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New Group Formed to Promote Liberal Arts Curriculum

High schoolers earned D on quiz of history and literature knowledge.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 27, 2008 4 min read
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A diverse group of scholars and educators joined forces this week to press for a stronger liberal arts and science curriculum in the nation’s public schools as a way of combating what they described as a disturbing lack of critical content knowledge.

With growing evidence that the increased time spent teaching subjects tested under the federal No Child Left Behind Act is pushing other instructional areas to the sidelines, the group, called Common Core, hopes to make the case that the arts, foreign languages, history and social sciences, and science are essential to providing a complete education to the nation’s schoolchildren.

The federal law requires that mathematics and reading be tested annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, and beginning this school year, science must be tested three times throughout a student’s K-12 career.

Common Core intends to take up the mantle of the Council for Basic Education, a nonpartisan group that advocated a strong liberal arts focus for public schools for 48 years before it folded in 2004 for budgetary reasons. The new organization is located in Washington.

“Of course children must know how to read and compute, but children must be knowledgeable in addition to being skilled,” said Lynne Munson, Common Core’s executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Too many students, she said, are getting an “incomplete education.”

“Many of us associated with Common Core are convinced that NCLB may be lowering achievement in key areas,” Ms. Munson added, “and draining the content from our curriculum.”

‘Stunning Ignorance’

To illustrate that point, the organization released the results of a survey of American 17-year-olds that found “a stunning ignorance about basic facts of U.S. history and literature.”

About one in four of the 1,200 high school students who took the multiple-choice quiz did not know who Adolf Hitler was, less than half knew the Civil War took place in the last half of the 19th century, and about half thought the classic novel The Scarlet Letter was about a witch or a piece of correspondence.

Overall, the 17-year-olds earned a D on the 33-question survey. Students who had at least one college-educated parent did significantly better on the quiz than those who did not.

“This is disturbing,” said Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and a Common Core board member. “Because of NCLB’s emphasis on testing and basic skills, school reform is failing,” she contended.

Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, who is also on the board, added that the very subjects that are getting less instructional time are the ones that will help boost background knowledge, which is important to reading comprehension.

“If we want our kids to comprehend advanced material,” she said, “we need them to know a lot, and as this report shows, they don’t know enough.”

At a Standstill?

Little has changed in the more than two decades since a similar study was conducted of students’ historical and literary knowledge, noted Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. That federally financed study quizzed 17-year-olds participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Mr. Hess also wrote the new report, “Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now,” released by Common Core this week.

The current survey is similar in content to the earlier one, but was conducted under significantly different testing conditions, meaning they are not directly comparable.

“We need to measure this stuff … and make sure we’re in the business of tracking how students are doing with regard to their literary and historical knowledge,” Mr. Hess said. “All of us should agree that we want to educate children in all classic subjects, and that we want to educate them rigorously and well.”

Common Core is currently underwritten by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based grantmaking organization supporting education projects; the Louis Calder Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy that funds numerous education projects; and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington organization that has advocated a broad liberal arts education in schools.

In addition to Ms. Ravitch and Ms. Cortese, the group’s board includes: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former chief executive officer of the Cleveland public schools; Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the superintendent of the Austin, Texas, school district; Lorraine Griffith, a North Carolina teacher; Jason Griffiths, the headmaster of the Brooklyn Latin School in New York City; Joy Hakim, the author of A History of US and The Story of Science textbooks; Richard Kessler, the executive director of the Center for Arts Education; Harvey Klehr, a professor of history and politics at Emory University; and Juan Rangel, the chief executive officer of the United Neighborhood Organization.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week

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