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30th August
2002

First Published in The New York Sun,  August 30, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

New schools chancellor Joel Klein’s newly assembled senior staff of educators seems to be mainly made up of familiar establishment figures. It is my opinion that unless there is a systemic change in what is taught in the classrooms, we cannot expect results will differ much from what we’ve seen for the past 20 years.
Readers of my column in these pages during the past few months are familiar with my criticism of the schools of education and foundations that have dictated the curricula taught and the methodology followed by our public schools. Others, coming from very different places than myself, seem to agree.

Heather Mac Donald, writing in the Daily News earlier this month, observed that “the dominance of so-called progressive education theory, perpetrated by every education school in the country … has ensured that more than half the city’s elementary- and middle-school students can’t read or write at grade level.”

And last Friday, Brent Staples noted on the editorial page of the New York Times that “The National Institutes of Health, after more than 30 years of research, has said that perhaps 40 percent of children need a structured reading program to succeed. But the teachers’ colleges and the public schools have failed to listen, and continue to operate under the popular but mistaken notion that children learn to read naturally.”

The failed programs and strategies being criticized are not some kind of New York or inner-city aberration. Rather they result from an educational philosophy in which virtually every teacher in our country is trained, a philosophy enforced by the educrats who control the teacher certification process. When Harold Levy, the former schools chancellor, bragged that all new teachers this year are “state certified,” he seems not to have questioned whether such certification actually translates into better student performance.

If not the education establishment, who, one might ask, should Mr. Klein turn to for a different outlook that really could turn the schools around?

My vote goes to E.D. Hirsch Jr.,professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. Mr. Hirsch is the author of a number of scholarly works, but is mostly known for his best-selling books, “Cultural Literacy” and “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” I consider the latter so important that I logged onto Amazon.com last week and had a copy shipped to Mr. Klein, an investment of $14.46 in the future of our city’s schoolkids. If Mr. Klein reads and is influenced by it, this could be the most efficient educational investment ever.

Mr. Hirsch has argued most eloquently against so-called progressive educational theories such as whole language and fuzzy math that are taught to prospective teachers with an almost religious ferver.

The presently predominant progressive, or child-centered, approach holds that the teaching of facts is useless, and that focusing on subject matter that may not interest the child is somehow abusive. Self-esteem is esteemed above textbook learning. Competition is to be avoided at all costs and poor results are explained away by attacking tests as culturally biased.

Mr. Hirsch notes, “just as it takes money to make money, it takes knowledge to make knowledge: Those children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on.” He sees this as a civil rights issue: “an early inequity in the distribution of intellectual capital may be the single most important source of avoidable injustice in a free society.”

But the prevailing philosophy holds that the early accumulation of intellectual capital is developmentally inappropriate.This is why what goes on in our classrooms in the critical lower grades is often largely devoid of content. Ms. Mac Donald calls this “anything but knowledge.”

Mr. Hirsch points out that when the high schools fail, we study and try to reform those schools. At New York City, the establishment has addressed the problem in the upper grades by carving dozens of minihigh schools out of the carcasses of the failed behemoths. Similarly, we are addressing the dismal performance of middle schools with the establishment of middle school task forces. But Mr. Hirsch tells us that the failures at those levels are the natural consequence of the failure in the lower grades to provide the “mental scaffolding” necessary for future academic success.

Even though Mr. Hirsch’s views on curricula are shared by many conservatives, he is a social liberal who is unafraid to question one of the great givens of the American scene and one that is most sacred to conservatives: the local control of education. Noting that a large percentage of children move from school to school, the lack of a true national consensus on what is supposed to be taught in each grade is profoundly hurting those students, often the most vulnerable in our society. “The adverse effects of these moves contribute significantly to the low achievement of our system as a whole — the fragmentation of the education provided to frequently moving students approaches the unthinkable.”

Mr. Hirsch is in his mid-70s and still writing and promoting his ideas through the Core Knowledge Foundation he established. This foundation is largely financed through the sale of a series of popular curriculum guides he has edited (“What Your First Grader Needs to Know,” etc.) He is highly regarded by people like Diane Ravitch, the educational historian, and was highly regarded by Albert Shanker, the late leader of the teachers union. But his ideas have yet to gain the wide acceptance they deserve.
Adults may suffer monetary losses from a poor investment, but can pick themselves up and begin accumulating new financial capital. Children do not easily recover from a shortage of intellectual capital. Mr. Klein, please read this book.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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