« How To Get From Here to There | Main | Community vs. Democracy »

Summerhill & I


Dear Deborah,

You and I do travel in different circles! I have never been to a Summerhillian conference and don’t expect that I ever will be. Somewhere in the core of my being is a staunch resistance to A.S. Neill’s libertarianism as it relates to children. As a parent and as someone who cares deeply about elevating the state of our civilization, I rebel against the idea of letting children decide whether they feel like learning today or any day. I believe that adults must take responsibility for children’s well-being, for their physical and intellectual growth, and that involves setting goals as well as limits, in other words, acting as the grown-up.

It was both enjoyable and painful for me to read Neill’s Summerhill, especially when he described with pride the children who had not had a single lesson for years because they preferred to hammer or do something else of their own choosing that was more fun. I have trouble imagining that our civilization would progress—indeed, I expect it would regress—if no child were ever expected to meet expectations other than those that flow from his or her own wishes and desires.

I recall Neill’s discussion of democracy in his school, where his vote counted for no more than that of any student, regardless of the child's age. Were we to take him seriously, then we would remove age limitations altogether from the franchise. I think that democracy is challenging enough without giving equal weight to the opinions of 7-year-olds and adults. One presumes, one expects, that there is a threshold of age (and presumed maturity) that everyone must meet before assuming a decision-making role in our society. Some people think that 7-year-olds might do a better job of running the nation than those currently of voting age, but I am not prepared to take that risk!

The discussion of Neill presents a microcosm of debates we have had over many years. I believe in the value of knowing things, and of identifying what those things are. Those “things” should not be the ideas and stuff that interest me as an individual, but the ideas and stuff that are important for all of us to know for our own survival, as individuals and as a society.

Let’s see: I believe in subject matter, because the subjects have evolved over many generations as a useful summary of different and important kinds of knowledge.

I believe that we all need a knowledge of science and mathematics, to allow us to participate in public discussions of public issues, and to enable at least some of us to work in fields in which such knowledge is a prerequisite. Those of us who are not going to become scientists and mathematicians need knowledge of these subjects so we are not excluded from important discussions of topics like climate change, evolution, war and peace, health issues, and so on. We also need to know enough so we are not bamboozled during political campaigns by slick commercials and propaganda.

I believe that we all need a knowledge of history and civics, geography and economics so that we are ready as citizens to understand the questions that regularly confront us as a society. I am particularly zealous about knowing history because it is the source of political intelligence. I feel strongly that we all need to know the meaning and context of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Civil War, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Brown decision, Pearl Harbor, the struggle for voting rights, McCarthyism, and so on. When any group of teachers sits down to figure out what is most important for their students to know, it turns out that the topics are not infinite, certainly not in American history.

I recall years ago being interviewed by a writer for Time magazine about the civil rights movement. I mentioned the Plessy decision, and she had never heard of it. I found that incredibly frustrating, because it limited our ability to have an intelligent discussion of the issues at hand.

I could go on with similar explanations of why I believe that the arts and literature should be part of everyone’s education. The arts, especially, demonstrate the need for practice, for self-discipline, and for study with those who are more knowledgeable than students. We do not expect children to teach themselves to play the piano or the saxophone. Perhaps a few have done so, but most need instruction by an experienced teacher.

Sure, there are trade-offs and dilemmas in identifying what we want all children to know. But those trade-offs and dilemmas are small as compared to a society in which there were no guidelines, no attempt to set content standards and goals, no recognition that adults are obliged to develop mutual goals for education.

This conversation, in which we are likely always to disagree, reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from John Dewey. And it gives me a chance to remind you that I do not consider Dewey to be my "nemesis," as you expect, but that I find much to admire in Dewey. Dewey was no Summerhillian; indeed, the Dewey School in Chicago had a terrific and very specific curriculum.

Dewey wrote in 1926:

There is a present tendency in so-called advanced schools of thought…to say, in effect, let us surround pupils with certain materials, tools, appliances, etc., and then let pupils respond to these things according to their own desires. Above all, let us not suggest any end or plan to the students; let us not suggest to them what they shall do, for that is an unwarranted trespass upon their sacred intellectual individuality…Now such a method is really stupid. For it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking. [Any reader of this blog can find the full bibliographic reference on p. 491 of my book Left Back. DR]

Thank you, John Dewey. I could not have said it better myself!


PS: Yes, let’s talk about the 1960s in a future blog. In 1967, when you first became seriously involved in the civil rights movement, I was mourning my son Steven, who died of leukemia at the age of 2 in 1966. I immediately became pregnant again and gave birth to a third child in 1967. Although I participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and was very peripherally involved in civil rights activities, I was a full-time mother then and a part-time writer, trying to figure out what to do with my life when the children were sleeping.



Is there anyone on this blog who has advocated for a Summerhillian approach to schooling? I don't hear it. The people calling themselves "progressives" in the US are much closer in thought and action to Dewey and his schools in Chicago and New York than to A.S. Neill (who relied heavily on Freud for his educational theories). Why is Summerhill used as a straw man so often by those arguing against a progressive approach? Is it perhaps because Summerhill is in England and there are no graduates in the US to defend it? By the way, did the Time magazine writer that interviewed you go to a "Summerhillian" school? I would doubt it. I would guess that Plessy was taught to her at some point, as it is mentioned in every US History textbook, but easily forgotten by most students. The question I think, Diane, is what form of education is most likely to be meaningful and memorable for students, not whether the Bill of Rights or Constitution are important (I don't hear anyone denying their importance).


Summerhill well captures the anti-content positions of many people who call themselves "progressive" and the unwillingness of the educators/teachers to prioritize student learning.

As for the form of education that makes it likely to be meaningful and memorable, there are two pathways that enable students to remember: 1) the idea is personally and currently important or 2) with extensive effort coupled with quality teaching. Both have their value but it seems as if "progressives" eschew anything that resembles extensive effort.

If you have no problem with students learning about the Bill or Rights or the Constitution then I would assume that you would support National Standards to that end. Is this so?

For Plessy to have a chance of being remembered, the student would need a deep context of slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction. It would also help to put it in a modern context of the Civil Rights movement. This deep understanding does not happen in a single chapter unit where the teacher only brushes over the topic. It takes time and quality teaching.

But given that students change teachers and schools (and in impoverished communities this happens quite frequently), how is this deep understanding ever to be developed without adults structuring at least the content to be studied over time and having some topic continuity?

Content should not be the sole goal of a quality education. There is so much more that we should be asking of our students.

But without that content, how will students be able to judge the quality of the current events/ideas and contribute to discussions in the greater society?

Erin Johnson


I would encourage you to read about the portfolios required by schools such as those led by Deborah and other schools affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, for example, if you are interested in whether educators calling themselves "progressive" encourage extensive effort on the part of students.

I'm not sure what you mean by "anti-content positions." I hear progressive educators, such as Deborah, and I would include myself, arguing that "covering" a lot of "content" (a la extensive standards) leads to students not remembering or caring about much of it. How is that an anti-content position? National standards will not lead to more content, in my view, but to less, since it is likely that everything under the sun will be included in such standards and this will lead to less meaningful applications and less memory of the "content" than other, more thoughtful, approaches. That is not an "anti-content position."

I honestly have never heard anyone arguing for a Summerhillian approach to schooling. It seems to be only those who try to criticize progressive education that a caricature of Summerhill is drawn. I wonder why it is so hard to imagine a "pro-content" education that actually takes seriously the mind of the child?


Then you and I both agree that content is essential for a quality education.

Unfortunately, content is notably lacking from the vast majority of classrooms in our country. This tendency to go to a "test-prep" mentality has only hastened content's demise.

The fact that CES requires "portfolios" does not ensure that those portfolios are of high quality. Too often, it seems that "progressive teachers" assume that that the portfolio is more important that than the thoughts and ideas that the portfolio was supposed to encourage. Quality assessments can come in many forms, but it should be the learning that is primary and the type of assessment secondary.

The national trend to throw everything into schooling is not a positive. Nobody (children included) can learn well in the scatter shot approach taken by too many of the state standards.

This is not a refutation of having standards (which greatly help in aligning learning from grade to grade and teacher to teacher). But is a striking critique of our system, wherein the standards makers have no vested interest in what students actually learn from their standards.

Should our system not have a feedback loop that allows standard developers, curricula developers, and test-makers to be evaluted for how they enabled students to learn?

Content is not the enemy of a quality education but an essential sub-set.

