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Courtesy, Curriculum, and a New Topic

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Dear Deborah,

I want to be first in line to shout "hosanna" to your call for courtesy. I place courtesy up there in a pantheon alongside the cultivation of character and civic responsibility, as virtues that are intertwined and that do indeed help to make possible a democratic society. Indeed, without courtesy, character, and civic responsibility, I don't see how a democratic society can emerge or survive. So, yes, let us agree that these are noble goals that should be embedded in the daily life of every school, because without them, schools cannot achieve any goals other than babysitting or incarceration or daycare.

I certainly want to see better healthcare, better housing, less criminal behavior, fewer people in prison, higher voter participation, and less income disparity. I hope that in the long run, better education will contribute to these outcomes, but the link between schooling and these outcomes is indirect. If we want better healthcare and better housing and more equal income distribution—and I do—we must pursue these goals directly. We will not get them by making schools more effective.

We should pursue better education because we want everyone to have equal educational opportunity. We should pursue equal educational opportunity because we believe in fairness and because we believe that giving everyone an equal chance to get a good education is a valuable investment for our society and for individuals. Economists do not question that education is a vital component of social capital, and social capital is necessary for economic development.

I don't want to bore you, our readers, or myself by saying this again, but I keep remembering what Robert Merton once told me: You have to say important things a thousand times before the point really gets across. So, at the risk of being repetitive, let me state that children in East Harlem and rural Vermont and Los Angeles and Dallas need the same basic knowledge about mathematics and science as children of their age in Finland, Japan, France, and Canada. The basic facts and operations do not have a cultural component, although teachers in every school will have their own ways of bringing their students to understand those facts and operations. That is why I favor a national curriculum.

I would go further and say that children in the United States, in order to strengthen and maintain our democratic society, should have a shared knowledge of our founding documents and of our history. They can debate the meaning of those documents and that history 'til the cows come home, but let us teach them enough about those events and ideas so they can argue well and do so courteously.

I too, like you, want to see our schools produce a democratically minded citizenry. I agree that this should be first among many noble goals. I would add to those goals, as you did, courtesy, and then the cultivation of character. And I would take my stand that the production of democratically minded citizens requires a shared knowledge of our history and our government, as well as knowledge of other histories and governments. This is not by any means a "fixed intellectual tradition," as you put it, but rather the basics of our democratic life. If our children and grandchildren are ignorant of the struggles from which our democracy emerged and are ignorant of the ways in which our democracy has failed its ideals, then we are passing on to them nothing but empty words.

Now, assuming we have exhausted this subject for the moment, let us discuss the recent essay by Charles Murray in The New Criterion, which he calls "The Age of Educational Romanticism." The article is a slashing attack on No Child Left Behind, a law that neither of us defends. Unlike us, Murray attacks the law because it fails to recognize that some children are so intellectually limited that they can never be educated in any meaningful sense of the term. This is the key quote, his second paragraph: "Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement."

By Murray's definition, I am an educational romantic. But I don't belong in either of the camps that he describes. He says that romantics on the left believe that children of color, children of the poor, and girls are held back by racism and sexism, which, once removed, will unleash their gifts. And that romantics on the right believe that choice will unveil a new age of universal proficiency.

I don't identify with either position. I believe we can improve our schools. I believe there is "huge room for improvement." I believe that all children should have access to excellent education. And I have no doubt that almost all children not doing well in school have the potential to do much better.

Diane

11 Comments

Herein lies the rub:

What is a good education?

With the exception of reading and writing, I doubt there is any agreement as to what education is needed by ALL people. We're not programming robots after all.

With the exception of an ability to read and write, I doubt there is little consensus as to what should be FORCED on all students in schools. And yes, it is coercion by individuals / institutions that are not the child's parents.

Every time someone tells me that grades and test scores matter, I point out that many of our nation's leaders either did poorly in school or didn't follow traditional paths. Straight A students do not become heads of state, top inventors, or entrepreneurs. I'd be happy to provide a list of impressive Americans who did poorly in school. I challenge someone to find a similarly illustrious list of Straight A students.

Standards don't encourage each person to become their "personal best." After 18 years plus of having to march in lock step and compare yourself to others with meaningless, artificial standards that have no personal meaning - people are often stunted from taking risks.

It's taken me many years in the classroom to reach this conclusion. I'm always blown away by the amount of energy young children have. Now, visit these same children ten years later in a school. They've lost the drive; the fearlessness; the zest for risk-taking and living. They're waiting to be told what to do, so they can memorize it for a couple of minutes and regurgitate.

