Common knowledge

In The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch argues that schools must teach our shared heritage and language to prepare children of many ethnicities to grow into “competent and civic-minded Americans who can function in the public sphere.”

Our nation’s founders strongly supported education to mold citizens, Hirsch writes. They were less concerned with “the development of personal talent and individuality” in the private sphere.

In the 20th century, progressive educators focused on on trying to meet the individual child’s interests, talents and needs. They rejected a standard curriculum in favor of “child-centered” teaching with the teacher as a “guide on the side” not a “sage on the stage.”

But the failure to teach a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum has hurt children — especially those who don’t have educated parents teaching them at home — Hirsch argues forcefully. Children don’t learn to read well if they don’t understand the context of the words on the page. They can’t enter the mainstream culture if they can’t speak, read and write the language of educated Americans.

A best-selling author since Cultural Literacy, Hirsch has been rejected by the education establishment, despite the success of Core Knowledge schools that use the curriculum his foundation has developed.

He attacks the education school as “theological institutes where heresy is viewed as an evil that its members have a civic duty to suppress. The anti-curriculum movement’s sense of righteousness, of being in possession of ethical rectitude and privileged truth, often have a religious flavor. Pro-curriculum heretics are to be seen as fallen souls who want to impose soul-deadening burdens on children and discourage lively, child-friendly teaching. Subject-matter-oriented people are by defintion authoritarian, undemocratic and right-wing. ”

Lively, engaging teaching can be used to help students learn subject matter in a coherent curriculum, Hirsch writes. There’s no need to be boring — or right-wing.

In Commentary, Liam Julian, managing editor of Policy Review, praises Hirsch’s ideas, but questions whether it’s possible to write a national core curriculum that’s any good.

Recently, Hirsch himself reviewed a set of proposed nationwide English standards developed by two nongovernmental organizations and panned them, finding them “very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place.” Why on earth would he expect a national core curriculum to be any less deficient, especially when he enumerates in The Making of Americans just how anti-intellectual and silly the broad education establishment has become? . . .  if the recent history he recounts is any guide, the product is far likelier to be a murky, multicultural, concept-based document developed by the exact education establishment he excoriates.

This is a real concern.

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Students need more than college prep

Students are bored by college-prep classes might be motivated by good career and technical education, writes Liam Julian. They deserve a choice.

Imagine a 17-year-old who does not want to attend college (or at least not right away); who finds parsing Macbeth maddeningly immaterial; who yearns to learn a practical skill and put it to use; who feels his personal strengths are being ignored and wasted; who is annoyed by his school’s lackluster teachers, classroom chaos, and general atmosphere of indifference. Too often, such a pupil has no other options. He has no educational choice.

No surprise, then, that a recent Civic Enterprises survey found that 77 percent of high-school dropouts quit school because they were bored. Past surveys have reported similar findings. According to a 2006 Gates Foundation study, for example, 88 percent of dropouts had passing grades—i.e., they didn’t abandon school because they couldn’t do the work; they abandoned school because they thought the work was unchallenging and pointless.

At many high schools, the choice is between college-prep classes — often watered down for the minimally motivated — or dropping out.

The worry that a that a plumber’s life is determined by early manual training arises from the popular but skewed 21st-century dogma that the ideal worker must be able and willing to hop from job to job and industry to industry—that “knowledge workers,” as they’re called, must be highly adaptable, mobile generalists. But the current recession has illuminated the expendability of precisely this type of white-collar worker. Those who work in the skilled trades (the kind taught in today’s CTE classes) are far less dispensable: The New York Times reports that although unemployment is at 9.4 percent, certain “skilled trades like welding and pipefitting are in high demand now, among the jobs that cannot be filled with unskilled labor or outsourced overseas.”

The new Career and Technical Education courses combine thinking and doing, he writes. Some 80 percent of CTE students graduate with as many math and science credits as non-CTE students; 60 percent go on to college. And at-risk students are much more likely to graduate if they’re enrolled in CTE.

Standards for college and career readiness are essentially the same, argue drafters of common core standards. Therefore, the college-prep track serves students who plan to go into vocational training. Not true, writes Michael Kirst on The College Puzzle. Some jobs require high-level reading, writing and math skills, but others demand a lot less.

How to raise low state standards

No Child Left Behind encourages states to set low standards: In some states you don’t have to be literate or numerate to be “proficient.”  That’s pushed many reformers — and the Obama administration — to back national standards.  But there will be intense political pressure to keep national standards low, warns Marcus Winters. He  suggests a way to stick with state standards while encouraging states to ask more.

First, NCLB would be revised to take account of  “students’ yearly academic gains.” States would have to show students are improving, even if they already hit low proficiency targets.  Second, state tests would be normed.

So every few years, the federal government would administer each state’s test to a small but nationally representative sample of students. The percentage of test-takers who met the proficiency benchmarks on each state’s exam would reveal precisely how difficult each assessment was.

A revised NCLB law might then link some percentage of the per-pupil federal funding a state receives to this measure of its standard’s relative difficulty.

. . . In contrast to a politically vulnerable national standard, or one that relies on states’ continuing goodwill, an objective measure of difficulty, coupled with a financial incentive to set standards higher than the next state, should make such a scheme self-sustaining.

Clever, responds Andrew Coulson, but beware of a race to the trivial as states find ways to game the tests.

Recalling the disastrous attempt to craft national standards in the ’90s, Liam Julian also prefers to improve state standards rather than go for uniformity. He writes in The Weekly Standard:

. . . the very factors that contribute to the shoddiness of so many state standards are compounded at the national level, where every interest group from the textbook manufacturers to the national teachers’ unions to the Springfield Elementary School Herodotus Society will want to have its say.

There’s already a lot of controversy about the governors’ common core standards with many groups complaining they’ve been left out of the process.

Cyber-schools on the rise

In The Rise of Cyber-Schools in The New Atlantis, Liam Julian points out that home-based cyber-schools rely on a parent to keep students on task, even if parents aren’t acting as instructors.

The curriculum is provided by an agency such as Connections Academy; a teacher with state certification oversees instruction, communicating with students and parents via e-mail, Web chat, telephone, and video-conference. . . .  Students review material at their own pace, allowing gifted children to accelerate and stay engaged, and permitting those children who need extra time to get it, with plenty of help and individual attention along the way. Cyber-school pupils take the same state-mandated standardized tests as their peers in public school.

For this approach to succeed, cyber-students need discipline, motivation, and self-direction — just the qualities that they may have been missing in the real classroom in the first place. Also, parents of younger pupils must be deeply committed to their children’s schooling and able to devote several hours a day to facilitating lessons.

Most at-risk children don’t have an “education parent” at home, Julian writes.

. . . the millions of youngsters who languish academically, the data show, do not need self-guided learning but intense, hands-on, in-your-face teacher-guided learning. Struggling pupils require the opposite of what virtual education provides.

To escape a “fuzzy” pre-algebra class, my daughter took algebra in seventh grade through Education Program for Gifted Youth, which then used CD-ROMs.  You didn’t have to be gifted to succeed; it did require a high level of self-discipline.

I see a huge future for online learning in higher education, especially for people who are working and/or raising kids while trying to meet career goals. For K-12, I think it may remain limited to kids with involved, at-home parents and the super-motivated.