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Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as Deciding on 'Essential Knowledge'

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Deciding on 'Essential Knowledge'

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Subject-matter specialists and policymakers who have sought to clarify what students should learn have not considered the curriculum as a whole.

The promulgation of standards by groups of subject-area specialists who influence what is taught in virtually every classroom raises an interesting new question for American education: How long would it take for a student to acquire the knowledge that is defined as essential?

The answer, according to new research by the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, is that a high school diploma would require as much classroom time as has historically resulted in a master's or professional degree. Even the brightest students would need nine additional years of schooling to master the nearly 4,000 benchmarks experts have set in 14 subject areas. Subject-matter specialists and policymakers who have sought to clarify what students should learn have not considered the curriculum as a whole. The net result is a curriculum that is overwhelming to teachers and students.

The education community's efforts to bring coherence into the various content areas has led to unintended consequences that teachers and students must address every day. Beyond the fact that most schools lack curriculum materials to help implement the standards and have only begun to link them to assessments, the sheer volume of the standards is so overwhelming as to be virtually impossible to implement. There are far too many standards and not enough time in the day or year to teach them all.

Certainly one approach is to increase the amount of instructional time in our schools or to find ways to use time more effectively. Among other changes, this would require a significant redesign of the school schedule, such as a longer school day and year-round schooling.

The implication is clear: It is time for educators and citizens to make hard choices about what is truly essential for students to learn. Schools cannot teach everything in depth; we must take the time in our states and communities to establish what is important for students to learn before graduating from high school.

E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his colleagues addressed the issue head-on and initiated a national discussion about cultural literacy. As a remedy for the alleged declining knowledge of American students, Mr. Hirsch offered, as an appendix to his best-selling book Cultural Literacy, a list of 4,552 items. The list reflected the group's view of the essential knowledge that American students should be taught in order to be considered culturally literate. Mr. Hirsch and his colleagues said they hoped the list would serve as the basis for the core curriculum for American education. Since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987, a number of supplemental works have been developed that attempt to further identify and clarify the specific knowledge that reflects the current, literate, adult culture and that should, therefore, form the basis for the curriculum in K-12 education.

Although Mr. Hirsch started the discussion, his lists of core knowledge are flawed. They value familiarity of knowledge over the significance of what students should learn. The primary issue concerning Mr. Hirsch's list--or anyone else's, for that matter--is: Does it contain the right information? Should all students know the answer to the following questions?

Who wrote "Macbeth"?

What is a limerick?

What does nouveau riche mean?

What is a non sequitur?

What is a carnivore?

What does regression mean?

Who was Spiro Agnew?

We question whether the information necessary to answer these questions is inherently more important than that needed to answer the following questions taken from Kathy and Diane Zahler's alternative, Test Your Countercultural Literacy:

Who was Cesar Chavez?

What is the I Ching used for?

How did Janis Joplin die?

What does macrobiotic mean?

Which countries were in SEATO?

Who was Timothy Leary?

Is the term carnivore more important than macrobiotic? Is it inherently more important to know about Spiro Agnew's life than it is to know about Cesar Chavez's? Ultimately, the importance of one piece of information vs. another--particularly information at the level of specificity of E.D. Hirsch's list--is a matter of judgment.

Because the issue of what young people learn is important, and because the debate over what should be studied in a democracy has the potential of becoming--in the words of Ron Brandt--a free-for-all, we believe it is important to base those decisions on a systematic approach to what experts and others believe is important. The result should not be an arbitrary list identifying familiar information that avoids a conversation among or consensus by subject-area experts.

There are far too many standards and not enough time in the day or year to teach them all.

Rather, we should bring together unbiased experts to determine which ideas in their disciplines are fundamental and significant. We believe the criterion of "significance of content" rather than "familiarity to literate people" should be the determining factor by which cultural knowledge is selected for transmission to students. Literacy should be defined as having learned what subject-matter experts know to be valuable in their respective domains rather than having learned what literate people say they know.

The public has a limited, but important, role to play in determining what content is fundamental and significant. Lack of public support can undermine the effectiveness of the standards movement, and the public offers valuable, if not always well-informed, insight into what society most values.

In an effort to provide a prototype of how schools and districts might approach local community members about the issue of which standards should be addressed in the curriculum, McREL hired the Gallup Organization to ask the public what they believed was definitely necessary, probably necessary, probably not necessary, and definitely not necessary for students to learn prior to high school graduation. The reference point was the McREL Standards Database, a composite set of standards and benchmarks developed from our analysis of more than 116 national standards documents in 14 content areas.

The results were surprising. If a curriculum were designed based on the responses to this survey, all of the standards in health, technology, and work skills would be included. Fifty percent or more of the standards identified in mathematics, science, U.S. history, language arts, civics, behavioral studies, and thinking and reasoning would be included. On the other hand, not a single standard in the arts, foreign language, or historical understanding would be included, and less than half of the standards would be included for world history, economics, geography, and physical education.

Our investigation of what the public believes is important reveals significant differences between subgroups categorized by income and educational level. Considering the time available, a curriculum designed using the answers of respondents with more than a high school education would include 73 core subject-area standards, compared with 59 when using the answers of respondents with a high school education or less.

The 2,500 adults polled were not asked to consider the curriculum as a whole; each standard was rated independently of the others. The strength of this information is that it allows us to understand more about what a broad range of people believe is important by degrees. The weakness of this approach is that we did not ask each individual to make direct tradeoffs among the standards to determine how they might trim standards to a manageable size.

How can we ensure that standards will fit in every classroom in the time available? One approach might be to convene a group of subject-matter experts--within a school system or at the state level--and ask them to identify the knowledge in their respective content areas, given a certain amount of hours per day or year during which the content could be taught. Other options would include asking educators in a community or state to rank in order the knowledge that should be taught given specific time constraints, or polling educators and the larger community about what should and should not be included in the K-12 education experience.

Taking a lesson from E.D. Hirsch, who made an important distinction between the extensive curriculum (knowledge about which students should have a passing understanding) and the intensive curriculum (knowledge students should learn in depth), another approach would be to develop a systematic vocabulary program. This would allow all students at all grade levels to have at least minimal exposure to the terms and phrases that are part of the standards that might need to be trimmed from the intensive curriculum.

Whatever the approach, it is time for more Americans to enter the debate about what is essential knowledge. Beginning a national dialogue about which of the subject-area standards are most important to teach in the time we have allotted from kindergarten through 12th grade is the right place to start.


Robert J. Marzano is a senior fellow, John S. Kendall is a senior director, and Barbara B. Gaddy is a senior associate with the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, or McREL, in Aurora, Colo. They are the authors of Essential Knowledge: The Debate Over What American Students Should Know, published by McREL.

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Page 68

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