The Coin of the Realm: A Plea for Curriculum

The new Gadfly from Fordham has an essay by Robert Pondiscio that must be read.

The whole Gadfly should be read, of course, but as I got into this business through the curriculum reform door, opened by E.D. Hirsch, I can’t pass up an opportunity to promote the need for comprehensive and rigorous curricula. Content does count.  It is all the more urgent, as Pondiscio argues, because some of our best and brightest—and fearless—reformers still don’t get it.

Pondiscio tells the story of meeting Michelle Rhee at a recent Manhattan Institute awards ceremony—at which she won an Urban Innovator prize—and urging her to “keep curriculum in mind.”

Her reply?

“The last thing we’re going to do… is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

“A stunning reply,” Pondiscio writes. But the tragedy is that it isn’t at all an uncommon reply. “Michelle Rhee isn’t the only one too sheepish to talk curriculum,” he writes. “She is simply the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm.”

Too bad.

The real coin of the realm, of course, is content.  Literacy, as Hirsch has argued forever, is what you know, not how you know it. That content is the only thing that can be exchanged without regard to caste and class and its acquisition should be one of the ten commandments of all educators (and especially education reformers). Content—Hamlet, gravity, the Pythagorean theorem, Handel’s Messiah—it can all be known rather simply, by spending time in a library—a public library—or, in the better schools, in a classroom. It can be inhaled, if only allowed into the room, and it can be banked (as in memorized and known) and then used to learn even more. It is the best money money can buy.  Knowledge—the content kind—is the true coin of the public school realm. Or should be.

It has always been perplexing to me that people don’t get it: they confuse skills and content and insist that the former is all that counts.  This belief persists in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary – as Hirsch points out, it is really only in the last 50 years that we have drunk the skills Kool Aid. In fact, in a memorable op-ed defense of bubble tests, of all things, in the Times last year, Hirsch wrote that “without explicit grade-by-grade content standards….

Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea.” Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.

This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a “skill” that can be transferred from one passage to another, and that reading scores can be raised by having young students endlessly practice strategies on trivial stories. Tragic amounts of time have been wasted that could have been devoted to enhancing knowledge and vocabulary, which would actually raise reading comprehension scores.

What we are doing in our schools is a tragedy; more so, when our magazine cover reformers don’t get it.  As Pondiscio says,

What I cannot accept…is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.” To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day. It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

‘Nuf said. A good gift suggestion for Christmas: What Every First (Second, Third, etc.) Grader Should Know.  Better than money.

—Peter Meyer

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