The Skills Stranglehold

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 21st, 2013

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious already, but today’s Metlife Survey of the American Teacher confirms that the nation’s teachers are demoralized. How could it be otherwise, with pressure to build the Common Core plane while flying it and also facing new evaluation and accountability requirements?

I don’t want to brush off any of these very real problems, but I do want to suggest that they are not the heart of the matter. Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have. The report states (p. 65):

Middle school and high school principals and teachers are less likely than their elementary school counterparts to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will improve student achievement (principals: 73% vs. 85%; teachers: 61% vs. 76%). Middle school and high school teachers are less likely than elementary school teachers to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will better prepare students for college and the workforce (63% vs. 78%); principals’ views on this do not differ significantly by school level.

At all levels, just “two in 10 principals or teachers indicate that they are very confident that the Common Core will have these effects.” How can this be? Teachers could be feeling too downtrodden to have great confidence in anything, but I think the real answer is hidden in the report itself. There’s a hint in the report’s “From the Experts” box (p. 58):

The public education thought leaders interviewed as part of the survey development process … are concerned that some teachers and principals may be underestimating how large a shift in curriculum, teaching, and assessment may be required to implement the new standards fully.

  • “In all but a handful of states around the country, there are new academic standards that are being implemented that will demand very fundamental changes in teaching and learning; very fundamental changes in the instructional practices that teachers use in the classroom. Teachers say they’re aware of the standards and they like the standards; they’re not much different than what they’re doing now, which is generally not the case.”
  • “The rigor is simply much harder or much more demanding than most states have had in the past, so dealing with the real benchmark of where you are as a teacher and your performance and your mastery of these standards and how well your students are going to do is kind of a… I don’t know whether the word is culture shock, when you start seeing the true benchmark as opposed to where you thought you were.”

The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

It can’t get through: The barrier erected by the skills stranglehold is far stronger than anyone realizes. Consider this, from the very beginning of the report’s section on the Common Core (p. 53):

Middle and high school teachers indicate that the critical components of being college- and career-ready focus more on higher-order thinking and performance skills—such as problem-solving skills, critical-thinking skills and the ability to write clearly and persuasively—than on knowledge of challenging content.

Here we see the skills stranglehold in its purest form. Skills can’t be more important than knowledge for college and career because without knowledge, there are no “higher-order thinking and performance skills.” Skills depend on knowledge. If I don’t know any physics, I can’t think critically about physics. And, the more I know about physics, the more successful I will be in solving physics problems.

Lest you think I’m making too much of this one sentence about middle and high school teachers, let me take you back to the 2010 MetLife survey. On page 21, you’ll see this:

And on page 22, you’ll see this handy summary:

Teachers share remarkably similar views on the importance of these skills, abilities and knowledge areas regardless of grade level taught, years of experience, school characteristics or even subject area. English teachers are most likely to say the ability to write clearly and persuasively is absolutely essential or very important (99%), and 92% of math teachers also rate this ability as highly. While less than half (45%) of English teachers say that knowledge and ability in higher-level mathematics, such as trigonometry and calculus is absolutely essential or very important, math teachers themselves do not rate the necessity of higher-level mathematics much more highly (50%).

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

But I can’t really blame them. Teachers have themselves been taught that skills are transferrable, independent of particular knowledge or mere facts. The skills stranglehold has been tightening its grip for nearly 100 years. Recently, educators’ focus on skills—particularly so-called 21st century skills—and disparagement of knowledge got so bad that the National Research Council took up the issue, clarifying that skills and knowledge can’t be separated, and then exploring how deepening content knowledge could lead to better skills:

In contrast to a view of 21st century skills as general skills that can be applied to a range of different tasks in various academic, civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views 21st century skills as dimensions of expertise that are specific to—and intertwined with—knowledge within a particular domain of content and performance. (p. 3)

Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem, or context, in or out of school. Nevertheless, it has identified features of instruction that are likely to substantially support deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies within a topic area or discipline. For example, we now know that transfer [within a discipline] is supported when learners understand the general principles underlying their original learning and the transfer situation or problem involves the same general principles—a finding reflected in the new Common Core State Standards…. (p. 8)

The necessary merger of deep content knowledge and higher-order skills is indeed reflected in the Common Core standards. But sadly, we have a long way to go for it to be reflected in most of our classrooms.

