Nancy Pelosi's troops are on quite a tear. First they went after Reading First, a program that by most accounts is doing wonders helping disadvantaged children gain basic literacy skills. And now they are seeking to take away a lifeline to 1,700 impoverished Washington, DC students in the form of school vouchers. Dan Lips and Robert Enlow have the details in this National Review Online piece; this video plea from DC voucher recipients is worth watching (and crying about)??too.

As reported by The Hoff at Education Week's NCLB Act II blog, earlier this week the nation's governors unanimously agreed to work toward common (i.e., national) standards. Were it not for our imploding economy this surely would have been front-page news. Think about it: the governors are open to throwing out their own standards--the heart of their education accountability systems--in favor of frameworks that would have reach from coast to coast. This is a big deal!

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R) told Hoff:

"We want states to improve their standards, and one way to look at that is through international benchmarking."

But he insisted that the process shouldn't "federalize education."

The setting of standards has "got to be done by the state and local governments," he said.

As I mentioned back in December when the National Governors Association, along with Achieve and the Council of Chief State School Officers, released a report on international benchmarking, this bottom-up, "let's all hold hands" strategy is the one most likely to succeed politically, and perhaps substantively. It's not going to lead to national standards overnight, but it gets us started on the path. Which is long overdue....

President Barack Obama gave another great speech last night. What made it great was its honesty and directness. Rather than looking for scapegoats (OK, he did scapegoat Wall Street executives a bit, but we can forgive him that), he spoke candidly about the fact that we're all responsible for the mess we're in:

Our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank. We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we


Ohio Governor Ted Strickland surprised most observers (including us) when he left the state's education voucher program intact in his biennial budget proposal. The Educational Choice Scholarship is available to up to 14,000 students assigned to chronically underperforming public schools. Two years ago he sought to eliminate the program altogether; this time he attached some strings to the voucher dollars. Under his proposal, any school that enrolls a voucher student would be required to administer state achievement tests to all of its students, including those children whose parents pay out-of-pocket for their education. 279 private schools enrolled voucher students this school year. It remains to be seen how many of these schools would comply with the testing requirement and how many would abandon the program instead--a fate especially likely for the 94 schools that enroll fewer than ten voucher students apiece. The Buckeye State's teacher unions, some of Strickland's strongest supporters, have voiced support for extending testing mandates to private schools. They're sure to be singing a different tune, however, if the private schools start trouncing districts on the state's tests and use those test scores to lure more students away from public schools....

The latest Education Next is out, and its cover story is an excellent piece by Richard Lee Colvin previewing the Obama education agenda and contemplating the Democratic Party's schism over school policy. Here's the key argument:

Widespread agreement that only a massive stimulus package could rescue the U.S. economy presented the new administration with the opportunity to placate both sides of the Democratic divide. The unions and their allies would get a massive infusion of federal funds into the schools that would help offset state and local budget cuts. And this would give Obama cover to push for tougher reforms down the road.

The question is: how far down the road? Perhaps tonight's speech will provide an indication.

Photo from Education Next....

Ken Kay, the head of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, is here to defend himself.

He says that most of what we're doing in education is subject-matter focused. Most of the assessments are subject-matter focused. But we aren't producing enough students with critical thinking skills. So clearly subject-matter is not enough.

"We can't have a false choice between skills and content," he says.

"We are the content and skills movement," Kay said. "We are not the skills movement."

"From the very beginning," Kay said, "when we started our work, we were not just interested in the workforce but also civic engagement." He met with "stakeholders" in the non-for-profit and civic engagement world. And these stakeholders mentioned all sorts of skills (communication, global awareness, etc.) that citizens need in order to be fully involved in democracy.

"Our students are not doing as well on PISA because there's more critical thinking...on that exam."

"I hope that we will leave this meeting having embraced the common ground. Content is important. Skills are important. A liberal arts education is important."

Dan Willingham is a cognitive scientist, and takes P21 apart step by step.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills assumes, he says, that first, knowledge and skills are separate. But research shows that not to be true.

Second, P21 assumes that teachers do not have cognitive limits. But, of course, they cannot attend to everything. That's why they aren't embracing problem-based learning, cooperative learning, and small group instruction. These are really, really hard to do well. Maybe even impossible.

Now we're looking for a little red circle on a screen. (OK, you kinda gotta be here for that one...)

The reason that seatwork and whole-class instruction is preferred by teachers is that they can easily tell if their students are paying attention. Small group instruction makes that virtually impossible.

Willingham's bottom line: Teachers like the methods that P-21 is advancing, but they are really hard to implement well. There's a reason that they've been told to teach projects for a century and they haven't done it much.

Don??Hirsch, founder of Core Knowledge and author of Cultural Literacy, says that students do, indeed, need these "21st Century Skills." But, he's arguing, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is deeply misguided in its understanding of how students can develop these skills.

"The error at the heart of P21 is the idea that skills are all-purpose muscles that, once developed, can be applied to new and unforeseen domains of experience," he said. That's just not true.

So how do people actually acquire these skills???According to Hirsch, and his reading of??the research, they have??domain knowledge in a wide range of domains. In other words, the "real basis" of 21st century skills is "wide-ranging knowledge."

Now Hirsch is discussing the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. He took it himself a few weeks ago, and later got a call from a Navy recruiter, who was disappointed to learn that he's 80 years old! To do well on the test, which is related to "21st century skills," test-takers need to know a lot of stuff. They need wide-ranging knowledge.

"Skill is knowledge. There is no shortcut."...

Diane Ravitch, an historian of education, is carefully deconstructing the "21st Century Skills" movement by demonstrating that its key ideas are direct descendants of loopy nostrums from the past 100 years. "The cause that animated schools of education throughout the 20th century??was the search for the one discovery that would unshackle schools from teaching content," she said.

She's recounting the "life adjustment movement," the "outcomes-based education movement," "SCANS,"??and on and on. They were all precursors to "21st Century Skills."

Schools of education "have paid precious little attention to the disciplinary knowledge that young people need to make sense of??the world," Ravitch said.

"We have ignored what matters most. One cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about."

"The educated person learns not only from his or?? her own experience, but from the hard-earned experience of others. We do not restart the world anew in each generation."

And now, over to Don Hirsch.

Greetings from Fordham's 7th Floor conference room, which is jam-packed with a standing-room-only crowd to hear a debate about the "21st Century Skills" movement, staged by Common Core. Here's the line-up:


Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Founder and Chairman, Core Knowledge Foundation

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia

Ken Kay, President, Partnership for 21st Century Skills


Antonia Cortese, Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of Teachers