National Standards on Curriculum? – We Gotta Be Cautious

Lessons from Abroad is pleased to introduce guest blogger Yao Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Born and raised in China, Yao studies demographic mechanism in the formation of human capital, and education policies related to innovation, entrepreneurship and global competitiveness.  

Imagine the settings below for a new trip for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a journey to push standardized national curriculum:

1. The U.S. Department of Education has decided to do a national evaluation of all higher education institutions’ quality (in teaching, researching, internal management, services, etc.). All institutions – private or public, two year or four year, on or offline – are mandated to participate in this campaign and the funding and federal aid their students can get depends on their final rankings.

2. Given the funding incentive above, all institutions are “forced” to respond to this upcoming check.

3. A committee is formed at the federal level with “experts” on educational assessment, they will be traveling around and check out each institute’s status.

Now, assume there is a “University X.” They have 3 different dining halls on campus, all outsourced to professional catering services, all priced their average meal at $5. But with the “national check” looming:

1. Someone heard that the baseline score on “services to students/ dining” is meals priced at $3 each; the more expensive the meal, the lower the score.

2. University X decided to end the contract with one of the three catering companies to run one dining hall on their own. They hired staff, purchased equipment and did everything else necessary to create a $3 meal option on campus.

3. But this $3-meal dining hall couldn’t feed every student. So the university decided that only Class 2008 and 2009 could dine there. Other students had to go to the more expensive dining halls.

4. Students responded by sneaking into the cheap dining hall with a borrowed ID or bribing the security guy, let’s call him Sam, who checks IDs. After a month, this dining hall is over-crowded.

5. So the university decided to add one more security guy to work with Sam together, to double check each other’s performances. Gradually, they became friends, and students bribe them together. Then, the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th security positions are added…

6. Eventually, this dining hall is providing meals with a very bad quality that is less than $3 value, and the university is paying a very high operational cost on it. No student is happy with it about its restrictions on fair access, its quality, etc.

This is just a small example of what becomes a much bigger problem, when attaching high stakes to well-intended ratings comes with unplanned consequences. Now, imagine that what happened to the university dining hall in this story actually happened in all areas of academia, from curriculum design to teaching to research. For instance, faculty members abandoned their own syllabi, and have to teach according to a “national curriculum,” which even specifies which questions to ask on a mid-term.

No academic freedom.
No innovation.
No exchange of ideas.

Luckily, all the above stories are hypothetical in the United States. Mr. Duncan and his team work on one of the most decentralized school systems in the world. They are not able, constitutionally, to carry out such “mandatory evaluations” and link its results with federal funding to institutions that obey the federal curriculum. Mr. Duncan also has publicly announced that “we will not prescribe a national curriculum.”

But unfortunately, all of the above stories happened in China – even the case of dining hall price regulation. China has had three waves of large, national evaluations of universities, the most recent of which, conducted in 2009, stirred wide debate on its negative effects.

The more national money that is made available to the Ministry of Education, the more frequently such policies are carried out to push a national standard on academic activities or logistic operations in the higher education sector. But the attempt to measure quality often has a negative effect on it. In March 2009, while I was visiting two universities in China, right in the middle of the spring semester, almost all the faculty and students that I met told me that some classes were canceled because they had to clean up their dorms and offices for the evaluation.  

I can’t find an official source about the total cost of each wave of national evaluation, so I borrowed the analogy of the dining hall response on Price Regulations and Its Consequences, to discuss how disastrous a bad government policy on education could be and why we should be very cautious of the potentially extorting effect of a well-intentioned policy. 

Tags: China