E.D. Hirsch on Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

by Robert Pondiscio
September 26th, 2012

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s has a review of Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, in the upcoming issue of Education Next. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Primer on Success
Character and knowledge make the difference
By E. D. Hirsch Jr.

Paul Tough follows his excellent book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone with one on improving the school achievement and life chances of disadvantaged children. The title is How Children Succeed, and the chapter heads continue the how-to motif of the title: 1. How to Fail (and How Not To). 2. How to Build Character. 3. How to Think. 4. How to Succeed. 5. A Better Path. If the book really delivered on these headings, Tough would deserve immense success. I hope the book does sell well, though perhaps not too well. Its ultimate message is that “non-cognitive” abilities and traits are more important to success than mere academic achievement, and that message, while containing important truths, is overstated.

Tough gathers scientific results and personal observations from a number of estimable sources among researchers and practitioners, all supporting the idea that what really determines success is character and perseverance rather than raw intelligence and book learning. At the same time, he shows that what truly handicaps a child is horrible early upbringing and neglect. The term of art for the permanent psychic damage done is ACE: Adverse Childhood Experiences. This, by now well-attested finding is the best argument for the intrusion of outsiders into the homes of neglectful or cruel caregivers, and it is the best explanation for the observation that poverty accompanies lower achievement all over the world. This poverty argument (it’s not Tough’s) is also oversimplified, since, as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reports show, some parts of the world diminish the poverty-achievement correlation far more than the U.S., through better schooling.

What connects the ACE segment of the book (“How to Fail”) with more positive themes is the common “non-cognitive” feature. “How to Build Character” takes off from the successful KIPP schools and their emphasis on good manners and perseverance. The chapter goes on to show that a certain kind of test requiring no academic knowledge, only a willingness to persist in a boring task, is, other things equal, highly predictive of later success. “How to Think” focuses on how middle-school chess players from a low-income school manage consistently to beat advantaged students and even high-school chess teams. Focus and practice are the keys. In other words, perseverance and hard work are “how to think.” And “How to Succeed”? Also perseverance and hard work.

No one would or should dispute the importance of diligence and perseverance. Classic texts on education such as Plato’s Republic and Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education emphasize that character development and virtue are far more important educational goals than mere acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, those writers are quite explicit in setting forth the breadth of knowledge children need to acquire. If Tough had updated that “both/and” tradition with the latest reports from the field, he would have no argument from me. But he takes the view that an emphasis on knowledge acquisition, which he calls “the cognitive hypothesis,” has been tried and it has failed. Here is what he has to say in his introduction:

In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that call into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

I sympathize with Tough’s judgment that “the cognitive hypothesis” (in his view of it) has failed. During the era of No Child Left Behind very little progress has been made in narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Yet it is hard to argue from recent reform efforts that the aim has been to increase the “information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years.” On the contrary, “mere information” has been disparaged in favor of how-to strategies and test-taking skills. What Tough calls “the cognitive hypothesis” with regard to academics might better be called the “how-to hypothesis,” paralleling his own how-to approach with regard to character. He does not cite the work of Jerome Kagan and others showing that many fundamental character traits tend to be innate and unchanging.

Moreover, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success. Tough alludes to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) studies, which show that a young adolescent’s score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) is the best single predictor of later income. The AFQT is a math and verbal test. It is scored by doubling the verbal component before computing the overall raw score. This verbal component, largely a vocabulary test, is an index to general knowledge. General knowledge is also the best single predictor of later academic achievement among preschoolers and kindergartners, as has been shown by analyses of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K1992), which has followed the life paths of some 2,700 children over the past decade. After general knowledge, the next best predictor is fine-motor skill, which is correlated with the development of “executive function,” a cognitive ability. In third place come the non-cognitive features that Tough emphasizes in his book.

The critical missing element in Tough’s otherwise informative book is the phrase “other things equal.” He effectively shows that people who have more grit, character, and persistence will succeed better than those who have less, other things equal. Those other things are determined chiefly, though not exclusively, by “how much information we can stuff” into a child’s mind in the early years; a more neutral way of stating it is: “how much general knowledge and vocabulary we can impart in the early years.” The disparaging phrase “stuffing” is tendentious and inaccurate. Knowledge-based schooling is far more interesting to a child than how-to schooling, and far more effective.

