Education Commentary


May 12, 1999 9 min read

Knowledge Is Not the Recall of Fact

To the Editor:

I accept Robert J. Marzano, John S. Kendall, and Barbara B. Gaddy’s invitation to “enter the debate about what is essential knowledge” by pointing out that the “information” the authors refer to is not knowledge--essential or otherwise (“Deciding on ‘Essential Knowledge,’” April 21, 1999).

The answers to questions such as “Who wrote ‘Macbeth’?” or “Who was Cesar Chavez?” do not rise to the level of knowledge (unless one is a game-show contestant) because knowledge is not recall of fact; it is skillful performance in some recognized area of human endeavor.

Deciding what information is essential for students to know distracts educators from the more central question: What constitutes skilled performance? Very likely, part of the background for developing skillful performance as a labor organizer would include an awareness of Cesar Chavez’ life, just as knowing the works of Shakespeare is considered essential background for skillful stage direction.

However, knowing who Cesar Chavez was or who wrote “Macbeth” is not knowledge; it’s background information supporting skillful performance. The doing (organizing migrant workers, writing a play) is the knowing.

Defining and developing skillful performance in our students is a much more interesting and far more challenging question for today’s teachers than debating over competing lists of facts.

Paul Caccia
St. Thomas the Apostle School
Chicago, Ill.

School Is Antidote to Progressive Errors

To the Editor:

Congratulations to the “pioneers” of David S. D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Golden, Colo., for their good judgment and the courage of their convictions (“‘Alternative’ School Sits Out Computer Craze,” April 7, 1999). Perhaps our schools have always been influenced by ideological and political concerns, but seldom have those concerns worked to actively undermine the educational process as they have during the last 30 years.

Progressive education, as implemented, has given us a set of practices having dubious educational value, while at the same time harming children’s emotional development. A return to the traditional model of education, as exemplified by D’Evelyn School, is exactly what is needed. And such a restorative is sure to become the wave of the future, as the fatal flaws of progressive education become even more glaringly apparent.

Louis Chandler
Associate Professor
Educational Psychology
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Drug-Testing Tactic Welcomed Here

To the Editor:

Your April 7, 1999, article on drug testing was welcome information for those of us in the parents’ anti-drug movement who are working to obtain federal student-drug-test legislation (“Drug Testing Latest Tactic in Prevention”). Such legislation was recently introduced in Congress by Reps. John Peterson, R-Pa., and James Rogan, R-Calif.

Because of intense opposition from drug-trafficking interests who want to preserve their vast drug commerce to schoolchildren, we will need all the support we can get from the education community to pass these bills.

When enacted, the law will make student drug testing a reality for all schools throughout America, and schools will become much safer.

DeForest Rathbone
National Institute of Citizen Anti-Drug Policy
Great Falls, Va.

Clarifying Handling of Special Students

To the Editor:

Your April 7, 1999, article regarding special education students in Broward County, Fla., left a very important question unanswered (“Fla. District Criticized for Moving Students Out of Special Centers”). The article states that students with disabilities are being moved out of separate schools and placed in regular schools with their nondisabled peers. However, the article fails to mention what types of accommodations will be provided for the students who are moved to the regular school building.

Is this a move toward full inclusion, or will most of these children be served in a self-contained classroom? The article leads to an assumption that the children with disabilities are being thrown into a regular school with little or no accommodations. I seriously doubt this is the case.

J. Beth Sellers
Harrisonburg, Va.

Editor’s Note: As the article states, decisions to move students from Broward County’s six special education centers to regular schools were based on reviews of the students’ individualized education plans. Each student’s program and activities in the new school setting remain under the supervision of an iep team, which includes special and regular education teachers, an administrator, specialists, and sometimes other experts, as well as the parents.

Casting Villains in Progressive Morality Plays

To the Editor:

Several points in Julian Weissglass’ essay on “Curriculum and Society,” April 21, 1999, puzzled me. First, I had difficulty identifying the “traditionalists” in his account. Those he describes as traditionalists most closely resemble the “administrative progressives” discussed in your capsule history of progressive movements in education preceding Mr. Weissglass’ essay (“Tugging at Tradition,” April 21, 1999).

The administrative progressives are the factory-model sorters and selectors that Mr. Weissglass decries, not the traditionalists. As your article suggests, their educational aims are anything but traditional. In fact, administrative progressives are no less hostile to traditional education than Mr. Weissglass’ child-centered social reconstructionists are.

