It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Problem

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2009

Mark Bauerlein has a piece on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm blog that should give pause to those whose definition of achievement in public education starts and stops with reading and math scores. 

Bauerlein spins a fictional tale of a top Emory University law school student interviewing at one of the leading law firms in Atlanta.  Over lunch with the senior partners, the conversation turns toward the older gentlemen’s memories of the Cold War. “It’s not a test, and it’s not planned,” Bauerlein notes.  ”For them, the Cold War is simply one of those realities that any intelligent person is familiar with and has some opinions about.”  But the overachieving young man has nothing to add and is conspicuously out of his depth.   

The others have the tact to move on, but they note the deficiency. It doesn’t cost the young man the job, but the senior fellows make a judgment. This guy, they think, is sharp and hard-working, but get out of his training and he doesn’t bring much to the table. The deeper awareness that makes for a sober judgment and wider perspective is missing…This is the professional value of cultural literacy. It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize. The measure is informal, yes, but it makes a difference in how peers and superiors regard you.

Bauerlein’s piece reminded me of a conversation I had with an unusually bright student a few years ago.  She blew away every math and reading test she’d ever taken, but her walking around knowledge of even basic history, geography and current events was virtually nonexistent (Granted, she was a 5th grader, but she was under the impression that New Jersey was a country).  Discussing the gaps in her education, I told her, “This is not your fault, but it is your problem.”  Indeed, this young lady had done absolutely everything asked of her in school.  Her lack of breadth was not something she chose, but something we had allowed to happen to her.   If the gaps in her knowledge persist into adulthood, I knew, the world would certainly judge her skeptically, even harshly, for precisely the reasons Bauerlein describes–especially as a person of color from the South Bronx. 

Crucially, this was a kid with top scores on standardized tests–one of my school’s rare ”double 4s” in both math and reading.  By that measure–but only by that measure–a screaming success story of public education.  But what the data doesn’t show, and Baurlein’s piece reminds us, is that out in the real world there are very different metrics at work.  There’s too often far less to our current definition of success than meets the eye.


  1. And without good background knowledge, she would not continue to score at the top of reading tests. The correlation of background knowledge and reading test scores increases dramatically as kids get to middle and then high school. . .in adults it’s around .60.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — June 11, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  2. wow I love the line “it’s not your fault, but it is your problem.” This could be a mantra for a lot of us.

    Comment by MS — June 11, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  3. Like Dan, I wonder whether your fifth grader continued to succeed through middle and high school without the background knowledge to support her continued success.

    Unfortunately, much talk of closing achievement gaps focuses on percentages of children from different subjects reaching proficiency (variously defined) as measured by state assessments. We could have 100% of children from every group reaching proficiency on those assessments and still suffer from large achievement gaps. Much research on what works must rely on imperfect state assessments to define outcomes. This shortcoming limits our ability to draw useful lessons from research on high-profile reform ideas.

    I agree with you that we need broader and more robust measures of achievement.

    Comment by Claus — June 11, 2009 @ 11:11 am

  4. Um, hate to break it to you, but New Jersey IS a country.

    Comment by GGW — June 11, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  5. My 4th grader and 1st grader are able to articulate that they do not “learn anything” in school without prompting. My children attend public school, albeit because we won the school lottery in that they got into a French immersion public school. There French is excellent, but they still have learned nearly nothing about history or science in school. I home school all year long to make up for this astonishing failure. It is one of those excruciating things to deal with today – coping with the way America’s so called education “experts” completely ignore and deny how young children so easily enjoy and absorb “facts”. It is my personal belief, based on my experience as a teacher and tutor, that if you do not excite children about history and science when they are most open to it – before age 11 – than the opportunity is lost until they are adults, for the majority. I teach in several schools in an enrichment program that focuses on science and has ties to “social studies”. I’m so drained by the lack of background knowledge of the kids. I see 4th graders that don’t know why a snake is different from a bird, cannot tell me that the Chesapeake Bay flows into the Atlantic Ocean (we live in MD), and have never heard of pioneers. Thank God for summer break. I need it to take on these challenges in the fall.

    Comment by Gina — June 11, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  6. I was raised by two college-educated parents who read books, magazines and all four Chicago newspapers. We discussed current events — should Red China be admitted to the UN? are subsidized U.S. farm exports hurting Third World nations? — at the dinner table. I read a lot of biography and history as well as tons of fiction. Being broadly knowledgeable has been enormously helpful to me. I can learn new things easily because I have context.

    However, I think smart kids with poorly educated parents won’t learn most of what they need in school. They should be given reading lists == and library cards.

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — June 15, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  7. Great find!

    btw, I may have an opening here to advocate for bringing the Core Knowledge curriculum to my district —

    Keep your fingers crossed.

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — June 17, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  8. A law school graduate is what- 24? How is somebody that age going to have anything of value to say about the Cold War? I’m 32 and I don’t really remember all that much about the Soviet Union. I do remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV when I was in jr. high, but any opinion I might have about the Cold War is going to be based on second- or third-hand experience.

    I would imagine that the “Greatest Generation” had similar grumblings about the Baby Boomers vis a vis WWII.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — June 18, 2009 @ 1:45 am

  9. Teaching cultural literacy is not a new concept. State Content Standards for Public Schools, which exist in all content areas, including physical education, performing and visual arts, social studies, science, health, English-language development, mathematics and language arts, adequately delineate the content of a culturally literate education. We need to stop trying to fix our educational system and start using it.

    Comment by eveheart — June 20, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  10. It’s not just focusing on tests which can be a problem. Critical literacy can take up so much time in discussion even in third grades subject areas that content covered can be minimal. I have just been reading an article in one of our literacy-educators journal which describes a science session like that, spent entirely on examining a text about where it said ‘rocks’ when it should have said ‘minerals’. Third grade!
    Another problem is the high value on complex and conflated discourse – i.e. making things seem much harder than they are.
    There is a lot of Core Knowledge that adults need to have acquired – but far too much school time can be spent not touching it, and even regarding it as ‘useless factoids’.

    Comment by Valerie Yule — June 21, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  11. I still think the main problem with the 21st Century Skills movement is that it is presumptuous and over-reaching. Curriculum goals should not be set in terms of such goals or outcomes becuase we have little idea what base of knowledge people are starting from, let alone how much more they are going to learn. Learning is internal and autonomous, not totalitarian mind control. Knowledge-based curricular goals respect this autonomy. We can ask, or suggest that this is what you ought to know, but if want to remain ignorant, that’s your free choice. Your current ignorance may not be your fault, but its discontinuance or otherwise is your choice.

    Comment by John W. Addie — June 24, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

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