There is a moment in Tough’s account when, good reporter that he is, he seems to acknowledge this fundamental qualification of his argument. He describes James, a middle schooler who by grit, brains, expert coaching, and intense focus has turned himself into a national-master chess player at age 12. Yet there’s a twist. James is preparing for an academic test that will determine whether he will be admitted to one of the selective high schools of New York City. He is being tutored intensively, by Ms. Spiegel, his chess coach:

In the middle of July, though, Spiegel told me she was starting to get discouraged. She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he did not know. He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map. He couldn’t name a single European country. When they did reading comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant, and communal, and beneficial…. “I feel angry on his behalf,” she told me. “He knows basic functions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.”

Tough ends the account on an upbeat note: “He’s only twelve, after all.” But this optimism is misplaced. Given the “Matthew Effect” (where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) and the slowness of vocabulary acquisition, James has been disadvantaged permanently, just as if he had been the victim of ACE.

Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation.  He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”


Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Ravitch: No U-Turn

by Guest Blogger
March 4th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, as in her previous work, Diane Ravitch takes apart many education fads and clichés, and explains the changes in her views on testing, choice, and accountability. Now a cliche has arisen in the media about Ravitch herself: the assertion that she has made an “about-face,” a “U-turn,” or a “180-degree turn.” Reviewers, reporters, and bloggers have latched onto these phrases as though they were established truths.

As Ravitch’s research assistant, I had the great honor of reading her book many times prior to its publication and assisting with documentation and editing. In addition, I have read all the books she has written and some of those she has edited. In the spirit of her work, I will challenge the “about-face” bromide.

She has changed some views and retained others, and the change has not always been 180 degrees (sometimes more like 45, 90, or 115 degrees). Or perhaps, like many of us, she has several concentric circles, some staying still, others rotating. She has always been critical of rushed reforms and educational fads. She has always supported a strong, rich curriculum and warned about the pitfalls of standardized tests. And she has a profound understanding of the challenges that teachers have faced over the past century.

In chapters 18-20 of her first book, The Great School Wars (1974), Ravitch described how policymakers rushed to expand a reform model without adequate thought and planning. In the spring of 1914, NYC Mayor John Purroy Mitchel visited Gary, Indiana, to see the reorganized schools, where students spent the day in workshops in large spaces rather than classrooms. He liked what he saw and approved a pilot plan at a school in the Bronx, based on the Gary model. Soon afterward, a Brooklyn school was added.

Despite the skepticism (and, later, the scathing report) of Superintendent William Henry Maxwell, despite parent concerns about the weak curriculum, despite growing protests in the community, Mayor Mitchel insisted on expanding the plan throughout the city. “Why the haste to install the Gary plan?” Ravitch asks. “The Mitchel administration had decided that it was the answer to the problem of overcrowded schools and had stopped the school-construction program.” The expansion was both rushed and academically unsound—two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.

Throughout her career, Ravitch has repeatedly criticized the tendency of reformers to latch onto the newest educational idea without regard for the substance of a curriculum. In The Troubled Crusade (1983), and later, in Left Back (2000), she describes the curriculum revision movement of the early decades of the twentieth century: it typically began with an administrator learning that “his own school’s program, no matter how successful it might seem, was outmoded.” The efforts to bring the school in line with the times invariably destroyed the academic curriculum. In her latest book, too, she shows the futility of reforms that ignore the substance of learning.

Many assume that Ravitch was previously an ardent supporter of accountability and testing and has switched her views completely. But she has warned over the decades that standardized tests could narrow the curriculum. In her 1984 essay “The Uses and Misuses of Tests” (included in The Schools We Deserve), she observes:

Overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education. It is certainly dangerous to the integrity of the high school curriculum. The introduction of the SAT, which (in its verbal component) is curriculum free, left many high schools without a good argument for requiring students to take history, literature, science, or anything not specifically demanded by the college of their choice.

A decade later, after serving as assistant secretary of education, she wrote in National Standards in American Education (1995):

The SAT tested linguistic and mathematical power and had no connection to any particular curriculum, which left secondary schools free to require whatever they chose. The literature curriculum, which had been anchored by the college entrance examinations for many years, was completely abandoned by the SAT, allowing secondary schools to teach whatever books they wished and even to drop the traditional classics altogether.