In a quality school system, content can and should increase because the "stuff" that students remember is taught in context and consequently makes more sense than the scatter-shot approach that our schools are currently doing now.

Erin Johnson


First of all, Deborah brought up Summerhill in her last post, so I don't think it's quite accurate to refer to this as a "straw man." Second, a content-rich curriculum does not have to result in cramming. It is quite easy to "imagine a 'pro-content' education that actually takes seriously the mind of the child." Take Core Knowledge. I have been drawn to CK because of the rigor, meaning, and beauty of its curriculum. I read the books with delight; they make me happy for the kids and fill my head with ideas for lessons.

It doesn't have to be Core Knowledge; I bring it up because I admire it and because I have some of the materials here. (Full disclosure: I will begin teaching at a Core Knowledge school in the fall.) Other curricula are similarly designed to build students' knowledge in a meaningful way.

The Core Knowledge Sequence is designed to make the learning memorable. How? By choosing excellent material, presenting it in a carefully arranged manner, and making connections from one subject to another. For example: the third-graders read selections from A Thousand and One Nights in literature class; then in music class they listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. How great is that? Those third-graders are fortunate. And that's just one example.

Diana Senechal

I referred to Summerhill because Deborah said in her last post that she had attended a Summerhillian conference.
In the 1960s, Neill's book about Summerhill was required reading in hundreds of schools of education. It sold nearly one million copies in the U.S, probably much more by now. To say, as you do, that it is of no consequence and had no influence whatever, is wrong. I would suggest that you read my section on Summerhill in "Left Back," where I document the book's influence in the U.S. on the "free school movement."



Did you change schools because you wanted to teach Core Knowledge?


Would you have a problem with having schools use the Core Knowledge content sequence?

Erin Johnson


Did I really say that Summerhill is of no consequence and of no influence whatsoever? I don't see where I wrote that. I did say that I've never met anyone who has advocated a Summerhillian point of view. Have you? Have you ever been to a school that was set up to provide a Summerhill-like education? Or had a conversation with a teacher who taught in such a school?

I agree with you that the book has had influence, in the sense that many copies were sold, even assigned in classes, etc. But I wonder if even those professors who assigned the book did so to show how outrageous it was? I'm not sure it's fair to say that the Freedom Schools movement in the US was based on Summerhill. Didn't most of these schools have a curriculum around the civil rights movement and other struggles for justice?

Perhaps I read Deborah's post wrong, but in calling the Summerhill view "extreme," and then pointing out one commonality she perhaps had with some of the conferees, it made me think she was quite critical of Summerhill as well. In other words, even self-described progressives such as Deborah are criticizing Summerhill. So who are the defenders of Summerhill?

Erin, I don't have a problem with the Core Knowledge sequence, per se. I would find it difficult to teach in that way, for a variety of reasons, and usually make other choices for my own teaching, but I have used Core Knowledge books as a resource on occasion (full disclosure: my father is a former principal at a Core Knowledge school, and sister currently teaches in one). But I certainly would never advocate mandating Core Knowledge to entire school districts or states, or make it a national curriculum, if that's what you're asking.

I hear progressive educators, such as Deborah, and I would include myself, arguing that "covering" a lot of "content" (a la extensive standards) leads to students not remembering or caring about much of it. How is that an anti-content position? National standards will not lead to more content, in my view, but to less, since it is likely that everything under the sun will be included in such standards and this will lead to less meaningful applications and less memory of the "content" than other, more thoughtful, approaches. That is not an "anti-content position."

Retention depends more on the amount of distributed practice time the student devotes, rather than the amount of content learned. Though, certainly, trying to cover too much content may cut into needed practice time. Material that is taught but not practiced will be forgotten quickly.

Student retention has been extensively studied. All students foget most (but not all) of what they've learned and they do so very rapidly. 'A' students remember more overall (not surprising because they knew more to begin with), but they forget what they've learned and they forget at the same rate as the 'B,' 'C,' 'D,' and 'F' students. So studying hard doesn't protect against forgetting, nor does taking "more thoughtful" approaches to learning.

What does protect against forgetting is continued practice over years. For example, taking one year of algebra usually ends with the student retaining very little basic algebra. Taking two years of algebra also ends with the student knowing very little basic algebra, though more than the student who only learned one year of algebra. Taking another year of higher math, such as calculus, that requires the use of alegbra improves both the amount of basic algebra known and the rate of retention. Taking yet another year improves the student's knowledge of basic algebra even more and the retention rate has been shown to be close to 100% at 50 years out.


Yes. I specifically wanted to teach at a Core Knowledge school.

I haven't even started yet, so that's all I have to say about it for now. I am eager to begin. The summer is passing so swiftly, I won't have to wait long!



The great thing about blogging is that one can ruminate at will. Deborah brought up the subject of Summerhill, and I ruminated. Sorry if I offended you.



Of course you didn't offend me. Ruminate! I'm just wondering if you've met anyone that seriously advocated a Summerhill approach...


I agree with everything here.

I don't disagree with anything anyone wrote here. Mostly I wanted to voice some agree emnt with my new nemesis.

I better close before I get to Sumerhillian.

In the early 1970s, in fourth and fifth grade, I attended an elementary school that was likely influenced by Summerhill (and definitely by the Open Education movement).

For our project on Indian tribes, we made an enormous peace pipe. One day a boy took the peace pipe and smashed it with his foot. He declared that he didn't want peace; he wanted war! (At the time I thought this was very funny.)

What did the teachers do? They conferred in hushed tones. I remember thinking to myself that they had "good intentions." They came to us with their decision: since we wanted a war, we could have one. I remember nothing about the war itself. I think it fizzled pretty quickly.

Another project was called "What Makes Man Human." There was a big chart on the wall, and everyone was supposed to contribute an idea. I wrote: "Nothing--human is just another word for man." The kids got furious. They told me I had no right to write such a thing, and proceeded to erase what I had written. The teachers did not intervene.

I had a few good experiences there, too. But I also had some experiences worse than these.

To me this indicates that Summerhill-like ideas were not (and are not) confined to education schools. They affected kids' lives. The teachers deferred to the kids, and the kids could be cruel to those who didn't fit in. There was far too much time for socializing, and kids did not always handle it well. The school did have a few wonderful activities, like change-ringing, which I loved--but they tended to be more structured than the rest.

The following year we went to Holland, and I attended a highly traditional rural public school, where the teacher taught fifth and sixth grades simultaneously. Desks facing forward, no talking, lots of reading, geography, arithmetic, grammar. The teacher was demanding, funny, and ingenious with his mnemonic tricks. I still remember vividly how he taught us percentages.

I loved school there, learned a lot, and made some great friends. I am still in touch with two of them.

Diana Senechal

I taught Core Knowledge for only one year, so please keep that in mind when you read my opinions. I struggled with HOW prescriptive it was in terms of what children should be learning. I agree that there need to be some standards and/or content laid out for teachers if those standards/content are not used for "cramming." I find these guidelines helpful, and like every other teacher, they filter themselves through my own identity as a teacher and are performed differently in each classroom up and down the hallway. However, I found CK to be stifling (maybe I used it unwisely - it was at the beginning of my career). Rather than studying poetry, for example, each and every poem was laid out for you. Rather than studying impressionist or abstract art, each painting and artist was predetermined. I felt frustrated that neither I, nor my students, had any choice at all. If I teach grade appropriate ways to look at, read and think about poetry...does it really matter what types of poems or what poets excite my children? Or me for that matter?

Good luck next year though- I admire your enthusiasm for the coming year. I am still trying to recover and regroup from this one!!


I am sorry to hear about your experience. Your perspective is interesting, and I appreciate your considerate way of putting it forward. When it comes to curriculum, though, I feel the opposite way.

It helps that I love the material in the CK sequence. Much of it would coincide with my own choices; a good deal of it is new to me but no less interesting and exciting. Beyond that, I see several big advantages to specifying the poems, works of art, and so forth to be studied. I am speaking from my own previous experience as a student and teacher, not from CK experience yet.

First of all, with a curriculum like this, the students have knowledge and experiences in common. This is vitally important for friendship as well as study. Why do kids talk about TV so much? Well, they like to watch it, but they also have a common frame of reference. If they read some of the same books, listen to some of the same pieces, they will find themselves talking about those as well, and developing their individual ideas through conversation. I found this to be true throughout school, and still find it true. My friends and I bonded over poems we read and songs we sang.