28 Comments »

  1. Once there is a veto on knowledge, all you have left are content-free skills.

    Will Fitzhugh
    The Concord Review
    http://www.tcr.org
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — February 21, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

  2. This is exactly why I don’t trust CC; there’s too much likelihood of standards being subverted by teachers and admins who really don’t see domain-specific content knowledge as a prerequisite for critical thinking and problem-solving. In addition, too few ES teachers have enough content knowledge across the disciplines to teach it decently. Too many years have been spent on process, not content.

    Comment by momof4 — February 21, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  3. What specific knowledge of the people, events, dates, etc., of, for example, European History, are mandated by the Common Core? How will this historical knowledge, or any other specific historical knowledge, be tested under the new assessment plans for the Common Core? Mostly there seems to be talk about “deeper reading” but not much mention of specific required knowledge, as far as I can tell…

    Will Fitzhugh
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — February 21, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

  4. @momof4,

    Wish you were a mom of four million (philosophically, not physically) so the message you’re espousing could be better disseminated. There are simply too many that do not subscribe to the significance of students developing domain-specific content knowledge as a prerequisite for critical thinking and problem-solving. That’s a problem, and a difficult one to overcome.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 21, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

  5. Does David Coleman understand this? Does he understand how this is a torpedo bearing down on his tin-clad ship? Does he has the leadership skill to avoid the disaster? Somewhere, somehow, opinion leaders must emerge. What about the AFT? All this lovely stuff gets published, after all, in their magazine, and yet there is no evidence whatsoever that even the president of the organization understands it. …Somebody needs to call a meeting. There has to be a plan, a strategy. If it isn’t David Coleman or Randy Weingarten, who is it gonna be?

    Comment by bill eccleston — February 21, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

  6. This belief in skills over content has firmly taken hold in almost every school of education in America. Going through teacher training, I took exactly zero tests. No content or subject matter was expected to be mastered, simply a plethora of “activities” and skills. When a teacher lands his or her first job, administrators often mandate the standard or skill be posted and constantly referred to during class. This gives teachers the notion that they can directly teach the skill specified within the standard. A few years back a colleague of mine was teaching Hamlet in her English class. When the principal walked through she asked, “What does Hamlet have to do with the standards?” The administrator held the belief that students should be focusing on a skill rather than a culturally relevant piece of literature. This anecdote is hardly and anomaly; many administrators like to see “higher order thinking” or collaborative group work rather than worrying about content.
    There is nothing wrong with group work or critical thinking, but it cannot take place without content knowledge. Administrators have simply been brought up in the same education world as teachers, so they will continue to emphasize skills devoid of content, and it is unlikely that education will undergo the “knowledge revolution” that it so badly needs.

    Comment by KP — February 21, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

  7. @momof four, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t see how a (perhaps willful) misreading or misinterpretation of the CC is the fault of the CC.

    Comment by alamo — February 21, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  8. How can anything change unless we change the schools of education? Is there a single school of education in the US that doesn’t preach skills over content?

    Comment by ponderosa — February 21, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  9. alamo: Misreading the CC, willfully or otherwise, may not be inherently the fault of the CC but I do see it as part of the justification for opposing it. As I’ve said before, it has the potential to have the power of a national curriculum without having a good one. There are too many unknowns and too many ways it can be distorted, hijacked or otherwise destroyed.

    Comment by momof4 — February 21, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

  10. Ponderosa: I’m not sure if one exists. Reminds me of David Mccullough’s statements about no teacher should major in education.

