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Why School? Rethinking Essentials


Dear Diane,

We can go on forever about why "testing as we know it" cannot lead to becoming a well-educated people. We agree, we need to invent a road test—which might in some cases look like AP exams. Or, it might look like the examination system used at Central Park East Secondary School or Mission Hill (my old schools) or other formats now used by Consortium schools in New York. On the federal level, what we need are deeper and better NAEPs—where sampling continues to be wise. (They can thus be cheaper and more authentic at the same time.) Since sampled tests do not all have to be identical to be comparable, we can afford to explore "what kids must all know" both deeply and broadly enough to take them seriously.

More important than why we test is "Why School?". It's the title of Mike Rose's latest wonderful book (The New Press). What I want to argue out with you, and our readers, is the nature of the kind of curriculum or subject matter for which schools in a democratic society, funded by public monies, should be held accountable. What can we demonstrate is essential for 100 percent of all voters—18-year-olds—to understand?

1. Reading the newspapers or non-fiction magazines—or their equivalent. Being able to report to others on stories, engage in a discussion about them, and write a letter to the editor and op-ed column on a few with which they disagree. Maybe on two levels—one at around ages 11-12 and the other at 16-18.

2. Sufficient mathematics to make sense of what they find in the media—statistics, probabilities, forms of graphing, percentages, et al to a high degree of sophistication by the time they are 16. Basic arithmetic computation by 13.

3. Then comes the subject matter, the stuff that is worth reading and writing about and for! Science, history, literature, all the arts, law, governance, philosophy/ethics, politics, and economics. The criteria? Whatever is needed to be a knowledgeable and powerful member of a democracy!

Literature. A learned academic book reviewer in The New York Times recently claimed that "no one disagrees that everyone should..." have read Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer. What's the "evidence" for such a claim—much less that "everyone" would agree? (Maybe one definition of well-educated people is that they know better than to make claims about "no one" or "everyone.") While great fiction can lay claim to take us into worlds we never could otherwise experience, including the personal worlds of people unlike ourselves, thus making one a better democrat—more empathetic, for example—I've found insufficient evidence that this is what requiring the reading of Milton does.

History. Everyone tells kids that those who don't know their (or our?) history are doomed to repeat it. In fact, there are no empirical studies to demonstrate this. Some nations certainly know their own history better than most Americans—even though theirs is often far longer. Still we were more, not less, innovative. In fact, knowing history can lead some to constantly repeat and relive old enmities. One might argue that America's success correlates with its disdain for history. (Students usually rate history as their most boring subject—it was my favorite.)

Science. While certainly U.S. citizens have traditionally been exposed to much more science education than their counterparts in other democratic western nations, superstition is far higher in the U.S. and suspicion (and misunderstanding) of science greater.

The arts. Most adults are sure they can't "do" or "appreciate" any art—and few and far between are those who visit art museums, concerts (except for teens, and it isn't quite the music they study in school), or live theater, or who write creative stories or poetry.

All this may sadden me, but it doesn't surprise me. And I haven't found studies that suggest that schools that accept "ordinary" kids have managed to get other results by age 16 or 18—or in most colleges. Alas, not even my schools.

I believe strongly that we shouldn't give up; but, meanwhile, we should rethink what is "essential." Because, more serious than students not having read Dante, is when they haven't been exposed to any tough examination about the wherefores of the world they live in, nor any understanding of a strong reason to care about the survival of the democratic process. They haven't experienced or practiced democracy—through literature or life. They haven't learned to argue in ways essential to a democracy—which requires empathy, respect, reasoning power, AND a half-way open mind to other possibilities—on matters hard to dismiss with, "Well, I have my opinion, you have yours." Politics remains a dirty word.

We don't need schooling to have opinions. Even strong ones. But we do need schools to begin to imagine arguments in favor of democracy that might keep citizens from letting it go whenever a crisis appears. (See rethinklearningnow.org for an interesting Web site on this topic.)

Julian Bell, in an article in this week's New York Review of Books entitled "Why Art?", quotes an art historian who suggests that the origins of art might simply be—to escape boredom! (I suspect that more students' art takes place while listening to a boring classroom lesson than happens in school art classes.)



Dear Deb,
What indeed should they learn?!!

Well, I'll tell you right off that I know very little Shakespeare and Homer, no Milton or Dante, and I'm pretty well educated.

Too many who know that stuff aren't.

