Where we stand
August 15, 2007
We provoked a bit of a stir with last week's piece, featured in the Wall Street Journal and Gadfly, titled (by the Journal's editors) "Not By Geeks Alone." Most of that stir was intentional. We sincerely believe that today's STEM mania, combined with NCLB's narrow focus on basic reading and math (and test-taking) skills, combined with the newly enacted "competitiveness" bill that President Bush signed the other day, are having a deleterious effect on the American K-12 school curriculum--and very likely the college curriculum as well.
They are giving schools, teachers and students more reasons than ever--there were already too many--to neglect the humanities, to marginalize the arts, and to skimp on the social sciences. Moreover, they miss at least half of the true wellsprings of American competitiveness, which are not just skills but also knowledge, habits of mind, modes of inquiry, traits of character, among others. (For a longer exposition of this point, see our original essay and the longer Fordham volume that we edited, Beyond the Basics.)
The stir we did not anticipate came from friends worried that we had abandoned results-based accountability, turned against testing, and even declared war on standards.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. We support those important education reforms as ardently as ever. But we're also more mindful than ever of the truism that "what gets tested gets taught" and are alarmed that too narrow a conception of what schools are accountable for, by way of results, yields too narrow a definition of what teachers are responsible for imparting to their pupils. Good tests are efficient ways to determine how well students have learned what the curriculum sets forth. (That's why we admire the Advanced Placement exams, for example.) But bad tests, and an over-emphasis on test results at the expense of solid instruction across a balanced curriculum, can lead to damaging ends. There we stand.