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Op-ed: Copernicus Inspires Us To Seek Out A Challenging Education


This op-ed appeared in The Daily Caller.

“The massive bulk of the earth does indeed shrink to insignificance,” pronounced Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, “in comparison with the size of the heavens.”

February 19th is the 545th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth. His 1543 book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, reversed humanity’s millennia-old misconception that the earth was the heart of the cosmos, and established the scientific reality of our sun-centered solar system.

Called the “founder of modern astronomy,” Copernicus was orphaned as a child in Poland. His uncle, a Catholic bishop, steered him to the universities of Kraków, Bologna, and Padua. Education afforded him fluency in five languages and mastery of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and law.

Today, after the interplanetary observations of Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, we take for granted the basic facts born of the Copernican Revolution. Nevertheless, they were hard won and politically risky, given that they challenged the worldviews of unaccountable, consolidated power.

Our modern domestic policy version of obstinate authority is the Washington, D.C.-centric education establishment. Populated by trade groups, vendors, and lobbyists such as the Council of Chief State School Officers; the National Governors Association; Achieve, Inc.; the Fordham Institute; and the teacher unions, this guild system represents the Byzantine interests of Potomac-area courtiers.

The Founding Fathers considered K-12 education to be under the constitutional purview of states, localities, and parents. But D.C.’s special-interest blob uses command-and-control dogmas and self-dealing regulatory rackets to morph the Beltway into the center of America’s edu-sphere.

Their coercive policymaking is a black hole, including the U.S. Department of Education (USED) itself, which uses an infinite loop of federal laws, money, and red tape to micromanage states. There are also USED’s repeated, illegal efforts to nationalize standards, curricula, tests, teacher evaluations, and workforce development.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, annual federal spending in K-12 education has doubled since the mid-1970s, exceeding $100 billion during the Obama administration. The result has been an ever-growing bureaucratization of schools.

Meanwhile, despite annual expenditures of $800 billion on American education, for years U.S. students have performed poorly on national and international testing. With standards having glaring deficiencies in classic literature and in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), it’s hard to know precisely what kids are actually learning.

“Those things which I am saying now may be obscure,” Copernicus wrote, “yet they will be made clearer in their proper place.”

The D.C. public schools, which annually spend $29,866 per pupil, remain among the nation’s worst in terms of performance and racial segregation. Many urban school districts and the powerful political machines that protect them view inner-city K-12 education as a massive employment system for adults.

Or take Maryland, home to many D.C. education wonks. While spending $15,268 per student and delivering average outcomes, between 2011 and 2015 “America in Miniature” also experienced the country’s largest drops in reading and math scores. No wonder one scholar characterized most Beltway education policymakers as “experts on nothing.”

One outlier in America’s educational decline has been Massachusetts, with its quality STEM standards and high-stakes tests.  From 2005 to 2015, Bay State students outperformed those from every other state on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2007 and 2011, Massachusetts ranked among the world’s highest-achieving countries in gold-standard Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study testing.

Sadly, in 2010 the commonwealth abandoned its proven math standards for $250 million in one-time federal grant money. With those dollars came nationalized Common Core math, which leaves students two years behind their international peers. Massachusetts also recently discarded its world-leading science standards for mediocre national ones.

The Bay State’s NAEP math scores have since fallen, while national 2015 math results were the worst in nearly a decade.

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know,” wrote Copernicus. “[T]hat is true knowledge.”

Copernicus changed human understanding of the solar system and knew something about correcting wrongheaded ideas. As we celebrate his life, let’s draw inspiration from his intellectual courage, and turn the self-centered world of D.C. education policy inside out.

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank and Ze’ev Wurman is an executive with a semiconductor startup in Silicon Valley and a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.

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