But that's not what scares me about your 100% of voters. What scares me is the many, many teachers I'd encountered who say, "We don't need to teach facts. We need to teach them how to use the Internet and how to critically think." Pshaw!

So, I find myself relieved and yet hesitant to today leave behind testing. Because I still believe that testing was a first step in weeding out a certain laxness about the what. (A laxness renewed again by the 21st century crowd). "What" was always the issue. "How" should be your problem.

For now, then, let's begin with the words upon which I launched my journey into education writing. In this I have much in common with our urban youth:

"Amazing, but true! At the end of 20 years of formal education, your author could not offer a single piece of information about these common literary scenes: the Rubicon, Mark Antony, the Medici, Cardinal Richelieu, the Philosopher's Stone, Carthage, the Black Death, Sojourner Truth, or John Brown.

This ignorance did not keep him from designing complex electronic systems. Nor hearing people out on personal issues, nor discussing many issues of the day.

But it did mean he was often clueless in deciphering the New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, packed as they are with allusions referencing these people and events.

For many students, ignorance of basic history leaves them not understanding even less “sophisticated” communication. If they don’t know what a Prodigal Son or a Trojan horse is, they’ll find reading frustrating.

Consider a sentence from Sunday's newspaper: "Even King Solomon would be at a loss as to how to bring peace to that region."

In reading such an article, if we know that King Solomon reigned in Israel 3000 years ago, that he built the great temple in Jerusalem, and that he was David's son, we'll still not grasp what the writer wants to say to us.

The writer is telling us that the problems seem intractable. The key to reading here is knowing that Solomon was wise—and ingenious.

Story Recall
Most people get this—but not because they read in a history text, "Solomon was a great king, known for his wisdom". (Yawn.) People equate Solomon with wisdom because they have heard the story of Solomon's decision for the two women fighting over the baby. It is a powerful a tale; the story’s images stay with anyone who has heard it told.

A writer mentioning Solomon paints an entire picture. Cunning, decisiveness, solution. Writers regularly use a single name to evoke an image from history. The three words, 'Et tu, Brute?' draw a portrait of deep betrayal."

OK, so beyond knowing enough math to give change at the charity rib burnoff, beyond being able to measure 1/3lb of lunchmeat on a digital scale, we need first to be able to read the prose of anyone trying to share an idea with us.

If I, in my pretty decent schooling, didn't get this basic, what of those in the failing schools?

You ask about art. The art of the Smithsonian or the Met meant nothing to me when I left grad school. How could it? I had no frame of reference in which to place it. 1776 I got; the rest was as unfathomable as advanced number theory.

That kid in DC, 6 blocks from Hirshhorn and Corcoran? Why should he repeat my perplexity?

Deborah Meier,

I have a deep respect for you and the work you do, so I was distressed to see that all you want from kids mathematically is a bit of arithmetic and statistics (I'm including graphing and probability in with statistics). To me, those are a fine starting point, but not nearly enough.

Don't they need the math that will help them understand science? Shouldn't they have encountered the beauty of mathematics? I blog at Math Mama Writes, and have written a post there about fun math books. I'd like to highly recommend The Cat in Numberland and Powers of Ten, both accessible to anyone, for a start on some of the beauty and power of mathematics.

Dear Deb,

You write that "[w]e agree, we need to invent a road test—which might in some cases look like AP exams." This makes it seem that it became a matter of general agreement that current tests are bad -- useless, misleading, punitive.

I disagree. I realize that is your opinion, and has been so from the beginning of this forum. I see that Diane, perhaps after being repeatedly "mugged" by NYC reality, starts to feel like that too. But this doesn't make it generally true, or generally acceptable among all people.

Any test is prone to misuse and abuse, be it multiple choice, long constructed response, or even essay. What causes the abuse and misuse is not the form of the test (as long as it is well-done) but its purpose. If it is testing for accountability, it will be misused. The more high stake it will be, the more it will be misused. If it will be high stakes for students, students will cheat. If it will be high stakes for teachers and schools, teachers and schools will cheat. We see it every day around us and there is nothing new in this.

We are a litigious society, so we prefer more objective tests--multiple choice ones, which also happen to be cheaper to administer. But we have numerous states that have constructed response and even couple with mini portfolio assessments-- do you think that cheating and dumbing down doesn't happen there too? It is about the competence and the integrity of the people that manage the process, and not about the form of the test.

