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Standards and Passing On the Idea of Democracy


Dear Diane,

On standardized standards: I'm a fan of disagreements and messiness—and maybe that's beyond the call of Reason. But here's a try.

If we all agreed on everything, or even came close, democracy would be an inefficient and cumbersome business and a luxury we could ill afford in tough times. Yet getting agreement is no easy matter. Democracy was "invented" to do that—when needed.

My default position: leave it to those most affected to settle it. Of course, that doesn't work a lot of times. Sometimes what one individual or group wants requires collaboration, or interferes with what others want, or is unfair to a minority, e.g. unconstitutional! Then we have to go up a notch. And up. In today's complex, interdependent world, all three reasons often come into play. Furthermore, to remain a self-governing people one needs to ensure that self-governance itself is protected, e.g. severely unbalanced power undermines its foundations.

Passing the idea of democracy on to the next generation is also no easy matter. It's not intuitive, we're not born democrats. Children need to see, feel, hear, and touch what "society" itself means; best of all in a setting in which there are diverse subcultures, viewpoints, and, thus, disagreements to be contended with.

I quote John Merrow: "In an era when many of us are embracing Twitter, Facebook, and other 'virtual communities,' we may think that walls are breaking down everywhere...but a new report by the Knight Foundation tells us that real (geographic) communities matter more than virtual ones." 'Learning' democracy can't rest only on 'virtual' realities.

In small schools or communities, decision-making is often bitter and nasty—but there's a better chance of being heard, of coming together on how to proceed. Under the best of circumstances well-intended and sane disagreements can produce heat. But also enlightenment.

In a political group I once belonged to, whose ideas placed them far from the center of power, we had fierce arguments and votes on who was "right" about all manner of big and small questions—carried out with all the trickery displayed on the U.S. Senate floor. I was the member of a faction that tried to remind us that we only needed to vote about how to spend our very limited shared resources. Meanwhile, the various ideas espoused were too important to be settled by a vote. I was unpersuasive.

I may be equally unpersuasive on whether we should vote or delegate to one national body of experts the designing of the 'one right curriculum' from K-12. It's too important. At most, I'd like us to agree that, at least by 18, all our children should be strong and knowledgeable citizens.

I don't even want us to demand we teach children that democracy is best. I'm prepared to put up with some students who defend dictatorship. Many highly educated adults, after all, agree. But I want young people to have a deep and engaged experience with the dilemmas underlying the democratic idea, its history, and its practice. I'd even like us to become experts on parliamentary rules—especially rules about attacking someone personally (ad homonym)—versus attacking their ideas.

I want them to reach adulthood as experts on democracy.

But even if we could all agree on that purpose, the way to go about it is a different matter. What form of curriculum this implies is a discussion that I'd like every school, school board, and community to discuss. I think, in addition, we should teach the old-fashioned 3Rs—ideally in a thoughtful manner. And then let many flowers bloom: provide choices between advanced math vs. advanced art, music, drama; between 19th vs. 20th Century literature; studying ancient Asian or ancient Mediterranean civilizations; woodwork or cooking. For their own sake. When kids get close to graduating, school and family can help young people explore all their future options (audit colleges classes, take apprenticeships, study the job market, job shadow), as well as demonstrate that they can seriously defend their work and their ideas—with evidence and reason.

Somewhere along the way kids and the rest of us should take a break—to work at long-term and worthy projects, put on theater productions, sing in choruses, make our own meals—in short, a solid "non-academic" communal experience. I'd pick age 13. (For reasons which may be obvious.)

Then comes assessing our work. Linda Nathan's marvelous and highly readable new book, The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School is a must-read. She explains how she abandoned the "Habits of Mind" she had created at her former school (Fenway H.S.) when she started the Boston Arts Academy—because that particular faculty and board didn't find the fit persuasive enough and designed their own. One size doesn't... (Although a no-stakes, more traditional test, plus a sophisticated sampled test—NAEP plus—might be an okay add-on.)

