Read: What if schools abolished grade levels?
Although most issues related to classroom instruction are matters of professional practice, how student achievement is tracked and what is required to earn a diploma are also matters of policy. Though these regulations will complicate many lives for the foreseeable future, they are the result of decades of government action motivated by the best of intentions. As administrators begin dispensing with these rules out of necessity, pausing to understand why they exist in the first place and how they revolutionized our education system is important.
For the first century or so of K–12 public education, America had an astonishingly decentralized system with tens of thousands of mostly autonomous school districts. Superintendents and local school boards had enormous latitude, and a great deal of decision making was handed down to school-level administrators.
While this hyper-decentralized system gave communities the power to shape their own schools—consistent with core American governing principles such as democratic deliberation, local agency, and pluralism—it carried considerable downsides. What students in one district were taught could be quite different from the curriculum in a district nearby—and much different from that of a district in another state. In many cases, these disparities were a function of class or race, including, obviously, the abomination of segregation. In the second half of the 20th century, numerous sources—including the “Coleman report,” the federal government’s “A Nation at Risk,” and studies comparing American students with those in other nations—gave many reasons to worry about the country’s overall academic results.
So state governments, which are ultimately responsible for public schools, used their authority to bring about clarity, commonality, and rigor. Though Uncle Sam offered moral support, this was mostly a state-led effort through the 1980s and ’90s. More and more states developed content standards, administered standardized tests, toughened graduation requirements, and issued report cards for schools and districts. The federal government, via the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, shoved all states further along this path, but state leaders still controlled what was taught, what constituted grade-level learning, and what assessments looked like. In 2015, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act gave states even more flexibility. So today each state government has rules—on what courses need to be taken, what tests need to be passed, how much time needs to be spent in school, and more—for its public schools.
Read: Good school, rich school; bad school, poor school
These changes solved a number of problems. State-level policies give districts and schools common goals and rules. Shared standards assist university programs in preparing future educators. Interdistrict commonality helps ensure a relatively smooth transition if a student moves from one district to another. State-level expectations guide ongoing efforts to guarantee that students from different economic and racial backgrounds have similar educational opportunities.