In most other countries the bureaucracy is stronger, so they can afford to test only a large intervals and critical junctions to make key decisions. So when, as a result of a sixth grade test, a kid is steered to a less-academic school, the parents do not sue the state for not providing sufficient opportunities to learn in prior years. Ours do, so we have to show and reliably document the record year after year. Or otherwise the Office of Civil Rights, or La raza, or whoever, will roll out a class action suit.

Large scale testing is with us to stay. Well done multiple choice items are doing a good job as their mainstay. They can be augmented by a limited number of constructed response items as needed, although those generally make the test more politically palatable than more valid or reliable. While testing can always be improved, the issues are political and societal rather than test-related.


Who should be in charge of developing the new tests or in deciding what our students should learn?


What if we were to dare to say: evidence be damned! We will teach literature and history because they are important and beautiful. We will teach them not because they will save our society, not because we "must" know a particular work, but because we simply do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.

It sounds like a crazy thing--to teach from faith, especially faith in a subject. What sort of faith is that, and who will support it? And then comes the question: what do you mean by the "subject"? Go ahead, teach literature, but what is literature?

Literature is language that takes on its own life beyond its literal meaning. Words that puzzle and trouble and delight us and stay on our minds. Descriptions that seem more real than anything we have seen. Human questions that rarely come up in conversation but seem to be hidden in all conversation. Rhythms that are later recognized in footsteps, crickets, and the humming of machines.

This needs no justification, not even the justification of democracy. Yes, literature is important for democracy, but it is important for more than democracy. Must all students read Milton? No. But that does not mean we should drop required readings. We require readings not only because they are useful, but because we care about them deeply and want to pass them on.

We need a tradition of teachers teaching works they have read many times in their lives, works they have pondered and probed. I remember the voices of my teachers as they read passages aloud. I remember their lilts, their pauses, the cracks in their voices.

We lose all of this if we decide that no particular work of literature is needed. We cannot prove that they are needed. But we must not limit ourselves to what can be proven.

Diana Senechal

[Oh dear, I wrote a reply this morning, and it hasn't shown up. I hope I can recreate it...]

Deborah, I have a deep respect for you and the work you've done. So I was distressed to see your opinion of what math students should know - mostly arithmetic and statistics. Well, that's a fine start, but it is not enough.

Shouldn't they know enough math to understand science? Shouldn't they see the beauty of math? Two books, accessible to anyone, that I'd highly recommend, are The Cat in Numberland, about infinity, and Powers of Ten. (I've blogged about a number of fun math books at my blog, Math Mama Writes.)

What Diana said above about literature and history applies to mathematics as well: We will teach mathematics because it is important and beautiful. We will teach it not because it will save our society, not because we "must" know particular techniques, but because we simply do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.

Hi All..hope this finds you well.


A critcal question that is being answered and possibly decided as we debate. The common core standards initiative is moving along very fast... as close as America has ever been to a national curriculum.

Ed... what you have described well is the importance of "background knowledge" that has always been critical in leading toward "understanding".

It is also not the exclusive property of schooling but speaks to the culture and class people grow up in.

It also is what i believe is picked up on tests....and as we look at standardized testing and SES...in a goup sense.... we are looking at background knowledge and experiences. I am all for expanding kids background knowledge... too bad field trips have been cut way back!

For me...although there are major issues with local decision making and control of schools.... i still see that better than a nationalized curriculum soon followed by national testing....

be well..mike

On the issue of the kind of curriculum we need in our schools, I am more with Diana Senechal and Sue VanHattum then with Deb Meier. What we need is a curriculum that is important for the individual, and only through that to the society, rather than vice versa. In other words, I am for liberal education and not for Progressive schooling which focuses on the utility of education for the society.

As Don Hirsch had so powerfully said, we need our students to posses our cultural literacy, which is what binds us together. Our culture was built on Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer--and the Bible--and therefore we must teach them. That's the simple answer to Deborah's question. No, we don't need to teach our children math and statistics so they can critically analyze the media -- we should teach them math for its beauty, and for its power. No, we don't need to teach our children great fiction so they can be "better democrat[s]" -- we need to teach great fiction for its beauty, and for its power.

Only through liberal education focused on the individual we will continue and grow our culture and society. We will never graduate more engineers than China. We will never train more programmers than India. We will never have more uniform teacher training--or curriculum--than Singapore. And I am happy that it is so. I don't want to raise a cohort of "little Red Pioneers" that are trained by our public schools to be "better democrats", "more considerate neighbors", "more productive humans", or "less selfish citizens." That is not our heritage -- that is the heritage of Soviet Russia, of Communist China, and of feudal Japan. We are made of people who escaped such systems!


