Hirsch on Ravitch: Saving our schools

In How to Save the Schools in The New York Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch responds to Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Hirsch supports Ravitch’s call for a “widely shared core curriculum.”

It would assure the cumulative organization of knowledge by all students, and would help overcome the notorious achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. It would make the creation of an effective teaching force much more feasible, because it would become possible to educate American teachers in the well-defined, wide-ranging subjects they would be expected to teach—thus educating students and teachers simultaneously.It would also foster the creation of much better teaching materials, with more substance; and it would solve the neglected problem of students (mostly low-income ones) who move from one school to another, often in the middle of the school year.

Ravitch wants a voluntary national curriculum that will be adopted by states because of its excellence, not because of federal coercion. If there’s no consensus, she hopes states will adopt curricula “rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”

Ravitch “evokes a vision of good neighborhood schools” that anchor their communities. Hirsch praises Ravitch’s “detailed, real-world stories of what has actually happened under the reforms of recent decades.”

Yet if Ravitch’s proposals for a coherent, cumulative national — or at least widely shared — curriculum are to carry the day, she needs to put forward a more effective critique of the intellectual and scientific inadequacies of the anticurricular, child-centered movement. Her vision can hardly be put into effect while an army of experts in schools of education and a much bigger army of teachers and administrators, indoctrinated over nearly a century, are fiercely resisting a set curriculum of any kind. Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education. She needs to expose in greater analytic detail the inadequacies of the invisible-hand theory of child-centered schooling.

Ravitch is too dismissive of charter schools, which challenge “the intellectual monopoly of the educational world,” Hirsch writes. He wants a middle stance between Checker Finn’s desire to “blow up the (public) system” and Ravitch’s desire to rely on “better teacher education and school-by-school improvement in the hands of experienced, well-trained teachers and administrators.”

Good neighborhood schools are great. But what about the children going to bad neighborhood schools staffed with novice teachers and run by excuse-making principals?

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  1. I agree with Ravitch on [a voluntary national curriculum that will be adopted by states because of its excellence, not because of federal coercion. If there’s no consensus, she hopes states will adopt curricula “rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”]

    The Brookings Institute had an article this week entitled “Did Congress Authorize Race to the Top?” Readers can find it here: http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/0427_education_whitehurst.aspx

    “There is nothing in the text of the ARRA, or in the portions of the two other statutes to which it points (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the America Competes Act), that authorizes, requires, or even suggests that states competing for funds would need to adopt common state standards, create more charter schools, evaluate teachers and principals based on gains in student achievement, emphasize the preparation of students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or restructure the lowest 5 percent of their schools.

    Yet the grant program the administration designed to implement the provisions of the ARRA, the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative, included each of these policy priorities, and states had no chance of winning unless their applications were built around them.”

    The Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #263 also offers an interesting analysis in “Let’s Do the Numbers” http://epi.3cdn.net/4835aafd6e80385004_5nm6bn6id.pdf
    (p. 7) In sum, Massachusetts’ willingness to permit the public to comment on its academic standards, combined with a few quirks in the weighting system, cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

  2. I read the whole piece in the New York Review of Books. I share Ravitch’s allegience to a system of stable neighborhood schools and her well-founded skepticism of the idea that “blowing them up” will result in something better, but Hirsch is right that our teachers and education leaders trapped in a progressive-ed thought world are unlikely to usher in the changes we need. We need a knowledge-based curriculum, and unless one has carefully read and comprehended Hirsch’s books, or was educated in Asia or Europe, it’s unlikely that one will see why this is THE sine qua non reform.

  3. Years ago, Ivan Illich wrote that a compassionate State would have in its constitution a clause like the First Amendment to the US Constitution which would read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education”.

    One size does not fit all. Currently, in most US States, the schools operate in a legal environment which restricts parents’ options for the use of the taxpayers’ K-12 education subsidy to schools operated by dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel. This makes as much sense as would a policy which provided all families with Food Stamps but restricted their use to one grocery chain.

    Neither Hirsch, Ravitch, nor Finn supports a free market in education services. While the State cannot subsidize education without a definition of “education”, this definition does not have to specify the process. Instead of “a national curriculum”, how ’bout four national curricula, from the four pre-college school systems over which the US government exercises legitimate authority: the BIA schools, the DOD schools, the US Embassy schools, and the Washington, DC schools? Better, extend the “official acts of other States” clause to include K-12 curricula, and allow parents to satisfy compulsory education statutes through an examination process using any of the fifty four definitions of “education” which result.

    “You cut. I choose.” Advocates for government schools contend that it takes 12 years at $10,000 per pupil-year to educate children. Okay. If parents can get it done (by any of the 54 possible definitions) for less, let parents and their children then apply the difference toward post-secondary tuition or toward a wage subsidy at any private-sector employer. This would put downward pressure on the ever-escalating demands of public-sector unions and undermine presumptious petty dictators like Hirsch, Ravitch, and Finn.

  4. The following highlights a strength of Core Knowledge that is missing from the Common Core:

    If there’s no consensus, she hopes states will adopt curricula “rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”

    CK suggests 50% of the time for itself, which allows each student to achieve mastery and the class to move into other areas when time is available. CC with its 100% approach (15% allowed for states which would merely put them at a disadvantage in comparison to other states.) is merely a pacing plan with extreme RTI. Beautiful on paper, but “just another brick in the wall.”

    This seemingly small difference between CK and CC is actually big and destructive.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    please tell me about the quality of the curriculum in the DOD, US Embassy and the BIA schools (What is BIA?)


  6. BIA stands for Bureau of Indian Affairs. I believe the results are very poor in these schools, but I don’t know anything about the curriculum.

    Department of Defense schools have very good results, especially for minority students. There is a standard curriculum. Many credit above-average parental competence and involvement.

    I don’t know anything about Embassy schools.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Joanne — thanks! I have heard good things about the DOD schools. Like the IB program they have to have a standard curriculum due to the movement of military or diplomatic families.

  8. momof4 says:

    In many areas, the term “stable neighborhood school” is an oxymoron because there is little stability beyond the geographic location of the school. In the late 80s, I remember looking at houses in a particular HS attendence area in an affluent DC suburb and one of the ES in the cluster had a 60% turnover rate from year to year, due to the presence of a large subsidized housing project (which had similar turnover). The situation elsewhere may be worse, since the kids at the lowest SES level move so frequently. No matter how great the curriculum (and it usually isn’t) and teachers, that lack of stability is a serious problem.

    I find it interesting that many of the same people who speaak admiringly of the Singaporean, Japanese, Korean, German, Finnish etc. systems are also strongly opposed to a national curriculum, which exists in all those countries. It is my understanding that there is much less geographical mobility in those places, as well.

    I attended a small-town school where the 1-4 teachers did not have college degrees and that sent few kids to college, but the population was stable and all kids did get a decent education. There was also a solid expectation from each teacher about the knowledge and skills of each entering class – no social promotion.


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