Curriculum & Instruction

Don Hirsch has done it again. Never mind that he’s eighty-eight. Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, his fifth book on education reform—there were at least five earlier ones in his original field of English literature, criticism, and composition—is as clear and trenchant as Cultural Literacy was in 1987. And it is arguably even more needed, as there’s ample evidence that the “knowledge” part of K–12 education has been backsliding even as we’ve seen slight improvement on the skills side.

There’s the curricular narrowing associated with our reading-and-math obsession and the accountability regimes attached thereto. There’s the perverse effect of Google and other technologies leading us to assume that we “can always look it up.” And most perniciously—it is the theme of Why Knowledge Matters—there’s what Hirsch terms “the tyranny of three ideas” that steer educators in the wrong direction.

Here, in short form, are the mistaken ideas:

  • Early education should be age-appropriate and seen as part of a “natural development process.” (“Early education” in Hirsch’s world isn’t preschool; it’s kindergarten and the first several grades of school.)
  • Early education should be individualized as far as possible.
  • The main aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other
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Gisèle Huff

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order...

Frank C. Worrell and Rena F. Subotnik

Every instructional strategy, from direct instruction to the flipped classroom, elicits both negative and positive outcomes depending on when, where, and how it is employed. When it comes to using competition, however, schools tend to favor cooperative learning as the preferred approach for inter-student activities designed to increase learning and motivation.

Negative views of competition stem from early research purporting that its use in most contexts led to undermined motivation, negative self-concept, and anxiety on the part of participants.  However, research on resiliency highlights the fact that adverse conditions do not universally lead to despair; they may, in fact, fuel motivation for high levels of achievement. Failure to achieve valued goals (e.g., winning a competition) may hurt, but the result does not have to be debilitating. In fact, experiences with competition during youth present opportunities to fail under safe conditions. In doing so, they provide lessons on how to manage the range of emotions and possible behavioral responses to setbacks, particularly for those who have been sheltered from such experiences. Thus, participating in competitions also facilitates teaching about coping skills in the face of disappointment.

Another important benefit of competition is deriving feedback that leads to self-reflection and improvement. If...

At an EWA webinar last summer, I was asked to name the best thing that could happen to restore civic education as a priority for U.S. schools. My spontaneous two-word answer: “President Trump.” That was good for a cheap laugh back in the days when the Huffington Post relegated coverage of Trump’s campaign to its entertainment section. It’s not so funny in the sweltering and divisive summer of Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Nice, when we seem determined to push our tolerance for one another past the limits of human endurance.

Only the most rabidly partisan and deeply unserious among us is not a touch fearful, wondering what the hell is happening. The concern is especially deeply felt among those of us whose jobs require helping children to process the irrational actions of adults in a world that seems to inch closer to the edge every day. What will we tell the children?

Our opportunity—perhaps obligation is the better word—is to think long and hard once more about the civic mission of schools and restore a vision of schooling organized around an embrace of the civic ideals enshrined in the Constitution. A surprising and counterintuitive step in this process may be reclaiming and rehabilitating...

As a chubby girl at Treakle Elementary School (Mom said it was just “baby fat”), one thing I remember having to do was memorize my times tables. My well-meaning Dad and I sat at our kitchen table after dinner as he called out multiplication problems to me at lightning speed: six times six, twelve times eleven, eight times nine, ten times three. On and on it went. When I got one wrong (aargh!), he went back to it again (and again). Unnerving, to be sure, but I felt great pride at (eventually) memorizing the entire lot and I relished the ritual that Dad and I shared as Mom finished the dishes and my near-teen sister chatted forever on the phone.

I’ve since learned that not all teachers, kids, and parents are as smitten with memorizing fundamental math facts. Yes, some are adamant that kids must memorize the basics or they’ll fall ever farther behind. But others are just as convinced that memorization in elementary school damages youngsters academically and emotionally, stunting their genuine understanding of math concepts and leaving them frustrated, stressed, and math-averse.

Part of the rationale for academic standards is to standardize essential elements of...