Real traditionalists have always opposed the reductive educational mission of the administrative progressives. Humanistic traditionalists such as Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer J. Adler, and Arthur Bestor believed strongly in “free and open inquiry,” which is why they advocated a disciplined liberal arts education for all students--the very education deemed by progressives as elitist and oppressive.

The stark contrast between educating students to “fill roles in society” and educating them for “transforming it” also confused me. Leaving aside the question of why “society” is presumed to require “transforming” (all of it? certain aspects? which? in what way?), this framing of our educational options excludes a lot of middle ground. For example, how about the traditional goal of equipping students with the intellectual and moral resources to cultivate both the autonomy and civic commitment necessary to ensure that liberal democracy lives up to its promise? To achieve this aim would be to achieve a lot.

I was confused by a couple of jarring juxtapositions in Mr. Weissglass’ essay, as well. For example, am I to infer that anyone who advocates for the sort of rigorous examinations routinely required by nations far more economically and politically egalitarian than the United States is a descendent of the eugenicist William McDougall? That anyone who believes students should be held responsible for meeting standards set by “the existing society” is a white supremacist?

Am I also to infer that E.D. Hirsch Jr. denies that learning is “a complex process of making sense of new information through reflection and interaction” because he believes that mastery of basic knowledge and skills facilitates reflection and interaction? Such a view would betray Mr. Hirsch’s own scholarly work in hermeneutics, an interpretive method that relies on meaning construction through reflective interaction with texts. Am I likewise supposed to identify Mr. Hirsch, a self-proclaimed liberal who advocates greater “cultural literacy” for all students, with H.H. Goddard, whom Mr. Weissglass cites as an exemplar of aristocratic elitism?

Finally, I have trouble equating advocacy of an arduous, content-rich education with antipathy to teaching students to think for themselves. Traditions and canons of thought condition our thinking whether we know it or not. The better we know them, the better we can question or resist them when necessary. Or draw on them when necessary. Organizing one’s thoughts coherently, presenting them cogently, defending them convincingly, and revising them appropriately requires tremendous discipline and a lot of knowledge. Traditionalists like Mr. Hirsch want to give more students access to the requisite knowledge and skills out of a belief that this access will better foster the democratic, even transformative, ends sought by progressives. Why they continue to be cast as villains in progressive morality plays remains for me the most puzzling feature of the “great debate.”

David J. Ferrero
Doctoral Student
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Yes to Accountability. But What Kind?

To the Editor:

Your article on the recent reports on the future of Title I cited the Harvard Civil Rights Project’s conclusion that the federal role in the administration of the program should be strengthened (“Capitol Hill Begins Debate on Possible Title I Reforms,” April 21, 1999). The conservative Manhattan Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute emphasize that the future of the program must be about “performance” and not “process.” Many of the strongest research findings in our report show that accountability is key to performance.

Several analyses of schoolwide projects emphasize that, currently, Title I dollars are essentially block-granted to schools. While this is done in the name of flexibility, one of our authors, Jerome D’Agostino, analyzed data from the federal “Prospects” report on Title I and found that high levels of decentralization for curriculum planning in high-poverty schools are associated with lower student achievement. Another paper, by Susan Bodilly and Mark Berends of RAND, shows the most successful New American Schools schoolwide projects happened when districts set specific implementation goals and outcomes, and offered the staffs autonomy only when it was clear that initial benchmarks were met.

Another powerful finding was that, whether at the district or state level, there must be specific instructional elements in place for disadvantaged students: high-quality curricula, assessments, and teachers’ professional-learning opportunities. But the current federal role does very little to hold states accountable for this kind of long-term stability in instructional policy. When states’ standards programs become politicized or polemical--and some eventually collapse--it is Title I students whose education suffers the most. We think that before the Clinton administration focuses its hopes for “accountability” on requiring states and districts to end social promotion, for instance, it would be better to assure Title I students’ access to high-quality instruction.

Another obvious accountability problem in Title I is that most state systems do not require improvement for poor and minority students within schools. The administration should work to assure state accountability for progress by poor and minority students.

I find it confusing that members of the administration have said that they would consider it intrusive federal regulation to require a multilevel needs assessment for schools adopting schoolwide projects, particularly when one of their purported goals is to have such projects adopt research-based programs. Yet they do not see mandates about social promotion--as close to the child as you can get--as undue intrusion. Federal authority should not be exercised to impose fads of very doubtful value, but to promote what top researchers have found actually works with disadvantaged students.

Elizabeth H. DeBray
Research Associate
Harvard Civil Rights Project
Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Letters