Second, there are so many opportunities to build on established knowledge, refer to works previously read, and draw connections from one subject to another. In literature class you can refer to a historical period, and the kids know what you're talking about--or, if they've forgotten, that's a great opportunity for review. This can happen in a less structured curriculum as well, but it's more hit or miss.

Third, when you establish the works to be studied, they can be that much more challenging. The curriculum can support the more difficult parts. The class discussions can focus on certain aspects of the work and help the students understand it in new ways. Independent reading is very important, but it should not replace the close reading of literature by the whole class. Through close study of specific poems, we can better appreciate the poems we read and reread on our own, the ones we memorize, the ones that do become our favorites.

Fourth, it is very hard to write a good curriculum. It takes time, knowledge, research, and consultation. Writing one on the fly is quite risky. When teachers have to plan their curriculum, gather materials, and plan lessons, something is likely to fall by the wayside. I enjoyed having the freedom to plan my lessons and choose what literature to teach my students. The problem was, I spent hundreds of dollars on books, maybe a few thousand. And even with that, I was still scrambling for materials at times.

Fifth, it is so much more satisfying to study specific works than to practice "strategies" all day long. I find that the best strategies come from the close study of specific works. I have always been puzzled by the "workshop model" approach, which is based on the idea that children will choose what to read and write, and that the strategy will unify the lesson. That, to me, is prison of the mind. When I read CK materials, I am eager to go into the classroom and teach a lesson. I do not feel that way after contemplating a graphic organizer or a prediction chart.

I know CK will be challenging, precisely because I do love it. I will probably see my weaknesses more clearly than before. I'm ready for that, though.

Thank you for your kind words, and best wishes to you.

Diana Senechal

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I am sure you will do wonderfully with CK!

I guess my one sticking point is...

I have trouble with one person (the author of the curriculum) deciding which texts count, what knowledge is, and what is important for every child to know. How did those decisions get made? What about the millions of texts that get left out? I would not want to decide that (although yes, everyday as a teacher, in a sense, I am making those decisions). And, I know there will always be many texts left out.

I think studying common, unifying texts is important. You made very good points about that. But, it is hard, for me, to have that be it.

On the other hand, I have used the workshop model for quite a few years and really enjoy it. I like using the process to unify us, and still find time to study artists and various poetry, music, etc at other times of the day. And then try to tie it all together on other days. Who knows how well I'm doing, but I enjoy it and see progress in my kids.

But, I will say, that I think that our differences are what make teaching a fascinating career. I deeply believe that our choices are a result of our professional identity constructions (a combination of our own past experiences, particular school culture, and views of what school can and should be). Clearly we differ. I think that is good for children...perhaps to go from my room to yours and experience the range. Kids represent such a wide range of abilities, styles, interests, etc...I think the same should go of teachers as well (maybe minus the ability part!! :) )

That quote by Dewey is interesting, and I find nothing in it to disagree with. But I would like to know more. Is this quote representative of Dewey's thoughts? If so, then how can it be that he is such a big name in progressivism?

I don't know much about Dewey, but in the past I have gotten the idea that he was inconsistent, that you can find a quote of his to back up most any educational position. Am I mistaken? Did he have a consistent message, a message worth careful study? If so, where should I start reading to find that message?

Should we take Dewey seriously? I'd really like to know.

Dear Brisn,
There probaby isn't anyone worth reding who one can't quote to demonstrate inconsistency. Firt of all, human being grow in thier ideas, and second of all, quote out of context are just that. Besides, perhaps third of all, it depends on how we read them!

Dewey and AS Neill did not agree. Neill was, also not highly infuened by Freud--lthough I suppose that's unfair--all of them were. I hope. He was an astounding figure. But Summerhill was baed on an idea of innate goodness, and Freud hardly shared that view. A follow-up study of his graduates is also provocative.

Freud was not an educator but a philsopher, whose work you should read. Much of his work ecplores education, and he actually started a school at the University of Chicago to explore (not model) his ideas. It was wonderful experiment from which we can learn much; although it required a second faculty of academic experts. What lovely idea.

Do read him--athough he's difficult going.

One and all: let's not make this a hard work vs layness argument--even re Summerhill. The boy hammering away and not attending academic clases might be working as hard or far harder than many of our best students. He is working on something different. What summherhill anf I share is the belief that kids want to work hard, enjoy challnges, and are constazntly learning. Unlike Summerhill I think growing up in the company of smart, skillful and strong adults is a great advantage.

I sometimes think 67 year olds couldn't be worse voter than those we have. But I agree, Diane. Especially since the odds are they'd vote the same way their parent do.



Why would you have a problem adopting CK as a framework for student learning, remembering of course that the content is only supposed to fill 50% of the time?

Erin Johnson


Your comments regarding CK are rather interesting and beg a few questions.

Is is more important to satisfy the teacher's need to teach or the children's need to learn?

In a child-centered school, should not the emphasis be on what children would benefit from and not just what teachers feel like teaching?

Erin Johnson


I still don't think it's possible or likely that a particular curriculum (or set of standards) would fill 50% of class time. If particular students were seen as being "behind" wouldn't they be asked to spend more than 50% of their time on the standards? That pressure would be overwhelming.

In response to your question to Mimi, I think it's impossible to take out the life of the teacher from the equation. So much of teaching and learning in a classroom is filtered through the relationship between teacher and student. It helps, as Deborah points out, for teachers to be seen by students as strong, smart, and skilled adults.

This blog discussion led me to revisit Dewey last night, where I found this interesting passage (in "How We Think" p. 38): "To confine, however, the conditioning influence of the educator, whether parent or teacher, to imitation is to get a very superficial view of the intellectual influence of others. Imitation is but one case of a deeper principle--that of stimulus and response. Everything the teacher does, as well as the manner in which he does it, incites the child to respond in some way or other, and each response tends to set the child's attitude in some way or other. Even the inattention of the child to the adult is often a mode of response which is the result of unconscious training. The teacher is rarely (and even then never entirely) a transparent medium of access by another mind to a subject. With the young, the influence of the teacher's personality is intimately fused with that of the subject; the child does not separate nor even distinguish the two. And as the child's response is toward or away from anything presented, he keeps up a runing commentary, of which he himself is hardly distinctly aware, of like or dislike, of sympathy and aversion, not merely to the acts of the teacher, but also to the subject with which the teacher is occupied."

Of course, Dewey also wrote at length about education in a democracy, and the need for students to make decisions and learn from these, developing "habits of mind" that are suitable for democratic citizenship. It's hard to see where that happens in an endless sequence of facts and passages that looks more like cramming than decision-making.

Deb, you meant that Dewey founded a school in Chicago, right, not Freud?

When I read Summerhill, I am struck by Neill's insistence that sexual repression is a serious impediment to student growth and health. I can't say I have ever heard progressive educators in the US base educational decisions on this theory. That seems awfully Freudian, and not something I ever find in Dewey, or other US educators calling themselves progressive.


No one should ever advocate taking the teacher's experiences, thoughts and ideas away from teaching. The idea of an automaton as teacher is completely abhorant. And I completely agree that the teacher-student relationship is critical for a quality learning experience.

But there are always priorities in life.

Regarding schooling, is it more important to focus on what the student needs to/should learn or allowing teachers to teach what they feel like teaching?

Erin Johnson


It certainly helps for the teacher to have deep knowledge of, even passion for, the material. Of course it should not be just for the edification of the teacher, but teachers should teach what they and the school agree is appropriate. I don't see any point in teachers pretending to teach something they barely know about and don't see the significance of, unless, perhaps, the students are absolutely enamored with it, and the teacher and school agree it's worthwhile. Diana sounds like she should would be a great CK teacher since she sounds so passionate about it. I don't feel that passion when I read the books, however.


It would be almost impossible for anyone to teach something that he/she did not know something about and/or see the impact on their students' learning.

Schooling does not have to be extremely rigid but having the continuity that is provided by sequences like CK can greatly help with ensuring that students learn to understand increasingly complex material.

Is there nothing in the CK topic list (of which it is quite extensive) that you would feel is important for children to know/understand and you would have something meaningful to contribute to your students' understanding of the topic?

Of course, I am speaking about the topics and not just the materials.

You don't have to feel passionate about a particular set of materials. But passion towards enabling students to learn well is always helpful for teachers.

Considering that the comments and critiques that you have said in the past seem mostly to stem from an inept school system and a school structure that favors a "test-prep" mentality, do you really believe that a CK like structure of school topics is detrimental to student learning?

Frankly, in our current school structure it seems unlikely that even a quality topic list such as CK would really affect student learning, as our school structure pretty much prohibits all quality improvements.