"Testing as we know it" is the apt phrase. Because "testing as it should be" is the only way of knowing whether children are learning (whatever we decide they should be learning). Let's get back to educating the people who misuse tests instead of throwing this baby out with the bathwater.... best,

peter m.

They should be able to read a Supreme Court Decision. And have read one.

This isn't easy, and not all decisions would make for a first go at it. Yet they are readable by laymen. Some are downright a good read.

Some are history lessons in themselves. Others seem to make up law, not interpret it. In some, you can see an entire spectrum of opinion on a topic.

I'll bet most readers here have offered an opinion on the propriety of Bush v. Gore; perhaps even weighed in on its effect on the future of Democracy. I wonder who has read it.

The real thing I'd like students to learn, though, is that they can read most decisions. A law degree is not required. They are written for you.

Hi All... great discussion.

The disparity of ideas about what should be taught... just on this thread ... is so American :)

I think it is why the closer to the community that the school serves the better.

Would love to see these discussions in the local community!

Ed could try and persuade for Supreme Court Decisions...

ZE'Ev..could try and persuade for...
Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer--and the Bible--and therefore we must teach them.

Deb could try and persuade for her view.... Diane her's....

Maybe...just maybe...people would even show up at a school board meeting!

be well... mike

They should learn accounting.

I don't know how many 18yr old minds are ready for it, but I've met too many people who needed a basic understanding of accounting principles. For one thing, we'd hear fewer English majors popping off on "obscene profits" when they don't know what a profit is.

But the need runs much closer to home. How many artists and sports figures have you heard of who went broke despite earning $10's of millions?

I did work for the board of directors of a small insurance company. Not one, nor the manager, nor the Treasurer knew a whiff of accounting.

The Senator who yesterday chastised the GAO for not already having scored the Baucus plan--all of 6 workdays old--must not know much of how its done either.

There are 24 million businesses in the US. Someone you know who only made it to HS is probably running one.

Hi All....

Ed... the many "shoulds" that you have in what kids need to learn are for me excellent examples of why these debates need to remain local.

I am sure that there are many others out there, including myself, with their own view of "shoulds" that may differ and probably would.....

Who "should" decide in America?

The federal government?
The state government?
The local community?

be well..mike

We should testand modify until 30% of students fail the test. It should be analyzed for validity and significance related to our societal needs on a yearly bases, agreed to by the best minds society can produce. These minds should be free of the neurotic traites that plague our society as aluded to in my Book "Prelude to Chaos"

As for Ze'ev's point.... "I don't want to raise a cohort of "little Red Pioneers" that are trained by our public schools to be "better democrats", "more considerate neighbors", "more productive humans", or "less selfish citizens." That is not our heritage -- that is the heritage of Soviet Russia, of Communist China, and of feudal Japan. We are made of people who escaped such systems!"

I respectfully disagree! The kind of education that places a premium on the importance of being able to spontaneously recall Milton is problematic. Rather than appreciating that there are a diversity of cultures and traditions, each with their own stories, that Milton represents but one of these cultures, this view treats the Western canon as exhaustive of capital-L Literature.

Now, I know that Ze'ev wasn't advocating the defend-Milton position; the expressed worry was that "preparation for democracy" denies the fact that democracy is a political regime, that this sort of education has a political agenda. However, I think that Deb's point might be that democratic deliberation is far more neutral (agenda-wise) than force-feeding the canon, that children should read works that--in an exciting way!--raise questions like, What does it mean to be human? How can humans live together? These are pressing philosophical matters, and ones that underlie the practical issues of the day. When faced with the likes of a failed health care system and Afghanistan, we need thoughtful, concrete answers to which democratic deliberation will (hopefully) give rise. If reading Milton can inspire this sort of thinking, fine. But let’s raise the bar on a common classroom experience: we want Paradise Lost to inspire a lively classroom debate over Eve's sin, rather than a sea of insipid stares.

Democracy, as it stands, isn't always that democratic. Deb, I think, wants to talk about democracy as it should be, and democracy, as it should be, requires an engaged and thinking public. Democracy, here, is not just a regime type--if we want to be technical, Republicanism is the regime type advocated by the Founding Fathers--it is a civic philosophy that categorically condemns the type of blind patriotism that Ze'ev fears.

