The school's latest smokescreen

We're told America is a faddish country. We like the new-new thing. It used to be cars. We lusted after the newest models with the latest chrome grills, fancy fins and two-tone paint jobs. Then TV programs and the fad jumped from westerns to quiz shows to wall-to-wall crime shows to reality shows, which increasing look like updates of the old Ed Sullivan Show. Today, the fad is smart phones with fierce battles among supporter of Apple, Samsung and the ever-fading BlackBerry.

Taylor Swift, a popular singer, who is a pied piper of the younger generation in our family, caught this American spirit. She wrote...or sang, "This is a new year. A new beginning. And things will change?" But was she referring to our schools?

One might think that the education of the young, a society's most fundamental mission (save, perhaps, protecting life and limb) would be a matter of intense and serious concern, above this frothy faddisms. Recent history suggests the answer is "no."

In the teeth of one ugly report after another on the academic performance of American students in international tests of mathematics, science and language achievement, plus regular accounts of the disciplinary chaos of some many public schools, here comes the latest panacea: the Common Core curriculum.

Common Core is a set of educational standards that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The stated purpose is to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce. Sounds good. And who can be against higher standards?

Except if you send your child to school in Massachusetts or a similar state where the Common Core standards are lower and less demanding than the ones we are giving up! The great leveling of the nation's already low-level schools has begun.

There is a boatload of learned criticism about what these new standards are doing to what has traditionally been taught in the schools, but one point is being obscured. The Common Core standards are a raw power grab by the federal government. In effect, these new standards are mandating a national curriculum. As we speak, new Common Core textbooks are enriching the publishers and depleting local school budgets. The SAT, ACT and GED tests are being altered to conform.

The Progressivist's dream of federal control of the ideas and information that will enter our children's heads is coming to fruition. Joseph Califano, a Holy Cross graduate, and former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare noted that "in its most extreme form, national control of education is a form of national control of ideas." An idea that from the beginning has been anathema to Americans, centralized control of schooling, is here.

But while the new-new Common Core is getting all the attention from politicians, policy makers and newspaper editorialist, and the airwaves will be filled with whether or not the new standards are the latest magic bullet to educational excellence, real needs of real teachers and real students are ignored.

Among the needed and achievable reforms are:

-- Returning the traditional power and authority to classroom teachers so they can establish an environment for learning. That means not getting harassed (or worse) by school administrators who themselves get rewarded by the number of students in desks, not by who and what is learned. That means teachers being able to dismiss or isolate students who are poisoning the environment, causing trouble or who fail to show reasonable respect for fellow classmates and certainly the teacher.

-- Cut back on the out-of-control growth of school administrators and "ancillary personnel." Every time a new social problem, such as bullying, is identified, the state or the federal government requires the school to establish a program. And, of course, someone (i.e., friend of a school administrator?) is hired. While the programs may have started out "free," (taxpayers, beware!) soon the cost is coming out of the school district or school's budget. Personnel monies that should be going to reward good teachers or provide enrichment or retraining for teachers goes to the school's ever fattening levels of administrative bureaucracy.

-- Revive the idea that was once the hallmark of American education: local control. Sure, we still have local school boards and elections for those seats. However, now those school board seats are stepping stones for young politicians and ambitious realtors. Formerly, the smartest and best educated people in a community were recruited on to the school board because they had to make serious choices about what was to be taught. They had to ask and answer education's most important questions, "What is most worth our children learning?" and "What do the children in our unique community need to know?" While these questions are best answered in Catholic schools, today 90 percent of the nation's children are taught in state schools. However, now these questions have been outsourced to state and increasingly federal legislatures and educational bureaucracies. Now the big question before the local school board is how much we will pay the school superintendent. Even the ever-pressing question of the school's lunch menu has been kicked upstairs to the White House.

-- And, finally, there is the most needed reform: breaking the monopoly of the government controlled public school. Parents who usually know their children best and care more about their success should be allowed to purchase the education they believe best for their children. The rich do this, either by moving into desirable communities with good public schools or signing checks for private schools. If this is good enough for the rich, why not for us peasants?

H.G. Wells said that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. Who do you think is winning?

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.