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This paper briefly discusses the past and current international rankings of the American education system and reviews the history of national curriculum initiatives in the United States. The research shows that initial efforts to create a role for the federal government in education date back to 1965 with the passing of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). Over the decades following ESEA, multiple U.S. Presidents have made attempts to pass initiatives to improve the state of the American education system and address the nation’s failure to compete on an international scale. To date, no one national curriculum initiative has yet to succeed in garnering bipartisan support and the American education system remains consumed by a federal overreach debate.  

National Curriculum

It was not very long ago that the United States was considered a world leader in the field of education. By the mid 19th century, American students were deemed the “most educated youth in the world” (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011, p. 8). Between the high school movement of the early 20th century and the implementation of the GI Bill following WWII, youth in the United States were “far surpassing their counterparts in other countries in educational attainment” (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011, p. 8). Times have changed, however, and America is no longer at the top of international rankings in academic achievement.

According to Drew DeSilver (2017), a writer for the Pew Research Center, “recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations” (p. 1). The results of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, saw the U.S. ranking fall to 35th in math, less than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average (DeSilver, 2017). U.S. reading and science scores were better than the OECD average, though they fell one point from 2012 scores (DeSilver, 2017). Overall, Asian countries lead rankings in all subjects, and Singapore was number one in the world for math, reading, and science achievement (DeSilver, 2017). As the United States struggles to regain its place as a world leader in educational attainment, the nation remains engulfed in an education debate that has lasted for decades. The question at the center of ongoing deliberation may just hold the key to returning America to the head of the ranks- should the United States implement a national curriculum once and for all?

The movement for national standards-based educational reform in the United States can be traced back approximately 29 years ago to a summit held in September 1989 by then President George H. W. Bush and the nations’ governors (Klein, 2014). The agreement, which claimed “that the country needed to set educational goals on issues ranging from early-childhood education to adult literacy, and to hold itself accountable-somehow-for meeting them” was only the third time in American history that the single policy issue had been discussed in such a monumental setting (Klein, 2014, p. 1). Six years prior, the report A Nation at Risk had been released. “The 1989 summit, to its supporters, was an acknowledgment that thousands of school districts—and even 50 states—working alone, without national leadership, couldn't confront the challenges enumerated by the landmark report” (Klein, 2014).

That report, which had helped spawn a wave of state-level reform efforts, particularly in the South, warned that the American education system was falling behind its international competitors, threatening the nation's future prosperity. While the report's premises were subject to dispute, its impact was great. (Klein, 2014)

During the months following the summit, President Bush held numerous meetings with Mr. Clinton, then head of the education task force of the National Governors Association, and Roger B. Porter, President Bush's domestic-policy adviser (Klein, 2014). In January 1990, during his State of the Union Address, President Bush presented the following set of educational goals to the nation. By the year 2000, every child in the nation would start school ready to learn (Klein, 2014). The high school graduation rate would reach 90 percent and students in the United States would rank first internationally in math and science achievement (Klein, 2014). Finally, according to Klein (2014), the most critical goal was that “every student would leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography” (p. 3). While the goals presented were an obvious response to much needed change for American education, there was no initial plan set to address how to reach the goals or measure progress towards meeting them (Klein, 2014). President Bush did, however, “follow up the summit with America 2000, a plan that called for voluntary national standards and tests. Congress, which had been left out of the goals summit, never passed the proposal” (Klein, 2014, p. 3). Nevertheless, the Bush administration did finance the development of voluntary standards in a multitude of subject areas, awarding “grants to national groups of teachers and scholars in science, history, English, and other fields” for their work towards the feat (Ravitch, 1996). The effort, however, “ultimately faltered in the mid-1990s, in part because of conservative opposition to the American history standards, and in part due to concern over the federal role in encouraging the standards' development” (Klein, 2014, p. 3).

