If Only We Had Listened…

by Guest Blogger
July 15th, 2014

Thanks to my history-loving father-in-law, I’m holding a perfectly preserved editorial from the 1948 Washington Times-Herald—Tuesday, February 24, 1948, to be exact. It’s self-explanatory, so here goes:

More About Schools

A few days ago, we shot a short editorial under the title “Something Wrong With Education.” The piece told how the New York State Department of Education, after an exhaustive survey, had estimated the only about 65% of high school juniors can spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

From this we inferred that something was moldy in present-day public education methods, and that the something probably wasn’t traceable to either the teachers or the children.

A couple of mornings after that editorial was printed, three mothers of primary public school children in the first and second grades visited your correspondent. There ensued what seemed to us a most interesting conversation—interesting enough to boil down to its essential here. Let’s call the ladies Mrs. A, Mrs. B, and Mrs, C.

Mrs. A: “The editorial was all right, and I only wish you’d put it at the top of the column instead of the bottom. But the trouble doesn’t start in the high schools. It starts right down in the first grade.”

Mrs. B: “Which they’re turning into kindergarten, where the children don’t learn a thing. Likewise the second.”

Mrs. C: “They call it progressive education. Humph.”

Mrs. A: “Puppets.”

Mrs. C: “Yes, puppets. Puppets they want the children to make out of carrots and things. Even have a book called ‘Puppetry in the Classroom’ or something like that.”

Mrs. B: “It has diagrams—do this and do that, with letters A-B-C to show you what to do to make a puppet. But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Mrs. C: “It’s not the teachers’ fault. I’m sure of that. Plenty of them will tell you on the quiet that they think these progressive—humph—methods are terrible, and just don’t educate and never will. But they can’t say so in public, because if they did they’d lose their jobs.”

In today’s context, the part of this that most jumps out at me is the mothers’ and editors’ confidence that these poor practices and results are not the teachers’ fault. Indeed, these methods are being imposed on teachers. It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.

Like E. D. Hirsch, I find today’s blame-the-teacher rhetoric shocking and disheartening. How did we get to this point? Hirsch offers a compelling explanation:

The favored structural reforms haven’t worked very well. The new emphasis on “teacher quality” implies that the reforms haven’t worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven’t worked because on average they have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

If we are to improve the education we offer all children, reformers must stop blaming teachers and start working with them. As Hirsch explains, “The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught.” A cumulative, rigorous curriculum is not a cure-all, but it is an essential platform for teachers to work together within and across grades. Schools can choose to write their own curriculum, adopt one, adapt a few—whatever works for them, so long as the result is a content-specific, coherent, cumulative body of knowledge and skills to be learned in each grade. Such a curriculum narrows the gaps in children’s abilities, makes differentiation more doable and effective, and enables the school community to deeply understand and support each child’s year-to-year progress.

In reform circles, however, curriculum is rarely discussed. Rather than wade into the hot water of precisely what students ought to learn, most reformers tinker around the edges of the educational enterprise (which boils down to what gets taught and what gets learned). To that, I say Humph! It’s the reformers’ ideas that are ineffective—not the hardworking teachers.


Stop blaming teachers for reformers’ faulty ideas.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.) 


  1. But in my school district a very high percentage (if not all) of principals and assistant principals started as teachers. Above the administrators we have a superintendent who is hired by the school board. In Eugene, OR the school board is elected, and they often have zero experience in education (ours is full of politically ambitious types who seem to know nothing about education). We hired a superintendent a few years ago that a simple Google search showed was basically run out of town from his previous job. He just resigned to “spend more time with his family.”

    Comment by Jim — July 15, 2014 @ 11:48 am

  2. The centerpiece and takeaway of this piece is the E.D. Hirsch quote regarding the importance of a coherent multi-year curriculum. This clear statement of logic is a foundational fix for education. That curriculum should be built on a multi-grade and subject Sudoku grid of well-defined and sequenced content seems simple and almost obvious when you read it – like many solutions to complex problems.

    Everything in education is connected to content. Failure to define the multi-year learning objectives as cohesive teachable and measurable content sets up learning failure mechanisms including opportunity to learn and prior knowledge, and prevents concise identification of learning gaps. The nearly system-wide failure/refusal to implement this is mind boggling.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — July 15, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  3. Well put Tom!