But that is not due to CK but a school system that is not focused on quality student learning.

Erin Johnson


I don't think the question is whether there is anything in the CK topic list that I think is important to know, of course there is! But the way it's set up, you're not supposed to pick and choose, you teach everything.

You're right that I've taught in environments that I thought were inadequate, but I've also taught in a school that gave teachers lots of freedom to develop curriculum, but probably more important--encouragement to collaborate with other teachers to share ideas, critiques, and resources.

To offer just one example, one three-month theme I did with fourth and fifth graders, which I don't think would be possible with a curriculum such as CK, was around astronomy. We were just coming off a long study of ancient Greece, which included Greek mythology, so, in moving toward the planets, we focused on the calendar and researched the names of the days of the week and the names of the months on the calendar, seeing many connections. I asked the students to keep track of the moon and to write down exactly where they saw it, what it looked like, and to predict where they would see it again (an incredibly difficult task for adults! But also possible for young people to do). I brought in my telescope and we watched the moon from our classroom or school over time. We took many field trips--to the Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysics lab, where they tracked an infra-red telescope, to the nearby planetarium, and to the powerful telescopes at a nearby university where students saw planets and four moons around jupiter. One of the longer-term projects was for students to study an historical astronomer. We had a wide range, from ancient Greek and Egyptian astronomers, such as Pythagoras and Aristotle, to Galileo and Copernicus, on up. Students got to know these astronomers quite well and why they were of note. They wrote a paper and they each created a model of the solar system according to their chosen astronomer. Toward the end of the unit we made an astronomy history museum where the entire school and families were invited to see posterboards and models of the history of the solar system, as conceived by these historical figures--the classroom was dark, "space" music playing, the students were dressed in black, and with flashlights, they guided the guests through their poster presentations, answering questions from people young and old. This was also a highly collaborative project, as many teachers and adults were involved with various aspects.

The unit was not only fun and memorable for the students, but incredibly challenging for me, as I was constantly doing research to add more "content" to the discussions and ask provocative questions, followed by more research. I was knowledgeable, but also learning and asking questions alongside the students.

Does learning such as this have a place in schools as conceived by lock-step standards? I'm not sure it does. It makes me think that the greatest investment we can make is in the knowledge and ability of teachers and schools to come up with compelling lessons and curriculum that will interest and challenge a wide range of people, including the teachers, but, above all, the students.


Have you taught CK? Did you also teach outside of the US?


Thank you for sharing your unit. It sounds like you developed a wonderful learning experience for your students. Quality teaching always matters!

To answer your questions:
I’ve had some schooling outside the US. It is remarkable how similar kids are across the world yet how different “school” can be. There is much to be learned (both good and bad) from the experiences of other teachers/schools around the world. CK is a breath of fresh air compared to the thin, watered down materials usually offered as “curricula” for our students. We could much worse than use CK as a scope/sequence for our children’s schooling.

Two thoughts regarding your lesson:

1. It is a horrible shame that no other teachers (outside your school perhaps) will be able to share and benefit from all your extensive lesson development. Our schools have no systems in place for teachers to share with the larger teaching community well developed plans such as yours.

2. This would have fit in fantastically with CK’s third grade scope/sequence. Do you think that 3rd graders would have benefited as well from your thoughtful lesson development? Additionally, if your students had gone to a CK school prior to attending your class, would they have benefited as much from your lessons considering that they probably had previously learned much of the material (if not quite all the dimensions that you added)?

A scope and sequence like CK does not equate to lock step learning. Who would ever advocate that!

But what it does do is provide consistency for the student from year to year. It is, if you will, an agreement by the larger community of teachers about how to maintain growth, interest and increasingly complex thoughts and ideas for the benefit of the student. And the larger teacher community agreement is necessary because our students move around so much, particularly our impoverished students. Without some level of continuity, school can really become a muddle mess of unconnected “facts.”

Given your thoughtfulness regarding student learning, it does not surprise me in the least that in our dysfunctional school system you enjoy teaching in the more laissez faire schools. As for investing in quality teaching, you and I couldn’t agree more. But the lack of investment in quality teaching is a school system problem, not a content/scope/sequence problem.

From The Teaching Gap:

“Compared with other countries, the United States clearly lacks a system for developing professional knowledge and for giving teachers the opportunity to learn about teaching. American teachers, compared with those in Japan, for example, have no means of contributing to the gradual improvement of teaching methods or of improving their own skills. American teachers are left alone, an action sometimes justified on grounds of freedom, independence, and professionalism. This is not good enough if we want excellent schools in the next century.”

If the average teacher were as thoughtful about lesson development as you are, then perhaps our students could learn well despite our poor school system. But our average teacher is not you, or Deborah, or any of the very few extraordinary teachers whom I have met.

It is our school system itself that is preventing quality student learning, not content nor a reasonable scope and sequence.

What is most troubling is that the types of reforms bandied about in the political realm will not lead to better student learning and for the most part will further erode the quality of life for teachers.

Without a viable counter proposal to the “testing and accountability” types of reforms, (a counter that will actually improve student learning for all children), there will be fewer and fewer schools that will allow/encourage the thoughtful teaching so necessary for quality student learning. Not a pleasant thought.

It is our school system that is failing us.

Erin Johnson


I have been ruminating a while on your repeated assertions that "it's the system stupid," (to paraphrase Bill Clinton). As I am not much of a top down kind of person, I really stumble over this view that something outside has to be the (primary) actor for reform. I got a hint about what you may be talking about in this statement of yours:

"1. It is a horrible shame that no other teachers (outside your school perhaps) will be able to share and benefit from all your extensive lesson development. Our schools have no systems in place for teachers to share with the larger teaching community well developed plans such as yours."

I absolutely agree. Our schools by and large do lack the ability to formulate together and act on thoughtful and well-developed lessons. When these are brought in from outside, they frequently fail because they are seen as being imposed by administrative idiots or bureaucrats of some stripe, on in some other way stifling to creativity. As a result, individual teachers struggle along, trying to squeeze some meaningful planning time into the day or the two days alloted just before school opens. Some put together a meaningful toolchest of things that can be drawn upon at a minutes notice, as needed, while others can barely keep their heads above water. For too many "read the chapter and answer the odd numbered questions," becomes the filler.

My challenge for you, however, is this. What is it that keeps you, in your building, from formulating this with your colleagues? There are many ways to re-order the available time, limited though it may be, to build a meaningful curriculum (even one that adheres to the pacing guide, if need be) of better lessons. Even if each of three teachers agreed to write one killer lesson per year, that all three could use, the store over several years could really impact learning. If you are so fortunate as to have a curriculum director in your content area, perhaps this person could start compiling and formatting. Maybe you have other schools in your feeder pattern willing to participate. You might want to do something truly revolutionary like rotating classes so that each teacher teaches their own killer lesson to varying groups of students. You could start to compile data on effective use of methodology over time.

What I do not understand is the source of the inertia. Is there a need for permission? Is there a need for some bureaucrat (horrors) to write it into the contract? What is it within education, or the teaching profession or schools that keeps us stuck where we are?

Just askin'


Your challenge would result in a Sisyphean task, at best, mostly due to all the factors that you stated:

“individual teachers struggle along, trying to squeeze some meaningful planning time into the day or the two days allotted just before school opens. Some put together a meaningful toolchest of things that can be drawn upon at a minutes notice, as needed, while others can barely keep their heads above water.”

Given that description, why do you think any teacher would be willing or able to go above and beyond their current duties to develop quality lessons?

While there are pockets of excellence in our schools, coordination between teachers and quality teaching is the exception rather than the rule. An individual teacher (or even a small group of teachers) can only fight the system so much.

We have become so used to working within our system it seems very hard to imagine it to be any different. The international studies of schools can be of great help in understanding our own system and what types of improvements will improve student learning. But it is very difficult to directly mimic other school systems as there are distinct cultural differences that allow or prevent certain types of teacher-student interactions and expectations. So I think that the greater lessons from the international comparisons are in helping us to examine all the implicit aspects of our schools that we normally do not see.

But as an example of how a system change can greatly affect life, consider the state of government in the mid 1700s. Monarchies/dynasties dominated the great majority of countries. The problems with this type of system have been well documented, and rose and fell with the abilities and interests of a single ruler.

