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Is Some Rethinking About 'Accountability' Past Due?


Dear Diane,

My own evolution, politically, has always been influenced by the realization that I might be in a minority! In fact, maybe some of us are born with that realization (even if shielded from it by a family surrounding in which we have a hard time imagining another reasonable viewpoint).

But democracy appeals to me in part because there’s always another chance—maybe next year. It‘s also an incentive for trying to learn a little more and thus being more persuasive. My exaggerated belief in the power of education rests perhaps on the hope that reason can overcome prejudice, meanness, and short-sightedness. And, if I’m not naturally a part of the majority, then I’ll need even more “reason” on my side.

So I can embrace “standards” published by the profession that have weight, the power of expert ideas, but not the power of coercion. Democracy works best when it has the luxury of being non-coercive. A sampling system of testing that adds to our informed decision-making seems relatively harmless. Especially if the nature of the sample allowed one to include some scripted conversation that helps us make sense of answers.

Seeds of doubt are always healthy; or almost always; or at least sometimes healthy!

The startling thing about Bloomberg, Broad, Klein, et al is that they appear never to have a seed of doubt—even when they reverse direction, they explain nothing and march ahead with equal confidence. The way folks caved in to Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to over-ride the public referendum against third terms is unbelievable. Chavez and Putin and others like them failed—with their even greater coercive power—in their attempt to continue their elected posts beyond the term limits. Something is rotten in NYC that this could happen here, of all places.

These Billionaire Boys—as you call them—remind me of adolescents with utopian plans for the future. They are not yet inclined to include a concern for the trade-offs involved in their utopia. I excuse 13-year-olds when they fall into such traps, but for us to be at the mercy of such logic by adults with serious power is frightening. “Why can’t everybody agree with me?” is hardly an evil complaint, but one hopes that a good education will overcome the egocentric sentiment. It hasn’t for Rhee/Klein and Company.

E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Op-Ed dream in Sunday’s New York Times of having every child follow his curriculum and then a national test that is aligned to it is another typical utopian’s adolescent dream. I forgive him because I, too, have such dreams on occasion. Fortunately, neither of us has the power.

The evidence is clear: there has been no substantial improvement in test scores or graduation rates over the past decade as we follow the agenda of the neo-Reformers. Little squiggles up, down, and flat again is the pattern for almost the entire nation—on precisely the measurement tools upon which they have built their whole case. Would the board of directors of a “real business,” after being told their business was in a state of disaster, crisis, etc., be satisfied with such flat data???? How come we’ve bought it, against all the instincts of the wisest educational practitioners and scholars? Maybe some rethinking about “accountability” is past due.

Even the business world has, alas, not been sufficiently shaken in their confidence by the failure of their own accountability system in their own sphere of expertise to wonder, “Could we be wrong?”. Instead, they are blindly prepared to see our educational system go over the cliff with them.

To the one or two readers who asked me whether I’m not behaving like a defender of the status quo. No! I have spent 43 years critiquing it and working on the ground to change it. Even if just a little bit. But the one thing I cannot be accused of is embracing schools-as-they-are, have-been or will-be if we don’t support dramatic changes in the relationships between teachers, parents, and learners.

The kind of dramatic changes I want go in precisely the opposite direction than the current round of impatient pro-business reforms has taken us. I don’t need test scores to see that schools have become more boring, not less, and relationships thinner, not deeper. My ideas will—I always recognized—even if more vigorously supported, take a long time to “convert” the vast majority. Which is as it should be. And maybe, just possibly, I’m wrong, and we shouldn’t aim at that at all. Maybe we can live quite well with democratically governed schools and systems that take different paths, mutually respectful of their differences.

I spent a few days last week visiting a public school in Ann Arbor—called the Open School—now in its 26th year. We watched a movie—rather skeptically—about “democratic schools” of the Summerhill variant. It didn’t convert me, but it reminded me of how little danger democracy gone perhaps “too far” poses compared with what passes as our ordinary and/or neo-Reformed public schools. I’m not inclined these days to worrying a lot about the potential sins of too much democracy.



Deb, it seems a good time to recall that the US has thrived this long as a Republic, not a Democracy. That's an important point; and if I want to get things done in my park system, or if war is to be conducted, national budgets balanced, or schools innovated, we'll all do well to respect the point.

That is, we need strong leaders. And we need to be able to toss them out.

