I try not to give in to despair, but in reading recent recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA, I see America wasting another 50 years on unproductive reforms.

James S. Coleman said schools matter a great deal for poor kids, but we focus on the factors outside of school mattering more. A Nation At Risk warned of rigor’s disappearance, but we continue to pursue content-light strategies instead of content-heavy subjects. High-performing nations demonstrate that a national core curriculum (that specifies knowledge, not mere skills) enables improvement in everything from teacher preparation to student learning and assessment, but we refuse to do the hard work of selecting a core of knowledge for all our students. Our last decade under No Child Left Behind has shown that reading tests without a definite curriculum are counterproductive, but here we go again.

It was with high hopes that I began reading “Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.” A consensus document by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Paul T. Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, this third way makes important points about the need for assessment and accountability to stay focused on closing the achievement gap—and the need for flexibility in demonstrating student and school progress.

In particular, there are two points of agreement that I find very heartening:

Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job….

Because a student’s level and pace of learning in any one year depend in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

Here we have two essential points: there are specific things that children need to know and these specific things build year to year. I actually became hopeful that this consensus document would take the next logical step and call for a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. That’s the only thing that would make it clear if “children are learning what they need” and that would enable professionals to work together to build knowledge across grades.

But my hopes were short lived. The consensus document retreated to politically safe, educationally useless ground: “Because what children need to know evolves with knowledge, technology, and economic demands, an accountability system must encourage high performance and continuous improvement.” Later they actually call for “rich subject matter assessments,” but then undermine the idea by ignoring curriculum and, once again, retreating: “Because science, technology, and the economy are constantly shifting, the measures and standards used to assess schools must be continuously updated to reflect new content and valued skills.”

I hear all the time that information is growing at a shocking rate, and that today’s knowledge will be out of date before students graduate. Obviously, students don’t need knowledge, they need to learn how to find knowledge.

Please people! “Information” is only growing with lightning speed if you count the cat videos being loaded onto YouTube. There is amazing research being done—but very little of it affects elementary and secondary education, or college, career, and citizenship. In a terrific new book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof tackle this silliness:

To name just a few things that we learned when we were children: the Pythagorean theorem still holds true…, as does the gravitational constant and the acceleration of a falling body on Earth…, there are still seven continents…, the Norman conquest of England took place in 1066, and a limerick has five lines and a sonnet fourteen. The fact is that much or most of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful.



Shutterstock Image
According to Urban Myths, a former Google executive said, “Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes … of information created. We [now] create five exabytes every two days.” (Informational image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

What Darling-Hammond and Hill should have written is this: Because cognitive science shows that broad knowledge is essential to meet technology, economic, and citizenship demands, an accountability system must encourage a content-specific, well-rounded curriculum that inspires high performance and continuous improvement by testing what has been taught and thus providing data that teachers can actually use to inform instruction.

Darling-Hammond and Hill are thought leaders in the education arena. They know that skills depend on knowledge, and they know that there is a body of knowledge—from the Constitution to the Pythagorean theorem—that could form a core curriculum for the United States. In their third way, they are being politically realistic. And I am falling into despair.

Our kids don’t need more political pragmatism. They need excellence and equity. They need leaders to ensure that all children get an equal opportunity to learn “what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.”

For yet more evidence that political pragmatism isn’t working, check out the latest NAEP report, which shows almost no meaningful growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary is a proxy for knowledge and critical to comprehension. As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is the key to upward mobility. Cognitive science and common sense have given us a clear path forward: build knowledge and skills together with a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. Let’s not waste another 50 years. It will be incredibly hard for Americans to agree on a core curriculum. But nothing else will work.

12 comments on “No Progress on Accountability, No Hope for Equity”

  1. 1
    Merriol Almond on April 7, 2015

    We’ ve heard this before – “things are changing so fast that knowledge doesn’t matter.” Phooey. Kids with knowledge rich backgrounds will be in a position to understand what they read and kids from less knowledge rich backgrounds – or from stressed out families- will flounder as they are doing now.
    This know nothing “allergy to knowledge” is a disaster possibly about to happen again. It may be politically expedient for some but it’s terrible for our country and for our kids.
    Our grandchildren are benefitting from schools that use the core knowledge curriculum and it’s working well for them. Let’s keep it!