When the Founders of our country re-designed our own government, they did several remarkable things; they distributed power/responsibility to different organizations and put in checks and balances between those groups. Additionally, they created systems that allowed for change, a process to change and review laws and incorporate new ideas. The government system designed by the Founders has allowed almost unprecedented freedom and citizen input into the workings of government. Considering how fundamental our government is to the freedoms we enjoy in our lives today, I think that the work done in changing the governmental system done by the Founders is greatly underappreciated.

If you will, our current school system is more akin to a monarchy than a constitutional, representative government. A system that is more historical than functional.

So some questions you might ask (as well, we all should be asking): what types of school systems would facilitate quality student learning? What changes in our school system could work with our own culture? How do we encourage quality teaching? What are will willing to give up and what would we expect to gain from a different school system? How do we incorporate both flexibility and excellence into a school system?

I would hope that we would be able to do for our schools what the Founders did for our government, do something even better than has been done before.

Erin Johnson


I am happy to share my work with anyone who is interested, just as I borrow from many other people. However, I would never insist that someone else do what I did, especially someone without the same resources (and interest/passion in the material) that I had. That's one of the problems I see with CK--it seems to be centered around textbooks, not real teaching resources. I've found that my best lessons/units maximize the resources I have available to me--including books, scientific instruments, "field" experiences, guest speakers, the neighborhood, what the students know and care about, culture, what the school community and colleagues care about, etc.

The investment, I think, should be in teacher knowledge, ability, and flexibility to create curriculum, assess, draw on resources, etc., not in some scope and sequence, which looks to me very "watered down," including CK, in its mass-marketed form.


Drawing upon an extensive network to support quality teaching is to be greatly admired and encouraged in every teacher.

But even in your description of teaching I do not see any reference to student learning, which should be front and central to every teaching endeavor.

While I do not doubt that in our very disfunctional school system, what you have done is vastly preferable to the average student experience, there are two aspects from a student's point of view that are troublesome.

First, having a teacher "assess" their students undermines the trust that the student has in the teacher. Quality learning necessitates a great student-teacher relationship. When there is grading involved, the trust (from the student's point of view) is missing. Feeling as if one is always being "graded" is not conducive to quality exploration and stretching of the mind.

Two, in insisting that teachers develop whatever curricula they deem fit, there is a distinct lack of continuity from the student's point of view. If you are developing your own materials, how in the world will they ever connect to what the student learns in the following years? By having the teacher "do their own thing" the understanding of the world and the connections between subjects and teachers is completely lost. No wonder school feels like a jumble of unconnected facts.

Where is the focus on improving the whole student learning experience and not just the year that they spend in your classroom?

Do you like the system the way it is? Are you arguing to keep it the same, just let you be? Our students will not benefit from either argument.

Erin Johnson

To Brian Rude,

Brian, you asked whether Dewey was inconsistent. The fact is that he lived to his 90s and was an active writer for most of those years. He was both the father of progressivism and one of its most trenchant critics (see "Experience and Education" by Dewey). My mentor Lawrence Cremin once wrote that reading Dewey was akin to looking into a witches' mirror: in other words, you can take multiple meanings from his work. In part, it is because his language is often densely packed and not easily accessible, but it is also because he wrote over many decades, responding to different situations.
Diane Ravitch


We've exchanged many posts in the past about your concern for teachers evaluating students. I don't see any way around it, and especially do not approve of giving authority to a standardized test in this regard (and you haven't offered any other suggestion for "external evaluation"). The teacher simply knows the student best (besides parents and family, of course) and should evaluate and document using many short and long-term techniques, and being as transparent as possible with students, families, and others concerned.

I benefited from teaching in a highly collaborative environment, where my lessons and themes were coordinated and critiqued by colleagues teaching younger and older grades, as well as for the purposes of sharing resources. But, I know this isn't the norm. Without this collegiality, student learning can suffer. I really can't see any way around more collegiality if we want to improve schools--teachers cannot learn enough about teaching and content, etc. in teacher education programs, or on their own.

But I also think it's okay, if not great, for students to learn about astronomy in fourth, and then again in eighth grade, for example. They will no doubt take away something different, and most probably see many more connections.

Student learning is at the front of my mind, just as I can see it is for you...


Even if a teacher knows a student best, why would you be willing to betray the student's trust for the benefit of other people outside the classroom.

What purpose do you use grades for? Is it to sort and rank your children for whose benefit?

Frankly, I would argue that their parents probably know the student better than the teacher. If it is the authenticity of assessment that we are striving for then perhaps as an alternative grading scheme should we ask their parents to assess them?

As for external evaluations, standardized tests are probably the least beneficial type of external evaluation.

Certainly, the international evidence suggests that standardized testing negatively correlates with student learning.

The only types of exams that have shown to be positively correlated with student learning are exams that directly connect with what the student is learning in class. This does not happen on a standardized test.

There are multiple types of external evaluations: oral presentations to a committee, end-of-course exams, a single high school exit exam and/or others.

The type of evaluation used should align with what the evaluation is to used for.

Is the evaluation to determine if the student learned enough to be successful in the next class? Is the evaluation to be used to guide parents about what areas of weakness that they can help them with? Is the evaluation used to tell colleges whether the students have been prepared to succeed in college? Is the evaluation used to motivate students to study and learn well? Given the multiple uses of external evaluations, perhaps multiple types of assessments should be employed.

Evaluations are always difficult. But the student-teacher relationship should be respected much more than any type of assessment. Learning first, assessment second.

As for repeatedly learning a subject in multiple years, there is great benefit to extending previous learnings and delving deeper into the subject.

But what happens if the 8th grade teacher has no idea that the student learned something in 4th grade and frankly plans an introductory class? Will the class be too easy or boring going over the same material.

From the student's point of view, schooling needs to be consistent and organized in a reasonable manner. How is the student to make sense of the world if there is a smattering of this one year, a bit of that the next, without any consistency or continutity. Without some coordination from year to year, how can the student really acheive deep understanding of a subject and the multiple connections between subjects and their own lives?

The collaboration that you speak of within your school should not just stay within your walls. There is a larger community that needs that collaborative approach to teaching and learning.

Erin Johnson


I agree that multiple assessments are necessary, for each of the reasons you bring up, and more. But I also think there's plenty of space for teachers to develop wonderful trusting relationships with students even while assessing and sharing assessments with students, families, and others.

In regard to your scenario about the 8th grade teacher, I would say that he or she should get to know the students. Every class has a wide range of abilities and experiences, there is no way around that, no matter how "organized" the curriculum is to try to "cover" everything you want to cover. Part of that means teacher collaboration and sharing/critiquing plans. It also helps if the school keeps archives of student work from years past. I regularly brought my students' work from years past to the classroom to have them talk about what they did, jog their memory, and try to build on it.

I agree about the collaboration, it's important, and should be encouraged, but that doesn't mean that every school should be teaching the same curriculum.

I don't agree one hundred percent about the benefits of collaboration. Yes, collaboration is important, but it can be overdone. We also need a little time to ourselves, away from the chatter, in order to think clearly and well. Students need this, too.

If the schools create their own curricula over and over, then teachers have to spend a lot of time together discussing what the students should learn. If they already have an excellent curriculum, then they can build on it, collaborating on special interdisciplinary projects, research, review of student work, and more.

I hear of schools where teachers spend their lunches, preps, and meetings writing theme-based unit plans together. I think this would drive me nuts! Don't get me wrong--I love meaningful collaboration. But excessive/redundant collaboration seems just as problematic as no collaboration at all. And it seems to have become a slogan: more collaboration=better. Not always so.


So I take it that you wouldn't mind if your principal sat down with you and the parents of your students to discuss what you needed to work on as a teacher?

Public assessments change everything. Grades matter to students. There are multiple reasons why we should have assessments for students. But it should not be from the teacher. Teachers should teach, not grade.

Again note, I am not referring to the informal assesments that teachers need to use every day to determine if students have gotten something or not. Just the public assessments that are shared with the rest of the world.


Well said.

To clarify, there are two levels of collaboration: 1) Discussing what (and when) students should learn and 2) What are the best techniques to reach/engage children.

The what and when should not be a daily discussion but a more global, 100ft discussion and yes, this should be discussed/debated at length by the greater teaching community.

The specific teaching techniques to reach children could be something of benefit on a daily/weekly basis. This latter point should be up to the teacher to decide if the discussion is beneficial or not. But having the what/when as a common basis for teacher-teacher discussion greatly facilitates improvements in teaching. Without a common basis, it is much more difficult to have meaningful conversations.