    Comment by Jim — July 15, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

  4. I do so agree with Tom! I was in grade school in the 40s and experienced the practices that glorified the children’s own little world instead of practices that would tell children about the wider world, which of course is what school content, that is, subject matter, amounts to. The refusal (and failure of course) to implement a coherent multi-year curriculum is of course deliberate.
    My grade school experiences, and subsequent life experiences,led me to study educational philosophy, starting with (but not limited to) John Dewey and Professor Hirsch’s “The Schools we Need.” Understanding the depth of differences is not easily reached, but if we cannot reach such an understanding we will remain unable to “reform” our schools. The first questions are perhaps: What do children need from school? How can school provide those needs?

    Comment by Susan Toth — July 16, 2014 @ 10:06 am

  5. […] If Only We Had Listened… […]

    Pingback by If Only We Had Listened… | The Echo Chamber — July 16, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

  6. As a retired teacher, I’m still involved in education as a reading teacher @ an alternative school, for the many students who’ve matriculated through the local school system, yet fall far below standard in reading. So this particular CK blog, hits home! What might you suggest for those of us with a like-minded interest in improving curriculum in our local district, do to help get the curriculum/effective resource-ball rolling in the right direction? Thanks for CK’s continued push for “doing what’s right”, for rigor and high expectations on behalf of educators and those students who are and will be the beneficiaries.

    Comment by LArmstrong — July 16, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

  7. Hi LArmstrong,

    Thanks so much for the work you are doing! For adults who would benefit from literacy courses, I’ll recommend Earl Shorris’s wonderful book/life story “The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor”(http://clementecourse.org/index.php?mact=News,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=53&cntnt01returnid=62).

    For P-8, I’d recommend the Core Knowledge Sequence (http://www.coreknowledge.org/download-the-sequence) and Core Knowledge Language Arts (http://www.coreknowledge.org/ckla).

    If all students get a very rigorous curriculum starting in the early grades, the vast majority of students should be ready for IB or AP courses in high school.


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — July 16, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

  8. This is an important topic. The line that most stuck out to me was that reformers should be working with teachers. I feel like that’s a given. However, I feel like it needs to be taken further than working with teachers, as I see that only as a half-way attempt to gather teachers’ opinions and misuse them (therefore ensuring it can’t be blamed on any one except the teachers).

    I believe that it should be the teachers who are making the reforms in education. It should be teacher leaders leading reform, who are putting in more time and effort anyways to ensure a quality education for their students. I think it is ridiculous that reform is imposed on teachers without any say of their own. We are not factory workers, with no say of what is being created. We, as teachers, know that we are vital to our students’ education, but so is the curriculum, so are all the imposed ideas from higher ups (who may have little memory of what being in the classroom is like). It should be a responsibility given to teachers. We are a team and are qualified to work as professionals. What is the point of going through college degrees and teaching certifications, professional development and all other criteria to remain a “good” teacher if we are simply being told what to do, what not to do and when and where to speak up.

    Teachers’ rights seem to have been stripped of them as the world looks for more qualifications. As we are required to have more certifications to qualify us at a particular job teachers are fearful of stepping out of line “that’s not my job” does not only come from a lazy man’s mouth, it also comes from a fearful mouth. A mouth that knows the reprimand of stepping out of line. Where are our backbones and what have we forgotten about our desire to improve educational standards?

    Students need a good curriculum, a rigorous curriculum and an educated, dedicated teacher. Who is surrounded by dedicated teachers, who are led by a professional, authentic principal, who is led by the department heads. The people who are all above teachers on the totem pole need to climb back down every once in a while and be reminded of who is carrying out these imposed ideas and ask our opinions! I also believe that they, as authorities, have responsibilities that are imposed on them, everyone is trying to please someone else. However, as “they” have the power, I believe it is only right that “they” use it appropriately and responsibly. Speak up! Be heard!

    I’ll end with this, in my school district, it seems as though it is the parents that have the power. When parents speak up about something, it can be amended or addressed very quickly. Heaven forbid a parent is upset about something. In that sense, as teachers, we should be working with parents to address our concerns. I feel like I started teaching to be part of a great education system, to make a difference you know? I feel now that I would have more power to make a difference in the educational system if I left teaching, had a baby and made all sorts of noise as that child grew up in the system. I feel that I would have more “power” as a parent than if I went on to get my PhD and went into work with the “higher ups”.

    With all that said, I am grateful to be a teacher and I believe that we do have a strong education system, but as with anything there is room for improvement and it starts with an authentic community discussion of all parties involved.

