School reform's next frontier: Translate new standards into good curriculum that puts reading first
9.28.10 – E.D. Hirsch Jr. – The thousands of education reform leaders and teachers gathered in New York for the Education Nation summit will talk about many things: performance pay for teachers, charter schools, the new "Waiting for 'Superman'" movie.
There’s one subject that will be discussed only in passing – but that means more than any of these others for the future of our kids: the actual curriculum they are taught.
Over the summer, 37 states agreed to adopt a single set of K-12 standards in English to define the competencies needed for citizenship, productivity and fairness. It’s long overdue. But now comes the hard part: figuring out exactly what the new standards mean for the day-to-day work of teaching and learning in U.S. classrooms.
Any discussion of the new common core state standards must begin with a clear understanding of what the standards do and do not say. It has been contended that schools in the adopting states will all be teaching exactly the same things at the same time. Wrong.
The content that teachers teach and children learn is curriculum. New common standards do not guarantee a uniformity of educational experience any more than auto safety standards force us to drive a single kind of car or building codes make every house look the same. And if the new standards are not accompanied by a dramatically improved curriculum, it will be a tragic missed opportunity.
Because it is curriculum dilution, especially in the elementary grades, that has depressed student knowledge levels, caused verbal skills to decline and perpetuated a competency gap between demographic groups over the past generation.
Economist James Heckman has shown that high school graduation rates rose sharply during the first half of the 20th century, then started dropping. From 1965 to 1980, American 15-year-olds fell from third to 14th place in reading comprehension on international comparisons. Scores on the verbal SAT dropped a dizzying 50 points.
Since the 1980s the verbal scores of American high school seniors have not budged despite efforts like charter schools, accountability systems and a meteoric rise in educational spending. Other nations, whose students experience the same distractions of TV, Internet, video games and sometimes show the same diversity of population, have improved over this period.
The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base. This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence. During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98% white and middle-class – dropped with similar sharpness.
What changed was the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum. That led directly to our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores.
Why do I focus on verbal scores? Because they correlate with general knowledge, with the ability to learn, communicate and complete jobs effectively.
And the surest way to ensure a rise in verbal scores is to induce a big rise in vocabulary size. You build a strong vocabulary by acquiring real knowledge from early on.
Yet recent reading instruction has devalued the systematic buildup of knowledge, assuming wrongly that reading ability is a general skill, rather than an ad hoc skill essentially dependent on knowledge.
Fortunately, this powerful connection between verbal ability and general knowledge is reflected in the new standards. Their most promising feature is their requirement that during the two hours spent on literacy in grades K-5, students shall begin building knowledge that will serve them throughout their lives.
But will that trickle down into day-to-day curriculum?
Now is a perilous moment. There is every likelihood that the same old diluted and fragmented early curriculum will be given a new label and presented as conforming to the new standards.
So without delay, some philanthropies should get together and form an independent board that will validate claims that school materials conform with the new standards. The aim of such a board would not be to determine whether the school materials pass some ideological test, but whether they are likely to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary, and thus recapture equality of opportunity, good citizenship and a path to prosperity.
The story of America’s educational decline is the story of verbal decline. It has a beginning, a traceable arc and, if the states are vigilant, an end.
Hirsch is founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and author of “The Making of Americans.”
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