That said, let's look at the latter.

We got into this whole mess because urban education systems could not toss out the entrenched leaders and staff who weren't responding to kids and parents.

Last week, I encountered a perfectly well meaning group of grantmakers, who surely thought they were working hard. Yet, their state paycheck and tenure made them too comfy. As a result, the public is being not well served.

Nice people; long tenure still equals inattention to the end result.

I'd feel a whole lot better if this forum worked harder at finding ways to bring people like me into the system, than to spend so much time keeping new voices out and old voices in.

To say that the sole reason "We got into this whole mess [is] because urban education systems could not toss out the entrenched leaders and staff who weren't responding to kids and parents" fails to recognize the very good teachers that do exist and is patently simplistic. Especially if you look at all the initiatives and demands that teachers are expected to comply with that directly accommodate parents and communities in the U.S.

Ask yourself why schools often seem to 'work better' in European countries. Then ask an Austrian teacher, as I did when a group of them visited my school a few years ago. Their response? American teachers are doing 90% of the work and students 10%. They felt this was completely backward and I agree.

When will we stop pretending that students do not need accountability just as much as anyone else? Teachers, parents, and the community have put into place every kind of support possible for students, yet the student accountability piece is frequently neglected.

Until school matters to students, until they are in some way accountable for learning in ways other than they are currently, we will continue to get what we have been getting. Let's face it; we have changed everything under the sun but the student accountability piece and still have not seen improvement. Does this mean I think all teachers are great? No, it doesn't. It simply means what it says above: hold students accountable and things are likely to change.

"It simply means what it says above: hold students accountable and things are likely to change."

And sundene, what would that look like? It seems to me that when most folks talk about holding students accountable they are referring to some variation on Ed's "toss them out if they aren't effective" theme. That's not a terribly effective first course of action when dealing with adult employees, nor with students, in my experience.

Hey Ed.... interesting thoughts...

"We got into this whole mess because urban education systems could not toss out the entrenched leaders and staff who weren't responding to kids and parents." ( You )

I would suggest the mess is a bit more complex then this.

Last week, I encountered a perfectly well meaning group of grantmakers, who surely thought they were working hard. Yet, their state paycheck and tenure made them too comfy. As a result, the public is being not well served. ( You )

N=1 is a dangerous way to draw broad conclusions.... so all "state" workers and i assume you also would include teachers, who are not state workers... with that steady paycheck.... way too easy... interesting assumption!

"I'd feel a whole lot better if this forum worked harder at finding ways to bring people like me into the system, than to spend so much time keeping new voices out and old voices in." ( You )

Wonder what may be keeping you out...what part of the system would you like to be in?

be well... mike


I too worry a great deal about the potential sins of too much democracy in our schools. Case in point; I'm still paying for my son's loathsome year at Antioch. The only positive result of this experience - the market forced the closure of this faux institution of higher learning. No malice intended simply attempting to be as objective as possible.

Paul Hoss

Deborah’s point about the self-assurance is key. Part of the problem is that so many “reformers” are tautologically sealed against outside evidence by the unshakable conviction that if students are failing, that means someone isn’t trying hard enough.

Behold Geoffrey “Whatever it Takes” Canada. When the sixth graders in his charter school crashed and burned on the state tests their first year, Canada doubled down on effort. He replaced the “softy” principal, brought in a raft of new teachers, and increased the drilling. When the kids came up short the second year, he lengthened the day, increased tutoring, brought the kids in on Saturdays. After three years of disappointing results, Canada threw in the towel and kicked the kids out.

Most people—if they were thinking about anything but education—would reflect on this experience and say, “Well, more effort doesn’t seem to be the answer.” But not Canada. Paul Tough’s book leaves us with Canada and his principal disagreeing on whether it was the teachers or the students who failed to step up.

The same false choice even shows up in the current thread.

What would convince people that the reason kids fail is not because either they or their teachers aren’t trying? If the answer is “nothing,” we’re going to be on this treadmill going nowhere forever.

Hi Deb. It's charitable of you to forgive Don Hirsch of his dream in the Times "of having every child follow his curriculum and then a national test that is aligned to it." Especially since his op-ed didn't say anything like that. It was a simple call to cull the reading selections on existing tests from standards, rather than hitting kids with incoherent, random passages, which further disadvantages the already disadvantaged

Seems to me Ed Jones wasn't blaming every (or almost every) teacher out there. He was simply pointing to the fact that schools leadership, when clearly failing, rather than being tossed out would simply move on to the next fad. Eventually the public got tired of that and tried new ways to change the system. Are those better? Time will tell. But the fault, dear Deborah, is not in our stars.

