NAEP: Proof of Education Insanity

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2011

The following post by Lynne Munson appeared originally on the blog of Common Core, a Washington, DC-based organization that works to promote a liberal arts, core curriculum in U.S. schools.  Munson is Common Core’s executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — rp.

I challenge anyone to think of a nation that works as hard as we do to find silver linings in its educational failures. On Tuesday morning NAEP reported that, in the course of two years, our nation’s 4th and 8th graders improved a single point (on a 500-point scale) in three of four reading and math assessments, and flatlined on the fourth. If you look at figures plotting NAEP scores over the last 30 years, any upward slope in the data is nearly undetectable to the naked eye. Analysts have spent the last few days slicing and dicing this data and making unconvincing arguments that some positive trends can be detected.

But the reality is that these results are appalling—particularly if you consider the massive federal funding increases, intense reform debates, and the incessant promises of new technologies that have dominated the education discussion for nearly two decades. We have spent a great deal and worked very hard but gotten unimpressive results. And this is in reading and math where, to the detriment of so many other core subjects, we’ve aimed nearly all of our firepower.

Einstein* defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Well, my bet is that Einstein would have deemed NAEP data absolute proof of America’s educational insanity.

We’ve spent the last twenty years attempting to make what, on the surface, appears to be a diverse, creative, and wide-ranging series of reforms to public education. We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice. We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests. We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale. We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances): None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Maybe we need to give content a chance. What I mean by “content” is the actual knowledge that is imbedded in quality curricula. Knowledge of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more. There are a few widely used curricula (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula, Core Knowledge) that effectively incorporate much of this knowledge base. And performance data strongly suggests that these curricula work for ALL students.

So let’s draw on such successes and, sure, conduct more research, do more experiments, and spend more money. But let’s do it to build a shared understanding what our students need to learn —the content they need to learn. Then let’s use the best technology available and make the kind of investments we need in professional development to teach that content effectively. In light of the poor results other approaches have yielded, is there any other sane course?


  1. I’m in 100% agreement with the fact that a lack of core content is the biggest problem we educators face today. I hate to be so negative about it, but unfortunately its a problem that will be very hard to eliminate; mainly because educators today were themselves educated in a school system void of content and core knowledge. If nobody knows the core knowledge, how can they pass it on to their students? Are we stuck? Can we change standards for teacher certification?

    In my experience I’ve seen more often than not teachers at the front of the room who don’t know their own subjects nearly as well as they should, and it shows. It shows in our results.

    Comment by Glenn — November 7, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  2. A refreshing call-to-action, and a reminder that it is always best to remove the plank from ones eye before attempting to remove the splinter from anothers. Lynne credibility suffers because Common Core’s mapping approach to the CCSS did not embrace the teacher-centric content clarity definition she advocates. The processes, tools, technology and teacher support mechnaisms she seeks exist today and could be put to good use by Common Core or Core Knowledge to achieve Lynne’s objectives… but they are not. Hopefully, the new awakening Lynne champions will invigorate Common Core to become a leader and an independent driver for the content clarity initiative she has launched. You lead, and we will follow. Thank you for taking up the banner!

    Comment by Steve — November 7, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  3. Okay Robert. How much did you pay this woman to write this article? Just kidding, big fella. She’s preaching to the choir here.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 7, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

  4. We few. We happy few. We band of brothers (and sisters)…

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 7, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

  5. The cognitive science and common sense that underpin Core Knowledge are what motivated me many years ago to take my kids from the neighborhood public schools (within walking distance) and send them to CK charter schools (long bus rides). As a parent, I am grateful to Dr. Hirsch and the other CK honchos for helping to give my kids the opportunity for a truly superior education.

    But shifting the focus from my kids to the wider society, I think Glenn captures the reality in comment #1. I see little hope that the CK approach will ever make headway in the K-12 establishment. My anecdotal personal experiences tell me that the non-content philosophy rules in most schools. Glenn’s much broader experiences confirm those insights for him.

    This is why I often express my frustration with the American Federation of Teachers for not aggressively pushing CK aggressively on the local levels. It’s wonderful that the AFT publishes glowing articles on CK and Dr. Hirsch. But if the AFT really believes in the value of the CK approach, they need to do much more. The AFT is the largest, most prominent, and most politically powerful organization that supports Core Knowledge. To overcome the inertia and outright resistance to CK from the education “thoughtworld”, we need the AFT to flex its considerable political muscle and make curriculum reform a top priority. As things stand now, most of the public believes that teachers unions only care about higher salaries, cushy pensions, and protecting even the worst teachers.

    We have a nice little niche of true believers here, mostly professional educators and the occasional layperson(me). But so many more kids could greatly benefit from the CK approach. How do we make this happen?

    Comment by John Webster — November 8, 2011 @ 6:48 am

  6. @JW One way we make this happen is by taking the Common Core ELA standards at face value. If implementation is true to the spirit, and not just the letter, then a coherent, sequential, knowledge=based curriculum is a non-negotiable. That means Core Knowledge. Or something very like it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 8, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  7. Such once were critics; such the happy few,
    Athens and Rome in better ages knew. — A. Pope

    Comment by Harold — November 8, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  8. Bravo! Bravo ! With many standing ovations.

    Comment by Elie — November 8, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  9. Anthony is spot on. The minutia administrators and schools waste so mush time on is unbelievable. Who gives a rat’s behind whether a teacher’s plan book is up to snuff or corresponds with the principal’s demands? N O B O D Y!!!

    At the end of the year can we prove that the student’s reading has improved? Is their math performance at or above grade level? Have they learned at least (if not more) the grade level science and social studies standards?

    Have they cognitively improved? Can we quantitatively and undeniably prove that they have? That’s the most important mission of school. The affective domain will take care of itself as long as we don’t hire felons or morons to teach our kids.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 8, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

  10. I’m a bit more hopeful than John W that knowledge-building will regain footing with the K-12 establishment as a crucial part of students’ effectiveness as learners, mainly because so many non-CK-affiliated folks are now throwing their voices into the ring.

    This is not to criticize CK, of course, as they’re fighting the right fight. As more Willinghams justify CK-like principles with new understandings from cognitive science, though, and more Chenoweths report enviable results from schools using the CK playbook, it’ll make it much harder for the Ed Establishment to dismiss CK as just trying to sell books, return to the good old days, etc., etc.

    The crucial factor, of course, will be ed schools/teacher training programs: it’s here, where the ideas and core beliefs of the next generations of practitioners are formed, that a stronger presence must be established if there’s any hope of seeing impact. Without such, the discussion will never be given enough serious consideration to actually change anything. We here will all just remain the happy (though, when it comes to this, I actually consider myself part of the UNhappy) few, per Robert’s comment.

    I don’t know about anyone here, but when I was going through such a program years ago (not to mention all the professional development and supplemental courses I’ve taken since), if any mention was made about E.D. Hirsch or prioritizing knowledge-building, it was dismissed out of hand as misguided, opportunistic, and/or backwards. An ed professor here or there across the nation’s teacher training programs could change things significantly, simply by making sense to, say, 30% of new professionals entering the ranks.

    Ph.D. programs, anyone?

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — November 9, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  11. Eric,

    That will be the trick. What can make CK sexy, provocative, and alluring enough for ed schools/teacher colleges to embrace it so it can gain traction with the next generation of teachers? Of course quantitative results would be helpful, and publicizing them as well for all to see.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 9, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

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