Curriculum & Instruction

The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system.

- Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

History offers many explanations for why people should acquire a broad, liberal-arts education. Prominent thinkers and leaders over the centuries have expounded on the virtues of such learning. Aristotle said liberal education is necessary if one is to act "nobly." Franklin said it was needed to cultivate "the best capacities" in humans. And Einstein found in liberal learning the locus for imagination.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, however, liberal learning is on the defensive. Federal law mandates academic gains only in reading and math, and its sanctions and interventions are triggered only by failure to make gains in those two areas. States, school districts and individual educators have understandably responded by ramping up the time spent teaching those two sets of core skills and prepping students to take tests in them, to the detriment of "broad" and "liberal" and "arts."

Recent months have brought yet another challenge to liberal learning, as well-meaning business leaders and policy makers, rightly concerned about American...

If you thought whole-language reading instruction had been relegated to the scrap heap of history, think again. Many such programs (proven to be ineffective) are still around, but they're hiding behind phrases like "balanced literacy" in order to win contracts from school districts and avoid public scrutiny. Louisa Moats calls them out in Fordham's new report, Whole-Language High Jinks.

Moats, a psychologist and widely respected authority on early reading, authored a previous Fordham report in October 2000 called Whole Language Lives On. In it, she revealed that what was going on in many classrooms in the name of "balance" or "consensus" was harming students.

Seven years later, such programs still exist-and still try to pull the wool over educators' eyes. Worse, major school systems, including Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City, continue to adopt them, misled by materials that "talk the talk," touting the five elements of effective reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel, but which are actually just whole-language programs in disguise.

Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America attend class in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn. That's just one of the findings of Fordham's The State of State Standards 2006, which evaluates state academic standards. The average state grade is a "C-minus"--the same as six years earlier, even though most states revised their standards since 2000.

Our world is quickly shrinking and becoming evermore interconnected. But is America's K-12 education system preparing students for life in a global village? Unfortunately, it is not. Renowned historian Walter Russell Mead, author of Fordham's The State of State World History Standards 2006, found that thirty-three states deserved D or F grades for their world history standards. States do the worst when it comes to teaching Latin American history. At a time of intense national debate about immigration and assimilation, many states do not seem aware that there are countries and cultures south of the Rio Grande.
 

Science education in America is under attack, with "discovery learning" on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other. That's the core finding of our just-released comprehensive review of state science standards, the first since 2000. Written by pre-eminent biologist Paul R. Gross, The State of State Science Standards finds that even though the majority of states have reworked, or crafted from scratch, their science standards over the past five years, we're no better off now than before. That's the bad news. The good news is that many of the standards are easily fixed. More involvement by bench scientists, and better editing, could greatly improve what's out there. Plus, there are a number of excellent models to follow (California, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, for example). The public's anxiety about the future of our nation's scientific prowess is palpable—and reasonable. How serious are we in addressing their concerns? To find out, read the report.

Almost every week a new report or commission decries the decline of America's preeminence in science, and calls for the nation's education system to raise standards in order for our economy to remain competitive with the rest of the world. Within this context, the National Assessment Governing Board is preparing to launch a new science assessment for 2009. Curriculum developers and textbook writers are likely to follow its lead. Fordham couldn't help but wonder: is the draft science Framework up to the challenge? Using much the same criteria applied in the Foundation's state science standards reviews, our reviewers answered: no. As author (and esteemed biologist) Paul R. Gross wrote, "The Framework is an interesting start, but there is much work to be done if it is to achieve its potential usefulness."

American middle schools have become the places "where academic achievement goes to die." So says Cheri Yecke, K-12 Education Chancellor of Florida and author of the new Fordham report Mayhem in the Middle: How middle schools have failed America, and how to make them work.  Today's middle schools have succumbed to a concept of "middle schoolism" in which a strong academic curriculum is traded for one that focuses more on emotional and social development, and less on learning the basics. And the achievement data reflects "middle schoolism's" results. In 1999, U.S. eighth graders scored nine points below average on the TIMSS assessment of math. What's more, these same eighth graders had outperformed the average by 28 points as fourth graders in 1995! According to Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr., "Trying to fix high schools while ignoring middle schools is like bandaging a wound before treating it for infection."

In just more than five years, Mary Anne Stanton has led 13 Catholic schools from high-poverty Washington, D.C. neighborhoods into a consortium that has not only strengthened each school's financial health, but has also greatly improved the academic performance of the children the schools are charged with educating. To get there, she's installed a new standards-based curriculum, shaken up old bureaucratic approaches, and streamlined operations. In its latest Fwd: Arresting Insights in Education, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation presents a compelling story of just how much change can be made by one determined school leader with a vision.

States still have far to go in setting rigorous, high quality expectations for K-12 math instruction. Although a majority have replaced or revised their math standards since 2000, many have failed to make substantial improvements. The review was led by David Klein, Professor of Mathematics at California State University-Northridge, and evaluates the content, writing quality, and clarity of K-12 math standards in each state. Klein and his team attribute many of  the shortcomings to overuse and wrong applications of manipulatives and calculators; wrong-headed guidance from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; and lack of true mathematics competence among those writing the standards.

Do states' current English/language arts and reading standards expect what they should? Are they demanding enough? Clear enough? Are states using them to guide not only the curriculum and assessment system for students but also their teacher-training programs? Sandra Stotsky, research scholar at Northeastern University and former senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education, finds that most states have revised or replaced their standards since 2000 and made some improvements, especially to K-8 standards. However, major shortcomings remain in other areas including high school literature requirements.

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