    Comment by KP — February 21, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

  11. momof4, What do you want for the CC? To advocate for its implementation as it was intended? For it to be abandoned and opposed completely?

    In the absence of CC (it sounds like you think the whole thing should be jettisoned, but I’m not sure), what solution do you propose? It seems to me that any solution that anyone proposes–including a national curriculum–has the potential to be distorted and hijacked, so this does not seem like a valid reason for opposing CC.

    Comment by alamo — February 21, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

  12. Another reason that the skills approach has a stranglehold is that there is almost no pushback from parents. Parents speak up about lots of things that happen in schools, but few parents regard themselves as informed enough about education to oppose whatever pedagogical philosophies schools are implementing.

    Even worse, the skills/progressive philosophy has permeated deeply into American culture. The vast majority of parents view the progressive platitudes as obviously true: critical thinking skills are more important than memorizing “mere facts” which can be readily accessed on Google; kids should learn how to work in teams, as that’s how the real world operates (this belief is wrong in the way that people believe it, a topic worthy of its own comment); learning how to learn is the most crucial part of schooling, as we’ll need to learn new things, new jobs, etc. throughout our lives; and on and on.

    An anecdotal example of the typical parent’s beliefs occurred to me two years ago while waiting at the school bus stop. I was talking to a mother of a student at the CK charter that our kids were attending. I worked my brief elevator speech about the value of the CK curriculum into the conversation: you need facts to think critically, CK is well-grounded in scientific research, etc. The mother cordially brushed off my CK advocacy by saying that the most important education for her daughter was to “learn how to think” and to “learn how to get along with others.”

    CK blog readers, wherever you live, try my elevator speech (1-2 minutes long) on parents you come across, and I guarantee that 90% of the time you’ll get the same response that my bus stop parent gave. We CK types have a very steep hill to climb.

    Comment by John Webster — February 22, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

  13. @John Webster- I think you might be surprised at how much parents speak up, but realistically we are mostly considered annoying novices that don’t know what teachers know. Most schools have a designated place for parents, raise money for programs that the teachers/principal wants. When we stray from that role we are steered back in a very condesending manner. I do think parents are seeking more, but it is hard to know what will help our kids and eduspeak can sound very cool even if it is useless. As one person told me once- a picture of a smiling child next to any idea makes it sound good.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 22, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  14. @John,

    A steep hill to climb, indeed.

    Sadly, the hill is guarded not just by a number of parents, but worse, by too many “educators.” I’m not saying they’re not entitled to their opinion, just don’t put one of them at the front of my granddaughter’s class. At the end of each year, I want to be reassured she’s learned something, not just filled the void of seat time so they can promote her to the next grade.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 22, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  15. Anybody out there belong to the NEA? I do. Check out the Winter 2013 issue our magazine, “neatoday”. (No, that “n” is not a typo.) It features two things of interest. First, in the “President’s Viewpoint” titled “Getting to The Core of Common Core,” NEA prez Dennis Van Roekel finished his homily on the virtues of 21 Century Skills and how the Core will promote them with Robert Pondiscio’s “All I want for Christmas” plea that we first read here. Innocent enough, but then turn to page 38 and read “Testing Changes Course” and you’ll weep to see how deeply embedded the skills view is in the mind of the nation’s largest teacher’s union. …Robert, you’ve got your foot in the door there. Think you could now get them to publish a complete treatment of your thought?

    Comment by bill eccleston — February 24, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  16. @Ponderosa – The only way we can end the ed-school “skills over all” system of dominance is to stop requiring ed-school degrees for teaching positions. Public schooled kids should have access to the same pool of teachers that private prep schools use— People with subject area degrees who would shoot themselves in the head if they had to put up with the inane coursework required for an MAT degree.

    Also, one segment of the US population is managing to avoid the skills over knowledge chasm– homeschoolers. If you look at the popular homeschool curricula, they all emphasize actual knowledge, arranged sequentially and appropriate to grade level. Oddly enough, this is a segment where different players must compete for education dollars, and where parents exercise free choice.

