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The Proper Goal of Schooling


Dear Deb,

I don’t think you should worry at all about annoying those “with more power” than you. You no longer work inside a school; you no longer have to worry about what “they” can do to you because “they” can’t do anything to you. As a writer, you have a public voice and have more power than “they” have. “They” can’t shut you up, can’t touch you, and can’t stop you.

It is sometimes hard to see the line that divides where we agree and disagree. I agree with you—passionately—about the importance of building a democratic culture. Indeed, I think that this is the basic purpose of public schooling. We don’t sustain a massive investment in K-12 schools to produce workers for our economy, but to create thinking citizens for our democracy. As long as we aim for the civic goal, we seem to satisfy the economic one as well. I read a couple of weeks ago that Americans are the most productive workers in the world. That comes from having basic smarts, as well as adaptiveness and the ability to think on one's feet, I would argue.

One might well claim that we have never succeeded in educating thinking citizens for our democracy, that the goal has not been met, not now and not ever, but that is our goal nonetheless. That is the reason we have public education rather than an elaborate system of private schools for the affluent and publicly funded trade and vocational schools for everyone else.

The scores, whether in reading, math, science, or any other subject, are not the goal of schooling. They are an indicator. If youngsters, in large numbers, have not learned and cannot use the basic skills, they are not likely to be prepared to be thinking citizens of our democracy. Thinking citizens need the tools and the power of reading and math, and they need the skills and knowledge of science and history so as to contribute to our common project as a democracy. I would argue—again passionately—that we all need the insights and wisdom and experiences of the arts and literature if we are to advance as a civilization.

Where we disagree is on the question of curriculum. You speak of teachers who complain about being required to teach certain songs and books. I don’t see why that is a problem. We can’t have a common culture if the schools do not teach its rudiments, and we should have a vigorous discussion about what that common culture is. I would want all of our students to read (yes, even memorize) the Gettysburg Address, to discuss the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. I would want them to know of our heroes, people of all races and conditions, as well as the Founding Fathers. I would want them to learn about the great struggles to extend our democracy, as well as the institutions and conditions that were a stain on our democracy. I would want them to vigorously debate the issues of our times and our past. And, yes, I think there is a reason to learn the songs that we have sung, having no doubt that they will hear thousands of other, non-prescribed songs on the radio and on their iPods and other gadgets.

Where we agree is that things are terribly amiss in American education when the civic purpose of schooling is reduced to the very small goal of raising scores on standardized tests, a goal that is being pursued relentlessly, stupidly, and—frankly—with meager results. It is not “educationists” who are pushed aside—that is the customary phrase that is used to refer to theorists and professors of education. No, it is educators who are being pushed aside, as businessmen, lawyers, MBAs, and other organization men and women move in to rationalize education and run it like a business. Schooling, to be sure, has its business side; decisions have to be made about purchasing, supplies, capital improvements, maintenance, distribution of textbooks, contracts, and so on.

But to allow the people who make business decisions to make educational decisions is nothing short of a disaster. I have sometimes thought that the business takeover of schooling has been facilitated by the appearance of a vacuum in educational authority. If educators don’t take charge, outsiders will. The business leaders think that the problems of education are all managerial; they belittle the importance of curriculum and instruction. They don’t understand anything about the civic purpose of education. And right now, they have the upper hand.



Educators, especially superintendents,are being pushed aside because they (collectively) have abrogated their moral responsibility to be the voice for a democratic education. They sell their souls and become puppets of the corporates in exchange for a job and a large salary. Where are the heroes of yor?

I'd be curious if you two read the other Ed Week blogs regarding NCLB.

Your discussion, and the other great education writers in Ed Week, do a great job of reflecting and explaining my world of inner city schools.

Being a former lobbyist, I love the "horserace" aspect of the NCLB blogs but their version of educational reality is so foreign to my experience.