Yes, other countries are "beating us" on these standardized tests. But let me ask you a question: despite our failing system why do most innovations continue to occur in America? It's because we don't practice groupthink. The rest of the world reproduces what we create, but America still INVENTS.

My problem with a standardized curriculum (including the state standards we currently have) is that it produces docile, group thinking.

Germany, Japan, China, and the Soviets standardized their education systems. After about 100 years, their populations were manipulated into aggression by their governments. It's not a coincidence.

So what am I proposing as a viable alternative? Rigorous, real - world personalization.

It's being done right now. Check out award winning educator Dennis Littky.

bigpicture.org

Matt,

How does a standardized curriculum produce docile, group thinking? That seems to be more a function of poor teaching than standards.

Additionally, all those "American" inventions that you cite are rarely done by just native born citizens. If you look at many of the tech centers in the US, the innovative talent pool draws from the best of many other countries.

With opportunities growing greatly in the rest of the world, how long do you think it will be before the US no longer becomes the destination of choice for well educated innovators from other countries?

Erin Johnson

Diane,

Thank you for this beautiful piece.

The problem with Murray's argument is that it would condemn large groups of children to limited schooling. "Let's admit that they can't learn at this level and be done with it!"

I have a homeroom sixth-grade special ed class that I don't teach during the rest of the day. I have them for 12 minutes in the morning and about 3 minutes in the afternoon. I have brought poems in for them to memorize. They were so excited about learning the poems that they kept reciting them day after day.

One of those boys would stand outside my door in the mornings while I was rehearsing the kids for the spring musical, "Into the Woods." He loves these Sondheim songs so much that he couldn't stay away. He is now part of the chorus.

Another student showed such thoughtfulness and lively language in her writing (and love of Shakespeare's sonnets, as well as poems of Poe and Blake) that all her teachers concurred she should be considered for release from special ed.

Excellent material can and does bring out a child's abilities. I have seen this happen too often to accept any sort of intellectual deprivation of children. Who are we to decide what they are capable of understanding? On what basis? Many show "limited" ability precisely because they have been exposed only to "limited" material.

In high school, there could be room for students to follow their interests. Electives and some degree of specialization play a larger role. I don't know yet what I think about that. But in any case there should still be a core curriculum and a means of crossing from one track or path to another.

Once, back in my days as a counselor, I had a client who had been diagnosed with so many disorders, and had been through so much, his daily survival seemed a shaky miracle. He lived on the streets and loved toy cars. He was 25. One day he told me he wrote poetry. I asked him for one, and he made one up, on the spot:

The cold moon
fills your spine
with chills
and despair.
It's like a man's mind.
Sometimes
how lonely it can get
it is not
of happiness
but can't
your mind be filled
as your heart
fills your mind?

We need to provide education so that children may fill their minds and learn how to counter despair.

Matt,

What a pessimistic, depressing message you present. I would not want a child of mine in your classroom, that is, if you are a teacher.

"Every time someone tells me that grades and test scores matter, I point out that many of our nation's leaders either did poorly in school or didn't follow traditional paths." Right! George W. would fit nicely into this category and look what a wonderful job he's done for the past seven and a half years as our nation’s leader. "Id be happy to provide a list of impressive Americans who did poorly in school." Would he be at the top of your list of impressive Americans?

"With the exception of an ability to read and write, I doubt there is little consensus as to what should be FORCED on all students in schools." Standards are not FORCED upon anyone. They're developed by groups of educated adults who recognize what is necessary for people in this country to become effective, contributing members of society. If these people did not develop/promulgate our standards who would intelligently decide what is covered in our schools? How about pre-ed reform where there was no direction in our schools as to what was taught. That’s right - ZERO, NONE except by local school boards and publishing companies ruling our schools by “default” as pointed out by a September, 2005 New York Times editorial.. That could be left to each child or parent but it could also prove to be rather unruly and in a number of cases, disastrous.

Personalized education is my area of expertise. I customized/individualized the instruction of my students for thirty four years as a Massachusetts public school teacher. As the developer of this pedagogy it was my role to progress kids through the curriculum at their respective paces. Some kids went quite rapidly while others needed more time. No student was bored and none were overwhelmed. The pace was always just right for each individual learner. They were all accepted and respected for their efforts at whatever their pace turned out to be. They were NOT docile learners and the only group think in the room was that everyone accept the differences of their classmates.

"My problem with a standardized curriculum (including the state standards we currently have) is that it produces docile, group thinking." A more positive connotation of a standard curriculum is that it is designed to provide all students with a minimum, basic level of knowledge and understanding of the various disciplines that will allow these students to adequately/appropriately pursue their interests as they advance through school. Standards serve as a spring board, a jumping off point for kids when they find something along the way that interests them. Docile? Group think? Hardly.