Erin Johnson


I think it makes sense for a school (or school district) to come to a general consensus about what they teach, when. I don't think "every teacher for him/herself" is defensible, for example. But, hopefully, the teachers will have a say it that discussion, and the consensus won't be so specific that teachers won't have flexibility to do something interesting (to themselves and their students). Administrators and parents will/should ask questions about what the teachers are planning, and teachers should be able to defend it, together. I can see where a common mass-marketed curriculum can be very useful for this "defense," even if it's not the best curriculum the teachers and schools can come up with. And, lest we forget, published curricula never teach themselves, so even if a particular curriculum is adopted, teachers know their students better than the curriculum writers and should be allowed to be flexible, perhaps seeing the curriculum more as a "jumping board" than as a script.

When you say "work on as a teacher" are you referring to curriculum? Or teacher evaluation and professional development? (of course, that's a different story)


A curriculum is not a script. A curriculum can indeed serve as a "jumping board"--often into the very topics being studied, from different angles. Let's take the third-grade CK curriculum again as an example. Several of the folktales they read involve humans taking flight. The flight has different meanings from tale to tale, but in each case it's a magical turning point, transformation, and surprise. There's so much that can be done with that--and I think third-graders would love it. At that age I was dreaming (awake and asleep) about flying.

Then, in science class, they learn about space exploration (among other things). They read the biography of Mae Jennison, the first African American woman to become an astronaut. They could compare "true" stories of human flight with "imaginary" ones.

In one of the folktales, a tale of the Iroquois people, four hunters chase a bear into the sky. They and the bear become the Big Dipper; and every year, when they kill the bear, the blood spills onto the trees, making the leaves scarlet. How interesting for the kids then to learn (when studying astronomy that year) that the Big Dipper is known as Ursa Major and that it was viewed as a bear by separate civilizations around the world!

But I digress. My point is: this curriculum is anything but scripted, and that is part of its beauty. I see the value of certain kinds of scripts, but I don't like scripted teaching--except for certain kinds of drills--and would not want to do it. (Incidentally, there was some effort to script the "workshop model": consultants from Teachers College and literacy coaches would enter a classroom and coach a teacher on what to say.) A certain kind of rhythm is good for practicing language and other things, and teachers can use structured drills to good effect. But when the script tells the teacher what to say regarding literature, it limits not only the teacher and students, but the material. You cannot teach this kind of material by script. It is too interesting.

Diana Senechal

Correction: I meant Mae Jemison, not Jennison.

Double correction, for the sake of truth: I had the name wrong in my mind. I did not "mean" Jemison; but Jemison is the correct name.

This error, however, prompted me to read more about her, which is what a good Saturday morning error should do.


If what you describe about CK is not a script, what might this collection of folktales, etc. be a "jumping off point" towards? What might be the deep understandings you would hope a child would take away from this collection?

It's not clear to me, as you describe it, how "flight" holds together as a deep understanding, and especially in terms of "turning points" or "surprises."

I think if I were to design a theme around flight for third graders I would focus on the mechanics of it--look closely at birds, discuss the history of inventions around flight, including the Wright brothers, fly lots of paper airplanes, do experiments around whether air takes up space (such as trying to pour water into an "empty," but airtight bottle), design and fly parachutes. The folktales, I think, are nice, but would be more helpful if they describe something that really relates to a "deep understanding." Of course, another "deep understanding" might be writing folk tales--analyzing their plots, characters, etc., is that perhaps what you had in mind?

In other words, I don't see how what you descibe as CK holds together, other than somewhat random "content" that someone somewhere thinks is "important." Part of learning science, for example, I think has a lot to do with being a scientist, that is, stepping in the shoes of scientists, and fiddling with stuff, not just reading about it in what someone calls "good literature." It's the thinking, experimenting, wondering, problematizing, debating where I think this happens. It's why Deborah's (and Dewey's) notion of "habits of mind" are so crucial to remember. The content is only "nutritive material" (in Dewey's words) for a thinking mind. But I think students need to be "hungry" for it. They are more likely to be if what they're doing is asking questions and trying to solve interesting problems first.


I was refering to having your principal share your teacher evaluation with the parents, not just on what you were planning on teaching.

My point is that external evaluations always matter to the person that is being evaluated. Would you enjoy having your teacher evaluations shared with the parent community?

Regarding curricula adoption; the process that our schools adopt curricula is completely dysfunctional and counter to developing quality materials for teachers to use.

For quality curricula to be developed there needs to be a feedback loop between the curricula developers and the teachers. Teachers absolutely know their students better than the developers. Why do we not have teachers "grading" the curricula or demanding better materials.

Our "mass-market" curricula developers have no vested interest in student learning and it shows in the horrible materials usually adopted by the schools. (Please note that I do not considered CK to be a mass-marketed curricula.)

For the most part, the publishers motivation is in maximizing the likelyhood of adoption. The materials developed are not designed to foster quality student learning. The topics are organized poorly, cover way to many topics and are written in a confusing manner.

Our schools have no system for quality feedback between curricula and student learning. There is no system for teachers to request/demand better materials to work with.

Teachers should be grading the materials provided to them by the curricula developer, with the focus completely on: does this improve student learning.

Erin Johnson


For clarification: the folktales are part of the literature curriculum, not the science curriculum. Your ideas for a science class sound great. And these tales form only a small part of the literature curriculum for the third grade: there is also a good deal of poetry, mythology, fiction, grammar, and more.

In all three stories, the flight corresponds with some sort of transformation of the characters' condition. In an African American tale, slaves in a cotton field rise up into the air one by one, out of the reach of their overseer. In a Hans Christian Andersen tale, a girl joins her grandmother in heaven at Christmas. In the Iroquois tale, the hunters who kill a bear are transformed by its magic.

Yes, we would analyze the stories' plots and characters. Wouldn't it also be interesting to compare the moments of "taking off" in each story, since they have this in common? Then, when the students wrote their own stories about flight, they could pay close attention to that moment of taking off, giving it their own meaning.

That's one of many ideas. It could come up briefly in class discussion, or it could expand into something bigger. The possibilities here are vast. I don't see why you are dismissing this prematurely, or referring to CK as "somewhat random" content. That is simply not correct--nor is it the work of one person or a few.

Yes, it is possible to select important topics and materials for students. Yes, we have an obligation to do so. Yes, there should be room for teachers to supplement the curriculum with their own materials, and make suggestions to the curriculum writers if they like.

Too structured? A structure can be a wonderful gift. This is a somewhat flawed analogy, but consider a poetic structure. I would rather write a sonnet than a free verse poem any day. The sonnet fires up my mind, ensures a certain rigor of language, and brings up surprises. Free verse can be good--but a lot of it is awful. That's not to say there aren't bad sonnets out there. There are. But at least, with a sonnet, you must pay attention to the sounds of words, and to their relationships. You must keep it to 14 lines. A random requirement? By no means. An imposition? Hardly.

Somewhat similarly, with a curriculum you know, to some degree, what to teach. Then the "how" comes alive. The common trait here is taking a given (in the case of poetry, a form; in the case of curriculum, specific subject matter) and using it to make something meaningful. Total freedom is messy and sometimes even disastrous.

Diana Senechal


I was hired at two different schools with input from a community of parents, along with staff. At one school, parents also played a part in evaluation. Did I like it? Not particularly, but the way that it was set up, I think it's fair and quite transparent. I don't see why your question is relevant to the discussion about student evaluation, however. Teachers don't send student evaluations to the "parent community," anywhere that I know of, for good reasons. However, many schools (such as colleges and some high schools) demand transcripts from schools, including teacher evaluations, and they don't just look at test scores. They also ask for teacher recommendations. Students apply to these schools, and to allow others to see their transcripts. I don't think your idea of "external grades" is horrible, by the way, and I think it would be fine if some schools chose to do this (and parents decided whether this was a good fit for their kids and sent their them there). I think it's a horrible idea, however, to try to force all schools to take on this model. And I don't think I would want to teach in such a school. By the way, you do puzzle me, Erin. On the one hand, you advocate for a national curriculum, perhaps along the lines of CK, that appears to me quite "top-down"--from curriculum developers (on top) to teachers and students. On the other hand, you seem to think teachers evaluating/grading students is abusive to teacher-student relationships (because then the relationship is too top-down)? The teacher seems to play an almost miniscule part in your view of student learning. It's interesting to me, because I can't say I've ever heard anyone argue from this point of view.

