Consider the settlement history of the United States: beginning with northern European (English, Dutch) contact in the northeastern part of the continent and southern European (Spanish, Portuguese) exploration of the south and west, the movement of people began at the continental coasts and worked inward. After the initial trappers and explorers mapped out the territory, settlers filled in the river valleys, using the vast interior waterways as arteries for trade and communication. People preceded government: territorial or state governmental services we today take for granted, such as police, courts, and the rule of law, and maintenance of public facilities such as roads and bridges, usually lagged well behind the expansion of people into new territories. The contributions of state or territorial governing bodies were rarely felt in newly settled areas; hardly ever were federal agencies functional in these early settlements. This, in fact, paralleled the experiences of the earliest European settlers, deposited with no support from their governments on the shores of a new land—which they more often than not must have viewed with very mixed feelings of both opportunity and foreboding as the ships that had brought them sailed back to civilization.
Because of this lack of connection with government agencies, and the independent structure of states relative to the national government, frontier communities were generally responsible for setting up their own school systems largely independent of state and federal agencies. Local communities determined whether there would be a school, constructed the building—if there was one—and determined who should teach, what he or she would be paid, and even the content of what the teacher would teach. Local control of education began as a necessity, and through custom it became enshrined as a right.
To this day, American education remains remarkably decentralized. The federal government has a role to play in education, but that role is dwarfed by the responsibility and activity of states and local school districts. In some states, a large percentage— even a preponderance—of the budget is devoted to education, and states rigidly insist on their right to determine the structure and content of the educational system, with a minimum of interference from the federal government. There is a similar tension between most state governments and local school districts. These local districts—which may be cities, regions incorporating more than one city, or smaller units corresponding to neighborhoods or other subdivisions of cities—are governed by locally elected school boards consisting of interested citizens who may or may not know much about the field of education but who, by virtue of being from the community, maintain a localized focus on education. Many states have state-level education standards that are used to guide curricular development in local school districts, but in most states, the districts have the final say as to how much of the state standards in a given field will be used in their schools.
For decades, as more money for education has come out of Washington, the U.S. government has argued that it has the right to oversee how its money is spent, though the federal government has been quicker to stress financial accountability than academic content. In 1989, the first Bush administration's Department of Education proposed the establishment of national standards for history, mathematics, and science—but, reflecting the emphasis in American education on local control, such standards were to be only advisory, not mandatory. The National Science Education Standards were published seven years later (National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, National Research Council 1996).
The decentralization of American education is a source of wonder to Europeans and the Japanese, for example, who have curricula that are uniform across all communities in their nations. In France, for example, the curriculum in any particular grade is virtually the same from week to week in any classroom in any city. In the United States, even schools within the same district may not teach the same subjects in the same order, or even in the same year.
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