Do you and the other readers see such a stark divide? I see the political logic of liberal NCLB supporters, but when I read their research and analysis, I keep thinking, "doesn't the evidence they cite to support NCLB actually support the anti-NCLB position?" Given their values and research, if they had actual teaching experience wouldn't they be "bridging differences, at least, or perhaps working with us for a completely different approach?


This is tremendous writing...but couldn't one very large problem with "canned curriculum" be that it undermines teacher/school professionalism?

The ultimate result: rule by businessmen, lawyer MBAs, and other organization men and women who have moved in to rationalize education and run it like a business.

I love what the two of you are doing here!


I am a supporter of a common curriculum and national standards such as what E. D Hirsch has developed in his Core Knowledge series because it, at least, and finally, provides our schools with with a common body of knowledge we might want for all our children. Before ed reform, before NCLB, THERE WAS NO PLAN ANYWHERE AS TO WHAT OUR SCHOOLS SHOULD TEACH OR WHEN THEY SHOULD TEACH IT. In September 2005 even the New York Times proclaimed that local school boards and textbook publishers were determining the curriculum in our schools "by default" because there was no plan anywhere as to what was to be taught or when. I agree with much of what you have to say but when you state, "...to allow the people who make business decisions to make educational decisions is nothing short of a disaster," you have to ask yourself in the same breath, what did the educational establishment have to offer for direction prior to ed reform and NCLB? Not much. I think it's a good thing state legislatures were pressured by local businessmen to develop standards for our schools so there would at least be a plan in place as to what should be taught and when it should be taught. In most states these standards were developed by teachers with multiple opportunities for the public to offer their suggestions. How many years in elementary school do kids need to be taught about the first Thanksgiving and Plimoth Plantation EVERY NOVEMBER??? It's part of our history and part of our culture but so are many other important historical episodes/periods which never got touched or taught prior to ed reform and standards based curricula. How about the French and Indian War? King Phillip's War? the Mayflower Compact? the "City on the Hill"? Salem Witch Trials? the US Constitution? the Sons of Liberty? the War of 1812? Dred Scott? the Civil War? Reconstruction? Plessy? Brown? Jim Crow? Emmitt Till? World War I? World War II? Rosa Parks? the Civil Rights Movement? Martin Luther King Jr.? The Kennedys? FDR? Pearl Harbor? the Viet Nam War? Communism? etc., etc., etc.? The first Thanksgiving every year of elementary school? It gets a bit redundant, don't you agree??

Paul - I still can't see any rational reason for not having a national curriculum. I don't buy (and really can't give any credence) to "it takes away a teacher's creativity." I'd love to hear a good argument against.

Phillip: "Problem with "canned curriculum" be that it undermines teacher/school professionalism." If you remove the word "professionalism" then it just leaves "undermines teacher/school." How? Give concrete examples or research?

John: NCLB seems to be used regularly by my state as a reason why fed meddling in state education is wrong. Excuse me but my state literally wrote their own test, standards, and requirements! How can they blame NCLB?

Diane: I'm shocked. Shocked I tell you.

"One might well claim that we have never succeeded in educating thinking citizens for our democracy, that the goal has not been met, not now and not ever, but that is our goal nonetheless."

Don't you believe in Star Trek where all citizens are brilliant and there is no need for money?

All kidding aside, what I disagree with is not curriculum as much as methodology/pedagogy/dogma. Although this does indicate a curriculum, it is deeper than that. All I can say is if I had to teach certain math curriculum, I would have no hair left. Any funny enough, I was pretty much told that a school wide curriculum for math would be used for my son. I don't pity my son, I pity the 350 other kids in the school. They will never learn math using that curriculum because it is too hard to remediate it with limited time and funding.

Dear Diane,

I'm a supporter of teaching our children the words of the Declaration of Independence. There are two great sing-alongs that my family wrote that can help: www.declareitprogram.com offers a free sing-along download that helps students learn the 58 words most memorized words while www.declarationsong.com offers for sale a sing-along that teaches the first 200 or so words.

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