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.