Sundene argues for more discipline in the classroom. Surely she is right. But who was on the forefront of the battle to eliminate discipline and behavior standards? Whose leadership tirelessly argued about our oppressive societal standards, and about the inappropriateness of judging anyone's behavior by them? How realistic is to expect that our public schools will now revert to behavior standards of 25 and 50 years ago? The fault, dear Sundene, is not in our stars.

These people were not evil. On the contrary--they simply believed in the inherently good nature of every human being; against all historical evidence. Whom the gods would destroy...

Paul--of course it depends how one describes, defines, fills in the meaning of democracy That's what I think schools are a wonderful lab for exploring--the focal point for a renewal of thought about the idea itself.

Robert. =Your interpretation seems less of a good idea than mine; my interpretation was (I thought) reading the best into his idea. I'm not sure I quite get what you have in mind however--how would culling existing tests help us produce a coherent set of reading passages that would make the test worth teachng to? But since I think Hirsch's curriculum--while not The answer--is at least "an" answer--one of substance unlike 2lst century skills-- for schools that want to follow it, I surely didn't mean it sarcastically. I don't think there can be One answer, of course, and if there were the State should be silent on it.

Tone is hard to read into the typed word.

I think there are, Tom, lots of answers and, oddly enough we were doing better on tests BEFORE NCLB intervened with its testing mania in English and Math. The best answers I think share some things in common--but lots of differences too. They provide kids with a rationale for engaging themselves in the school--be that devotion to their school spirit, their teachers or to the quality and meaningfulness of the work they are introduced to. In the long term what and how they engage matters to me, and I'd like us to eplore this issue more. But if our only objective is better test scores and staying in school longer we needn't go any deeper. It may be that what KIPP and Central Park East share is as good an answer as there is--at least for the perenniel losers. The sense of community that such schools offer, the quality of the adult culture, the connections between school community and family community have holding power. Then we need to ask more about the "habits of mind" we want our graduates to bring into the world. In the meantime we need schools that are designed by adults as a collective enterprise worthy of their time and the time of kids--what physicist David Hawkins called the "triangle of learning"-- thou, I and it. Teacher, learner and subject of interest to both.

I wrote a piece in ReThinking Schools on teacher retention describing such communities. (current issue)

But I think it accounts for the strengths many Cathoic schools had, that many a public school achieves, what some charters do, etc etc--for all their differences.



Oh, well, sure, if you want to actually educate kids.

Your post seems to make two distinguishable points: (A) “What these tests are measuring isn’t education” and (B) “What you are doing isn’t even improving what you’ve narrowly defined as achievement.” I agree with both. But in terms of making headway in the public policy debate, where educators are getting trounced, I suspect we have a better shot with (B).

"The evidence is clear: there has been no substantial improvement in test scores or graduation rates over the past decade as we follow the agenda of the neo-Reformers."

That agenda has a much better record of success, in the little time it's been tried, than the dismal record of so-called progressives.

And Hirsch's point was pretty hard to misconstrue. He was merely saying that if a state has decided that 8th graders should be learning American history and civics (or whatever else), then any passages on a reading test should be drawn precisely from those other subjects that the 8th graders have actually studied, rather than being about some totally random subject that they haven't studied in school (Elizabethan England, nuclear physics, etc.). Is that so hard to grasp?

I spent a pleasant morning in one of my local coffee establishments working my way through Christensen (Disrupting Class). As it happens, he addresses democracy as a managment strategy--which I found interesting and I am not completely certain that I agree, however I did like the basic lay-out in which he present it.

First he suggested that much of educational "research" doesn't hone in on the specifics of for whom and under what conditions something "works." No argument there, and it fits well with the mentronome experience of phonics vs whole language in reading and facts vs concepts in math--not to mention a whole raft of other "reforms" which many will claim to have "done" and experienced failure with.