Mr. Patrick,

Your website peddling "Prelude to Chaos" is curiously void of a preluding sample of your ideas. So one would have to deduce from the one statement you do give:

"We should test and modify until 30% of students fail the test. It should be analyzed for validity and significance related to our societal needs on a yearly bases, agreed to by the best minds society can produce. These minds should be free of the neurotic traites that plague our society..."

Really, I love this sort of reasoning when it comes to eugenics. It is indeed the best way to ensure a master race. But do you really think it is transferable to public schooling? That would be splendid.

And what a great state to try out your new system in, Rhode Island. You could give the bureaucracy something constructive to do for once! But remember, even you-know-who could not defeat the civil service in the Reich.

I do hope you include phrenology as part of the weeding system.

What an exciting prospect. No more incompetents running this society! You have come to save us. Thank you, thank you, Herr Patrick.

Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!

As to Deb's comments on science, I would argue several points:
1. "Exposed to much more science education" does not mean the students are actually doing science. By doing science, I mean understanding the process of science as a way of making sense of the world and using your models as a means of predicting what will happen under specific conditions. There is very little science actually learned in American schools.
2. There is not really any evidence for the statement "much more science education than their counterparts in other democratic western nations." What if any evidence so you have that American students are spending significantly more time on science than other countries or have better quality instruction, or any other indicator of "more science education"?
3. Since education is in the state's rights arena, what is taught as science is highly local which means that some superstitions are never addressed.

4. There are historical reasons for "superstition is far higher in the U.S. and suspicion (and misunderstanding) of science greater", which you might want to read before making blanket statements (remember the reviewer).

Thanks for the heads-up on the Mike Rose book, Deb. It's not clear to me whether your list is paraphrasing Mike or whether this is your thinking. Whoever is to credited, I don't find much fault with it.

The thing about any list that defines end-of-el-hi aspirations is that the hard part of specifying the instructional time required, the sequencing of instruction, and the substance of the instructional route is omitted. So we have a wish list, but no reliable means of delivering the aspirations.

A child who can read has great independence and can do self-teaching. The UK and France are committed to delivering this capability by Grade 2 or Grade 3 at the latest. The US starts testing at Grade 3, and competently conducted IES impact study of Reading First showed that it had no impact.

Rather than assuming that schools know how to reliably teach reading and that merit pay and national standards will right the condition, it seems to me reasonable to deal with this serious deficit. It's not in the kids and it's not in the teachers. It's in the instruction and in the pseudo-science of reading that was legislated by NCLB.

With reading capability and novice expertise in searching the Internet, a child has many learning options open.

For the middle-school years, these can be defined in terms of "what capability you will acquire if you pursue this option. Parents, teachers, and the student can collaborate in each child's acquiring as many capabilities as possible.

High school options for "college and career" can also be defined in terms of "if-thens" e.g. "If you want to live on minimum pay wages, you're pretty much qualified now. If you want any different career, these are the options of course sequences that are open to you. And aside from a career, there are personal capabilities that you may wish to acquire.

Most of the options will involve some degree of math expertise. I find the report of President Bush's Commission on Math informative in this regard. But it's another Commission report that seems to have gone unnoticed.

The wheels started to come off the schooling wagon when testing was divorced from instructional product/protocols. So long as "achievement tests" are treated as separate from the means for reliably delivering a given academic aspiration, el-hi schooling will continue to run amok.

When Ed writes, "I'm pretty well educated" despite the gaps he admits to and "Too many who know that stuff aren't," I agree with him on both ends. This suggests to me that content-driven standards are unlikely to have the success we (well, I plus others who want to see every student experience highly rigorous content) wish they would have.

And wishy-washily process-only standards also seem doomed to be mediocre at what we wish standards would do.

My experience in schools leads me to doubt that content or skills or even a combination of the two can be our be-all-and-end-all. If I had to pick one essential element of all good teaching it would be intellectual engagement -- in part because I believe that that is the way we have to bring along both skills and content. And I do want both to come along.

Therefore I am coming to believe that the key thing we need to focus on is not a better Standards Document but developing serious, intellectually-present assessment of the interaction between teacher and kids, done by a competent administrator (or peer, I'm not picky) who is often in the room. Skills and content, both of which are bedrocks of any good education, are becoming red herrings that can distract us from focusing on having optimal standards for the act of teaching itself.

This position may be impractical on any number of levels, I admit. You can't make a Diana Senechal or a Mike Rose out of any sort of standard or document, I admit. That said: I like the idea of focusing our energies on prioritizing what we REALLY want before we start settling for what a bureaucracy can implement.

