National Academic Standards – Turning Public Education into McSchools


America is obsessed with standardization.

Let’s make everything the same – neat and uniform.

It’s ironic coming from a country that’s always been so proud of its rugged individualism.

But look almost anywhere in the US of A, and you’ll see a strip mall with almost all of the same stores and fast food restaurants selling the same crusty burgers and fries left waiting for the consumer under a heat lamp.

Somehow this has become THE model for public education, as well. Corporations have convinced our lawmakers that the disposable franchise business schematic is perfect to increase student learning.

That’s where we got the idea for Common Core. All schools should teach the same things at the same times in the same ways.

It’s been a horrendous failure.

But this article isn’t about the Common Core per se. It isn’t about how the Core is unpopular, expensive, developmentally inappropriate, created by non-experts or illegal. It’s about the very idea of national academic standards. After all, if the Core is flawed, one might suggest we simply fix those flaws and institute a better set of national standards. I contend that this would be a failure, too.

The problem with standardization is that it forces us to make uniform choices. In situation A, we always do THIS. In Situation B, we always do THAT. There are some areas where this is a good thing, but education is not one of them.

For instance, we can all agree that children need to read books, but what kind of books? Should they read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Should books be limited by subjects or should they be chosen by interest? Should they be ebooks or hardcopies? Should they be organized by grade level or an individual’s reading level?

These are decisions that are best made in class by the teacher. However, when we write national standards, we’re taking away educators’ autonomy and giving it to some nameless government entity. This isn’t smart. Teachers are the scientists of the classroom. They can use their observational skills to determine what a child needs and how best to meet those needs. If we remove this, we’re forced to guess what hypothetical children will need in hypothetical situations. Even under the best of circumstances, guesses will not be as good as empiricism.

But, some will say, standards should be broad. They shouldn’t determine what children will learn in detail. They just set a framework. For instance, they’ll detail that all children should learn how to add and subtract. All children will learn how to read and write.

There is some truth to this. We can all agree to a basic framework of skills children need before graduation. However, if the framework is this broad, is it even necessary?

Do you really think there are any public schools in this country that don’t attempt to teach adding and subtracting? Are there any schools that don’t teach reading and writing?

I doubt such educational institutions exist, and even if they did, you wouldn’t need national academic standards to change them. By any definition, they would be cheating their students. If the community found out this was going on, voters would make sure things changed.

What about evolution, someone asks. This is a central scientific concept vital to a modern understanding of the field that in many places isn’t being taught in our public schools. Don’t we need national standards to ensure things like evolution are part of the curriculum?

The short answer is no.

For a moment, let me remove my ban on talking about Common Core – our current attempt at national standards. Some people defend the Core with this same argument. However, it should be noted that the Core has no science and history standards. It does nothing to ensure evolution is taught in schools.

But could we ever have standards that did ensure evolution was taught? Yes, we could.

Why don’t we? Why doesn’t Common Core explicitly address this? Because enacting such standards would take political power of a sort that doesn’t exist in this country. Too many voters oppose it. No state or federal legislature would be able to pass it.

But let’s assume for a moment that the political stars had aligned, and we could get lawmakers to vote for this. Why would they need to? This is a central theory to so many fields of science. Do we need an act of Congress to make sure all schools teach about gravity? Do we need one for Nuclear force? Friction?

You don’t need a Congressional order to teach science. If the community wants it, teachers will just do it. That’s their jobs. You can’t legislate that everyone believes in evolution. You have to convince people that it should be taught. National standards won’t change that. You can’t sneak it in under Newton’s laws of motion. We need to come to consensus as a society. As much as I truly believe evolution should be taught in schools, national standards are not going to make that happen.

Even if I were wrong, the cost would be far too high. We shouldn’t want all of our public schools to be uniform. When everyone teaches the same things, it means we leave out the same things. There is far too much to know in this world than can ever be taught or learned in one lifetime. Choices will always need to be made. The question is who should make them?

If we allow individuals to make different choices, it diversifies what people will know. Individuals will make decisions, which will become the impetus to learning, which will then become intrinsic and therefore valued. Then when you get ten people together from various parts of the country, they will each know different things but as a whole they will know so much more than any one member. If they all know the same things, as a group they are no stronger, no smarter than each separate cog. That is not good for society.

We certainly don’t want this ideal when going out to eat. We don’t want every restaurant to be the same. We certainly don’t want every restaurant to be McDonalds.