But--his field is not education, it is organizational structure and innovation, so he goes on to describe four basic states in organizations and the particular management responses that are likely to be successful, particularly in bringing about change. He looks at low to high agreement about cause/effect (or what needs to be done to bring about change) against low to high agreement about organizational goals. He suggests (and I agree, and would suspect most others would as well) that education is in a state of little agreement with regard to either goals or causality.

He advocates "power" strategies, which include development of a common language (or understanding) about problems, the use of power/coercion, and separation. It is interesting that as he goes in, it becomes clear that separation does not equate with mass firings (although Rhee came to mind as I was reading), but also to the need to separate innovation and development from the ongoing work of keeping things going. He provides some industrial examples, but also points to the potential of charter schools, and presumably charter-type equivalents within public schools. These developments should be charged with creating new systems to respond to outlier students who are not currently being well-served--and we seem to have a bumper crop in many districts.

He talks about the SLANT method that KIPP utilizes. Personally I, and many others, recoil from this. But--I would like to be open to the possibility that this is providing something needed for some kids. I also am not fond of Hirsch's love of prescribed book lists--but I don't know that I would view them as an inherent evil, unless they become a universal requirement.

Perhaps it is time we begin to engage in the kind of research that helps us to better match students to schools/curriculum/pedagogies that best meet their learning needs.

John Doe,

Test scores went up more before NCLB than after. Why do I say this? Because I'm using NAEP data, not the state tests for reading and math. What are you using as data for 1970 1980, 1990, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008?.

Re Hirsch. You are suggesting that he wants to go back to school/teacher district designed tests that over what a particular school studies? I think you have misinterpreted him if that's what you men, but I'll leave that to Diane to follow up on since she's follows Hirsch more closely than I do. I think he favors a national agreement on what the passages should be grade by grade based upon a common curriculum for measuring reading. But, of course, since we "read" across the curriculum--as the jargon goes--it pretty much would require a common core on a national level.

We might even agree on this subject--but I can't tell. Forget the "gotcha" tone, and let's seriously discuss this.

It might be argued that if you're a good reader you can read about new subjects--reading is a way of learning. O course, there are dilemmas about this--which you rightly point out. If kids have never come across a particular concept, term, idea before it will be harder for them than for kids who have studied it or run across it in the ordinary course of their lives.

I'm not for making changes in schooling simply for the purpose of making it easier to measure! I think we need measures that are sensitive to the real nature of the task--which requires sampling and interviewing to get at the real issues. There is no way a paper-and-pencil test can be developed that will measure one's driving capacity, how well one plays soccer, or how good a cook you are without performance samples. It's no easier to find out whether someone can really handle text other than to have a conversation with him about what he/she read, or other forms of performance responses.

At Mission Hill (K-8 school) e taped kids reading aloud twice a year--along with a "scripted" conversation about the varied material, and then did assessments based on them. We kept these tapes from the time kids came to school at age 5 through 8th grade in the case of Mission Hill. We shared them with families, kids and teachers--and if it seems "odd" we redo it later (sometimes a kid is having a bad day or the tester is). In this way we can distinguish the different issues that otherwise get lost in a multiple choice or short answer response.

And Margo--what is SLANT?



I have been thinking about your column since it appeared on Thursday, but my response is coming slowly. I asked myself: what is the essential difference between the "vision" of Bloomberg, Klein, et al., and certain ideas, plans, and dreams put forth by experienced educators like you, Hirsch, and others? I would not toss them all together in the pile of "adolescent dream." I would not say the difference lies in money or power alone.

Rather, it seems that those who impose narrow ideas have a combination of ignorance and hubris. For Bloomberg and Klein to declare that every school must follow the workshop model, they must profoundly lack understanding of education. As they refuse to admit their lack of understanding, they fall into hubris--if they cannot see the nuances, they must be completely right and their critics wrong.

While you and Hirsch differ on many points, you both understand the complexities of education. While you have hoped for your dream to spread, you also see how it could be misinterpreted. Neither you nor Hirsch believes in telling teachers exactly what they should do at every moment, but you both have underlying principles in which you strongly believe. I see nothing adolescent about that.

In his op-ed, Hirsch was arguing that reading tests should reflect actual subject matter taught. If students are tested on a reading passage about the American Revolution, and they have been studying the Revolution, then they have adequate background knowledge, and the test is relatively fair.

