Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Knowing how to learn is no substitute for learning

Those who suffer the most from public education's deficiencies are the ones whose parents and home environment cannot compensate and who have no alternatives. They, especially, deserve good public schools. "E.D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy" by Sol Stern, from City Journal describes an important part of the solution. If you are an educator, as I was, the issues discussed in the article will be depressingly familiar. If you are the parent of young children, homeschooling may come to seem much more attractive.
The “Massachusetts miracle,” in which Bay State students’ soaring test scores broke records, was the direct consequence of the state legislature’s passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. And those standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch’s legacy. If the Obama administration truly wants to have a positive impact on American education, it should embrace Hirsch’s ideas and urge other states to do the same.
The "Hirsch" referred to is E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, and now The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, about educational reform. His conclusions have been actively resisted by the educational establishment, who are guilty of doing a great deal of damage.
By the time Hirsch turned his attention to education reform in the mid-1980s, Romanticism’s triumph was complete. Most public schools, for instance, taught reading through the “whole language” method, which encourages children to guess the meaning of words through context clues rather than to master the English phonetic code. In many schools, a teacher could no longer line up children’s desks in rows facing him; indeed, he found himself banished entirely from the front of the classroom, becoming a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage.” In my children’s elementary school, students in the early grades had no desks at all but instead sat in circles on a rug, hoping to re-create the “natural” environment that education progressives believed would facilitate learning. In the 1970s and 1980s, progressive education also absorbed the trendy new doctrines of multiculturalism, postmodernism (with its dogma that objective facts don’t exist), and social-justice teaching.

More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be “critical thinkers” and teach them to “learn how to learn,” defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. .... The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students—the very opposite of what the progressives promoted.
An elementary school principal in my former school district instituted direct instruction with resulting great success on the part of her students. There was resistance, she was soon gone, and the school reverted to its previous ineffectiveness.
Hirsch’s theories, long merely persuasive, now have solid empirical backing in Massachusetts’s miraculous educational reforms. ....
There may be some reason for hope:
Perhaps the time isn’t too far off when Hirsch’s optimism will be vindicated. There’s a tantalizing hint of that possibility on the dust jacket of The Making of Americans. Original Core Knowledge supporter Diane Ravitch offers praise for the book, but two of the other blurbers are more surprising: Randi Weingarten, the newly installed president of the million-member American Federation of Teachers, and Joel Klein, chancellor of the nation’s largest school district. Usually, you hear those two names spoken in the same breath only when they’re in contention. Last month, moreover, Klein unfurled the results of a study that compared ten city schools using the Core Knowledge reading program with schools using other curricula. The Core Knowledge kids achieved progress at a rate that was “more than five times greater,” Klein said, heaping praise on the program. [more]
E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy by Sol Stern, City Journal Autumn 2009

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