  2. 2
    Jim on April 7, 2015

    America wasting another 50 years on unproductive reforms is a given. I just went through a teacher education program. This is where the problem lies. The education industry will never be a part of productive reform.

  3. 3
    Ponderosa on April 7, 2015

    I share your pessimism, Lisa. Everyone is taken in by vague terms like “critical thinking skills” and “problem solving skills” and “reading skills”. These buzzwords are taken to refer to real entities that can be taught. But in fact they’re just words without referents and they prevent clear thinking about education. Both supporters and detractors of Common Core agree that these things exist and should form the centerpiece of the educational project in this country. Thus the whole nation is blind to the true essence of education; they are like the dupes in Plato’s cave thinking the shadows on the wall are real beings. As Jim says, the education schools have formed a syndicate to prevent the truth from being heard. Those of us who speak out lack the mantle of authority that the ed schools provide, so it makes sense that lay people would not credit us. We also face the challenge of trying to make a rather deep, abstract argument about the nature of the mind that is not easy to comprehend. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Kant held that critical thinking skills were built into the brain (a priori faculties). American thinking on education is premised on the view that Kant was a fool; that critical thinking and other core mental skills are NOT built in; they have to be imparted by teachers through exercises that elicit critical thinking. The new Common Core standards and tests purport to teach and test these congenital faculties. Folly. Schools cannot impart thinking skills yet that’s what we tell them to do. Schools CAN unequivocally impart knowledge, yet that is what we tell them not to do. Knowledge optimizes the critical thinking faculties we’re born with –it widens their scope of action from common and familiar realms (e.g. play toys) to unfamiliar realms (e.g. rocket science, literary analysis, cooking, etc.). The old fashioned view of education –that it’s about teaching knowledge –still holds true, but Americans’ fuzzy heads are so bedazzled by confusing buzzwords like “problem solving skills” that they cannot believe it.

  4. 4
    Jim on April 7, 2015

    Fine words Ponderosa. It has been an unbelievably frustrating process going through a graduate teaching program, knowing what I was being taught was bunk, and then finding my way to groups like Core Knowledge. The Plato’s cave analogy is perfect! I have young kids in some of the most “progressive” schools in the country. They have adopted these fallacious views to an extreme and supplanted any content knowledge with social justice ideology. So, the kids end up simply being indoctrinated or brainwashed with partisan teaching materials like Howard Zinn’s history book for kids. It isn’t even subtle. I feel like a would be on firm legal grounds with a lawsuit.

  5. 5
    Ponderosa on April 8, 2015

    Jim, I am a labor activist and a leftist in many ways and I did enjoy Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States for highlighting the maltreatment of labor, the poor and minorities –stories that I never heard before college — but I detest the social justice curriculum. It IS brainwashing. Kids should hear what reasonable people on both sides of the political spectrum think. I also detest many leftist teachers’ fixation on hot button issues. As if there’s nothing more important for the K-16 education system to do but train people to see racism, sexism and homophobia in everything. And talk about gender. It’s fine to learn about these things, but they should constitute 1% of an education, not 100%! It’s such a sad reduction –nay, outright rejection of –our whole human inheritance. I find it sad to meet graduates of erstwhile great liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore who seem to know nothing but gender theory. This mutant strain of leftism has impoverished generations of college grads’ souls. Some of these impoverished souls go on to teach and they have nothing more palatable to offer than “Let’s find patriarchy in this Shakespeare sonnet”.

  6. 6
    Jim on April 8, 2015

    Ponderosa, I’m gonna take your words to the school board! Well said! I also think Zinn’s book has it’s use. I am not speaking as a conservative whose views aren’t represented. Here in Eugene, OR, I am trying to raise my kids in what you so originally (to my ears anyway) call a mutant strain of leftism. And, yes the biggest loss, is our cultural and even human inheritance.

