E. D. Hirsch Jr makes a number of compelling arguments in his March 22, 2009 NYTimes op-ed piece regarding tests that do not tap into students’ knowledge base. His basic assertion that even random “content neutral” reading passages contain knowledge-based material that unfairly targets disadvantaged students effectively highlights one of the many injustices of our current “Kafkaesque” accountability system.
Unfortunately, he then tips the balance toward a more cookie cutter approach to content and knowledge that sounds more like a Donna Reed idyll than a reflection of the diversity in our classroom. When talking about standards he suggests that, “It would be far more useful to set out what exactly children should learn about the 13 colonies or Paul Revere’s ride,” than the more vague state standards currently in operation.
I agree with the idea of improving vague state standards. And I definitely agree with the need for a strong social studies program rich with historical content, however, I strongly disagree with specific content based standards for all students at each grade across the country.
Who picks the standards?
Who deems one content strand more important than others?
Is there flexibility for “teachable moments”?
What angle do we take on slavery and the Civil War? The north’s? The south’s? The slave’s? What’s more important: the causes, the effects, the dates, the people, the ramifications, the technological/medical advances during, the strategies, the economic?
Do we really want to force (limit) all of our nation’s teachers to only teach content picked by some faceless D.C. committees bickering over which content item is more important? Something smells a little funny about that to me.
I can see it now, the Creationists vs. Darwinians face off in one room while the Global Warmers vs. the Deniers go toe to toe down the hall. The literature classics proponents arm wrestle against the team from Border’s Emerging Voices division. And, for the Tag-Team Teaching Standards Title of the World, E. D. Hirsch and Daniel Wellington don their Nacho Libre spandex against Ken Kay and the CEO from Legos.
At the end of months of bouts we have what amounts to watered down content sufficiently bland to accommodate all palates.
As much as E. D. Hirsch has been a leader and provocative proponent for improving the learning outcomes of our nation’s children, his brand of reform limits teacher professional growth, content exposure, and capitalizing on emerging technologies for the classroom.
When it comes to identifying problems, his sight is good, but his vision is blurred.
We do need to change our tests. While I would love to see a more dynamic and complex assessment battery utilized for the summative assessments of our schools and classrooms, I can see the practicality of multiple choice tests in terms of simplicity, norm referencing, and culling discernible data.
However, simply moving “from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to” ignores larger trends in learning, education, knowledge, and globalization. Insisting that all students learn the same content all across our country risks flattening the very innovation, creativity, and engagement we need to be inspiring in our nation’s classrooms right now.
Content is important, no doubt about that. But does it all need to be the same content from the same texts? That sounds awfully bland to me. Our schools are different. Our states are different. Our students and teachers are the most diverse collection in the world. Do we really want to limit that collection of diverse brain power to one set of knowledge? I don’t.
I want topography. I want to know that a teacher with a deep and rich understanding of slave revolts has the opportunity to share his/her passion with their students through in-depth investigation, even if it means the Civil War gets a little less press in that classroom. I want that teacher to stay in the classroom.
Barring their knowledge for the sake of a text book flattens the profession and closes the door on innovation. Let’s change the tests, but let’s avoid narrowing the knowledge to one set.
Here is an interesting article that highlights some of the ideas and trends that are getting more and more tred in the innovative ed circles around the internet. Here are the Letter to the Editor responses to his piece.