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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

We can't 'replace academic mastery with critical thinking about nothing in particular'

The American education system has turned away from academics and lost its way, says David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins, in an interview with Rick Hess. Steiner has written a new book, A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America’s Schools.

After "too many failed efforts at education reform," educators decided that "tests results don't matter -- and simultaneously became fascinated by shiny new goals: metacognitive thought, positive mindset, 21st-century skills, and creative thinking," says Steiner. But there's no evidence we've discovered a new, better way of teaching.

Teachers need to know and love their subject matter, Steiner believes. If they think it's dull, students will too. "All students will rise to rigorous and passionate teaching if it is offered to them."

"As a society," he says, "we need to stop telling ourselves that we can replace academic mastery with critical thinking about nothing in particular."

Grades and graduation rates have gone up in the last 20 years, but students aren't doing any better, says Steiner. Grade inflation in high schools and colleges "ensures that we now count as success what was once considered failure."

From 2002 to 2020, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending up, while child poverty rates remained the same. Achievement was "flat," he says. "We need to stop wishing away evidence of no progress."

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