.”

Government has many responsibilities regarding education, and articulating educational standards is one that helps ensure public justice. 

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