  7. 7
    Ponderosa on April 8, 2015

    E.D. Hirsch is the Copernicus of education. I wonder if debunking the dominant ideas on education today will be as hard are debunking Ptolemy.

  8. 8
    Tom Sundstrom on April 8, 2015

    Let’s work to solve this problem instead of turning this into a despair party. The information on college and career readiness and accountability isn’t anything new. It’s seeing the sad reality of the long view that’s the problem. We need solutions that can achieve 80-90% college and career readiness with the ability to set reasonable accountability on all the players. And we need this in less than our current century-long trajectory.

    Core Knowledge has all the materials for a solution, but the realistic solution is not to have a single common curriculum across the land – not Core Knowledge or any other. While it’s a logical answer, it’s not a feasible solution.

    Competency based education has the potential to produce high student achievement. It has momentum, it’s logical, and it eliminates an enormous flaw in the current system by advancing the learning process on mastery. But it’s going to take putting foundational tools and definitional information in place. The good news is that Core Knowledge has the raw materials that could form the initial seed load for the definitional information and example instructional materials.

    The key to implementing CBL for maximum benefit is enabling states and/or districts to clearly define competencies based on a stable, but always expanding, content library – teachable and measureable knowledge and skills at specific cognitive levels. Instead of a single, universal set of content, the compromise is a universal definition of each content element. This is the basis for clear learning objectives, measurements and accountability.

  9. 9
    DC Parent on April 9, 2015

    So much of education theory feels like it is rearranging the deck chairs. When I saw this statistic today it made my heart sink for the future… the needle has not moved for 40 years in terms of preparedness…

    Nobody should celebrate the fact that fewer than 40 percent of high school seniors are academically prepared for college-level work. (ACT shows similar “readiness” proportions for those who take its high-stakes test.) But why do we have the sense that this problem has worsened over time?

    That’s because the proportion of recent high school graduates attending college is far higher than the proportion of twelfth graders who are prepared for college—and that gap has worsened over time. It started at 21 percentage points in 1992, grew to 33 points in 2005, and stood at 28 points as of 2013. (These numbers are for reading.)

  10. 10
    Charlotte on April 9, 2015

    I have a lot of faith in Dan Willingham–his book (along with this blog) was the one that introduced me to the world of evidence-based thinking on education, and he is media savvy and a great writer. I hope his new book on raising readers will introduce a lot more people to better ideas about education.

  11. 11
    Keri Lamle on October 25, 2017

    Is there nothing that can be done to get education back on track in this country? I worry that Core Knowledge is slipping in its reach; likewise, the push for so called norm based standards is becoming all the rage. I am not fond of the new alliance with Amplify and I can’t locate any of the assessment resources or math curriculum that used to be available. Last week I had to order a copy 1998 copy of a monthly topic organizer because I can no longer access the newer version previously available.

    With the recent Supreme Courts decision on adequate yearly progress seems to be perceive as a threat, instead of a moral imperative. Districts and states seem to want to solve the issue of measurement by removing the tools use required for such a measurement to be accomplished. What is good for teachers -in terms of working conditions- is NOT the same as what is necessarily good for students.

    How can we work together to inform parents and communities of the media manipulation and provide a buffer for the children?

    1. 12
      Jamie Talbot on December 12, 2017

      Thank you, Keri, for your reply to this blog post. If you would like help to find any resources on our new website, including items from our old site that may have been moved or archived, please do not hesitate to contact us to send a message with details about exactly what you are looking for. For instance, many of the lessons plans for mathematics are now posted to the Teacher-created Lesson Plans page. You might also be interested in reading about the pilot program for the Core Knowledge Online Assessment, which is currently underway. I hope these links help and, again, feel free to contact us if you have additional questions.

      Jamie Talbot
      School Support & Curriculum Specialist
      Core Knowledge Foundation

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