Of course one might argue that students should be able to read about anything that comes to them; that within reason they should have general comprehension. But the test makers have put themselves in a bind. When they test general comprehension, they try to avoid bias. They go so far in removing signs of bias from the reading passages that even the simplest passages seem forced, canned, strange, incomplete. I sometimes find them hard to read. If the passages were based on actual topics studied, the language could be richer and the logic more complete. The questions could go deeper.

Anyway, back to my original point. I see no hubris in Hirsch's idea. In fact one of the qualities I most admire about Core Knowledge is the humility. It doesn't presume to be a comprehensive program. It doesn't fill the entire school day or year (unless the school chooses to spend more time on each of the topics, which is certainly an appealing option), and it doesn't dictate how the lessons should be taught. Very few programs refrain from telling teachers what to say and how to teach. CK in that sense is rare. It does provide suggestions, but those are for teachers who want and need them.

Likewise, in your books you frequently admit to error, uncertainty, and ambivalence--about how to handle differences among teachers, how to build trust with parents and children, how to reconcile or negotiate conflicting demands, how to decide what is taught, and much more. While I tend to favor a somewhat fixed curriculum (provided it is excellent), I respect you for recognizing the unresolved questions of education at all levels and for listening to people who disagree with you.

In short, I do not think it is fair to you or to Dr. Hirsch to write off your visions as "adolescent dreams." Both of you are grounded in your ideas, and both recognize the limitations and potential problems. By contrast, the leaders of our DoE do not--at least not openly. When will they say: "We were wrong to tell teachers how to structure their lesson and how to arrange their room"? Or: "We were wrong to award multimillion-dollar contracts to fad-bearing agencies"? Or: "We were wrong to rely on tests scores to judge schools and the people in them"? Or: "We were wrong to put teachers in 'rubber rooms'"? Or: "We were wrong to open and close schools so recklessly"?

We have the ending of Antigone:

There is no happiness where there is no wisdom,
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.

Perhaps it will happen. Creon resisted to the end.

Diana Senechal

Test scores went up more before NCLB than after. Why do I say this? Because I'm using NAEP data, not the state tests for reading and math. What are you using as data for 1970 1980, 1990, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008?.

Why is this relevant? I think you know enough about social science to know that looking at raw NAEP scores (without controlling for anything, or observing anything else) over a period of several decades doesn't tell you anything about the effectiveness of various teaching practices. All that we can observe from raw NAEP scores is a decades-long trend of flatlining (despite a tripling in real spending).

As for Hirsch, I think you're quite confused. I am not "suggesting that he wants to go back to school/teacher district designed tests that over what a particular school studies." I didn't say anything of the sort. What I said was drawn straight from Hirsch's own words, that a state's reading tests should include reading passages that are drawn from that state's content standards for history, science, etc.

I mean, how does one miss that Hirsch was arguing that "reading passages on each test [should be ]culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts" . . . that we should "base tests on what is actually taught in school" . . . that reading tests should be "aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards" rather than "random"?

Just to make it even simpler: In today's world, a state such as Ohio has content standards for history, science, etc. So 8th graders might all be required to learn about electromagnetism. But the reading passages on Ohio's reading tests might NOT be about electromagnetism (or any other specific topic that is in the state's content standards). Instead, a reading passage might be drawn from an essay about Tolstoy (who, let's say by hypothesis, was not taught in school to any of the 8th graders). As Hirsch then argues, such an essay would unduly favor rich and advantaged kids who might have heard about Tolstoy at home.

You think Hirsch "favors a national agreement on what the passages should be grade by grade based upon a common curriculum for measuring reading." Maybe he does -- but I don't see how you could conceivably read that into his op-ed. What Hirsch argued for is exactly what I said above.

Talk about missing the whole point of Hirsch's op-ed.

Diana, (and partially John Doe too),

What a nice and thoughtful letter, Diana. On this rainy day, I've been mulling it over. Since Diane's Tuesday column takes us off in a different diretion, I wanted to use this space to respond.

Indeed--there is a fundamental difference between my arguments with Hirsch vs those with Klein et al. In part it goes back to the James C. Scott book--Seeing Like a State. It seems more and more profound to me in today's political climae. It's hard for policy makers--liberal or conservative--to avoid the trap he describes.

