Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Twilight for the conservative era of school reform?

An inconvenient truth is that the grand tradition of using the bully pulpit to push for curriculum reform began with the Reagan administration under his second education secretary, William J. Bennett. Bennett used that bully pulpit to forcefully push for a combination of changes—curriculum reform, accountability, and choice—that he believed could help drive excellence in U.S. schools.
---Kathleen Porter-Magee at the Fordham Institute

Conservative anxiety over conservative/libertarian attacks against Common Core is reaching a crescendo. The moderate conservatives at Fordham, who remember the genesis of national standards, wonder if the end of corporate school reform may be near.

This from Fordham's Common Core Watch:
The funny thing about eras is that it’s hard to know which one you are in until it is coming to an end. As the fighting among conservatives heats up over the Common Core, the era of standards-driven reform that has defined conservative education policy for the past three decades is brought into sharper relief.
Arne Duncan and Bill Bennett

But the approach that President Reagan and his secretary of education Bill Bennett helped set in motion in the 1980s is under increasing assault from a resurgent libertarian movement and the coopting of many of the most popular ideas by a reform-minded Democratic president and his own energetic secretary of education. Is 2014 the year the conservative push for curricular and instructional excellence comes to an end?

Those looking for answers would be wise to track the increasingly acerbic discussion over the Common Core State Standards. What began as a conversation about the quality, content, and rigor of the standards has evolved into an increasingly polarized political debate that is fracturing support for one of the most enduring conservative reforms...

Much of the anti–Common Core ire is aimed at the Obama administration and its activist education secretary, Arne Duncan. Critics believe that by incentivizing CCSS adoption through Race to the Top and by continuing to express public support for the standards, Duncan and his team are essentially usurping control over curriculum and instruction from the states...

This from Chester Finn and Mike Petrilli at Fordham:

Knowledge at the Core

Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or something akin to it—en route to successful attainment of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

Five of the essays included in the volume were first presented at a December 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the Fordham Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Video from that event, and a terrific documentary about Don and his contributions to American education, are available on our website at edexcellence.net/hirsch.

That day left us hopeful—not a word that often comes to mind amidst the rancorous debates now swirling about education in general and the Common Core in particular. Yet Don himself is, by admission, an unwavering optimist; his enthusiasm is as contagious as his ideas are bracing. So in that spirit, let us make the hopeful case that many more of America’s schools are on the precipice of finally embracing those ideas—and thereby boosting their students’ chances of achieving the lofty goals that the Common Core standards prescribe.

Rethinking reading

Commence with this key Hirsch insight: Teaching knowledge is teaching reading—and reading will never be mastered beyond the “decoding” stage without a solid foundation of knowledge. Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about the world—about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. This is not a value statement about what students “should” study; rather, it reflects decades of cognitive science and reading research.

Once children learn to decode the words on a page, greater literacy is attained only through greater knowledge. Reading comprehension, and thus learning by reading, depends on knowing something about the content of the passage at hand. If a fifth grader knows a lot about baseball, for example, she will comprehend complex stories about baseball at a high level. But if she doesn’t know a lot about the ocean, she will struggle to comprehend anything beyond simple, introductory books about marine life. The only way to help children become strong readers, regardless of topic, is to equip them with a large store of general knowledge—to help them learn something about everything. And that means implementing a well-designed, sequential, content-rich curriculum, especially in the early grades.

Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.” As Ruth Wattenberg, the former editor of the AFT’s American Educator magazine, explains in her essay, the elementary-school curriculum has been a content-free wasteland for decades, one that grew even more barren in the No Child Left Behind era. Is it any wonder that, even as national assessment data have shown decent gains in math achievement in recent years (at least in the early grades), reading outcomes remain dismal? Although some relatively small gains have been made (most likely due to Reading First’s spread of phonics-based decoding instruction), high-school scores have been flat for decades.

Bad news. But there’s some encouraging news, too. In his essay, based on focus groups that he conducted with teachers, Steve Farkas explains that elementary teachers welcome the notion of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Indeed, they take for granted that it’s valuable. They may have been taught otherwise in ed school, but they’re not philosophically opposed; most aren’t even aware of the ideological battles waged between “progressives” and “traditionalists” within the halls of academe. Building students’ knowledge is, to most teachers, simply common sense—and they’d like to do more of it. But first, the misguided progressive ideas shaping schools need to be more widely recognized, as Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern writes in his trenchant essay.

Another bit of good news: the single greatest force currently shaping American education—the new Common Core standards, now in place in forty-five states—explicitly endorses Hirsch’s ideas and calls for the kind of curriculum that he favors:
While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot— enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” —Common Core State Standards
Says Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the advocacy group CitizenshipFirst, those are “the most important fifty-seven words in education reform since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.”
But they are, alas, just words on a page. They’re not hard to decode—but how many people grasp their content? How many states and school districts will heed their call?
Though fundamentally an optimist, Don Hirsch does not yet observe much heeding. In his keynote address to the December conference, included in our book as the essay “Sustaining the American Experiment,” he expresses his worry:
District preparations for the Common Core in language arts are looking like district preparations for No Child Left Behind, with lots of how-to processes, under new names, but with no emphasis on systematically imparting facts—which are still considered “mere.”
That’s precisely what Wattenberg found when she examined textbooks, basal readers, and state websites that are supposedly “Common Core aligned.” They do, indeed, pay attention to the skills demanded by the standards, even to the challenge to assign “appropriately complex texts.” But in almost every case, they ignore (or never even understand) the charge to put in place a content-rich curriculum so that students can actually read these more challenging texts with understanding.

And while most rank-and-file teachers have no ideological bone to pick with content knowledge, many of their supervisors and administrators still hold fast to the false dichotomies and faulty notions that Hirsch has debunked for years. Just weeks ago, Carmen FariƱa, the new chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, displayed her own misunderstanding of the role that knowledge plays in education: “It’s always been something I’ve believed in—we learn facts maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life.” (As if one can fruitfully think if one doesn’t know anything.) In his keynote, Don said, “The effectiveness of the Common Core standards will depend on the adequacy of the ideas held by those who try to put them into effect.” Indeed...

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