The building of a curriculum is part of what makes being a teacher such a pleasure, and challenge. The school becomes a center of learning for everyone. I remember with a thrill how deeply the kids and I got involved in understanding the Supreme Court during the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings. (And, what a shame it was that CPESS wasn't studying the U.S.S.R. at the time of its collapse.)

A good subject to study has legs—in the present, the past, and the future.


P.S. I am also less sanguine than you, Diane, about who will be making these decisions, not to mention the compromises that leave us teaching too much.


Deb, some days I think you and Diane are becoming more and more conservative as we speak. (But perhaps only in the area where you have detailed knowledge and/or are "most affected"? :-) )

Democracy: I would share a line from Wikipedia. "According to the census of 1857 the number of private serfs in Russia was 23.1 million. By comparison, the United States had approximately 4 million slaves by 1860, and the British Empire had 776,000 slaves when it abolished slavery in 1834."

One of the things I fear is that we have lost track of the ability for educated people to understand this. On the news today, we have commentators gushing over the revelation that Michele Obama's ancestor was a slave. OK. What were my ancestors doing?

In all likelihood, there isn't even enough of a record of them to find out. They were so irrelevant to the state (Poland/Ukraine/Slovakia) that their names may never have even made a public record. Probably, my 1830's ancestors worked the land, barely eating, dying young, with the harvest and the decisions going to the local middling Duke. (It was after all, a life that drove them to think of coal mining in the US as a fine alternative.) Not, perhaps a great deal differently from the life of Michele's ancestor.

Then, too, I wonder how many are able to see--for who they are--the many leaders of the world who would like their own domains to continue to be so run. In the middle east in particular, but in Cuba and Venezuela.

I wrote for Diane tuesday the question, "How do we assure that we raise citizen-soldiers?" That is, those who defend what we have from those who would take it. Today we might recognize the scientists at McAfee Anti-virus as one form of defender. But what of more stealthy attacks on our core?

I'll refer you to Chapter 1 of the text Mike has much recommended here, Hope and Dispair in the American City:

In the 30's to 50's, a well-meaning Federal Housing Administration ran a systematic attack on African Americans and on the US city itself. The process of redlining Black and Jewish neighborhoods was created to support another well-meaning government program, housing loans.

The FHA program drove white professionals out of the city, embraced discriminatory covenants in the suburbs which kept Blacks and Jews in the city, discouraged investment in the classic structures within the city, and generally destroyed our own people and our own best assets.

Soon, even the teachers, police, and public servants who worked the cities were driven out by the same FHA-backed silliness.

1 I prefer ' Consensus' to democracy. Instead of voting on solutions it is better to help people put their concerns on the table , address those concerns and then look for mutually satisfying solutions , then coming back to the drawing board and reviewing what has been happening , looking for better solutions if needed.
2 Democracy if a way a group can make decisions but it says nothing about the values of the group or community. Western countries may be democratic but that does not say much whether their citizens are caring , responsible, interdependent , see the value of community , curious, part of a learning culture , thinking , ultruistic people etc.
In any case kids are too young to vote, and t when it comes to their learning , the people to whom it matters most don't have a say.
3 Standards have nothing to do with these goals , especially thinking.
Schooling is seen by parents and kids as just the means to get a ' certificate ' so you can go to college or get a job. There is nothing valuable in the process of schooling itself except for the friends you have at school and the baby sitting kids the school does for parents. Until the focus changes from trying to get as many kids graduating from high school to teaching thinking - not only critical thinking, but perceptual and design thinking and helping kids to find learning relevant and stimulating we are going to be stuck with the same problems.
4 Testing should be only relevant when kids move on - end of schooling, into high school etc , so the focus can be on real education.
5 I would like the politicians to be exposed to what real education looks like , what can really happen when kids are brought into the decision making process and learning revolves around what matters to them.


Democracy is a political way by which one group of people robs another group of people. It is a perversion of the political nature of humans because a majority is going to get its way in the long run anyway. Why pervert it through official mechanisms?