Re Hirsch, If one really hoped all children would "understand" the terms and concepts put forth in Hirsch's curriculum (and I'm not sure he is as concerned about that as I am) I think it actually would take most all of the time available. There is, after all, very little time for subject matter (vs so-called skills) in our elementary schools to start with. If we used our precious minutes to cover as much as Hirsch proposes, that would be that--and actually one reason I like Hirsch is that for many schools Hirsch's CORE is far more subject matter teaching--history, literature, etc--than presently exists. Which is almost none.

In fact, the dilemma regarding Hirsch's roughly skethed proposal re testing----is that unless we create different tests for every district and/or the kind of state standards that spell out grade-by-grade subject matter in some detail it requires a national curriculum of similar detail (and commit ourselves to covering it all) we haven't solved much. That's an inherent problem with the concept of tests aligned to curriculum; they need to be developed developed and normed on a sufficiently large scale to meet standardized testing requirements. Of course there are alternative local assessments, like those proposed by Grant Wiggins, but these do not translate into paper-and-pencil psychometically standardized instruments. A conundrum.

So we're back to the question of whether we should put the requrements of measurement first anf then develop schools that meet the measurement requirements, or develop what we think is best for the education of the young--which may not be standardized--and then solve the accountbility issues that arise; in short what the trade-offs are if we err in one direction or the other. That, in turn, depends on what and how we define being well-educated and whether our means of "measuement" honor our ends.

For me, practising over and over the exercise of thoughtfulness, careful judgment about complex matters is critical. Standardized tests are not a substitute for the the exercise of thoughtful judgment--which is why they play such a small (if any) role in modern democracies. At MH and CPESS we called them "habits of mind". The habits part meant a consistent focus on curriculum that promotd such habits. We have an imperfect system of justice and of governance that rest upon such judgment. But we have few institutions that prepare people for it! In fact, we have only schools!

So, how can we influence those who see their task as "thinking like State" to honor the work of those whose task is not. but who always work in particulars contexts, around individual children, families and differences of opinion? How do we develop[ practices that satisfy a range of values and agendas, while being mindful of each other's views? I' seen successful schools that made different tade-offs, but not yet "systems of schools" that can accomodate all.

You're comments are helpful to us in this regard. So thanks.



SLANT is a KIPP acronym for: Sit up. Listen to the speaker. Ask and answer questions. Nod your head. Track the speaker.

There is some assumption that kids of certain backgrounds need to be explicitly taught to either pay attention (or mimic the behavior of paying attention). As I said, it is not the kind of thing that I am drawn to--but I am a believer in giving thought to structures and cultures, and this seems to be a part of the KIPP package that may be having some positive impact on some kids.


Much of what you noted above regarding Hirsch and his CK program are what many BD followers have been suggesting (to you) for quite some time.

The psychometrics related to testing can be worked out by experts in that field. They are the secondary consideration in the matter.

The important aspect of Hirsch's proposal, or say standards from Massachusetts, they are very comprehensive and would provide students from all fifty states equal access to them. The nonsense that's out there now (50 different sets of information) is almost laughable, especially due to the ridiculous efforts by a number of states.

We have to do better for those kids and the answer appears right in front of us with a universal (national) program begging to be developed/adopted. It really wouldn’t be that difficult Deb. In fact most of it's already available. All we’d have to do is tweak CK or Massachusetts standards and come to consensus on them.

Obama and Duncan have already endorsed the idea. Come on! Let’s bring some closure to this thing before the opportunity evaporates before our eyes. Even Great Uncle Horace endorsed the notion of a system of "common" public schools. Now, how could anyone argue with him? It would be quite a positive step for public education.

Paul Hoss


I am not at all certain that tweaking CK and coming to consensus would be all that simple a task. In some areas, like math, it seems to be somewhat simpler due to the concrete nature of the content. But I am not a mathematician and I am aware that among the national experts in the area there is not consensus on content or approach.

Some would suppose that the teaching of reading would be an easy area in which to arrive at consensus. But we know about the widely diverging pedagogies from the phonemic awareness end of the spectrum to the whole language end of the spectrum. And when we interject Hirsch's argument that what is really being measured (and should be compensated for in a curriculum) is student's exposure to a particular set of "readings," the whole thing becomes far more complex. One of Hirsch's underlying assumptions is that the reason that some kids don't learn well is because they lack sufficient exposure to the icons of mainstream culture. Through identifying and codifying these--and teaching them to all children--we can level the playing field and arrive at greater literacy. This approach accepts a governmental role in choosing among authors and schools of thought and laying out for children in schools an appropriate amalgam of the "right" things to learn (and be tested upon). It's not so simple as studying triangles in fourth grade and the American Revolution in fifth. It gets down to whether we teach the Harlem Renaissance at all, and whether Supreme Court cases are a series of dates or life-changing events that reflect the zeitgeist of an era.