Like Mom and apple pie, everyone loves and believes in a well-rounded education. Ensuring that every child gets one, however, has proven to be a challenge of Herculean magnitude—despite compelling evidence that it’s precisely what disadvantaged students most desperately need to close persistent achievement gaps and compete academically with their more fortunate peers. Enter the Every Student Succeeds Act. As this report from Scott D. Jones and Emily Workman of the Education Commission of the States (ECS) notes, while concerns about providing children a well-rounded education “have not received the same degree of attention as hot-button issues like equitable funding and accountability indicators, it could be considered a foundational element of the new federal law.”

Foundational, perhaps. But is it enforceable? Education Secretary John King has lately been using the bully pulpit to promote the virtues of a well-rounded education. “States now have the opportunity to broaden their definition of educational excellence, to include providing students strong learning experiences in science, social studies, world languages, and the arts,” King is quoted as saying by the ECS authors. “That’s a huge and welcome change.”

Yes and no. In truth, states have always had the “opportunity” to broaden their definition of educational...

The Kevin Durant edition

On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio discuss Beyoncé and cultural literacy, the racial variances in college readiness versus college completion, and Louisiana’s plan for a homegrown Common Core–aligned curriculum. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of interim assessments on student outcomes.

Amber's Research Minute

Spyros Konstantopoulos, Wei Li, Shazia R. Miller, and Arie van der Ploeg, "Effects of Interim Assessments Across the Achievement Distribution: Evidence From an Experiment," Educational and Psychological Measurement (June 2016).
  • Darius Brown’s educational biography, featured last week in the Dallas Morning News, should be encouraging for reformers. It’s the story of a bright young Texan from modest circumstances who, through his own talents and the prodigious advocacy of his single mother, took part in his district’s gifted program and won a Gates Millennium Scholars award and matriculate to Texas A&M. Unfortunately, his story isn’t representative—even though they account for 6.5 percent of the state’s students, black boys like Darius make up less than 3 percent of those enrolled in Texas’s gifted programs. One of the main reasons for the discrepancy is that too many states and districts still rely on referrals from teachers and parents for screening into such programs, rather than spending extra and instituting universal screening. As Jay Mathews argues in the Washington Post, settling for this narrower pool leads to gifted classrooms that are significantly whiter and more affluent. Above-average intelligence is a category of special learning need; the only thing setting it apart from, say, a physical disability or a lack of English fluency is that it doesn’t always make itself known. That’s why we need to do everything we can to identify and
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Last month, on the heels of the Supreme Court's decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, the hashtag ‪#‎BeckyWithTheBadGrades began trending on Twitter. If you're not sure what that phrase means or why it was so hotly discussed on social media, don't despair. You're not poorly educated, misinformed, or illiterate. But you're probably missing a bit of cultural knowledge common among young people, particularly young people of color. The clever hashtag offers a lesson in the value of cultural literacy—often a touchy subject in education—but with a nifty twist: This time, it's our students who got a cultural reference that left many adults scratching their heads.

#BeckyWithTheBadGrades, for the uninitiated, is a reference to a song from Beyoncé's new album Lemonade. Her song "Sorry" ends with the singer telling a faithless lover, "Better call Becky with the good hair." Explains Emma Pettit of the Chronicle of Higher Education: "'Becky' is a term for a stereotypical white woman, and the mention of her "good hair" alludes to society's elevation of whiteness....Thus 'Becky with the good hair' became a succinct phrase on the Internet to call out white privilege." Fisher, who argued that the university denied her admission...

  • New revelations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights provide some ominous news for both minority students and STEM enthusiasts. According to OCR’s biannual report, fewer than half the nation’s high schools offer calculus; for those with significant populations of black and Hispanic students, the rate is even lower. Among schools where black and Hispanic students made up three-quarters of the student body, just 33 percent offer calculus (compared to 56 percent of schools where black and Hispanics students made up one-quarter or less of the student body). Worse, transcript data from last year suggest that the proportion of black students taking calculus has actually declined since 2009. We also know that black and Hispanic students lag far behind their white and Asian classmates in earning AP credits. This is pretty simple, and very serious: If we don’t provide rigorous coursework to minority students—starting in middle school if not sooner—we’re limiting their potential, undermining society’s capacity to produce upward mobility, and sandbagging the country’s economic growth.
  • There’s a screaming vogue these days for the teaching of so-called “non-cognitive skills”—traits like social awareness, self-control, and resilience (depending on whom you talk to, they can also
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