From the 14 June 2010 Lockport Union Sun and Journal (Lockport, NY)

By Bob Confer

Imagine if we made a national policy whereby every college had to meet a set of guidelines that determined what their students should know upon graduation. Every college in the country would have to alter its educational model to ensure that that its output was consistent with that of all other institutions of higher learning and that their graduates should be able to pass a standardized testing system.

If we did something so utterly foolish we would destine our country for irreparable harm. What makes our university system so effective is the ability of each college to tailor its programs to the abilities of its professors, the availability of assets and the quality of its students, collectively and individually. That approach to education would be gone. The goals set by some bureaucratic agency would force a dumbing-down of our nation, with the universities that currently produce some of our brightest minds (like MIT, Harvard, and UB) turning out students whose qualifications are no different than those of what today rank among the lowest-quality colleges.

Whatís so befuddling when pondering collegiate consistency is this: If itís so stupid of an idea, then why do we apply it to public schools?

Our schools used to be as interesting and productive as our colleges. Educators were allowed to educate and had the freedom to do so as they, their school boards and their pupilsí parents saw fit. They were able to apply their knowledge of their specialty areas to methods of teaching that worked best with the students who lived in the school district. Because of that, for a good portion of the 20th Century Americaís secondary schools dominated global rankings. Students were challenged to be the best they could be and they were.

But, things are different today. Our schools are lacking in freedom. The people who best know the subjects and students (the teachers), the people who have their finger on the pulse of the community (the school boards), and the people who understand whatís best for their kids (the parents) are all left out of the equation. They are restricted to the point of enslavement by a higher power. They must do as they are told and cannot do as they should. Elected officials and powerful agencies in state capitols and Washington, DC, dictate what must be taught and how it should be taught. Education has been standardized by individuals who truly donít know the subjects or how to work with children.

This movement away from what works snowballed with the creation of the Department of Education in 1979 by the Carter Administration. Over the years, the DOE Ė with help from Congress - has become adventurous in its application of universalization (No Child Left Behind, for example), much of which is tied to the threat/reward of funding to the states and, therefore, the local districts. Due to greed and the misguided belief that the federal government can do wrong, the states have willingly jumped on the standardization bandwagon.

You see this in spades in New York where, in just the last decade, participation in Regents Exams (a system that is poor by design) went from being voluntary to compulsory. Historically, it was used as a means to separate the brightest students from the "average" students, supposedly nourishing their brains and setting the bar for their college careers. Thanks to the desegregation of the students based on abilities, along with teaching to the test (made weaker to accommodate lower performance), standardized curricula have led to standardized (read "sub-standard") students.

All across the US, students are being forced to master tests and not subjects. Because of that approach, American students now rank 21st in science and 25th in math. Itís a huge step down from where we used to be. Actually, itís an embarrassment.

Things will only get worse. Earlier this month, 48 states announced the development of the Common Core State Standards that they plan to institute in hopes of making a homogenous national education system. Many power-brokers are excited about this. But, if you really care about education and the future of America, you should get sick to your stomach over the CCST. It will only advance the ongoing erosion of our schools.

The best way Ė really the only way Ė to improve ours schools is to get back to local control: Let the teachers teach. Then, the students will learn.