Many state standards have sought to recognize this and formulate their standards in terms that allow local districts the freedom to arrive at their own curricula having relevance to their own population--something we still hear much about. They focus more on the "hows" of studying poetry--which would seem to have greater universality to them and allow the "whats" to be decided locally. Diana and others report that this leads to the study of vacuous material. This is certainly always the danger. I worry, however, that if local Boards are unable to wrestle with it, state or national boards will do no better.

There is, after all, very little time for subject matter (vs so-called skills) in our elementary schools to start with. If we used our precious minutes to cover as much as Hirsch proposes, that would be that--and actually one reason I like Hirsch is that for many schools Hirsch's CORE is far more subject matter teaching--history, literature, etc--than presently exists. Which is almost none.

Very little time for subject matter? Almost none? I don't think you have any evidence for these claims. My elementary school children certainly come home from their public school talking about what they've learned about different types of clouds, about Abraham Lincoln, or a wide variety of things.


"Many state standards have sought to... formulate their standards in terms that allow local districts the freedom to arrive at their own curricula?" OH - MY - GOD!!!

I am only familiar with Massachusetts standards and how districts from across the state are all responsible for the same body of knowledge by grade and discipline. What states, in this day and age of standards reform, would allow their locals the freedom to arrive at their own curricula?

That's what got our schools into this mess in the first place. That’s where this country was pre-1983, pre-education reform. That was the cause of the absolute disaster in our public schools. There was NO PLAN ANYWHERE, simply go ahead and cover whatever you want, in whatever grade(s) you want to cover it. If every elementary school grade decides they’re going to teach the First Thanksgiving EVERY November, that’s acceptable? Come on. What about Reconstruction? World War II? The Civil Rights Movement? Women's right to vote? Manifest Destiny? The Federalists Papers? Viet Nam? The fall of communism? etc?

The problem with the “old” system: some districts did a comprehensive job, even a very good job, while too many were just plain awful. Exacerbating this predicament – no accountability – no one knew if students were learning, or not.

The US Constitution needs an additional amendment regarding the education of our citizenry. It should not be left primarily to local and state government. In our twenty-first century world education is too important a responsibility to be left to the helter-skelter whims of either local or state government. Too many of them have proven unequivocally how incapable and/or incompetent they are when left to their own devices. Look at Texas. It’s 2009, not 1909, and just this week they voted to embrace evolution as opposed to “intelligent (I don’t think so) design?” Welcome to the twenty-first century, Texas. Simply unbelievable!

Based on what’s happened since NCLB was passed, does anyone honestly believe the folks from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, etc. have any better idea as to what would be in the best interest of their school children? It’s about time we started thinking about providing a responsible education for ALL our citizenry as opposed to only sixty percent while the other forty percent are left to fend for themselves.


How can you be so sure you know when students are learning? A standardized test? As you know, they are fundamentally flawed as evidence of real student learning. And for lots of reasons--they're not valid in the sense that they don't measure what they say they measure, they favor particular cultures and groups and personalities, they narrow the curriculum, they take time away from teaching and learning, they put schools and teachers and learners on unnecessary hierarchies, the list goes on and on.

Margo brings up many excellent points. There is not agreement on what should be in a national curriculum in any discipline. I can't see how you could call it "easy" unless they are simply dictated by fiat.

The so-called "absolute disaster" and "mess" that you mention before and after 1983 is highly dubious as well (Deb notes in this column that test scores haven't moved much, for example--your evidence?).

The "crisis" talk is trumped up by most sides in educational debates--probably as a way for people to push personal/political agendas. Let's get beyond that. Public schools have actually achieved substantial successes (mandatory education for everyone, accommodations--however imperfect--for all abilities, important resources for communities, graduates who have filled important roles in a highly complex economy and society, etc.). Most people want to improve what we have, however. I agree. But my view is that the resources necessary are more substantive resources than that of a national curriculum (which is not a substantive resource at all, but a set of political priorities). Alternatively--everyone needs more and better trained teachers, better learning resources, and more democratic and responsive institutions. Let's focus on what will help.