If standards and test scores are the keys to improving education and having a more successful life, that would mean that people with the highest grades and test scores should have the "best lives."

So let's look at some recent politicians that did poorly / flunked in school: John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, George Bush, Paul Welstone, Bill Bradlee - these are heavyweights, regardless of what you think of their politics.

How about some recent scientists: the guys that sequenced the genome: Francis Collins and Craig Venter. The first was homeschooled without any curriculum but his own imagination, the second nearly flunked out of high school.

How about entrepreneurs (who collectively provide the paychecks for millions of Americans and their families) that didn't graduate from college or attend: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Paul Wozniak, Paul Orfalea, Ed Hamilton, Leonard Riggio, Sean Combs.

What's going on here?

I'm not suggesting you can be a bum and everything will work out just fine. Far from it. But I am suggesting that the TYPE OF WORK DONE IN SCHOOLS IS NOT PREPARATION FOR SUCCESS IN THE REAL WORLD. Talk to any leader / creator out there and they'll tell you how frustrated they felt in school. They wanted to get out and "do something." The walls of a classroom, meaningless grades, and age segregation are antithetical to real life.

The more standardized our educational model becomes along its current lines, the more we produce clerks and paper pushers (who work/slave for the go getters) rather than true leaders and thinkers.

My goal is to produce independent adults who can take care of themselves and contribute to their communities. I value love, adventure, health, enterpreneurship, personal responsibility, living your dreams, and having good old fashioned fun! With those goals in mind, a one size fits all curriculum is inadequate and ultimately harmful.

Paul, before you attack me personally, have you read "The Big Picture" by Dennis Littky, visited The Met School in Providence, RI, or at least checked out their website bigpicture.org? These are PUBLIC SCHOOLS managing to buck the trend towards one size fits all, while still delivering a rigorous, meaningful education.

Paul I am glad that in your 34 years in the classroom you never had a single bored student. I don't think even an amusement park can make that claim. It must feel amazing to have "saved" so many children from themselves.

Matt, I didn't know you could get a Rhodes Sholarship, as Bill Bradley did, doing poorly in school, or be accepted to Harvard or Yale as Al Gore, Bill Gates, or John Kerry did. I'm not sure your comparison of these people holds water in terms of the importance of school success.

It is an interesting argument that standards can be stultifying, though. I think people are using the word "standards" quite differently on this blog. One of the definitions here in my Webster's Dictionary is "to which others must conform." Another is "uniform." In this sense, I think your view of standards is literally correct. Looking on dictionary.com there are 28 definitions of the word listed. Many of them are quite different, even contradictory.

Diane doesn't actually use the word "standards" in this particular column but she seems to be arguing that there should be minimum benchmarks, or a particular limited curriculum that all students in the US should learn. Would such a curriculum hold students back? If the "standards" in this sense were truly minimal, then much else would be left to schools and teachers to perhaps encourage the "enterpreneurship" that you advocate, Matt, including perhaps the innovative learning environments Dennis Littky is known for.

But one of the problems I see with Diane's proposal is that the word "standard" is also commonly used to mean "criterion" and the term "low standards" is virtually a curse word, but is ubiquitous. In other words, the pressure is too great to "raise the standard" when critics and politicians view schools as underperforming (which is almost guaranteed).

The larger problem, as I've posted before, is that it is virtually impossible to come to consensus as a nation on even the most minimal curricula, and an artificial consensus is insulting and overly controlling. There's nothing wrong with various groups coming up with standards for their particular disciplines (such as NCTM or NCTE), or even suggesting national standards. These might be helpful. But the decision of what is taught should be made by those who know the particular context of the students, at the local or school level.

John Dewey said "the child is the standard...subject matter is but possible nutritive material." By this I think he meant that children can and do invent, create, and make meaning, which is its own criterion and should not be diminished. What we can do as educators is provide stimulating experiences and materials--including the founding documents of the US, other tools and learning experiences that allow kids to read and write, and solve problems. But we cannot always predict what children will be drawn to, what will stimulate their curiosity, or what abiding interests and motivations they might have. All we can do is support them. They are their own standard.

In that sense, Matt, I think you are absolutely correct. The list of luminaries you name created their own standard. They found on their own, or were fortunate to be given in school, the "nutritive material" that allowed them to create and offer significant contributions.

In lamenting the quality of education in the US we should be talking about how we can provide better "nutritive material." I don't think the answer is "peas and carrots for everyone." It must combine deep knowledge of disciplines by teachers with thoughtful and engaging pedagogy and effective ways of assessing the needs of students. It may look very different from one class or school to the next.


