Curriculum Letter to the Editor

Massachusetts Battled ‘Fad for How-To Skills’

July 14, 2009 1 min read
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To the Editor:

I read with interest Tony Wagner’s online Commentary “Accountability 2.0” (June 11, 2009) because my state, Massachusetts, is engaged in a spirited policy debate of the type Mr. Wagner describes, one about high academic standards and the softer approach that 21st-century skills represent.

The most curious line from the essay is this: “But if [core academic] knowledge is all that’s tested, increasingly school will become a high-stakes game of Trivial Pursuit, and we will fall farther behind in the race to develop an innovation economy.” The evidence from Massachusetts’ historic reform efforts tells a very different story.

The Massachusetts experience demonstrates once and for all that rescuing education reform from the soft-skills movement, as the Bay State has done with academic standards and assessments that have become a national model, has directly translated into dramatic student gains on indicators such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Far from reducing curriculum and instruction to what Mr. Wagner refers to as “test prep,” our clear, liberal-arts-rich standards, aligned with rigorous student assessments, teacher testing, and genuine accountability, have established Massachusetts’ students as national and international leaders in K-12 schooling.

Research conducted by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a leader in the core-knowledge movement, confirms the value of Massachusetts’ approach. It shows that a decade ago, Connecticut’s students outperformed their Massachusetts peers on national reading tests. But after Connecticut’s education policymakers shifted from an emphasis on core knowledge to pedagogies in the how-to style now promoted by 21st-century-skills advocates, the state’s students’ reading scores nose-dived.

Using the lessons of history as our guide, let’s not allow this anti-academic fad for how-to skills to sidetrack children from learning the broad range of content knowledge they need to live happy and productive lives.

Jamie Gass


Center for School Reform

Pioneer Institute

Boston, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Massachusetts Battled ‘Fad for How-To Skills’


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