    Comment by Robyn Hooper — July 19, 2014 @ 5:26 am

  9. It appears that not much has changed since the 40s. Teachers are blamed, shamed, and hardly praised. Teachers are blamed for irregularities in student progress and are publicly shamed when test scores or campus ratings indicate deficiencies. Although a large number of teachers are not in education for praise, it seems that teachers’ knowledge and experience are not utilized or valued. Educators are at the forefront of education and can provide the best strategies to educate the diversified classrooms. There are many wonderful teachers out there who give so much of themselves to educate all students.

    Comment by Rachel — July 20, 2014 @ 3:23 am

  10. In discussing schools in contemporary times, it seems most agree that something is lacking; some type of reform is needed. Also common to the debate about school reform is some idea that “before,” when we were young, when our parents were young, things were better. This article sheds light on the idea that the picture was not as rosy as it seems when we look back. The debate raged even then.
    As the article points out, a common thread throughout the decades of debate is the teacher who goes on doing what she knows to be beneficial to her students in spite of the current direction the breeze is blowing in education, knowing it will change in a year or two. Teachers of today are probably better trained and better educated than ever before. Teachers need to take more leadership in terms of decision making and policy planning.
    Mass school reform with a one-size-fits-all mentality is not what is going to effect the change we want to see for our students. Involving teachers more heavily in decision making is part of the solution. The other part of the solution is choice. With the amazingly diverse needs of our students today, it only stands to reason that a variety of solutions are going to be needed to solve the variety of problems and situations we face. As explained in http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/school-choice-learning-other-countries , specialized and adapted methods could meet the needs of our diverse learners.

    Comment by Sarah Shurko — July 20, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

  11. It’s very difficult for committed classroom teachers to engage reform at those levels. Imagine asking Pete Carroll to both coach and own the Seahawks; you cannot do both. The burden of getting meaningful classroom teacher input falls upon education leadership, which in too many cases is either lacking or deficient. A critical mass of dedicated classroom teachers who choose to cross that barrier into policy shaping/writing may work, but still may require a skill set that is different from being in the classroom.

    Comment by Peter Ford — July 21, 2014 @ 8:47 am

  12. Peter, I have been in education for 5 years, and am not certain I have EVER met an administrator who didn’t start out as a teacher. Many will admit that they were ineffective teachers and went the administration route because it’s not that hard to accomplish once you have a master’s degree in education or teaching.

    And I’m sorry; I’m not buy all this “teachers are under appreciated/persecuted group.” They are one of the most privileged groups of professionals in the country. In our local school district the union has effectively squashed any teacher evaluation system. They are hired for life, have generous pensions, 3 months a year off, and are unaccountable for student progress. Ineffective teachers are just as big a part of the problem as administrators.

    Locally, they threaten to strike when they don’t get their yearly raises even when the economy is on the skids and the private sector is shedding jobs. And, of course, they always get what they want. This is in Oregon. I know that in other “right to work” states” things are different and just as bad (but for other reasons).

    Comment by Jim — July 21, 2014 @ 9:29 am

  13. Jim, those ineffective teachers who become administrators all but proves a theory of mine; if being a great teacher is being a great leader, then we have ineffective teachers becoming ineffective LEADERS.
    In my prior life as a solider I observed how an effective unit was a unit led effectively. Education suffers a debilitating dearth of quality leadership, and it’s our children who are hurt the most from it. The most prominent case: our Secretary Duncan, who has less classroom teaching experience than you, and that would be NONE.

    Comment by Peter Ford — July 21, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

  14. Everytime something goes “wrong” at school or with the students and their learning, teachers are always the first to be blamed. Let us take for example a middle school student who could not read at a reading level of a middle school student. Many people who cross-over this student’s path would most likely say that it was because of the teachers that this student was not able to read at the level of a middle school student.
    One idea that really stood out for me in this blog is “Reformers must stop blaming teachers and start working with them”. Being a teacher myself, I found this to be true where there are times I feel so limited and restricted in my teaching to students because of what school reforms have for us. Having to obey what reformers want, teachers are later blamed for what the students are not mastering in their learning. Here in my country most of these reformers are experts in the education field but have never taught in a real classroom setting so it would be difficult for them to really understand and see what problems and struggles teachers and students are faced with using their plans of reform.

    Comment by Dorsa — July 21, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

  15. […] If Only We Had Listened . . . to parents about progressive education, writes Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel. […]

    Pingback by Moms vs. puppets — in 1948 — Joanne Jacobs — July 24, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

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