But I do agree that a local form of democracy is by far safer than the nationalist kind currently holding Americans hostage. At least you might actually know the sleazeball running for office and vote against him/her. In addition, the local sleazeball might think twice before victimizing the taxpayer beyond what they can stand because the said sleazeball has to face his constituency at the supermarket, church or soccer game. This also works better when the people are armed, as Jefferson recommended, because a politician should fear getting buckshot in the rear when caught trying to expropriate someone's hard earned property. In addition, it is easier to escape local oppression.

As democracy becomes more anonymous and spread out, when nobody knows who exactly is robbing them at the ballot box, then moral inhibitions dissipate and the urge to take from one's neighbor becomes unrestrained. The great 19th century journalist/economist Frederic Bastiat said of this parasitism: 'the state is that great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.'

This 'legal plunder' by democracy is an uncivil mechanism decivilizing America.

Please don't accuse me of making an ad hominem attack on your ad homonym mistake. As an English teacher and one-time debate coach, I take offense at this misnomer! So, if you really wanted to take your argument to the same name, you go on ahead and do that!

Wow! From standardization to democracy to slavery to economics! I'll try to stay on topic. The immediate concern I have is that you keep throwing around the word democracy as if we live in one. That is a luxury that hasn't been had in this world since the Ancient Greeks. Even then, they did a shoddy job of it. However, in our democratic republic, we find ourselves heading toward national standardization of education. The question that we can't find consensus upon is whether it is better or worse.

I've been reviewing state standardized test data in Virginia and after I review the numbers I can't help but think, how awful would these test scores have looked before implementation of this measuring stick? There is clear progress in state data, but nationally, NAEP data remains flat in so many areas.

With a persistent achievement gap, one begins to wonder if standardized testing has made a difference. I'm not sure. On one hand the scores of minority groups have increased, on the other I see very little closing of the achievement gap. So if, for example, 70% of minority students are now reading at grade level compared to 50% ten years ago, progress is substantial. However, I wonder what was the percent reading on grade level before testing. 25%???

I agree that we should have a bare minimums national standard. You should be able to get the same fast food burger everywhere in the USA for that matter. I should be able to understand the west and east coast dialect equally. We don't want the Chinese dialect problem. We should have basic knowledge of math, science, social studies, etc. not just the three Rs (only one of which actually starts with the letter R!).

Our schools should prepare everyone with the basic work skills necessary to at least obtain a living wage, not a minimum one.

If NCLB has done nothing else, it has generated research, improved social awareness, set a need for standards, and angered a lot of people to action.

I find it counter-productive to believe that smaller government equals better government. Larger populations require large efforts of support and monitoring. Some of those other nations that are kicking our butts in international comparisons are using nationalized curricula, see Japan for an example.

It's been said that newspapers are written at an elementary to middle school level, so it is my hope that standardization of curriculum in the USA will raise the writing level of publications to the high school level at least!

Whatever connotations "democracy" may have for each of us, it seems to me that the notion of plurality and differences would be incorporated--"diverse subcultures, viewpoints, and, thus, disagreements to be contended with"

If anyone disagrees with that statement, it further proves my point.

But we're talking in the abstract when the "standards are coming." They're labled "Common core college- and career-readiness state standards" but the Feds are bribing the states to front for the effort, and the work is being done by staff at College Board, ACT, and ACHIEVE.


The statements are wish lists in English Language Arts (back to the 19th Century) and Math. Like the state standards, they are overlapping and one could run a fleet of instructional trucks through most of them. Ask N people to tell you what a standard means and you'll get at least N different answers.

But there's a "Validation Committee" in the wings prepared to vet the standards. These are reps from the main "education players," but Linda Darling-Hammond is the only name I recognized with any qualifications for the job.

One can pick state English Language Arts (Yes, most of the states use the same term) Standards at random and you couldn't tell the difference between them and the national standards. Moreover, you couldn't say at what point in el hi instruction the standard should be achieved.

The Math Standards completely ignore the work of the Math Advisory Panel last year, which I found very sound. And this math as preparation for "careers" is a cruel joke. In fact, the notion of a "career" for high school graduates is a cruel joke,as it is for the majority of college grads.

