Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.


  1. Diana, thanks for your insightful post on the challenges that are faced in advocating for coherent and enriching curriculum. This is a challenge well worth undertaking. My sense is that the “common” part of developing curriculum is more primary than the “particular.” We need to agree on a backbone of what is most important in sequencing academic knowledge to build for mastery before we can flesh it out with divergent and creative variances sculpted to meet local need and interest. This is indeed going to be a contentious process. But I can’t think anything more important nor fundamental to the enterprise of education.

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    Thank you, Mark. I appreciate your comment.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Sometimes the metaphors we choose are more apt, and do more work, than we realize.

    I think we should look at the first encounter with Scylla and Charybdis, not the second. In that episode, there was no escaping the dilemma. Kirke (Circe) said,

    “No, hug the cliff of Skylla, take your ship through on a racing stroke. Better to mourn six mean than lose them all, and the ship, too.”

    “Then Skylla made her strike, whisking six of my best men from the ship. I happened to glance aft at ship and oarsmen and caught sight of their arms and legs, dangling high overhead.”

    Odysseus chose the lesser of the two evils: the hydra-like monstrosity of Scylla.

    I think that your metaphor is entirely apropos, but I think that you have Scylla and Charybdis backwards. It is Centralization that is Charybdis, and Decentralization that is Scylla, and the dangers of centralization are far, far greater.

    Yes, decentralization encourages a sort of provincialism. But there is already so much infrastructure-driven integration at work in our society (in the form of technology and the media) that this provincialism will have its own counterweight. All will not be lost.

    There was a time (which perhaps never existed, but maybe) where the local town’s schoolteacher was a young man (later a young woman) who had gone off to a university, there to be exposed to the cosmopolitan notions of academia. That learning is brought back to the community.

    This obviously won’t happen if a town chooses to radically enforce a sort of intellectual quarantine, but it is a possible, available vaccine against the type of mindset that you’re worried about. All will not be lost.

    Yes, we may lose a few sailors to small-mindedness, prejudice, and general anti-intellectualism. But with centralization we risk losing the entire nation.

    Centralization is suffocating… it is institution-centered, and it makes smaller, weaker, more pathetic creatures out of all of its pawns — teachers and students alike. Intellectual passivity is encouraged, as the teacher has no reason to engage with his or her topic beyond the confines of what is required by the central powers. As you warn, the curriculum becomes pablum… and vague, confusing pablum at that.

    But there’s no vaccine for that, no possibility of escape. The only hope there is private schools that reject the national curriculum, and continue in their localized, specialized, human-centered educational project.

    It is Scylla and Charybdis… but like Odysseus we have to make a choice, and we should choose Scylla.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      Well, actually I was thinking about the first encounter as well.

      I’d say that a certain kind of centralization (not the kind we have now) is a tad less harmful than decentralization. Only a tad, though, and a tad that can flip.

      A certain kind of common knowlege CAN encourage divergence instead of stifling it. But such common knowledge would have to allow for certain liberties. Teachers would teach similar subject matter, for instance, but would choose how to do so. Thus, a hundred schools might teach the Odyssey and could have lively discussions about Demodokos, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, Eumaios, Argos, dactylic hexameter, recognition, and more.

      In other words, both centralization and decentralization at their best involve counterbalances. Your scenario of the schoolteacher with university education has a counterbalance in it.

      Without the counterbalances, both are pretty bad. Which is Scylla, and which is Charybdis? I’ve stated my hunch, but the answer may come down to a flip of a penny (a loaded penny, perhaps, but still a penny).

    • Diana Senechal says:

      Moreover, although Odysseus loses only six men to Skylla, he loses the others later, when they feast on the cattle of Helios. The Phaiakians take him to Ithaka and then leave him. After speaking with Athene, he approaches Eumaios alone.

      While it may seem that Scylla was the better choice, this isn’t necessarily so. He still lost all of his men. It is possible that the six that he lost to Scylla would have withstood the temptation to eat the cattle. There’s no telling.

