What Finland's Example Proves
Time to disagree. Finland is the answer. No, I don't mean that we should or can copy Finland, but that we can learn from the remarkable synthesis that Finland has achieved. Their schools meet all or most of your pedagogical criteria—they "focus on a playful and wonder-filled childhood," and they prize teacher autonomy and school autonomy. Yet they do so within the context of a specific and carefully wrought national core curriculum. What is essential for children in urban areas is also essential for children in the remote rural areas. Teachers are free to be creative and passionate because they are clear about what their job is. Their autonomy is freedom to teach, not curricular anarchy.
I would not suggest that we copy the Finnish core curriculum. It is theirs, not ours. But the lesson to be learned is that a common core curriculum is necessary so as to establish clear understandings within which pedagogical creativity can bloom and prosper.
I also do not agree with you about the curriculum in New York state. New York has had mandated Regents' examinations for high school graduation for the past century, but with these differences from a genuine core curriculum: First, only the highest-achieving students took those examinations until about 10 years ago; second, when the Regents' exams became a universal requirement, the content and expectations of the exams were dumbed down; third, a testing regime is not the same as a specific, coherent curriculum that shows a progression of ideas, knowledge, and skills from the earliest elementary grades to high school graduation.
Nor do I agree about the example of Massachusetts. That state developed excellent statewide curriculum frameworks after the passage of the 1993 education reform act, an act that pumped billions of new dollars into the schools in return for an agreement to set statewide standards and to develop examinations based on those standards. And you are right about this: Since the adoption and implementation of its superb curriculum frameworks, Massachusetts has soared to #1 in the nation on the tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The latest test results show that students in Massachusetts are #1 in reading and in mathematics. This was no accident, nor did it evolve from the independent, uncoordinated actions of the elected school boards. It is the fruit of an educational strategy that was tried and succeeded.
Certainly, as I pointed out, Finland is a homogeneous nation. It does not have anything like our religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity.
I maintain that our diversity makes it hard for us to forge a national core curriculum, but our diversity makes it necessary that we do so. In a nation as diverse as ours, we need a common language and a large fund of shared values and references in order to talk to people who do not share our religious, cultural, ethnic, or racial background. In order to maintain a democratic society, we need to be able to communicate and exchange ideas, to sustain diverse coalitions, and to recognize our common goals and work together with others who are different from us. Collaboration requires some mutuality, and such mutuality is not possible without the ability to communicate and to recognize that "we are all in the same boat," we are part of the same community even as we are members of many other, different communities. This communication would be greatly facilitated, I believe, by a coherent curriculum that spans the years from elementary school through high school.
Without a national core curriculum, our schools are at the mercy of the low-level national curriculum created willy-nilly by test publishers and textbook publishers. Now, I know people in this business and know that they are upstanding citizens who are trying to give the states more or less what they want, while not stirring up any hornets' nests and not provoking any controversy. In effect, our highly decentralized system of schooling has left the issue of what to teach to commercial interests, those who write the standardized tests (they have to ask about something, they have to make assumptions about what students have learned) and those who compile (not write, but compile) the textbooks that are sold in every state (they too must assume what should be taught).
So, I would contend that we have a national curriculum; that it is in the hands of the marketplace and the educational publishing industry; and that it is no substitute for the national core curriculum that would emerge if we set our collective minds to the task of writing it. We have a default curriculum. I think we can do much better.
What Finland's example proves, I think, is that it is possible for a nation to have both what you believe in and what I believe in at the same time; that our ideas and agendas are not mutually exclusive. No, we should not copy Finland's curriculum. We should create our own. But yes, every school of education should have a course in which students read the national curricula of half a dozen other nations. We can all learn by studying how other nations, with different cultures and different challenges, managed to do it. It can be done. If done well, it works well. It does not sacrifice anything you care about, it does not destroy the creativity and passion of teachers, and it helps to improve the quality of education across the nation.