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11th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 11, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

E.D. Hirsch Jr., the writer and academic whose ideas about teaching and learning are much respected among scholars, was in town recently to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Reading Reform Foundation of New York. It is too bad that Mayor Bloomberg wasn’t there, because what Mr. Hirsch has to say about education closely mirrors the mayor’s ideas, as expressed when he first ran for office four years ago.

Instead of the traditional approach, which Mr. Bloomberg repeatedly said he favored, what is practiced in most city classrooms is a far-left pedagogy based not on traditional academic achievement, but on protecting children’s self-esteem. In this topsy-turvy world, each student comes to school with a pre-determined supply of self-esteem. Teachers are to tread carefully lest this reserve dwindle by demanding too much of a child academically.The idea that self-esteem is a commodity continuously earned by individual achievement is rejected.
Mr. Hirsch suggests an easy way for the mayor to begin to extricate our schools from this nonsense.And this would be a propitious time for the mayor to engage in a course correction.

You see, the bad news has already begun to trickle in. There is evidence that the test scores that served the mayor so well in his re-election bid are inflated.Many educators understand that the day of reckoning is not far off.

The blame falls on the state and the testing companies, desperate to provide good news. The scores on these dumbed-down tests exceed the more accurate results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released last month. We can delude ourselves that our children are performing adequately, but in the final analysis, we are doing them a disservice when we falsely report that their academic performance meets standards.

Mr. Hirsch has a plan to achieve real intellectual growth. It is his belief that poor results on standardized tests, scores that drop continuously as children get older,result from a lack of content learning. Without the “context” provided by broad general knowledge and vocabulary, progressively harder reading passages on standardized tests become increasingly undecipherable to students as they move on to higher grades.

Mr. Hirsch noted that our elementary schools have adopted a 90 to 120 minute daily “literacy block,” which must take place early each day, when children are said to be wide awake and most receptive to learning.

During this “literacy block,” students are broken up into small groups, and discuss works of what is most often fiction taken from the limited realm of the classroom libraries installed with fanfare early on by the Bloomberg administration. From these books, children, working in these groups are expected to “construct” their own knowledge without direct instruction from the teacher.

Add another mandated hour for mathematics, a period of physical education and lunch, and there is precious little time left for teaching science, history, geography, music, or art. It should come as no surprise that the results of standardized tests in science and social studies are so uniformly awful that they have been excised from the Web sites of the State Education Department and the City Department of Education.

Mr. Hirsch suggests that this literacy block, now often devoted to discussing stories about animals making friends in the forest, be turned into a “knowledge block” during which students will read and discuss carefully selected books about history, science, and other content-related topics. If a child is to spend time reading, why not read about Mesopotamia, or the solar system, or the music of Louis Armstrong? This makes perfect sense, at least to me. But not to the educrats who run our schools.

On Tuesday, the city’s schoolchildren were given a day off so that their teachers could be given “professional development.” On Wednesday, a teacher at one of the Gotham’s high schools reported to me on the professional development provided at his school. The session was conducted by a staff developer hired by the city from Australian United States Services In Education, or AUSSIE, a private company that has received tens of millions of dollars in city contracts to train teachers. In front of a group of English teachers, the staff developer wrote the word “content” on the blackboard, and then proceeded to put a big X through it.“You are not to teach content, ever,” he warned. Students should choose their own books, and discuss them in groups and thus “construct their own knowledge.”

“What about Romeo and Juliet?” asked one teacher, who has taught the plays of Shakespeare in her class for years. “Why would you want to teach that?” replied the staff developer. He concluded by warning the teachers to “throw out their red pens.” It is thought that correcting children’s mistakes in red ink is damaging to self-esteem. Purple is now the preferred color.

I do not believe that this is the kind of “reform” that Mayor Bloomberg had in mind when he gained control of the schools. I suggest that the next free weekend the mayor has,he fly down to the University of Virginia, where Mr. Hirsch is professor emeritus, and take him to his vacation home in Bermuda to discuss the ideas they both share at leisure. Truly fulfilling the promise of better schools will drive something more important than election results: Mr. Bloomberg’s legacy, his place in the city’s history.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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