Cogent Education Week article by Marion Brady, "National Subject-Matter Standards? Be Careful What You Wish For."


It ends:

"Here’s a prediction: If implemented as it’s being advocated by spokespersons, the national standards-reform effort will fail. Period. It won’t fail because subject-matter specialists can’t agree on standards. And it won’t fail because of teacher incompetence, weak administrators, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” union resistance to change, parental indifference, inadequate funding, lack of rigor, failure to employ market forces, too few charter schools, too little technology, or any other currently popular explanation of poor performance.

"It will fail for the same reason the No Child Left Behind Act failed—because it will be driven by data derived from simplistic tests keyed to simplistic standards keyed to a simplistic, dysfunctional, obsolete, 19th-century curriculum."

Think with me of the Marine Corps Crucible. The capstone experience to become a Marine requires recruits to complete this 54 hour test of "endurance. teamwork, and skills".

The Marines produce the best small units in the world. What can we take from their testing to bring to the public schools?

Isn't this really what employers and citizens are looking for in a HS diploma? That you ran the full course and gave it as much as your fellow citizen?

Of course, the Marines mean much more when they test endurance. So should schools.

Teamwork: This is really above all what the Marines want. Because your buddy's life may depend on you playing your part on the team.

That's something schools have improved on in recent years. But we can do much better. I'm thinking of the Eagle Scout candidate who put up a huge map and trail marking system in my park. He treated it as a school assignment, with the result being "turned in" one unexpected day when lumber was installed on my land. It never occurred to the young gentleman (or his mentors) to bring me and others into the requirements and design process. School should teach that kind of teamwork and others.

The Marines have a saying: "Every Marine is a Rifleman." From the band to the generals you have to qualify. (I wonder what me might say of "Every American Grad is a _____"?) The test to pass from candidate to Marine is a whole lot tougher than a rifle range test.

In the test, recruits pass through 36 stations. Twenty-nine of them are problem-solving exercises, which must be done as a team.

Much of the purpose of the Crucible is to instill confidence in the Marine so they know they are the toughest in the world. Yet that confidence is earned the hard way.

So how would you design a "Crucible"-like test for every graduate of American schools?

I often disagree with much of what Dick Schutz writes, but that's neither here nor there. However, when he ignorantly--or maliciously--slaps NCLB for one of the best things it did to our education, it should not be left unanswered.

He starts innocuously enough: "A child who can read has great independence and can do self-teaching." No disagreement here. But then he continues "It's [reading deficit] in the instruction and in the pseudo-science of reading that was legislated by NCLB."

The NCLB reading agenda is based on the best research available, as summarized by the National Reading Panel report in 2000. Its findings are still accepted by essentially all the research community as the best around.

NCLB legislated only a part of the NRP report--mostly the one dealing with the mechanics of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics)--in its Reading First program. NCLB did not legislate other parts of the report, those dealing with reading comprehension. Consequently, studies found increase in practices comprising the mechanics of reading among students exposed to Reading First, but no significant impact on reading comprehension. There are many reasons why those particular results were achieved, the most obvious is that those particular aspects of reading were the ones taught. However, NRP-based and NCLB-promoted reading practices did spread widely around the country, and the national NAEP reading results of 4th graders rose since 2000 from 213 to 221, almost a grade level increase. At the same time the 8th grade level scores essentially didn't budge, showing the same thing as the Reading First studies--that the focus on reading mechanics improved reading mechanics, but failed to improve the higher level (and higher grade) skills of reading comprehension.

NCLB (and Reading First) were the best things that happened to reading this decade. They are insufficient in themselves and we need to continue building on them, but their ignorant slamming will only return us to the infamous Whole Language that majorly contributed to us getting so bad in the first place.

Hi All....

Ed i will take a shot at your fill in the blank.

"Every American Grad is a person that can learn, unlearn and relearn. They can dialog, listen, weigh evidence, stay open to new knowledge and relearn what they need to know and understand."

What Marines do Ed is good "training". Is that the same as education?

be well... mike

They should learn--incorporate--the lesson of Stone Soup.

The spirit of Stone Soup is the enabling and empowering principle of American success. It was the keystone of Ben Franklin's volunteer/government mix in Philadelphia where he added so many services to the public good.

The lesson of Stone soup is the fundamental educational accomplishment of Marine Corps boot camp. It is what parents and young Marines alike mean when they say "He went in pretty much a child and came out sounding like a man."

