Monday, October 22, 2007

One Size Does NOT Fit All When It Comes to Education

Almost 2 decades ago, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote an expose on how "progressive" ideas in education are creating cultural illiteracy among Americans. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know spent 6 months on the New York Times best-seller list and Hirsch went on to found the Core Knowledge Foundation. Now Hirsch has written another excellent and thought-provoking book entitled The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Gap for American Children.

This book provides an answer as to why Americans fall further behind their international peers the longer they have been in school and why the racial test score gap widens in each successive grade. Hirsch makes an excellent argument that success on reading comprehension tests depends on having the background knowledge assumed by the author. The job of schools, therefore, should be to help students build up a broad factual knowledge (i.e. cultural literacy). Instead, schools have been focusing on teaching "all-purpose" cognitive strategies in the belief that they are universally applicable to all subjects. Hirsch shows how this "formalism" is a waste of instructional time.

Where the book misses its mark, however, is in Hirsch's call for a mandatory standard curriculum set at the national level. He wants a "one size fits all" detailed list of specific topics to be taught to every single child in every single school at exactly the same grade without taking into account the tremendous diversity both of vastly different communities in the U.S. and of cognitive abilities among children. Do parents really want some committee of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. to decide what their children should learn or do they want their child's teacher to be able to tailor instruction to his/her individual ability and their community's values?

Hirsch's "Core Knowledge" model reminds me of chain restaurants. A patron can walk into any Applebee's anywhere in the country and he/she will get essentially the same meal. It will be adequate, but not remotely as good as what the best local chefs offer at the little mom 'n pop restaurants.

Instead of requiring a standardized "menu" with no deviations permitted, why not come up with general guidelines similar to the food pyramid to make sure all basic needs are met but allowing individual consumers the freedom to fulfill them however those consumers deem best for themselves? The end result of basic competency is what's important, not how that competency is achieved.

The National Education Association, the largest public schoolteacher's union in the country, recently updated its position on homeschooling and reaffirmed its belief that homeschoolers "must meet all state curricular requirements". While most homeschoolers do take those requirements into consideration as general reference, we reject the idea of an impersonal "one size fits all" top-down mandate. I don't want Big Brother controlling my child's education any more than I would want them to control his/her diet. I'll certainly take their recommendations into consideration but ultimately it's my decision whether to accept, "tweak", or reject any given recommendation. If I'm lactose intolerant, then I'm not going to eat 3 servings of dairy just because the government says I should.


Katie Hill said...

In most schools, the curriculum is defined in terms of very general processes and skills. Core Knowledge complements a skills-based curriculum by providing carefully sequenced and challenging knowledge in which to ground skills instruction.
Core Knowledge is meant to comprise about half of a school's curriculum, thus leaving ample freedom for local requirements and variations. Schools already using the Core Knowledge Sequence have generally found that it can be successfully combined with existing state or local requirements.

Crimson Wife said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't have a problem with a school *VOLUNTARILY* adopting the Core Knowledge model. I've seen the sequence and there are many things I like about it. There are also things I don't, such as studying American and World History concurrently rather than in proper chronological order. Also, I don't like how the science is organized with mixing the various scientific disciplines rather than devoting a full year to each.

What I object to is Hirsch's call for a *MANDATORY* curriculum set at the national level. I don't think that some committee of bureaucrats in D.C. should be the one dictating what my child should study in which grade. If I think that she ought to learn about Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and Judeo-Christianity before studying the American Revolution to better understand the former's influence on the latter, then that should be my prerogative as her teacher.

Christina Martin said...

What really gets me about these recent attempts to close the gap is the realization that those who are slow learners may not be capable of closing the gap; therefore, the only way to effectively equalize education is to slow down the brighter students. Is this how we, as a nation, want to get ahead?