Ravitch’s work shows compassion for teachers and understanding of their extraordinary responsibilities. In “Scapegoating the Teachers” (1983, in The Schools We Deserve) she points out that “the most common response to the current crisis in education has been to assail public school teachers.” This is unfair, she argues, because there are “many guilty parties still at large”; moreover, “as teaching conditions worsen, it is teachers who suffer the consequences.” In Left Back, she describes the overwhelming demands on teachers over the past century, as one drastic movement replaced another. These themes recur in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Yes, Ravitch has undergone a significant transformation. For those who insist on reducing her views to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” her change may resemble a 180-degree turn. She herself describes the change as wrenching; in the first chapter of her new book, she recalls her own bewilderment: “But why, I kept wondering, why had I changed my mind? What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over the previous decade?” She freely admits: “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems.” This is not to be taken lightly. But there is much more to her views than a flip or a turn. There is wisdom, scholarship, and a sense of the complexity of education. If her changes can be reduced to a U-turn, then the earth does not orbit, nor does a room have shape.


Diana Senechal taught for four years in the New York City public schools and has stepped back to write a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture. Her writing has appeared in Education Week, GothamSchools, the Core Knowledge Blog, Joanne Jacobs, the Answer Sheet, and Common Core.


Diane Ravitch: A Prophet Without Honor

by Robert Pondiscio
February 26th, 2010

Last summer I had the great privilege of reading Diane Ravitch’s new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System in draft form.  It’s a splendid book and a must-read for anyone who cares about our schools and our education policy.  I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this book and the reaction to it. 

At Washington Monthly, Rick Kahlenberg frames his review as Ravitch’s return to her liberal roots, noting she has become “one of the nation’s leading critics not only of conservative educational policies like vouchers but of more centrist ideas too, like charter schools, testing, and merit pay for teachers.”

The new Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack; she supports a strong core curriculum and a no-nonsense approach on discipline, while casting a skeptical eye on efforts to artificially prop up student self-esteem….Ironically, Ravitch’s return to the left comes precisely as centrist ideas are consolidating their hold on Washington. Even left-of-center thinking—at the Obama administration’s Education Department, leading foundations and think tanks, and the editorial pages of the New York Times—has galvanized around greater emphasis on charter schools and performance pay for teachers based on test score gains.

At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss urges readers to pick up the book and focuses on its most important takeway: Ravitch’s strenuous pushback against data-driven, business-minded reformers who ”imagine that it is easy to create a successful school.”

“They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”

“Amen,” Strauss chimes in.  “The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this.”

Amen, indeed.  It has been dispiriting to see some in the ed reform community, including some I otherwise respect, dismiss Ravitch in the past several years  (no links; you know who you are) accusing her of anything from apostasy to idiocy.  Being right is the best revenge, however, and I suspect when some future Diane Ravitch writes the history of this era in education, he or she will wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to our best and clearest educational historian.  Too often a prophet without honor, she has spent the last several years of her career acting as a one-woman counterweight to the worst excesses of the ascendant, 0ften-wrong-but-never-in-doubt brand of ed reform.  The Death and Life of the Great American School System is her clearest and most powerful statement to date.

Critical Thinking Not Possible Without Content Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

Here’s a plan for eliminating the national debt: Charge a tax of one dollar on anyone who says ”teaching critical thinking skills” should be the goal of schools.  One person less likely to idly toss around the phrase in the future is none other than The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, arguably our most influential education writer.  He concedes today that critical thinking programs “don’t work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.”  How did he come to see the light?

A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations. Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says. “Thus, if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

Willingham’s work builds the strongest case I know for why narrowing the curriculum to load up on reading and math at the expense of other subjects is ultimately self-defeating.  If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need the broadest possible education.  Describing Willingham’s upcoming book, Why Don’t Students Like School? — A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom,  Mathews says “Willingham’s own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well….We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.”

Dr. Seuss: Stop Making Movies About My Books

by Robert Pondiscio
April 8th, 2008

Courtesy of the wags at The Onion, a plea in verse from the late Theodor Geisel, beloved by millions (but not by Hollywood) as Dr. Seuss:

Did you learn all but squat from The Cat In The Hat?
Please tell me you fired the p—- who made that.
I would have stopped writing, maybe sold Goodyear tires.
If I knew one dark day I’d costar with Mike Myers.

And Oh!
Oh, dear! Oh!
My poor Grinch, what they’ve done!
They crammed in live-action and snuffed out all the fun!