The National Standards are about as far removed from what Deb is talking about as I can imagine one can get.

But the National standards are not only coming. They're already here--(in draft form, but the draft is set in concrete or thin air, depending how one looks at it.)


You write: "I find it counter-productive to believe that smaller government equals better government. Larger populations require large efforts of support and monitoring."

I agree with your first sentence. Obviously, being subject to a giant technocratic government in Western Europe is definitely (more likely to be) more beneficial from the viewpoint of an individual stuck in a cannibalistic tribal setting where the common ideology conforms to one man rule. This is only true if the said individual does not want to eat humans, or be eaten, of course.

That said, your following sentence, even positing for the moment that it were true, would not necessarily mean that government ought to be the answer.

In fact, government would probably be the worst option. Who would monitor the monitors in your big government scheme? And let us not forget where and how by the support and monitoring function gets its resources and funding: through brute force and threat of violence. You call it democratic republicanism.

The incentives are all wrong when you choose government as means to ends.

ps. What is the 'ad hominem' vs. 'ad homonym' comment about? A pre-emptive strike?


Dick Schutz,
You write:
“Whatever connotations "democracy" may have for each of us, it seems to me that the notion of plurality and differences would be incorporated--"diverse subcultures, viewpoints, and, thus, disagreements to be contended with"
If anyone disagrees with that statement, it further proves my point.”

You would have to be assuming that 1) property rights are respected under democracy; 2) and/or property is a subset of democracy; or 3) a ‘democratic’ regime would simultaneously use power to enforce the regime’s and your personal interpretation of ‘pluralism…’ (Tito of Yugoslavia, anyone?).

But these scenarios are more than just unlikely. It is that democracy cannot be the same thing as property rights. Democracy is necessarily a collectivistic mechanism. It should be readily apparent that as soon as a majority figures out that it can officially subjugate a minority it will most likely do so.

And if the ideological environment is not conducive to majoritarian theft and slavery and, instead, is characterized by a belief in basic rights to life, liberty and property, then democracy-in all its guises- would seem an affront anyway.

Democracy, in the end, is incompatible with individual conscience, diverse subcultures and disagreements. What is right, and having the freedom to act accordingly, is not to be decided in a popularity contest.

Tom Jefferson, the most democratic of the prominent FF’s, sharply hedged his vision of democracy and admonished:

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

Dick, the Common Core Validation Committee has a few members who have put a lot of work into bringing up the science ed level in schools. I see James Milgram on the list, top notch topologist and Math Prof at Stanford. He's been involved in the math education debates in California in the last 15 years at least. An ardent advocate of substance in math curriculum. I also see Sandra Stotsky, who has been instrumental in the standardization movement in Massachusetts. Both have been on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

I also see William Schmidt. If I am not mistaking the name, he's been involved with TIMSS testing. There's also Jeremy Kilpatrick, who is a national figure in math education.

Dick, National standards will probably have the same effect that state standards have had (that is none). As you say, everyone has a different interpretation of what a standard means and so implementation into classrooms will essentially mean: carry on as usual. It is remarkable how textbooks "align" themselves with standards and yet seem exactly the same as they were prior to the development of the standards.

Of course, we are spending an incredible amount of time, money and attention on something that will do nada to improve our schools. But at least people will have felt that they did something.

Andrei, Hopefully the people that you cited can prevent the fuzzy math contingent from taking hold of our schools, but it is unlikely that any one of them will ever be of major influence regarding improvements in instruction within the classroom.


The hominem homonym comment was aimed at a small mistake Deb made in her writing.

More importantly, I want to get back to what you were suggesting about who is watching Big Brother and a logical fallacy you made earlier.

As to Big Brother, it is everyone's responsibility to monitor government.

You had said that eventually majority rule always wins. Unless I misunderstood you. I'd like to point out that this can't be true unless women and blacks are majorities. Although it took entirely too long, and I dare say it is still in process, these so-called minorities have come a long way in the equality business. Fortunately we don't live in an environment like China where people still lack basic human rights such as religious freedom.

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