It is that recognition in the new Marines that success--survival--will not come from 'out there' or above, it will come when the squad as a team surpasses all the expectations and limitations of the squad as individuals.

Stone soup is the organizing principle of Habitat for Humanity, putting the impoverished into over 300,000 new homes.

It is the article of faith which allowed MNF-I to believe it was possible to turn Iraq into a parliamentary democracy where a deeply wounded and divided society is coming together to solve problems via the ballot box and civilized debate.

Stone soup in my last two years has turned a mothballed on-paper-only park district into a vibrant organization with two active 50 acre parks, a third on the way, $6-8 million in assets, a concert series, a team of guys building a utility barn, and a disparate group happily organizing a masquerade festival for the kids as we speak.

'Tis my belief that the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was very much the miracle of Stone Soup; We might even benefit if it were more so taught.

Stone soup, too, helps answer Mike's question of "Who should decide?". Not just in Education, but in other policy fields. It is, in fact, the very reason Deb and Diane bother with these blog comments. Yeah it builds readership; but Diane readily admits the soup brewed here is much the broth of her forthcoming book.

The opposite of the spirit of stone soup is "it can't be done." Or sometimes worse, "it can't be done til the government does it". They tend to think more that way in Europe--never quite knew why--and the economic riots in France in recent years show off the results.

Stone soup as we speak is transforming what looked like hopeless downtown Akron, as it did with Pittsburgh--showcased to the world this week--and Chinatown in Washington DC, and a host of other urban areas about the nation. In the past ten years it assembled near here the half billion dollars in projects associated with the Ohio and Erie Canal Corridor. Its probably responsible for a success story near you. In the day, it built the local school.

It still does for the Amish who live nearby.

Eeks--my entry disappeared! Trying again.

Responses to an interesting discourse!

Ed. Actually I was a voracious reader of books that were over my head when I was young and I didn't get all those references. But I gradually absorbed possible meaning or skipped it, and as later rereading showed me--I missed a lot, and completely misunderstood some! Had I been tested on my reading, I probably would have felt frustrated, as you suggest. But in real life I wasn't, and instead developed a hunger for more books!

Sue and Diana. Enough for what, is the dilemma. The power to...? Diana, I admire your "evidence be damned". I may post it on my wall. But I know it's only partially meant.Because if school's are not "serving" (or saving) society, but we are teaching from "our heart" and "faith", how can we make it obligatory for 12-13 long years? And suppose my "faith" differs from yours? How do we decide whose faith belongs in our public schools. (And I know we both are not referring to religious faith here.) I'm acutely aware that I too have no very secure answers to this. But I'd rather have a plurality of such faiths than a single one, as many as possible elective, and avenues of escape if they are too offensive for me. And as for my tax payer dollars, I want to be sure first and foremost, that there we teach the stuff that is, if you will, "utilitarian". The stuff that serves. We claim the mantle of democracy, make war in its name, so surely we think it important to understand its potentiality as well as actualities.

It just so happens that I think democracy requires a lot more than civics courses, the rules of governance, etc.

We're back to Erin and Mike's quetion. What allows us to take away the freedom of our fellow citizens for 12 years. I think "democracy" as the professed "faith" of the nation allows us to to do so. After that, we need more choice. But understanding, and being able to defend oneself, within a democratic society is the "essential" nonchoice. I think one could defend teaching a lot of the "academics" beyond political science however for such purposes.

And maybe, Mike, there is less of a distinction between "training" and "education" than we often realize--ala Mike Rose's great work. So, it would be interesting to know what Marines have learned in basic training.

Ze'ev. You argue for the personal and individual well, but then you say "we need out students..." That word "needs" suggests a broader agreement on purpose, doesn't it? Also, the origins of the kind of education you decry lie in schooling's religious origins. Our schools in America served Christianity first. So who "should" they serve now? What do "we" (the public) "need"????

Monday's NY Times had an op-ed by test-maker Todd Farley on his adventures as a scorer of short-answer questions. Worth reading.


Ed Jones,

The Marines are government property that do violence and murder for the state and its military industrial interests. That's what they do in Iraq and Afghanistan, two places that the Pentagon have no business being.

As a Marine your job is to kill and be killed and do not ask questions. "Once a Marine, always a Marine" is a very scary thought.