It’s icky, it’s tacky, it’s awkward, it’s wrong.
The Whos look like ferrets, it’s an hour too long.
What a rotten idea to spend millions destroying
This masterful tale kids spent decades enjoying!

There’s more, but this is a family blog.

The High Cost of Not Knowing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 20th, 2008

It’s 1987 all over again! Susan Jacoby’s [amazonify]0375423745::text::::The Age of American Unreason[/amazonify] has come out of nowhere to become a top ten bestseller on Amazon. Her message, that there are deadly and destructive consequences to ignorance, has clearly struck a chord.

PBS Bill Moyers JournalIn an interview with PBS lion Bill Moyers, Jacoby is unsparing in her criticism of America’s schools. “When one out of every five Americans still believes that the sun revolves around the earth [there's a problem]….You shouldn’t have to be an intellectual or a college graduate to know that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth,” she tells Moyers.

[amazonify]0375423745:right:both:thecoreknowfo-20[/amazonify]Perhaps Jacoby hasn’t heard that content knowledge is mere data, and that critical thinking and problem solving are How We Learn Now. Jacoby points out what ought to be obvious—you can’t divorce content knowledge from understanding and critical thinking. “People getting out of high school should know how many Supreme Court justices there are. Most Americans don’t. Well, now this feeds back into our current political process,” says Jacoby. “If you don’t know that there are nine judges then you don’t know that George W. Bush’s last two judicial appointments, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, have put us one vote away from having a Supreme Court which really believes that religion should have a much more active role in public life, that’s likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. But you have to know there are nine justices before you know that we’re up to a five out of nine sure votes.”

She also sounds a theme that will ring familiar to Core Knowledge adherents. “I think that schools over the last 40 years instead of just adding things, for example—African-American history, women’s history, these are all great additions, and necessary—they really have placed less emphasis on the overall culture– cultural things that everybody should know,” says Jacoby.

Say It Loud! I’m Dumb and I’m Proud

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2008

New York TimesA headline in the the New York Times today asks “Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”

The piece that follows jumps off of Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of American Unreason, which notes a “generalized hostility to knowledge.” Complaining about how uneducated we are is a hardy perennial, but according to Jacoby “something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that ‘too much learning can be a dangerous thing’) and anti-rationalism (‘the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion’) have fused in a particularly insidious way.”

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she tells the Times, but they also don’t think it matters.

The Times illustrates this phenomenon with a reference to this cringe-inducing YouTube video that shows Kellie Pickler of American Idol fame on the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” struggling with the question “Budapest is the capital of what European country?” She gets the correct answer from her 5th grade partner (the Republic is saved!), but not before saying on national TV before millions, “I thought Europe was a country.”

Giving Kozol His Due

by Robert Pondiscio
February 8th, 2008

Education SectorUnusually good, nuanced and ultimately fair dissection of Jonathan Kozol’s work by The Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey today. A stark contrast to what Carey rightly describes as the “standard conservative anti-Kozol piece, which has become a genre unto itself.”

Carey’s main point is a good one. “In in his righteous anger and dark pessimism, [Kozol] has become blind to all evidence of progress and possibility with our public schools.” Having read a lot of Kozol and worked for years in precisely the neighborhood he chronicles, I’m inclined to agree with Carey. That said, there is an undeniable tendency on the part of both teachers and reformers to congratulate themselves for their effort and incremental progress. The needle is moving, but barely. Anger is still the right reaction. There’s a hell of a lot more to be unhappy about than not.

E.D. Hirsch Comments on Tough Liberal

by CKF
September 20th, 2007

Education Sector Author Talk, September 20, 2007

Education Sector logoRick Kahlenberg has written a masterful biography of Al Shanker — deeply researched, thoughtful, eloquent — and crystal clear without in any way oversimplifying the complex period that Al and the rest of us have lived through. After reading Rick’s book, I understand better many aspects of the things that I’ve witnessed in education reform.

… I like Rick Kahlenberg’s title, Tough Liberal. It’s exactly right. William James once drew a contrast between tough-minded and tender-minded people. Tender-minded liberals are fond of pious slogans while tough liberals are pragmatists who are indifferent to slogans, and insist on getting the job done for the sake of social justice and the good of the community as a whole, no matter what bad names one might be called in doing so.

Read the complete article