Hypocrisy Distorts The Standards Debate

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Hypocrisy is nothing new in politics. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to see blatantly two-faced statements distort our educational debates..

Wisconsin has had two good examples recently of politicians who don't seem bothered by speaking out of both sides of their mouth at once. Not surprisingly, since standards are the hot educational issue this political season, both involved curriculum standards.

The first involved Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is positioning himself for a shot at the Republican presidential nomination in the year 2000.

For more than a year, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has been drafting curriculum standards, based on teacher, parent, and educator recommendations, then followed by statewide hearings. Thompson, as did a number of conservatives, criticized the standards as too vague and "fuzzy." His solution? In his State of the State speech at the end of January, Thompson unilaterally announced his own standards.

Three weeks later, Thompson had the audacity to write in an opinion piece in The New York Times, "Setting world-class standards for our schools will be successful only if it is done from the ground up - by parents, teachers, administrators, businesses, and local taxpayers."

It seems likely Thompson would have stuck by his original proposal - that he play educational czar and personally dictate what kids should learn. But DPI Superintendent John Benson found out that Thompson's standards were lifted from the conservative Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. Benson scored political points by noting that the DPI's standards, in contrast, were "written by real Wisconsin people."

Thompson, ever the astute politician, then agreed that the Hudson Institute's standards, the DPI standards, and the Virginia state standards should be the basis for further discussion of standards in Wisconsin. The Virginia standards have been touted by conservatives across the country as a model, and the recommendation that they be part of the Wisconsin debate came from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank.

This entire state-mandated standards approach to educational reform clearly is getting out of hand. It is being guided more by politics and a desire for votes than by a commitment to children. Take a look at Thompson's proposal for standards in the fourth grade. One of his standards states: "Show a basic understanding of the role played by religion and civic values in the history of Wisconsin and the nation, and describe how that role is similar to, or different from, that role in an ancient civilization and a feudal society found in Europe or China."

Quite frankly, we know of few adults - let alone fourth-graders - who could answer that question. Sure, it might seem that Thompson is advocating a "no nonsense" approach that will make sure kids learn. But such standards are not only unrealistic but absurd.

Memorize, Memorize, Memorize

Thompson is not the only politician hoping to gain higher office on the backs of school children. The standards silliness syndrome has also infected the race this April for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools.

Linda Cross, a far right conservative, is running against incumbent Benson. In an interview shortly after the primary election, Cross called for tougher standards; as an example, she said that students should be able to recite the names of all U.S. presidents and the capitals of each state. When asked by a reporter whether she could name all 42 presidents, Cross said: "Probably... if I thought about it." Translated from political speech into standard English, that is a "no."

But then again, Cross is running for state school superintendent; her primary purpose right now is to win votes, not reform the schools. Furthermore, as an adult, she wouldn't have to meet any of the standards she is advocating for children.