Is the lack of a nationally determined curriculum a significant problem for American education? We say no.

Along with our institute’s president, Kim Crockett, I am one of the original 140 signatories of Closing the Door on Innovation, a Manifesto designed to counteract the move towards national educational standards, which we believe will lead to a national curriculum, national assessments–and a national disaster.

Other signatories from the state include Carl Anderson (Hamline University), Morgan Brown (Charter School Partners), Karen R. Effrem, MD (Education Liberty Watch), and Sen. Gen Olson (Minnesota State Senate Education Committee).

The history of public education in this country is one of consolidation. Where there used to be thousands of districts within each state, there are now hundreds. Among other effects, consolidation has meant that bad ideas get carried out on a larger scale.

Few people dispute that there’s something wrong with education in America. We’ve tried all sorts of fads, but the latest one is something called the Common Core Standards Initiative. There’s some evidence that setting high standards for school performance, even by bureaucratic fiat, can have positive results. But historically, local school boards and state governments have set those standards. The  CCSI is based on the observable fact that states have different standards, some of which are more exacting than others.

Tinkering with standards is part of “accountability,” one of the big three approaches to education reform. The second is parental choice and increased use of market mechanisms, while the third–“more money, please,” doesn’t exactly qualify as reform.

Tighter standards may have had some positive effects in California and Massachusetts, but they have also been accompanied (at least in Massachusetts) by an increased use of competition, through a vigorous charter-school sector. So it’s not clear to me that standards are the silver bullet.

In any case, the CCSI is not terribly desirable. The best we can hope for are standards that are “better” than those currently used by some states. But as the Pioneer Institute has pointed out, the CCSI is arguably inferior to what some states, including Massachusetts, already had in place. But again, that’s the best we can hope for. The worst to fear is that we will, as the manifesto says, we will nationalize education, which is unlikely to improve things. To quote the manifesto, the use of national standards “threatens to close the door on educational innovation, freezing in place an unacceptable status quo and hindering efforts to develop academically rigorous curricula, assessments, and standards that meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

The fundamental problem with the standards movement, especially one that is nationally coordinated, is that (to quote the manifesto again), it “will only further subordinate educational decisions to political imperatives.” We need less focus on standards, and more of a focus on parental choice and a competitive marketplace for education. There are other problems as well: national standards for public schools have no constitutional basis, they don’t work to ensure academic excellence, and there are serious pedagogical issues with using standards in the way envisioned by the nationalizers.

If you’re convinced that turning education into even more of a national political football than it is is not a good idea, you may wish to add your name to the manifesto.