The K–12 education world brims with debates and dichotomies that get us into all manner of needless quarrels and cul-de-sacs, thus messing up every reform initiative and retarding progress. In every case, both sides are certain that they speak the whole truth; convinced that opposing views are misguided, perhaps even evil; and insistent that changes the system needs will go awry unless their side prevails.
These philosophical tug-of-wars lead to paralysis akin to what we witness today in Congress and many legislatures. Of them we ask, “Why can’t you compromise, split the difference, make a deal, take the best of both positions, and get something done?”
The ten education dichotomies outlined below should be seen in similar light: neither side owns the truth—and what would do kids the greatest good is an intelligent middle ground that melds the best of both views.
Skills vs. Knowledge
Back in 1987, in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and I tackled a pair of overlapping “false dichotomies”: skills vs. content and concepts vs. facts. They were prevalent in the education profession then and remain front and center today—indeed, are highlighted by the challenges of implementing (and assessing) the Common Core State Standards, which at first look skills-centric but which also make clear that success hinges on the deployment of a rich, sequential, content-focused curriculum. Already influenced by the analysis of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the cognitive science that he had exhaustively mined, Diane and I wrote, “It is neither possible nor desirable...