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What Can We Agree to Teach?

Robert Pondiscio is the guest-blogger on Bridging Differences again today.

Dear Deborah,

I trust you had a restful Thanksgiving with family and friends, and that you're recharged and ready for battle.  You asked for an argument in your last about the "nitty-gritty details" of schooling.  Let me see if I can accommodate you. 

It is all well and good to be concerned with schools as places where "we all educate each other" and where we are "respectful of each other's budding voices."  But these are slogans and homilies.  No one will disagree.  The tough, essential, and unavoidable question is what, if anything, we expect all children to learn. What are the basic, non-negotiable things? Is there a baseline of common knowledge that a free people must command in order to prize, preserve, and protect the freedom and liberty we both agree are essential?

Let's quickly get out of the way that this question is not answered by Common Core State Standards. By their very nature, standards do not answer the question "What must all children know?" any more than auto safety standards answer what car you should buy, or food safety standards tell you what to have for dinner. You don't teach the standards.  You teach a curriculum to the standards.

So what shall we teach? You and I have agreed that our schools must teach for "democracy and liberty." What does that include?  We needn't argue about what basic facts children need to learn to become good citizens. That work has already been done for us.  Let's use the U.S. Citizenship Test as an exit exam for K-12 education.  If you wish to become a citizen, there are 100 questions you must be able to answer. During the naturalization process, you may be asked up to 10 of these; answer six correctly and you pass.  It's not a particularly challenging task; anyone can see and study for the questions.  In 2010, more than 97 percent of naturalized citizens passed this simple test, yet more than one in three native-born citizens fail when asked the same questions.  This is a national embarrassment.

If we expect new American citizens to know these things, surely we should expect those born here to know as much.  We might quibble with some of the particular questions, such as naming the authors of the Federalist Papers, which can seem like a trivial pursuit.  But the general principle has been established: our nation, through its democratically elected representatives, has set a minimal bar of knowledge—things every American must know—for citizenship.  Simple fairness demands that we ask this of all citizens or none at all.  Don't you agree?

The trickier question is what children must know to be educated for liberty.  If schooling for democracy is our lowest bar, educating for liberty must be our highest aspiration.  As we have discussed, we are not educating for liberty until or unless we enable children to maximize their natural gifts fully and freely.  I suspect you agree with me that we have a special obligation to those who, through no fault of their own, are born into poverty and need the best education we can give them.

Here, too, some manner of common curriculum becomes inevitable, and again standards—even national standards—don't satisfy.  The inconvenient truth is that language is fundamentally a cultural construct.  When literate members of a language community read, write, listen, and speak, our words fairly groan with the weight of assumed knowledge, allusions, and context.  Fairness and equity again demands that we give all children the knowledge they need to participate in a dialogue on an even plane with their fellow citizens.  I cannot conceive of how we can claim to value "educating for social justice" without placing a common curriculum at the very top of our To-Do list.  It's at the top of mine.

The overwhelming evidence  in cognitive science makes it clear that factual knowledge is the wellspring of language proficiency.  The achievement gap in reading is fundamentally a knowledge gap.  A child who does not leave his or her public education endowed with the same body of knowledge as his or her peers is consigned to second-class citizenship—unable to speak, listen, read, or write with their same depth and understanding as the better educated, or those who merely had the good fortune to spring from the lucky wombs of educated, affluent parents.  A school that ignores this inconvenient truth, either in fact or through indifference, has willfully chosen a form of illiteracy for its students. And please note I'm saying not one thing about testing, teacher quality, data, accountability, merit pay, choice, and charter schools.  All of these "reforms" are vexingly silent on what children actually learn.

All of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others. This is true at both the grand and granular level.  A shared knowledge of our founding ideals and documents binds us as a nation and inspires us to work anew to perfect our too imperfect and increasingly fragile union.  A shared knowledge of art, music, literature, science, and history is the functional source of literacy, the thing that lets us understand and appreciate one another, work together as one people, and seize every opportunity afforded a free people.  If one is concerned with social justice and income inequality, what we teach our children is the root of the thing.

To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  That equality is the wrong idea.  Our language is more than 26 letters and the words they combine to produce. If you don't think a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don't think it's important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can't have one without the other.

I've been a common core supporter, but as I've noted previously, the battle has frustrated and exhausted me. In retrospect, if we we're going to have all this sturm und drang over Common Core State Standards—Are they really national standards? Are they the first step toward a national curriculum?—I would rather argue over the content of an actual national curriculum and let each state set its own standards of proficiency.  If the content of a sound, basic education were outlined merely from K-5 or K-8, it would create coherence where now there is chaos. It would serve as the basis for a fair system of accountability.  It would serve the end of democracy, liberty, equality, and fairness more than any practical "reform" I can conceive.

There's no good reason not to expect all children to learn a core of content in at least the elementary grades, and perhaps through middle school.  The best argument is a social justice and literacy one: reading comprehension is fundamentally a function of common knowledge—vocabulary and background knowledge common to both writer and reader; listener and speaker.

So, what say you, Deb? Are you willing to specify any body of knowledge that all children must know?  Are you willing to specify any body of knowledge that all schools must teach?  And, if not, why not?  Do you not see this as the rock-bottom foundation of social justice and equity? 

Best,
Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

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