Educational insanity

After 20 years of education reform focused on reading and math — and billions of dollars in spending — NAEP results show little improvement, writes Lynne Munson of Common Core. It’s educational insanity, she writes, using Einstein’s definition: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice.  We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests.  We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale.  We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances):  None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Teaching knowledge “of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more” works for all students, Munson writes, citing International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula and Core Knowledge. Ignoring curricular content is nuts.

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  1. I’ve been say this for about a hundred years. Education is too important to leave in the hands of educrats.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    If that last graf is correct, we might want to know how come the ed biz stopped. What changed?
    In addition, we could probably improve things if there were a prospect of an expensive, extensive industry with lots of room for skim, with lots of high-paying jobs for people not actually in the classroom, all devoted to improving or returning to valid curricular content.
    Unfortunately, improving or returning to valid curricular content doesn’t seem as if it’s going to cost a lot of money.

    • Catherine says:

      Hmm, let’s check prices on some tried and true reading/spelling curriculum resources:

      Hornbook – cheap (can be made on a printer)
      Webster’s syllabary – free (public domain)
      Edited-to-be-secular Webster’s speller – free (thanks to Don Potter at

      Yep, no money to be made here. Move along…to the newest, greatest, priciest way to pretend that letter-sound connections and blending aren’t the key to reading any remotely phonetic language!

      Seriously, the old-fashioned ways of teaching reading worked extremely well, even if spelling was rather variable. Look at the magazines read by common Americans 100 years ago, and then compare our dumbed-down magazines. I can’t stand Newsweek anymore–it looks like it was written for junior high school students. Even Reader’s Digest has gotten dumbed-down in my rather short lifetime.

  3. Munson appears to be living in a bubble that has little connection to what is actually happening in American schools. If she would take the trouble to consult state curriculum guidelines or to check out the most widely used textbooks, she would find that teaching content is alive and well. Virtually all high schools and the great majority of middle schools offer foreign languages. Courses in history, science, and math are mandatory. The suggestion that our schools are not teaching chemistry would come as a surprise to most chemistry teachers.

    While Core Knowledge is better than many state guidelines in its geography and history standards, it is decidedly deficient in its science standards. I teach in a Core Knowledge school, and we have had to really beef up our science instruction to keep up with the state guidelines.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    At the very beginning of the Civil War, Winfield Scott, chief in charge of the Army, excused having missed an important telegram by saying he’d stepped out “to take a hasty plate of soup”. Reporters sneered at him as “Marshal Tureen”. While I’m astonished journos made the connection, it’s clear they expected their readers to make the connection.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      To be fair to modern people — Turenne is from 350 years ago, not 200 (as was the case in the 1860’s). Back then Turenne was fairly recent history. Now, not so much. He was also pretty much just a military leader, and not a world political leader like Napoleon or Caesar.

      So let’s take someone similar from about 200 years ago: the Duke of Wellington. I’d guess that he would probably have pretty decent name recognition now, though I suspect that in another 150 years Wellington will fade somewhat and someone from the WW2 era — probably either Patton or Rommel in the West — will be a go-to military history reference for the intelligentsia.

  5. This is precisely the argument E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been making for decades, and which I have also made here:
    We’ve been wasting our time and resources focusing on external factors, when it is the content we teach our students that is of the most vital and immediate importance to a student.

  6. Ponderosa says:

    I’m reading “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hoffstadter. He makes clear that the anti-curriculum crowd has deep roots in America, going back to the fervent Progressive-era reformers of the early 20th century. Hoffstadter shows how Teachers College and the other ed schools divorced themselves from the academic departments at their universities and took up the anti-intellectual, anti-academic torch. Love this saying, which Hoff. repeats: “120th Street is the widest street in the world.”

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    If there were any way of betting, I’d bet half the folks couldn’t figure out who came first, Marlborough or Wellington and if they’d missed Sean Bean’s “Sharpe’s Rifles”, they wouldn’t have a clue.
    But for temporal foreshortening, I saw a recruiting poster for Civil War guys in rural Michigan. “The Goths and Vandals are at the gates of the Federal City!!” The target market was guys who had at least a fourth-graded education and who exhibited what we call in polite society, “all thyroid, no judgment”. Today, most kids would think there’s a heavy metal concert. And in that case, 160 years makes considerably less difference.
    When my next birthday comes around, I may splash for a McGuffey reader. Just to solidify my despair.
    Reading “Neptune’s Inferno” by Hornfischer about the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. My son asked about it and–he’s educated, or at least got pretty good paper from educational institutions–asked, “What’s Guadalcanal?”

    • Mark Roulo says:

      When my next birthday comes around, I may splash for a McGuffey reader.

      The books are not very expensive, but if you just want the text, then they are available for free from Project Gutenberg.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark. Thanks for the tip. I’d looked on Amazon, anticipating the complete experience of holding what I believe would be a newly-printed version of an old book. But the actual text by itself would be interesting, although that means less reason to delay my despair.