Matt,

The people you mentioned in your retort were clearly exceptions to the rule. There are plenty of people like that who think/operate outside the box but I'm not sure how they diminish the need for standards for the other 98% of our schools' population.

When I said none of my kids were bored, that meant bored with the pace of their instruction. If they demonstrated to me that they learned something, I moved them on to the next skill/concept. If they showed me they hadn't learned it yet, they spent more time on that particular unit.

Of course there are subjects/topics in school that are not going to be terribly stimulating to a number of kids. They're kids, and as children they are simply not given license (until later) to decide what they want or do not want to study in school. All children must learn to read, write and compute. Whether they like it or not, that's the way it is, and for a good reason. Adults are in a much better position to make these decisions for children. Beyond that, from an equity standpoint, it would be nice to see all students have access to the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children - history, science, the arts, etc. I honestly believe kids from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, all states, would benefit greatly if they were exposed to and held responsible for the standards Massachusetts has developed. Again, these are minimum levels of knowledge that could serve as a jumping off point for many kids to pursue as they travel along the road of academia.
Matt,

The people you mentioned in your retort were clearly exceptions to the rule. There are plenty of people like that who think/operate outside the box but I'm not sure how they diminish the need for standards for the other 98% of our schools' population.

When I said none of my kids were bored, I meant bored with the pace of their instruction. If they demonstrated to me that they learned something, I moved them on to the next skill/concept. If they showed me they hadn't learned it yet, they spent more time on that particular unit.

Of course there are subjects/topics in school that are not going to be terribly stimulating to all students. They're children, and as such they are simply not given license (until later) to decide what they want or not want to study in school. All children must learn to read, write and compute. Whether they like it or not, that's the way it is, and for a good reason. Adults are in a much better position to make these decisions for children.

In addition, from an equity standpoint it would be nice to see all students have access to the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children. I honestly believe kids from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, in fact all states, would benefit greatly if they were exposed to and held responsible for the standards Massachusetts has developed. Again, these are minimum levels of knowledge that could serve as a jumping off point for many youngsters to pursue as they travel along the road of academia.

These standards, as such, should easily be able to be addressed in fifty percent of the school day with most students. The remainder of the day should be left to the discretion of the teacher and/or administrator, clearly with room for input from the students in that class/grade.

All the comments have interesting points for me. The crux of the disagreement seems to lie in the idea of "imposition" or "forcing." Some believe we should not "force" certain facts or studies on the entire population; others believe it necessary. There is, of course, a middle ground: a curriculum that only takes about half of the school day or year, leaving considerable room for local decision.

But let's come back to this question of imposition. We create a trap for our schools if we make our curriculum respond to children's interests and needs. There are needs and needs. Children do not know what they are interested in until they have been exposed to works and ideas outside their familiar sphere.

As for the brilliant inventors, thinkers, rebels--they do not negate the importance of curriculum, either, any more than a rebellious teen negates the importance of good parenting. Give our kids something good to rebel against, and their rebellion will have meat. The richer the source, the richer the departure will be.

Maybe this is my own romanticism: the idea that an education should give a student something meaningful from which to depart. We do not want our students agreeing with us one hundred percent forever. We do want them to carry and expand the quality of thought we have offered through great curriculum. As teachers, with excellent materials in hand we can find all sorts of ways to bring them to life for our students. The students will find their own lives awakened and their minds sharpened. What they do with that is their own gift and responsibility.

Diana,

The problem is I don't believe your middle ground is a tenable solution. A "half day" mandatory curriculum doesn't make sense. Will it become "full day" for slower learners? Will it become "one fourth" day for quicker learners? Won't critics and politicians continually ask for "higher standards," and a more full-time national curriculum?

No, school communities must be empowered to make decisions that make sense for their learners. Yes, sometimes we should "follow the learner" in what he or she is interested in. And if we (everyone) believed the poetry of Blake is a "must" for all learners, teaching it will require more effort on the part of some teachers and students--largely to make the relevance of these poems apparent. A national curriculum will inevitably be more apparently relevant to some than others. Good teachers, I think, build on what students already know and are drawn to (yes, using their "local knowledge" and interests). Within that there's lots of room for teachers to introduce, even "master," what is "critically important," but it looks different from one class and community to the next. If students do not see the relevance of the material, and it's just one thing after another, very little will be remembered and school will be that much more of a drag.

