Cover Story

This is only a test

But conservatives on Capitol Hill consider President Clinton's national testing plan an actual emergency-reasoning that federal standards will lead to federal curriculum as teachers are forced to "teach the test." As the public education crisis grows, reformers are frustrated that they must expend energy to fight rear-guard actions to nip in the bud a de facto federal takeover of local schools.

Issue: "Federal Testing," Sept. 13, 1997

For 32 years, Gerald "Butch" Jordan has helped mold the minds of young people in tiny Hope, Ind. Two generations of farm kids have passed through his English classroom in the squat, red-brick school building surrounded by cornfields. A native Hoosier and son of the firechief in neighboring Columbus, Mr. Jordan is a typical no-nonsense, get-the-job-done midwesterner with little use for bureaucracy or mindless routine.

Yet for almost his entire teaching career, Mr. Jordan has endured the seemingly endless process of curriculum selection at Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School. As successive waves of state standards have come and gone, he's sat on dozens of committees, reviewed hundreds of textbooks, and spent thousands of hours making sure his students would measure up. Despite the bureaucracy and the time involved, it's a process he cherishes.

Thanks to his involvement in curriculum selection, he's been able to ensure that the English textbooks used at Hauser teach the basics of grammar and literature while avoiding educational fads from multiculturalism to political correctness to self-esteem. He's grateful for the freedom to choose books that violate neither the community's conservative mores nor his own Christian beliefs.

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"The state approves a list of acceptable textbooks for each subject area," he explains, "and it's pretty doggone generous. Basically any publisher in America can get their books on the list if they want to. Then departments choose their own books from that list at the local level. The school board has to approve, but teachers get what they want most of the time. The only exception would be if I wanted to teach a six-week segment on gay literature or something like that that the community would find offensive."

Far from teaching gay lit, Mr. Jordan decided several years ago that he wanted to teach a unit on biblical literature. When he didn't find any officially sanctioned texts that he liked, he secured a waiver from the school board to do away with textbooks entirely. Students in his class simply study the Bible alone, apart from any interpretation offered by secular publishers.

It's a long way from the open corn fields of Hope, Ind., to the closed society of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., summer playground of the rich and infamous. But last week President Clinton narrowed the gap considerably. Taking a break from his busy golf schedule, the president used his weekly radio address to press the case for his No. 1 priority in September: national standardized testing.

Historically, presidents have always been rather distant figures in American education, whether vacationing on the Vineyard and other spots, or at home in the White House. State and local control of schooling has been a cherished principle since the time of the Puritans, resulting in one of the most decentralized educational systems in the world. Though conservatives resisted the founding of the Department of Education at the end of the Carter Administration, that agency has hardly resulted in the federal takeover of education that Republicans feared. Indeed, despite the growing number of Washington "educrats," only 7 percent of total educational spending flows from the federal government.

But if President Clinton proves more successful on Capitol Hill than he was on the golf course, all that could change. Critics insist that national testing, as innocuous as it may sound, is just the leading edge of a very broad federal wedge that liberals want to hammer into local schools. Behind the thin line of testing, they charge, comes a national curriculum-something that would split apart the current educational system.

Though the teachers' union that claims to represent him supports the testing proposal, Butch Jordan wants the federal government to keep out of his classroom. "They're taking away my professional freedom to evaluate my students and decide what they need to learn," he says of the Clinton testing proposal. "If they just want to say that students at a certain level should know this and this, fine. But I have problems if they start telling you, 'You have to give this test.' What happens is, you start teaching the test, and that dictates the books you use and the material you cover."

This isn't the first time that bureaucrats in Washington have tried to tell people like Mr. Jordan what they had to teach. Under Jimmy Carter, the Department of Education's research arm was quietly developing a national curriculum to be adopted by the public schools. "The Reagan Administration came in and put a stop to that immediately," recalls George Youstra, who was special assistant to the Secretary of Education from 1981 to 1987.


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