This from Sol Stern in The City Journal:
The Curriculum Reformation
New national standards prod schools to return to content-based education.
The biggest new thing in American public education these days is a two-volume, 230-page, written-by-committee document called the Common Core State Standards. Forty-five states have pledged to the federal government that they will adopt the standards—which specify the math and English skills that students must attain in each grade from kindergarten to the end of high school—within the next several years. Some of these states genuinely believe that doing so will make more of their students ready for college and careers.
Others are on board primarily because the Obama administration has enticed them with billions of dollars from its Race to the Top competition, part of the administration’s economic-stimulus program. Within the school-reform community, the standards have set off a virtual civil war. It pits those who believe that America desperately needs national standards to catch up to its international competitors against those who think that the administration, by imposing the standards on the states, is guilty of an unwise, or even illegal, power grab.
No matter how the debate over national standards plays out—and it may never be resolved—one undeniably positive development has resulted from all this. For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement. And that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.
During the past quarter-century, Hirsch has warned over and over that something is dangerously amiss in the nation’s classrooms. His diagnosis could be summed up with the admonition It’s the curriculum, stupid. For the first 150 years of the republic, according to Hirsch, most schools followed a shared curriculum emphasizing the explicit content knowledge that children had to acquire in order to grow into literate adults and good citizens. As Hirsch writes in his most recent book, The Making of Americans, the country had “no official national curriculum, but it had the equivalent: a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to ensure that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans.” America’s public schools were the envy of the world during this period.
Starting in the 1930s, however, the progressive-education movement began a long march toward taking over the country’s teacher-training schools and professional teacher organizations. One of the progressives’ goals was undermining the idea of a prescribed curriculum, which they regarded as oppressive and out of sync with children’s natural learning styles. This abandonment of a common curriculum by the schools, Hirsch argues, was largely responsible for the precipitous decline in student academic achievement that began in the 1960s. Academic stagnation set in, both absolutely and relative to achievement in the leading industrialized nations...
The Common Core standards haven’t been universally embraced by the nation’s school reformers. While such prominent reform leaders as Klein, the Fordham Foundation’s Chester E. Finn, and former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee are on board, many others are either agnostic or actively campaigning against the standards.
Some of the dissenters argue that the Obama administration has overreached by imposing the standards on the states, violating the letter and spirit of federal education law and perhaps even of the Constitution. It’s an unconvincing argument. Unlike the administration’s controversial health-care law, the standards are not mandatory; states are free to reject them, and several, including Texas, have already done so. If the complaint is merely that the Obama administration is seducing states into adopting the standards by offering them billions of dollars in federal funds, why aren’t the critics equally upset with another provision of Race to the Top, which requires states taking federal money to create teacher-evaluation systems based on students’ test scores? Indeed, it might be argued that “federal coercion” began with the 2002 No Child Left Behind act, which required states to test students in grades 3–8 and to impose sanctions on schools whose students didn’t attain minimum levels of proficiency. Despite this, NCLB was strongly supported by most school reformers—initially, at least.
The far more serious criticism of the standards is that they are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours. Ze’ev Wurman, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education, has offered extremely cogent critiques of the math section of the Common Core standards, pointing out that they fall short of the best international benchmarks and don’t require more than one year of algebra for high school graduates. Sandra Stotsky, a curriculum specialist and one of the drafters of Massachusetts’s important 1993 education-reform act, has similarly noted shortcomings in the English Language Arts section of the standards.
In fact, many of the original Massachusetts reformers have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993 (see “The Massachusetts Exception”). The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work. The sad fact is that even before Massachusetts switched to the Common Core standards, Governor Deval Patrick had embarked on a campaign to dilute the demanding 1993 reform.
Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century...On her blog, Diane Ravitch (who must have a dozen Graduate Assistants working for her - or am I thinking too small) shows the underbelly of Conservative debate in an exchange between Sol Stern and the Pioneer Institute's Jamie Glass. When Stern "chided the Pioneer Institute for not doing more to promote the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge curriculum":
Thanks for your confidence that little Pioneer Institute could have outdone over $100 million from the Gates Foundation and persuade the bluest state in the Union (and Deval Patrick in an election year) not to follow the lead of Arne Duncan on $250 million in RTTT money. In truth, an easier task would have been to change the directional flow of the Charles River. That said, we did have two-thirds of the authors of the 1993 law (Gov. Weld and Sen. Birmingham), as well as the president of the AFT-MA, two 2010 MA gubernatorial candidates, Sen. Scott Brown, and nearly every editorial board in the state, on our side against MA adopting CCSSI.Back in March, George Will may have made the most persuasive against the Department of Education's pressure on states to adopt the Common Core - that it is not just suspect, but it is expressly illegal.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — No Child Left Behind is its ninth iteration — intruded the federal government into this traditionally state and local responsibility. It said that “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” a state’s, local educational agency’s or school’s curriculum. The General Education Provisions Act of 1970, which supposedly controls federal education programs, stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize” any federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials” by “any educational institution or school system.”
The 1979 law establishing the Education Department forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school or school system. The ESEA as amended goes further: No funds provided to the Education Department “may be used . . . to endorse, approve, or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in” kindergarten through 12th grade.
However . . .
What authors Eitel, Talbert and Evers call the Education Department’s “incremental march down the road to a national curriculum” begins with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). It is an initiative not of any state legislature but of a governors association, state school officials and private foundations. This push advanced when the Race to the Top Fund (RTTT, part of the 2009 stimulus) said that peer reviewers of applications for money should favor those states that join a majority of states in developing and adopting common standards. The 11 states and the District of Columbia that won Race to the Top funding had adopted or indicated an intention to adopt the CCSS, which will require changes in curricula.
An Education Department synopsis of discussions with members of the public about priorities in competition for RTTT money says “the goal of common K-12 standards is to replace the existing patchwork of state standards.” Progressives celebrate diversity in everything but thought.
The Obama administration is granting conditional waivers to states chafing under No Child Left Behind’s unrealistic accountability requirements. The waivers are contingent on each state adopting certain standards “that are common to a significant number of states,” or the state may adopt standards endorsed by its institutions of higher education — if those standards are consistent with the Education Department’s guidelines.
We have been warned. Joseph Califano, secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration, noted that “in its most extreme form, national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”