Paul, I wonder why Alabama, Mississippi, etc. should use Massachusetts standards? Are MA standards not available to other states for the taking? Why would "we" force other states to use MA standards? What is the difference between the "minimum" standards of MA and that of other states? Are the MA standards more "coherent" and thus easier to learn? Are the standards more aligned with the MCAS state test and NAEP (which raises other important issues of whose knowledge "counts")? Or are they somehow "better standards" compared to some other criteria?

If MA students do better on the NAEP, why would that be the result of "better standards" and not the per capita income of MA families, resources in schools, teacher preparation and professional development, or any number of other factors?

It looks to me that the ranking of states according to NAEP scores is strongly correlated to per capita income in those states.

Matthew,

Your question, of course, has no quick answer, especially from me. I am sorting this out for myself, and can only offer some ideas.

1. Kids are on the whole much smarter, more curious, and more receptive than we give them credit for. My experience confirms this over and over. My very first teaching experience was on the Crow Reservation in Montana, the summer after my sophomore year in college. I assumed the kids were very bright. I had the fourth graders performing basic algebra (solving equations like "x + 4 = 12"). They could do that and more.

2. Kids love Blake. I teach kids from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. Blake is one of their favorite poets that we've read this year.

3. There are all sorts of ways to bring the poetry alive for the kids. Yesterday I had a period of theater arts first thing in the morning, with eighth-grade English language learners. The books I ordered hadn't arrived yet, so I had us enact poems, plays, and other works we had read in ESL class. The kids had to form a silent tableau and enact the scene or poem as the narrator read it aloud. First we did this with the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Then we enacted Blake's "A Poison Tree." You should have seen that foe outstretched beneath the tree!

(When I bring up specific experiences, they are meant to illustrate, not to boast. I am highly self-critical and see huge room for improvement in my teaching. No observer or evaluator has been as hard on me as I am on myself, and I think it's good that I am that critical. Just to make that clear.)

4. You are right, there will be kids who don't like it or who aren't able to learn or understand as quickly as the others. But I bet with all my heart that they are fewer than we suppose, and that the more confidently we present this material, the greater their response will be.

Last year (my second year), when deluged with ed school "reflective practitioner" assignments, I was more tentative about having the kids read specific literature. I would observe their reactions and sometimes doubt my choices. They picked up on my tentativeness and in a few instances pushed me to abandon the choice. I was more brazen in my first year, and have become more brazen again ("This is what we're going to read, and it is important"). Many kids--not all--respond with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness.

5. Yes, there is a line. We must also pay attention to students' interests and abilities, and adjust our instruction to them. I try to do that in all sorts of ways. But that is more easily and elegantly done with a curriculum than without one. It is like studying a musical instrument--one needs to learn certain pieces that are part of standard repertoire and leveled appropriately. But there is also room for pieces of the student's choice, or for improvisation. One need not exclude the other. Allow the student to choose all the pieces, and all kinds of things can go wrong. Musical instruction has wisdom and method behind it, and the student lacks this perspective, having only a desire to play certain pieces (I was one such student, and I took on pieces that were much too hard for me).

6. How would the "half-day" curriculum work? If the kids had the benefit of it from the early grades, then most of them would be able to follow it. This part is my belief. I have no proof. But I am willing to follow through with action and find out. I want to teach from an excellent curriculum--and not just try it, but stick with it for years. I don't think it would be perfect or that I would find any simple answers to your questions. It could be much more difficult than I expect, but it's a welcome difficulty. Most likely, the questions would inform my work over time.

So, ask me again about the half-day in 10 years!

Diana,

Thank you for your honest and humble reply. I apologize if I implied that I didn't believe teachers shouldn't use a curriculum! That is definately not what I mean. Rather, teachers should have very carefully thought out curricula, deep knowledge of the subject matter, and also have back up plans in place in case things go awry, so they can be more flexible, and reach and teach all learners, not just the "middle."

I have no trouble believing that you can turn kids onto Blake, and find they can see its relevance. I wonder, however, if that might be because of the relevance you see in Blake, and the passion with which you teach it. I have taught a wide variety of subjects, but I'm not sure I could teach Blake with much passion since I personally don't see the relevance of it. I can think of a whole lot of other literature that I think would be more "important" to teach. If I were to teach it without passion, it's not hard to imagine the students having trouble seeing the relevance.

I agree that kids are a whole lot smarter than we often give credit to them for. That's partly because standards and testing see students through a "deficit" lens. Seeing kids as whole human beings with legitimate knowledge, culture, experiences, and interests of their own requires that we respect what they know and try to work "with it," while also having a plan in place to support their growth and learning of the important skills and knowledge that might help them think more critically about the world, and so they might reach critical academic goals their parents and school has for them, and that perhaps/hopefully the child shares as well.

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