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — February 24, 2013 @ 11:36 am

  17. A skills-heavy approach is now being sold another way: pieces by popular writers such as Seth Godin are telling readers that traditional education is outmoded because it was set up to train pupils for a compliant life of factory work.

    The public is embracing Godin’s view and the ideal of project-oriented schooling and conscious rejection of traditional teaching is gaining even more widespread acceptance with even those who are not directly involved in education. I hope E.D. Hirsch will weigh in on this–I’m curious how the view can be effectively refuted.

    Here is the link to Godin’s work: http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/stopstealingdreamsscreen.pdf

    Comment by Angie B. — February 25, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

  18. @Bill I was forced to be a dues paying member of the NEA for 35 years, even though I disagreed with 95% of their policies. Not happy.

    They are easily the most self-serving group in America today. They don’t give a rat’s behind about kids. All they care about is the money they steal from their members. They then turn around and spend a great deal of that money on advancing their agenda of political campaigns and ideologies. Again, not happy. And one NEA president is worse than the one before. They all spew the fraudulent party line, “We need resources FOR THE CHILDREN.” My %$#@!

    I get emails from them regularly urging me to contact my congressmen to vote such and such a way on their most recent cause but don’t get their magazine. Anyway you could possibly post a link to Robert’s “All I Want for Christmas?”

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  19. @Anthony,

    CCSS should improve education in those states that had anemic standards under NCLB, and there were a number of them. Not only did these states have weak standards, they were accompanied by fraudulent state assessments, and pathetically low thresholds for proficient; all this in an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of parents and taxpayers in their state as well as Washington.

    So yes, for these states the new CCSS will definitely be more rigorous and they will have to drastically change what they’ve done since 2001.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

  20. Paul, Robert’s “All I Want for Christmas” plea is the last paragraph of his December 20th post here. Yes, the NEA… The first 3 letters of “Neanderthal.”

    Comment by bill eccleston — February 27, 2013 @ 7:35 am

  21. Sorry for the delayed response, Bill and Paul. I hadn’t seen that the NEA had cited my piece. Thanks for the heads-up. Not sure what to make of it, but it’s worth exploring.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 9, 2013 @ 10:08 am

  22. A recent #edchat on Twitter offered on disturbing tweet:
    “HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.”
    This comment, which was roundly retweeted and complimented by educators indicates that we have every right to be concerned about the “skills stranglehold” as you say, “Here we see the skills stranglehold in its purest form. Skills can’t be more important than knowledge for college and career because without knowledge, there are no “higher-order thinking and performance skills.” Skills depend on knowledge.”

    My response to the tweet: http://usedbooksinclass.com/2013/05/09/great-teachers-are-content-area-experts-balanced-with-skills/

    Comment by Colette Bennett — May 10, 2013 @ 10:51 am

  23. [...] analyze information. The knowledge side, headed by the great E. D. Hirsch, complain about the skills stranglehold and want to emphasize the need for students to know things—facts organized into a logical [...]

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  24. [...] analyze information. The knowledge side, headed by the great E. D. Hirsch, complain about the skills stranglehold and want to emphasize the need for students to know things—facts organized into a logical [...]

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  25. […] learn skills in the abstract: imagine trying to think critically about nothing in particular. In a February 2013 essay on the topic, E.D. Hirsch cites a 2012 study by the National Research Council, which found that […]

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  26. […] learn skills in the abstract: imagine trying to think critically about nothing in particular. In a February 2013 essay on the topic, E.D. Hirsch cites a 2012 study by the National Research Council, which found that […]

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  27. […] learn skills in the abstract: imagine trying to think critically about nothing in particular. In a February 2013 essay on the topic, E.D. Hirsch cites a 2012 study by the National Research Council, which found that […]

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  28. […] learn skills in the abstract: imagine trying to think critically about nothing in particular. In a February 2013 essay on the topic, E.D. Hirsch cites a 2012 study by the National Research Council, which found that […]

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