Imagine if every eatery was a burger joint. That means there would be no ethnic food. No Mexican. No Chinese. No Italian. There would be nothing that isn’t on that one limited menu. Moreover, it would all be prepared the same way. Fast food restaurants excel in consistency. A Big Mac at one McDonalds is much like a Big Mac at any other. This may be comforting but – in the long run – it would drive us insane. If our only choices to eat were on a McDonald’s Value Menu, we would all soon die of diabetes.

But this is what we seem to want of our public schools. Or do we?
There is a bait and switch going on in this argument for school standardization. When we talk about making all schools the same, we’re not talking about all schools. We’re only talking about traditional public schools. We’re not talking about charter schools, parochial schools or private schools.

How strange! The same people who champion this approach rarely send their own children to public schools. They want sameness for your children but something much different for their own.

I have never heard anyone say this approach should be applied to all schools across the board. That’s very telling. These folks want your kids to be limited to the McDonald’s Value Menu while their kids get to go to a variety of fancy restaurants and choose from a much daintier display.

If standardization were so great, why wouldn’t they want it for their own children? I think that proves how disingenuous this whole argument is. Standardization makes no one smarter. It only increases the differences between social classes.

The rich will get a diverse individualized education while the poor get the educational equivalent of a Happy Meal.

Think about it. Every generation of American that has ever gone to public school managed to get an excellent education without the need for national academic standards. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Carl Sagan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Spike Lee, Larry King, and Stan Lee along with 90% of the United States population went to public school. None of them needed national academic standards to succeed.

This is a solution in search of a problem. The only reason we’re being sold the need for these standards is because it makes it easier for corporations to profit off federal, state and local tax dollars set aside for education. New standards mean new text books, new tests, new test prep materials, new software, and new computers. In the case of Common Core, it also means failing as many children as possible to secure a never ending supply of the above and an open door to privatization.

We must wake up to the lies inherent in these sorts of policies. Yes, the Common Core is horrible, but the problem goes far beyond the Common Core.

National Academic Standards are a terrible idea propagated by the 1% to turn the rest of us into barely educated subhumans and boost the bottom line.

Do you want fries with that?

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.


28 thoughts on “National Academic Standards – Turning Public Education into McSchools

  1. What we are in the middle of is a plot by a few rich people to control our people and get the public school dollars… which are in excess of $800 billion/year. It’s shameful. Great article… I wrote this book to show the players, their history and the plot. The standards and tests… and college and career ready mantra… all based on lies.


  2. But is this trend to standardize America starting to falter at the retail level?

    After all, McDonald’s is Losing America according to Business Insider and other media sources.

    “In the US, the story was even worse for the fast-food giant as same-store sales fell 4.6%.

    “To the right is the staggering chart showing the collapse in US same-store sales over the past five years.

    “Same-store sales represent sales at all McDonald’s restaurants open at least 13 months, including those temporarily closed.”

    The McDonalds where we live closed months ago.

    And maybe this offers even more hope: “Walmart’s Reign Over Retail Is hanging by a Thread.

    “For decades, Walmart (WMT) has been the model of retail in the U.S., but its reign is coming to a slow but steady end. Online shopping has made low prices easier to find, and the company’s plans to grow outside of the U.S. have brought more headaches than growth.

    “The result is a retailer that’s stuck in a rut with deteriorating financials. The long history of failed retailers from Woolworth to Montgomery Ward to Sears (SHLD) tells us that a retailer’s time on the top of the industry rarely lasts long. For Walmart, this may be the beginning of the end.”

    Even Target seems to be limping along.


  3. Competency based education will be tied to standards. Perhaps they won’t all be Common Core State Standards, but in reality they’ll all be pretty much the same. And the push for expanded learning opportunities, while well meaning, means kids will be held against those standards during before school, after school, and even summer programs by non-profit community partners. As we move into the next phase of education reform, everything will revolve around mastery according to standards set to benefit labor and corporations.


  4. As I read this, I agreed with nearly every point made, and was prepared to share it widely, until this:

    “If our only choices to eat were on a McDonald’s Value Menu, we would all soon die of diabetes.”

    November is National Diabetes Awareness month. My 11 year old son has Type 1 diabetes, diagnosed at the age of 3. So much media attention focuses on unhealthy eating causing diabetes, as does your reference article. However, my son has never been obese, rarely ate at McDonald’s and is very active. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease and isn’t preventable. He didn’t do anything to cause his diabetes and is the first in our family to have it.