Diana, Teachers must be curriculum developers themselves. I think good teachers are very good at it, it is on-going, and all teachers can probably get better at it. And, to use Diana's metaphor, it is more like a sonnet than "free verse" poetry. There are so many things to keep in mind while doing it, including: deep knowledge about how children learn, deep knowledge about the actual students in your classroom, deep knowledge about disciplines and literature, resources, etc. , etc. This is not "free verse"-- there are many elements to be considered and balanced.

A culture of critique, and time set aside for this in schools, is very beneficial to developing good curricula, and, of course, access to a good "curriculum library" is a huge bonus.

It is simply far too easy to say "we're using (fill in published curriculum)." I have never met a curriculum that perfectly fit my students, but I have found myself many times using the curriculum as a substitute for my own thinking--neglecting to ask, "what is the deep understanding here?" "how will this work with the dynamics and personalities in my room?" "Will this interest Johnny?" "Does this benefit the most vulnerable students in my room?" When I actually take these questions seriously, I almost always throw large parts of the curriculum out the window.

Teachers need to be far more skeptical of published curricula, and this can probably only happen if they are skilled curriculum developers themselves.

No, Matthew, the analogy does hold, because free verse is not easy. Some say it's the hardest kind of verse to write. Nor is curriculum writing easy when you're in the midst of teaching (or even when you're not).

Nor does a published curriculum lead to lazy thinking and teaching. Laziness is an option no matter what you do.

Implementing a curriculum is, in fact, a form of curriculum writing. You are thinking about its meanings and how to make it work in your classroom. You are supplementing it as you need.

And the kids have the benefit of a great sequence of topics, each one building on the last.

I am not sure why some people distrust published curricula just because they come from the outside. It's fine to be skeptical of outside authority--but that skepticism, applied wholesale, will limit us and our students. The outside authority (in this case, a curriculum) can also make us aware of our limitations and help us out of them. It can teach us what we do not already know. Of course, a mediocre curriculum can be deadly. But if we cannot recognize an excellent one, how are we to write one ourselves?

Is it uncreative or lazy to love a good book written by someone else?

Diana Senechal


I apologize if I used your metaphor incorrectly. I'm sure you will be a wonderful CK teacher, as you are so passionate and see so much beauty in it.

If you see "implementing" curriculum as a task that involves "writing" curriculum, then we don't disagree on that. I don't necessarily see it as a question of laziness, however, so much as time and thoughtfulness that must go into writing curriculum--something that all teachers can get better at, especially with quality professional development and peer collaboration, and continued practice.

I would never advocate not reading good published curricula (I am lucky to have an excellent curriculum library nearby). But, I can't say I read curriculum like a good novel, it's not just for my own pleasure; but perhaps here, again, I don't understand your analogy.


Maybe we won't agree about the role of curriculum in school or teachers' relation to it. We do seem to agree, though, about the importance of thoughtful, responsive teaching. You sound like a great teacher, and I think I would learn a lot from seeing you in action.

The book analogy was an intentional absurdity. I simply meant that distrust of outside authority will not get us far; we do have to trust intelligently as well. Nor can we rely entirely on our own resources. It's clear that you agree on this point; we differ in our way of putting it into practice.

But since I haven't actually put CK into practice yet, except in my mind, let me go ahead and do so, and maybe follow up on this at a later time. I believe in living by one's words, so I've got my work cut out for me!

Diana Senechal


I am not advocating for a national curriculum. I am advocating for a change in our school system so that the system is set up to focus on student learning.

If a national curriculum would do that, then I certainly would support it. But a national curriculum will not do anything at all. It will not do what you fear (impose more mandates on your teaching) nor will it improve student learning. Educators/publishers are quite expert at explaining how their current program/materials already satisfy any and all “new mandates.” Schools are quite adept at maintaining the status quo. They have done so, despite waves and waves of “reforms.”

The reason that a national curriculum will fail to improve student learning is that our school system has no support mechanisms for improving teaching, curricula nor the assessments that we give our children. All three aspects of schooling that are essential for quality learning. Without a system change to focus on student learning, there is very little that any external suggestion/mandate/good idea/bad idea or anything else will do to improve student learning.

My comments regarding a clear scope and sequence has more to do with the observation that children learn better when concepts and ideas are connected from year to year. Education is not a one-year shot. It takes thirteen years of careful teaching and development to engage and provide the experiences that students need for a quality education.

In our national obsession with maintaining school autonomy, children who move schools suffer greatly. (And this happens even more frequently in impoverished neighborhoods.) The lack of continuity in their schooling inhibits greatly what could be learned. For the lucky few, those bits and pieces that they pick up may mean something to them. But then again they may not.

Internationally, there are school systems that allow quite a bit of school autonomy and yet are able to educate their children well. One example of this is Switzerland. But the Swiss move very, very infrequently and so a child maintains the continuity by virtue of staying in the same school throughout their education.

So, perhaps we could forbid children from moving schools or perhaps we should acknowledge that schools should be set up to accommodate moving. When you value school autonomy more than student learning, those children that move will not/do not learn to the extent that they can and should.

Other school systems allow school autonomy within the context of national exams. That is the national exams set the expectations and schools are judged on how well their students perform on the exams. Certainly, this is something that we could consider. This would be a change in our school system. Not one that I think that Americans would readily support, but it is possible.

As for your comment regarding teachers: “The teacher seems to play an almost miniscule part in your view of student learning.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Quality teaching is essential for an excellent education. Having teachers help their students make the connections between their own worlds and the academic world is immensely challenging and necessary. Too little time is spent by our teachers today in helping children to make those connections, to understand new material and develop those habits of the mind so necessary for a quality education. As each child is unique, a teacher could easily spend years looking for better, more interesting ways to improve their students’ learning.

I realize that in your experience you have willingly filled both the teaching role and the curricula development role, but they are not the same thing. Teaching is connecting material/ideas/concepts with the student. Curricula development is making concrete the vast array of materials/techniques/approaches/experiences necessary to support our diverse student population and capture the intent of our long term goals for education. They are both essential to enable quality student learning but they do not have to be done by the same person. Most teachers do not have the same enthusiasm (let alone the time) for developing something new each year as you have.

So if continuity and careful development of ideas/concepts are critical to quality student learning, should we not consider that school autonomy is perhaps less important than student learning?

I also realize that the quality of curricula available in our country is quite poor. The fact that you have had to develop your own materials is more a reflection of our poor school system and not due to the fact that external curricula developers always do a horrible job. They do not. Internationally, the quality of the “mass-market curricula,” if you will, can be outstanding. But this only happens in school systems where the primary focus of everybody (teachers, curricula developers, test makers, the general public, etc…) is on student learning.

Something that is greatly lacking in almost every school in our country.

Erin Johnson


I think we fundamentally disagree on what teaching and learning is. Differentiating between teaching and curriculum development is a case in point. Good teachers, I think, must have deep knowledge of "content" (I mean disciplinary knowledge, what and how the "knowledge" is used, the history of it, the questions left unanswered, etc.), deep knowledge of how children learn (a coherent theory), deep knowledge (and ways of accessing knowledge) of the particular students in their room. In fact, I think these three areas are infinite, so "deep knowledge" is, of course, a relative term.

Without these pools of knowledge, I don't know what you mean by "connecting material/ideas/concepts with the student." Because if it means a teacher simply reads from a textbook or a published curriculum, that is not deep knowledge. But with deep knowledge in these areas, curriculum development comes relatively easily.

The problem is, teachers can't know everything, so they must teach what they know, what they are passionate about, what is interesting to them, and they are willing to continue exploring with the students. (and teachers need to be assigned to classes and schools where a relatively coherent sequence of classes are taught, probably, although I think a school that is heavily focused on math and science is not all bad, or an arts school, if that is the agreement with the parents and community).

Do you know the phrase "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree?" I didn't believe it as a boy. I would never be like my parents, I thought. But it is amazing to me how many people I know benefit from the deep knowledge and passions of their parents, I mean in a relative sense. I know someone whose parents are both pastors, for example, and the person knows more about theology than anyone I know, went to divinity school, etc. It is no coincidence--she was surrounded by people who were passionate about this growing up. The list goes on and on (my parents are both educators, for another example). My point is, this is what often sticks with people. It makes sense, if we are interested in "connecting material/ideas/concepts with the student," as you say, to connect students to adults who are passionate about what they teach. Internships may be even better.

In other words, I don't believe in a "perfect curriculum." Curricula does not teach students, people and experiences do. And the quality of the teacher (in terms of the pools of knowledge I mentioned) will basically determine the quality of the learning. By the way, Linda Darling-Hammond has published the best work on this topic. There are also excellent studies out recently about the large impact teachers who are Board Certified have on student learning (The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards expects teachers to be curriculum developers, by the way).