      I am making no analogy here–just pointing out that Scylla and Charybdis might be more equal in consequence than they seem.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    We already have a national semi-curriculum and have for at least a century. Middle and high schools teach pretty much the same courses the country over, and assume the same skills have been acquired in elementary school. Look at the texts available for any of those courses and you will be struck by how similar they are. Pretty much the same bits of information in pretty much the same order.

    Now, all the books cover too much, so individual teachers and districts pick which parts to teach. And the books differ on the bells and whistles. But I think the proverbial “man from mars” would be struck by how little difference there is.

    Certainly, one source of difference between schools is the rigor of their courses. But that is largely a function of the student body. We don’t want to fail too many people so a course at a “bad school” will cover less and expect less of its students than a course at a “good school.”

  5. I’m puzzled by one aspect of your critique of too much decentralization: that you might be less happy because your community’s preferences might clash with yours. I would think that, almost by definition, you are *more* likely to be happy with school policies under a decentralized system than under a more centralized system.

    For example, I live in Iowa City, in one of the “bluest” counties in America, yet our school system often feels to me as if all of its policies were designed by George W. Bush. If policies were more decentralized, and counties like mine could have different approaches from more conservative counties, wouldn’t more people’s preferences necessarily be accommodated?

    I would add another reason in favor of decentralization: the more school policies are decided by local communities, the more say that parents and teachers — the people who actually know and spend time with the children — have in those policies. For that reason alone, I think a much more decentralized system would be likely to be way more humane than our current one.

    As for the idea that decentralized schools would be more parochial or sheltered from other points of view, I’m not sure why the same argument couldn’t be made about a policy that results from a winner-take-all nationwide battle — there will still be winners and losers. Moreover, the argument doesn’t seem to be borne out by private schools, which have more freedom to shape their own curricula but are not noticeably more provincial.

    I look at my local schools and see very little good — and a lot of bad — that has resulted from state and federal intervention.

    • I am talking about curriculum, which I define as the body of knowledge, works, ideas, and skills that students are suppoed to learn and grapple with.

      Of course a curriculum won’t please everyone, but a modest common curriculum can give students a basis for comparing ideas and refining individual views–that is, going beyond their immediate surroundings.

      Such curricula don’t come from “knowing the children,” at least not exclusively. They come from knowing the subject matter and having an intellectual tradition. How do you build it? By teaching things of lasting value, things that can bring together people of different places and generations. Of course a curriculum should be modern as well–but there should be something to build on.

      For example, many schools have tried to make mathemattics relevant, tangible, pictorial, and verbal. But part of the power of mathematics lies in its abstraction. If your school has a long tradition of people who understand the abstract aspects of mathematics, then (a) they will teach that very aspect well and (b) they won’t as easily get swept up in well-meaning but limiting pushes for “real-life” math. They won’t assume that a word problem is inherently more useful than an equation; they’ll recognize that the two are needed.

      Again, I am not glorifying centralization. My argument is that both centralization and decentralization have dangers. In reality, most systems have a combination. The challenge lies in combining the two principles properly.

      • But curricular decisions are policy decisions, too. Many of the worst trends in education, as far as I can from our little school, are a direct result of the single-minded focus on test scores that goes hand in hand with state and federal intervention in setting standards/curriculum.

        Also, I don’t think it’s wise to judge decentralization purely on the basis of whether you think it leads to outcomes that you like. Democracy leads to many outcomes that I don’t like, but I don’t see that as a sufficient reason to object to democracy. I see decentralization as an aspect of democracy; the more centralized policymaking is, the less say you have over how you are governed.

        Right now state and federal decisions drive virtually everything that happens in our school, yet no state or federal elections turn on educational issues, which are swamped (even for education-focused people like me) by the many other issues that are affected by those same elections. Federalizing education has largely removed it from meaningful democratic control.

        The arguments in favor of federal and state intervention in education policy (including the ones in this post) often seem to be variants on: “I like some centralization because that way we can impose good policies on people against their will.”

        When our state education director said that keeping class sizes small was not a goal worth pursuing, I chided him that he could never get elected to a school board anywhere in Iowa with that position. His response: “Good thing I’m not elected!” Hmm. Really?