by Diane Ravitch
I have been a supporter of Core Knowledge from its beginning. Indeed, as Don Hirsch will testify, I urged him to write the book that eventually became Cultural Literacy, after I heard him speak iat a conference in 1983. Like Don, I believe that children need a firm command of not just vocabulary and skills, but background knowledge that will help them understand new words and new ideas.
Over the years, I have come to understand that children need a strong, rich, coherent curriculum, filled with the amazing ideas, experiences, discoveries and people that awaken children’s passion to learn and keep on learning.
But I have discovered something else. It is very difficult for children to become deeply engaged in learning when they come to school hungry; when their eyesight is so poor that they can’t read; when their hearing is impaired but no one knows it; when their family moves from place to place because they don’t have a decent home; and when their family income is so uncertain that their home is filled with anxiety about meeting basic needs.
Thus, while I am a firm advocate of academic excellence, I came to sign an ad calling for a “bolder, broader approach” to education, one in which the government paid attention not only to school improvement but to the health and well-being of children. This group and its statement were organized by Richard Rothstein and Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and they gathered an illustrious group of signatories. It endorsed more spending for pre-K programs, after-school programs, and health programs for children. The statement’s basic argument was that schools alone–absent an effort to reduce poverty and its effects–cannot eliminate the racial achievement gap.
Yes, I believe that children need a rich curriculum–my preference is the one called Core Knowledge; and yes, I believe that our government should provide a safety net so that young children are not burdened with terrible economic and social disadvantages.
This seemed commonsensical to me, but then I read David Brooks’ startling and disturbing column in the New York Times on June 13, 2008. Brooks is normally a wise thinker, which made his comments especially troubling. He divided the education world into two groups. On one side was the “status quo camp,” the group that signed the “broader, bolder” statement. On the other side was the “reform camp.” The reform camp, led by Reverend Al Sharpton and Chancellor Joel Klein insists that schools alone can do the job of reducing the achievement gap; the reform camp emphasizes tough accountability measures (more testing) and “changing the fundamental structure of school systems” (by which he means issuing more charters for independently run schools). At the Sharpton-Klein press conference, there was quite a lot of union-bashing, and assertions that the unions–selfishly representing the interests of teachers–bear responsibility for the racial achievement gap.
So if I have this right, America’s schools would be more successful if teachers did not belong to unions; if there were even more testing than at present; and if there were many more charter schools. Not a word was said about curriculum and instruction by this august “reform camp,” which included Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., Superintendent Andres Alonso of Baltimore, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, Roy Romer of Ed in ’08, and Andrew Rotherham, former Clinton education advisor.
Will America’s achievement gap really be eliminated by testing kids more? Why would anyone think so? The fact that there were no teachers nor any experienced education administrators represented in “the reform camp” suggests that its press conference was a political show, one that has no support among the people expected to implement its proposals. The fact that the “agenda,” such as it was, was presented by Rev. Al Sharpton, who has no educational credentials, who has never attempted to improve schools where he lives, is a tip-off to the emptiness of the group and its proposals. Why were they assembled? What is the point of the Sharpton-Klein program? Why is it good politics to call for more testing and more charters? Well, it works. It gets good press. Even a smart guy like David Brooks was fooled into calling this pap a “reform” agenda.