    I have often used the very idea of standardization when discussing diabetes with others – each day is different for my child’s blood glucose results, even if he ate and did exactly the same thing two days in a row, his results will always be different. Some people with diabetes have huge blood glucose spikes when eating a type of food while others have no such spike. My son (and the whole family) work very hard to keep him healthy, and comments like the one in this article lump him in with a stereotype that just doesn’t work.

    Even diabetes isn’t standard.


  5. You ask the question “Do you really think there are any public schools in this country that don’t attempt to teach adding and subtracting?” I think this is a faux question. The world today depends on NOT JUST reading, writing and arithmetic, it depends on higher skills like interpreting what you read or write and understanding deeper math skills like algebra. This is where middle class jobs are now. While most public schools can teach students to read, write, there are still some public schools where they can’t get the whole community to understand the need for these higher level skills. Is Common Core the solution, I doubt it. Are the rich billionaires profiting from our lack of leadership in the districts where these schools exist? Most definitely. There are great grass roots solutions out there most involve getting great teachers into school where they have the autonomy to reach kids and enough time to create a culture where success can be repeated. This includes public, charter, and private school solutions. We should stop denigrating one for the other.


    • How do you define what a great teachers is, and then how do you find more than three million teachers that fit that definition?

      I think it is impossible to find that many teachers who will fit one definition. What does it take to be a great teacher?

      I think a great teacher is someone who does not fear losing their job and is willing to stand up to tyranny and bullies from the top down.

      I think a great teacher is someone who is always willing to learn new methods of teaching to improve their skills.

      I think a great teachers is someone with empathy who cares about the students they teach but is also willing to be tough when needed. What I mean by tough is not corporal punishment or school suspensions. There are other choices to try first before tossing a kid out of school. For instance, in house suspension centers were kids are sent for a time out but a time out that includes more learning opportunists in addition to counseling to figure out why those kids act out in the first place.

      I think a great teacher is willing to work much more than the 25 to 30 hours they spend each week in class with students and most teachers do work many more hours than the few they spend in class teaching students to learn. I taught for thirty years and easily worked 60 to 100 hours a week to do my job as a teacher. I also know a lot of teachers who put in way more hours than the time they spent in class.

      According to The Washington Post teachers work 53 hours per week on average.

      I suspect that the definition of a great teacher to the corporate public education demolition derby that’s financially supported by psychos like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family is the rare teacher who boosts test scores for ALL of their students, but even that almost impossible goal might be wrong considering the teacher in Florida who shared on this site that all of his honors students improved their test scores but he was still considered a failure because his students didn’t show improvement beyond the 100 percent they were already scoring. After all, the algorithm called for an improvement even when kids got every answer correct. For that, the test would have had to have an overtime section of another set of questions so students could earn more than 100%.


  6. I don’t know what impresses me most about the author’s argument.

    It could be the simplification of a complex issue into mindless pablum.

    Alternatively it might be a lack of historical perspective that does not realize how many schools and teachers provided inferior educations to generations of children. For each of the nine people you mentioned who did incredibly well without national standards (though many benefited from state or local high-level standards) millions were denied a meaningful education. And yes I think it is a big deal if a teacher or school district penalizes their children by teaching them that evolution is a radical and unsupported idea, or even worse disparaging the science as an epistemological basis.

    On the other hand it might be the ideas stuck in the 1950s that do not reflect the incredible mobility of many students. When I was Associate Commissioner of Education in Kentucky 20 years ago we had districts with students who moved back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana four or more times a year. How well do disparate curricula serve those students?

    I am not saying that the mindless standardization that is far too prevalent is the answer, but within a larger framework of learning maps and educational personalization it is an important component.

    In closing, I thank the author for putting this terrible analysis into his blog, but hope he and others think a bit more deeply about the problems as they try to implement solutions.


    • Neal, other than calling me names, your counterargument doesn’t come to much. First, Common Core (and national academic standards) do nothing to combat student mobility. Please see my article:

      Second, of course I’m aware of how segregated schools cheated students of color out of a proper education. It may surprise you to know that national academic standards did not solve this issue. Desegregation did. And that’s the same desegregation that is being reversed by our current charter school happy reform policies.

      Finally, education personalization has nothing to do with standards. That’s why they’re called standards. They’re standard. They’re the same for everyone. Hence standardization. Hence, would you like fires with that.

      I’m asking readers to think beyond the perceived wisdom being handed down from ALEC and the Gates Foundation. I’m sorry you found that such an unpleasant experience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.