I often agree with Paul on many things, but I found much to disagree with in his last post. I was formulating a reply when I read the next post and Matthew said it all. Go Matthew!

I'll stick with my long held opinion that local control of education, for all its faults and inconsistencies, is the best way to go.

Matthew and Brian, you are indeed entitled to your opinion. I simply reiterate: "It’s about time we started thinking about providing an adequate and responsible education for ALL our citizenry as opposed to only sixty percent while the other forty percent are left to fend for themselves."

Paul Hoss


I agree with you on this statement! I just don't think a national curriculum is the way to do it.

Brian--thanks for your comments. I would still love read your endorsement of local democratic authority!


You are confusing standards and curriculum. Standards, if written well, might state that by the end of third grade, students are expected to be able to demonstrate fluency in applying addition and subtraction up to two digit numbers to solving problems (just an example--I have no idea if this is grade appropriate). The curriculum would determine how to get there. One district might elect to focus on the memorization of math facts and then show students how these might be applied to solve problems. Another might engage students in discovering the processes of addition and subtraction through problems solving and focus on automaticity (memorizing the facts) later. If they both succeed in getting their kids to standard, it ought to be irrelevant how they got there. If one district has a pattern of repeatedly NOT getting their kids to that standard, they might want to consider whether their curriculum is the problem. Maybe they only focus on addition and subtraction of one digit numbers and don't get to two digits until fourth grade (this would be an alignment problem).

Now the Hirsches of the world prefer that the standards dictate greater specificity to the curriculum. Students should be learning to add and subtract mangos and oranges, and tests that require them to add and subtract nuts and bolts are confusing to them because the won't realize that addition and subtraction are basic skills that apply to combining many kinds of objects.

It looks silly in mathematics, doesn't it? But it really gets interesting when applied to things like history and literature. The standard might say that a student understands the difference between the genres of prose and poetry and is able to make inferences from the text. The district or the teacher then can choose between Emily Dickensen, Maya Angelou, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, e e cummings, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkener, Twain--a host of others, really too numerous to mention. Hirsch says that there is first of all a "right" list, determined by what has been known in the past by the folks who have repeatedly landed at the top of the heap. Kids who do poorly are being cheated by not being taught from this list--and further that tests that measure their ability to distinguish poetry from prose, or to draw inferences from the text based on a selection of texts and authors place them at a disadvantage. He wants the standard to be about understanding the poetry of Emily Dickenson (for example, althought his lists are longer), and the test to be about students' ability to interpret this then familiar work when tested.

Now, somewhere along the line, someone has to make some choices about how content is taught, as well as the specifics of whether it is Emily Dickensen or Robert Frost. Hirsch argues that these choices be high on the hierarchy. Others argue for more choices closer to the district, building or teacher. I would support choices that occur closer to the ground--but this is why I also advocate for a high degree of transparency and accountability. If teachers are telling me that the best way to teach multiplication is to have kids do it on unicycles, I am open--but I want to see the results, and I want to see them in a way that provides an ability to compare to kids who are learning multiplication riding or horses or seated at desks.


My error completely and my apologies for it. As someone famous said recently, “I screwed up.” I often make this mistake when discussing standards v curriculum. To me it's all synonymous with a plan, you know, as in IEP. What kind of credible plan does this state have versus that state? Which plan for learning seems to be the most effective for kids? Again, sorry.

FYI - I am a huge Hirsch advocate and have used much of his stuff in my teaching. I thought the specificity of his work was exactly what would be needed in this country's schools so ALL kids would have equal access to a quality plan for what they should learn. That’s why I agree with Obama and Duncan on this issue. Mangos and oranges v nuts and bolts aside, kids would at least have a legitimate shot in life if they all went through his core knowledge program, kindergarten through grade six anyway. I wish all teachers would at least take a look at it and judge it from there.


Please do not confuse the current testing movement with the standards movement. The standards movement was curriculum-based. The testing movement bears little or no relationship to standards and curricula.
Yes, we do disagree about the value of treating students' scores as a measure of their teacher. Certainly there may be cases when an utterly incompetent teacher will be exposed (as if no one already knew that he or she was incompetent). But most teachers will get more or less middling results. Why not consider student scores a measure of the students' interest in learning and willingness to study?

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