I just returned from the Association for Education Finance and Policy annual conference in Seattle, which was a really fantastic meeting. At the conference I saw Dartmouth economic historian, William Fischel, present a paper on Amish education, extending the work from his great book, Making the Grade, which I have reviewed in Education Next.
Fischel’s basic argument is that our educational institutions have largely evolved in response to consumer demands. That is, the consolidation of one-room schoolhouses into larger districts, the development of schools with separate grades, the September to June calendar, and the relatively common curriculum across the country all came into being because families wanted those measures. And in a highly mobile society, even more than a century ago, people often preferred to move to areas with schools that had these desired features. In the competitive market between communities, school districts had to cater to this consumer demand. All of this resulted in a remarkable amount of standardization and uniformity across the country on basic features of K-12 education.
Hearing Fischel’s argument made me think about how ill-conceived the nationalization effort led by Gates, Fordham, the AFT, and the US Department of Education really is. Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized. No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.