The High Price of Willful Ignorance

by Guest Blogger
October 3rd, 2013

Joe Nocera’s op-ed for the New York Times last week, “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s),” is about the radically different experiences three teachers (actual sisters) had in learning to teach. For all three, teacher preparation was, well, less than useful. Nocera’s piece is about the need to greatly improve teacher preparation—and I fully agree with him, and with NCTQ, that an overhaul is desperately needed.

But far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the sisters’ experiences once they started teaching.

Two of the three, Edel Carolan and Melinda Johnson, “have undergraduate degrees in elementary education, yet they both recalled how lost they felt when they first stood in front of a classroom.” One was so desperate that she asked a former professor for help. The other “recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job—classroom management, organization, lesson planning—were things she had to figure out on her own.”

The third, Denise Dargan, did not have a teaching degree. She too felt unprepared in the beginning, but then “she made it sound as if learning on the job was relatively easy.”

What’s the difference? Dargan taught at Icahn Charter School. She was hired by Jeff Litt, who was then the principal and is now the superintendent of the seven Icahn Charter Schools. Litt made learning to teach easy because he “was such a gifted teacher himself.”

I don’t doubt that’s true, but I do know it is only part of the story. Litt is not just a gifted teacher, he is a brilliant educator who understands the full enterprise. He knows that schools need a strong curricular and organizational foundation on which to build student and teacher learning. Litt has used the Core Knowledge Sequence as his curricular foundation, and he has created a supportive structure for teachers and administrators in all of the Icahn schools to solve problems and grow together.

Dargan’s work was still difficult, as teaching children whose home life is not filled with books and museums will always be. But she was not left to struggle in isolation like Carolan and Johnson were.

Nocera may think he’s writing about teacher preparation, but in fact his op-ed is about our nation’s approach to education. I’m not one to say the schools are failing. Even our lowest-performing schools are accomplishing some good things. But I’m not all roses either. Most schools are far less coherent, systematic, efficient, and effective than they should be.

So long as states refuse to specify a core of content students ought to learn in each grade, K – 12 education, teacher preparation, instructional materials, professional development, and students will suffer. Holding on to mistaken ideas about the nature of reading comprehension and critical thinking, far too many professors of education, textbook developers, and professional development providers are willfully ignorant of decades research in cognitive science.

It boils down to this: Any topic a student needs to be able to read and think about is a topic that student must know something about. Take Nocera’s title, for instance. How many readers understand the reference to Anton Chekhov’s play?

Broad literacy requires broad knowledge. That means students have a lot to learn. Some students have the great luxury of learning much of the college-, career-, and citizenship-enabling knowledge at home. Some don’t. For them, anything less than a grade-by-grade, content-specific, cumulative curriculum will not be efficient enough to get the job done.

The price we pay for this willful ignorance is our massive achievement gaps. It is too high.


We all value education. Is eschewing a core of content truly worth the cost?




    It ain’t so hard to know lots about little.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — October 3, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

  2. I’ve read that Albert Shanker once complained about American teachers, “They don’t READ!” –meaning, I think, they don’t read about education policy, theory, politics and labor issues. They aren’t dumb, but they aren’t that informed. I feel the same way about my colleagues: they don’t know that there is such a thing as the Math Wars (“reform” vs. “traditional” math), much less the Reading Wars (“reading strategies” vs. “knowledge building”). The irony is that teachers constantly talk about the importance of critical thinking, yet are loathe to challenge the shibboleths of their pedagogical training. How do we get the Reading Wars on teachers’ and principals’ radar screens? The best avenue I can think of is doing presentations at professional conferences. Though I suspect that ideological gatekeepers may keep unorthodox views out of many of these conferences, there must be some that are not hostile to intellectual diversity. Slapping the words “Common Core” on the workshop title will increase chances of being accepted.

    Comment by Ponderosa — October 4, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  3. Speaking of missed Chekhov references, about a decade ago a friend of mine (now deceased) starred in an improvisational prank. He posed as Chekhov (whom he didn’t vaguely resemble) and gave an impromptu reading at Barnes &Noble at Union Square, NYC. After getting kicked out of the store, he sat at a table outdoors and signed copies of The Cherry Orchard. Many people fell for it.

    Unfortunately Chekhov’s name is misspelled in the description of the prank…

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 4, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  4. Hi Joe,

    I think we all agree that Google is a wonderful tool, but what do children need to learn to be able to read with comprehension and thus use Google effectively?

    Here’s an example of what can happen to students without relevant knowledge:

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — October 4, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  5. @Ponderosa, Agree with you on the reading wars. Even sadder, if I were to raise the topic with teachers I worked with, they’d start debating whole language v the phonics approach.

    Would have to respectfully disagree regarding the words “Common Core” attached to a workshop title. Reviewing a number of education blogs daily, there’s sadly an entrenched resistance to such forced/mandated knowledge. Just one of the reasons some states are now opting out of the CCSS assessments – again, sadly.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 5, 2013 @ 8:15 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.