The training cadre feed these young recruits lie after lie- especially about history (they leave out the stats of innocents killed etc), the purpose of the Marines (to serve the military industrial complex and/or majoritarian interests), and about the constant deathly blunders that characterize an alarming percentage of battle executions. On top of it all, the Pentagon sends these kids into wars that are completely unnecessary. Yes, Ed, that means WWII as well.

"Defense" is the biggest welfare program in the country. It is a deadly welfarism that exploits a hegemonic bond over individuals. Is that what we want, for teachers to be drill sergeants and for kids to be unquestioning instruments for their political masters?

The Marines represent the failure to educate, not a model as to how to treat children.

Deb, Mike, I had to think a bit on Mike's "Every American Grad is..." answer. Not that I don't admire the goal, just wondering to what extent it is possible.

So, along comes Fallon to illustrate not only this point, but my fourth pillar of basic K12 education:
They should learn some collective ability to defend and sustain Jefferson's ideal.

Of course this means battling true racism and assuring equality against the law here and now. Yet it also means attending to the future.

Now, we don't know how long Fallon has had to ponder the world. Mayhaps he's young and still a victim of entrenched left wing faculty, testing the waters to see if this theory of state flies in the wider world.

If so, well, that is a form of curiosity, a form of 'learning, unlearning, and relearning', as Mike so eloquently puts it.

Perhaps, then, our man will continue to pursue his curiosity to learn what it takes to 'preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States'. How, say, ...if you are a President, or sit on the Armed Services Committee, or serve as an instructor at the Command and General Staff College,... or must vote for someone to so do. He may well yet pick up a national security primer, so as to develop a framework for discussing these issues. Or peruse the many fine journals which analyze these issues from disparate and professional perspectives.

Yet I am rather put in mind by these comments of the young woman in Pittsburgh this week, arrested for assaulting a police officer. In her version, she was just a curious bystander, there to watch, not be in, the G20 protests.

The problem is, the young lady threw a bicycle at the unformed officer. Bicycles are steel with pointy bits. Police officers' bodies, despite their facade, are soft and fragile. I'm not so convinced that the woman is ready to "dialog, listen, weigh evidence, stay open to new knowledge and relearn what they need to know and understand."

Indeed, I have no idea what the protesters at G20 want; nor do I believe they themselves do. Which is fine. Its an entertainment spectacle, and those are great.

What I fear most, however, is that the intellectuals and press who guide our national discussion are losing a sort of dispassionate openness. I fear that they didn't have enough basic background story when they went into college, and they came out and started down hectic careers without having challenged their instructors and engaged in deeper thought of broader issues.

And that whatever we teach young Ms. 25th percentile, all she can do is struggle with her gut and hope that when her 75th percentile classmates tune into Countdown with Keith Oberman, some in her sphere will still have sufficient background knowledge to recognize him as a clown, an unlearned spectacle like the G20 protesters, and not a real news reporter.

Can you do that if you're among the 54% of Ivy-level college seniors who didn't know that "We hold these truths" comes from the Declaration? Or the 57% who didn't know that NATO was formed to help Europe resist Soviet expansion?

What if, beyond that, you are the House Intelligence Committee Chair who didn't know and didn't care the difference between Suni and Shia? Or, if you're the newly-inaugurated President who, with your staff (and the press corps), don't know that the CINCs command the forces, not the JCS? Is your command of Rhetoric sufficient for those jobs?

Peggy Noonan has written of recent college grads that we are graduating a nation of people who want desperately as a profession to communicate, yet have so very little inside to communicate.

Judging by the choices on the 500 channels last night, I'm not sure she is so very wrong.

Mein Fuehrer
You missed the boat(s). I want people to read my book because I believe in what it says and believe me it advocates more than how to test students. The 30% failure message relates to my belief that our education system is failing because it has acquiesced to students to the point that we are no longer demanding of them- we no longer try to make them the best they can be. Most people are beginning to believe that student fail test because the teacher did not teach the lesson. Maybe I believe we should be more demanding be cause I am from the school of hard knocks where you take the test then learn the lesson.
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Wow. A lot of impassioned comments here. Let me just say that although Ms. Deb did mention an ideal curriculum for students that will allow them to function as able citizens in society, the fact of the matter is that each subjects serves a purpose and, as the comments suggest, every subject is just as important as the next. Therefore, it is impossible to come up with a curriculum that each student should adhere.

On the other hand, there are specialized studies that allow people interested arts, math, literature, and interior design schools to pursue such without having to study subjects that they find irrelevant.

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