In March 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Ravitch, 1996). According to Diane Ravitch (1996), Goals 2000 “featured a 19-member National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) charged with certifying the voluntary national standards and approving, as well, all state standards and assessments” (p. 1). Ultimately, however, Goals 2000 never came into fruition. Appointments to the council were never made and the policy deteriorated due to numerous shortcomings (Ravitch, 1996).  Goals 2000 “restricted how states might use test results; it mandated a highly political process for selecting the reform panels in each state; it introduced the questionable concept of “opportunity-to-learn” standards; [and] it required domination of NESIC by professional educators” (Ravitch, 1996, p. 1). Conservative candidates for Congress further attacked Goals 2000, presenting the policy as an attempt by the federal government to control education (Ravitch, 1996). National history standards were criticized shortly before their release in 1994, with critics arguing they were politically biased (Ravitch, 1996). National English standards did not fare any better and lacked specific direction regarding what English students should know and be able to do (Ravitch, 1996). In the spring of 1996, when

IBM and the National Governors’ Association convened a national education summit to renew support for higher standards, the conventional wisdom among participants was that the pursuit of national standards had self-destructed. Both Republican and Democratic governors made clear that they wanted no part of national standards. The future of standards, they insisted, would be determined by the states. (Ravitch, 1996, p. 3)

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), was signed into law by President George W. Bush (Klein, 2015). NCLB was the Bush administration’s update to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), passed in 1965, which “created a clear role for the federal government in K-12 policy” (Klein, 2015).  “Democrats and Republicans in Congress became increasingly concerned by the growing achievement gaps that left poor and minority students in failing schools, and devised a system of testing and accountability to fix it” (Korte, 2015). Furthermore, the NCLB law was a product of the government’s concern that American students and the U.S. education system were no longer globally competitive (Klein, 2015). “The law significantly increased the federal role in holding schools responsible for the academic progress of all students” (Klein, 2015). Although individual states could choose not to comply with the NCLB requirements, they jeopardized their federal Title 1 funds for non-compliance (Klein, 2015). “Under the President George W. Bush-era education law, the federal government required states to test, disaggregate and report data on student performance, but allowed states to continue deciding on their own which standards and tests to use” (Bidwell, 2014, p. 1).

The Common Core was born out of an initiative proposed by the 2006-07 chair of the National Governors Association, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (Bidwell, 2014). “Napolitano's initiative had a strong focus on improving math and science education, as well as the workforce” and she believed the United States needed to work towards building a globally competitive education system (Bidwell, 2014, p.1). In December 2008, Napolitano’s task force released a report that would become the foundation of what is now referred to as the Common Core State Standards (Bidwell, 2014).

Beyond sharing the aim of a national approach to a more rigorous education system, the common-core initiative also was spurred by a multistate partnership, with federal encouragement and assistance. The common standards have been hit with conservative criticism. So were the policies promoting standards that the first President Bush pursued after the summit and that President Clinton advanced with his Goals 2000 initiative. (Klein, 2014)

No Child Left Behind did not address the Common Core standards, as they were developed six years after the 2002 NCLB law was passed. However, “the Obama administration did play a role in expanding Common Core through waivers to No Child Left Behind requirements that encouraged states to adopt the standards” (Korte, 2015). On December 10th, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing NCLB which had become “widely perceived as [a] one-size-fits-all approach” (Korte, 2015, p. 1). ESSA allows, but does not require, states to adopt Common Core (Korte, 2015).  It further requires the U.S. Department of Education to remain neutral in regard to individual state’s adoption of Common Core or any other common standards or assessments (Korte, 2015).

After nearly thirty years, the American education system remains engulfed in a federal overreach debate. How can the United States move toward adopting a national curriculum similar to that of academically high performing nations such as Canada, Finland, and Singapore? According to Meier and Finn (2009),

most successful modern nations have something akin to a national curriculum, whether explicitly or through their exam systems. Japan has “national curriculum standards” and insists that individual schools use them as the basis for planning what they will actually teach and how they teach it. Singapore publishes syllabi for each major course or subject, usually divided between primary and secondary. England spells it all out in considerable detail, and France famously standardizes even its lesson plans. (p. 2)

A national curriculum need only cover content- pedagogy and instruction would be left up to professionals in the field of education. Meir and Finn argue that in the United States today, “the absence of a common core is a critical handicap, particularly for the neediest kids, weakest teachers, and least advantaged schools. Equity demands that we rectify this” (p. 2).

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