The problems you mention about student mobility are not just tied to curricula, but to the many social factors that play a part in difficult transitions. Yes, schools can do more to better accomodate movers, but it doesn't merit adopting common curricula.

As for "support mechanisms for improving teaching, curricula, [and] the assessments that we give our children," I agree with your concern here, and it is exactly this that the proposal Deborah and Linda Darling-Hammond and the Forum for Education and Democracy addresses.


I agree that teachers must possess deep knowledge of their subject to be able to teach well. But deep subject knowledge is not enough. The focus of teaching needs to be on the student: how to connect the ideas and concepts with each individual student. This is by no means easy nor trivial.

Curricula development is quite different. Quality curricula development makes concrete the goals of education. It connects ideas within a subject and between subjects over time. In a given subject matter it makes delineated choices about the relative importance of sub-parts of a subject. It is, if you will, the collective wisdom of the best way to approach the subject as a whole. Deep subject knowledge helps in curricula development, but that knowledge alone is not sufficient to carefully structure over time the ideas and concepts so that they are easily accessible to students.

I realize that the vast majority of available curricula in this country do not do this. And the lack of quality curricula has resulted in many teachers thinking that there is a dichotomy between textbook teaching and “authentic” teaching. There really is no dichotomy. There is only what makes sense for each individual student. The importance is not the source of the materials but in the thought processes of the student. I can’t see how a teacher “just reading the textbook” could promote quality learning. But there is nothing wrong with reading as a source of information.

Quality teaching can be done with textbooks and projects. And just doing “projects” does not ensure quality learning.

One of the most disheartening projects that I have seen was from a “project centered,” “authentic learning” “hands-on” “technology focused” high school. As a senior project that the students spent the entire year on, their product was a web-site devoted to telling about themselves.

Publishing a web-site is fairly easy. But having the goal of thirteen years of education be something quite so self-centered is quite disturbing. What did the student learn? That he/she is the center of the world. That there is nothing to connect that student with anything else. If the web-site had highlighted those connections, say community service or academic interests and achievement or a particular passion in music or art, then perhaps this would have been interesting. But the projects all ended up being something like: I like surfing the web, playing video games and hanging out with my friends.

Again, having the students doing a project was not the problem, but the lack of student thought and learning.

Regarding your comments:

“Teachers can't know everything, so they must teach what they know, what they are passionate about, what is interesting to them, and they are willing to continue exploring with the students.”
I agree. But can teachers not learn something new, just like their students? Can not a teacher develop new passions or interests or ideas?

“Curricula does not teach students, people and experiences do.”

Completely agree. This is what quality teaching does, connect the subject, ideas and concepts with the student.

“And the quality of the teacher (in terms of the pools of knowledge I mentioned) will basically determine the quality of the learning.”

Completely disagree. It is not the teacher, but the teaching that determines quality learning. Just a teacher knowing material (even deeply) does not ensure that the student will learn it. That translation takes quite a bit of skill and understanding of the student. Teaching is an art that can/should grow with time and experience. It is not an immutable quality of a person. I realize that our schools have no systems in place to encourage that growth in teaching ability. But growing teaching ability is possible.

As for the Forum for Education and Democracy, there is almost nothing to disagree with. But yet again there is nothing here that will make any difference in our children’s learning either. Just hoping for better will not make it so.

Our school system is designed to maintain the status quo, not engage students in quality learning or enable our teachers to teach well. It is our school system that is preventing any and all improvements in learning. Without changes in the system itself, student learning will not improve.

Erin Johnson


I'm not sure how to write it more clearly. I did not write good teaching was just about "content" knowledge. It is also knowledge about how children learn, and knowledge about the particular students (including culture, that which is "culturally relevant pedagogy," past experience, knowledge of parents and families, how students present themselves, abiding interests, what has "worked" in the past, social dynamics, etc.). These three areas are infinite, but curriculum development with deep knowledge in these three areas follows quite naturally, and these are areas of knowledge that (distant) curriculum writers do not have--since they do not know the particular students (and "one size fits few," following Susan Ohanian's brilliant treatise).

Okay, so "it's not the teacher, it's the teaching." Fair enough. But does that mean that a brand new teacher is going to teach the same as a veteran National Board certified teacher, assuming they are using the exact same curriculum? What the students "learn" or "take away" will most likely be completely different, so what does it mean that they're teaching the "same curriculum?" Not much.

The way I understand it, the Forum for Democracy and Education's proposal is about building capacity for professional development and leadership at the school level. In other words, it is about creating environments where that new teacher can become a National Board certified (or however else it might be "measured") highly effective teacher. It is the acknowledgment that teachers can and must continue to grow in skills and abilities and knowledge over time, but this doesn't necessarily happen without supports in place. Each school must have the "human capital," or leadership ability to foster growth and development (it's not "just hoping," as your wrote). Currently, this is part of what is lacking in schools. What are other supports that might make this even more meaningful? Perhaps smaller schools, time and compensation for professional development, asking teachers to share and critique approaches and ideas, keeping better records and learning from experiences, etc.

And, yes, teachers can and should continue to learn new things, along with their students (is there anything more deadly to student learning than a complacent or uninterested teacher?). So, part of the question is, what creates a stimulating and exciting (and respectful) environment for teachers? As Margaret Haley, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers, said, "the teachers' workplace is the learning environment of the student."


Teaching is a critical element of any school environment. But the question that I do not hear from you is: what is the environment/experience that encourages quality student learning?

While you speak much from the point of view of a teacher, where is the focus on student learning?

If you want to look at the future of schooling in the US with our current system, take a look at two articles in Newsweek.

1)Anna Quinlen explains how a teacher was suspended due to the "inappropriate books" that she wanted to use with her students:


Very tragic and sad, but a clear indication of how schools will continually take the status quo approach and the offend-no-one approach to the detriment of student learning.

2) Also, consider the proposals by Barrack Obama on "improving" education as written by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek.


While there is much to be admired of Mr. Obama, when we consider his (and many other politicians specific proposals) how will the "pay for performance" measures actually promote quality education?

All of the direct measures promoted in the political discussion focus on "testing and accountibility" and not the responsiblity of adults to provide a quality education for our children.

Why are you so willing to defend the status quo when there are so may other options that would encourage quality student learning?

Erin Johnson


I'm not sure there exists "the environment/experience that encourages quality student learning" since contexts change.

I'm not sure what's "status quo" about what I wrote. New ideas don't come from nowhere, they must grow out of old ones. I think what I've written is about encouraging quality student learning. Teachers and schools play a critical role. In other words, I'm not in agreement with "Deschooling Society," in Ivan Illich's phrase, just because that's not status quo.

And I agree that the focus on "testing and accountability" will not take us where we (I?) want us to go.

Thanks for the articles, I'll look into those.

Jonathan Alter doesn't seem to know anything about education at all. He is criticizing NCLB because it does not "hold teachers accountable." I interpret that, and his many unfounded accusations against teachers unions, to mean Alter thinks teachers should be evaluated and paid according to their students' test scores. The questions of equity are almost limitless, and the absurdity of his (and many others') faith in tests, seems to know no bounds.

The article about the teacher raising money for, and assigning Freedom Writers, only to be fired, is very sad.


Jonathan Alter's opinion reflects the prevailing wind in the political discussion of education.

I agree that he knows very little about educating students. But political pressures to reform schools are very real and they are based upon very real data that in our current school system, our children are not learning very much.

It is not enough to say that the politicians know nothing about schooling. We need a counter proposal that actually will improve schools (and include appropriate accountability) as an alternative to the "testing and accountability" mantra.

Erin Johnson

I wish every school could engage in the dialogue the three of you are having! Who knows, by the way, where the "pressure" is coming from. Actually not mostly from parents; nor even from the pubic who happen to trust teachers more than poiticans, academics, lawyers or doctors! When asked about the most important agenda facing America, children's lives come in very high. But it's not the changes in the schools that get overwhelming support but heath care, after school, etc.

Best, Deb


A lot of the unease/pressure arises from the discrepancy between our students' international standing and a lot comes from the very real feeling that many people have that their own schooling did not bring out the best in them. A sentiment that seems very consistent with the poor state of our schools.

That feeling is not wrong. Our schools for the most part do not bring our the best in our students. Would you not agree?

Erin Johnson

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments