I turned on my DVR to see what the recorded BookTV author lectures had to offer me. My service provider is imperfect with regard to the timing of their recording of these and there is no program information provided (which probably accounts for their recording errors). So when I hit the play button a man was in the middle of giving his lecture. There was nothing on the screen to tell me who this man was. I had never seen the man's face before.
I was knitting and listening, not looking at the screen. I was immediately drawn in by what he was saying, talking about the lowered academic standards that have been steadily occurring since the end of World War II. Who was this guy anyway? I liked what he was saying. I was also interested as he didn't have good things to say about the decades I myself was a public school student, and I thought things were better then than they are now.
Come to find out he was none other than E.D. Hirsch, the man behind the Core Knowledge Sequence. He was discussing his latest book "The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools". I didn't even know he had a new book published.
The lecture was short. I encourage you to view it free on the CSPAN BookTV website here. Following the lecture he answers questions from the audience. The beginning focuses on test scores to demonstrate dropping scores. He discusses that academics and teachers blame dropping scores on opening the SAT to more minorities and urban students who were seeking college admissions. Hirsch shows statistics to prove that this cannot account for the drop as the drop occurred also in nearly all white, middle class, non-urban Midwestern areas.
Hirsch makes the case that one reason it is hard for teachers to teach is because of a lack of a standard curriculum grade by grade. I don't believe he means curriculum as homeschoolers think he means, he doesn't mean the actual texts, but an overall plan (scope and sequence) of what should be taught in each grade. By having different content in classrooms within one school, within different schools in an area, (and so forth) the teacher cannot build upon past knowledge as the students in the class come with different content and mastery levels. As the grades get higher and higher this become a mess as each year the students enter the classroom with varying academic experiences from prior years.
Hirsch labels this different style of content, this thing that is NOT a national standard progression in a grade by grade manner as being a 'child-centered' curriculum. Once you understand his code word for that, understanding the rest of what he says is easier.
Let me tell you something about my own research and our decision to homeschool. The seeds of homeschooling were planted by husband when I was just six months pregnant. Later I wanted to homeschool for some other reasons. When my oldest was two I began reading about preschool. I wanted to know what went on in American preschools so I could take this into consideration for our home preschool or shall I say, what we'd do with the free time we had by our not sending our kids to preschool.
The first thing I realized was the non-existence of a general plan of education (scope and sequence) for public schooling or preschool in America. I thought maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, so I paused that search and began reading about private preschool methods using "alternative" education methods such as Montessori and Waldorf education. These were all started in countries other than the USA and now were used in some expensive private preschools in America. Some Americans think these were elitist methods of education for the wealthy only. I set about figuring out what went on in those preschools to justify hefty tuition for two and three year old children.
While reading the writings of Maria Montessori I was overwhelmed by the detailed thought process behind the philosophy, then the detailed application of classroom content and procedures in close alignment with that. I then went on to read about the Waldorf method and some of Rudolph Steiner's philosophies (the founder of Waldorf education). Again there was a lot of information about developmental stages of the child, what they should be taught when, and timing was very important, windows open to introduce this content, and so forth.
I then turned back to the American public education system for K-12 and also this nebulous thing called "preschool". I still could not find a solid philosophy or what Hirsh calls a "curriculum" or a national scope and sequence. The only thing I found was E.D. Hirsch's proposals in the Core Knowledge Sequence which was referenced in The Educated Child. Some parents use the Hirsch books in the "What Your ## Grader Needs to Know" series.
I need to insert here that at this point I was firmly in the unschooling camp. I read and respected the views of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. I had strong opinions like "who is to say a child should learn this fact in this grade" and "why can't learning be different and all fun and games". When I read "The Educated Child" I bristled. I wrote a book review for that when my oldest was five years old and published it on Amazon. I recently re-read it and was surprised at my point of view back then because over time as my two children have grown older (they are now 12.5 and 9.5 years old) my educational philosophies have changed. Learning is not all games, struggling to learn something is not all fun and sometimes hard work must be done to understand a concept or see a point of view and the learner has to dig deeper to 'get it'.
But anyway back in those days when my oldest was in preschool I was still searching for answers about what was done in American public schools. I knew some classroom teachers (friends and relatives) and talked to them. They told me that what they did in their classroom was under their control and they had freedom. (Note this was before NCLB which has changed the focus of the classroom work in certain schools to be largely test prep for the standardized test.) They said what went on in different classrooms in the same school varied widely. I was surprised as this is so different from what Montessori and Waldorf education provides.
This sealed the deal that as long as I could, I didn't want my children in public schools (nor did my husband). There was not enough thought behind what was taught and when, there was no way to control what teacher they had, who was good, who stunk, and who was burned out. This was way too chaotic for my taste. Let's not even get into what is done in different schools in different towns or in different states! I was upset just thinking about a lack of a cohesive scope and sequence (or "curriculum" to use Hirsch's term) in one SCHOOL.
Back to the Hirsch lecture, the beginning of it was recorded separately, so I was able to go back to watch it from start to finish. Since that time over the next few months I've watched this lecture a total of four times. Each time I listen I seem to hear new things. (I only wish this lecture was longer!)
Unschoolers sometimes discuss Finland. They say the kids enter school at age 7 or 8 and are late to learn to read as well as having that late exposure to formal lessons. Their school day is also shorter.
Yet Finland achieves high scores compared to other developed countries, including America. Hirsch said something I'd never heard the unschoolers say. First, there is a national curriculum. The government prescribes what is to be taught in what grade. Schools can offer different teaching methods but they must use this plan.
Second, the money follows the student. The students are free to apply to different schools, they are not forced to go to the school that their place of residence allows them to attend (for public school). The good schools thrive and the bad schools close for lack of enrollment.
Neither of these things happens in America. So it seems to me that the success of Finland is not due to delaying formal education to a later age or late reading being somehow beneficial, it is due to stricter prescription of content determined by the government and the student's having freedom to go to the school of their choice and the money being attached to the student, wherever they choose to go (what some in America call a voucher system).
Homeschooling vs. Public Schooling
I think that when pondering what should be taught when we need to divide homeschooling and public schooling.
With homeschooling we have a lower student to teacher ratio. Parents can also hire subject matter experts or teachers to instruct their child. There is more freedom with homeschooling. It is possible to match the books and curriculums (textooks etc.) to the child's developmental stage.
When there is more freedom with homeschooling the students can progress forward at their own rate. This progress may be slow sometimes or may do fast jumps ahead. That is fine.
Learning styles or different methods can be used with homeschooling. Customization is easier.
When dealing with large groups of kids in a public school classroom it is just not possible to customize as homeschooling families do. There are limits of budget, the challenge of one teacher assigned to 15-20 or more students and all kinds of other issues. In my volunteer work with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, working with groups of boys of the same age but different abilities and developmental stages, I shudder at the notion of what school teachers have to deal with. I don't know how they do it. The spectrum of abilities is staggering. Add into the mix, the personalities and group dynamics of the kids interacting with each other and it can be a real mess.
I feel that it is beneficial to consider a national curriculum for American public schools. With that said I also would like to see more magnet schools available to all students which provide customized learning or niche topic learning.
I'd like to see schools for computer science or classical education or schools that specialize in teaching visual-spatial learners. I'd like students to be able to test into schools with specialized instruction. Additionally I'd like to see schools that teach vocations for high school for students who CHOOSE to seek a specific path. Why push all kids through a college prep track then make them pay for a private education after high school graduation to learn auto mechanics or heating and air conditioning repair or medical assisting or some other skill? Why not teach them The Three R's and a vocation for the high school years?
Dumbing Things Down
In the lecture Hirsch talks about dumbed down language in textbooks from pre-World War II and post World War II. He feels we are using easier language and requiring less work of our students. He feels this accounts for dropping scores.
Another item of interest to me in the Hirsch lecture is the over-focus on skills and the reduction of teaching content in the elementary grades. This is something that Joy Hakim also discussed in her three hour long In Depth interview on BookTV.
Take a Look
I encourage you to listen to this short lecture by E.D. Hirsch and to look at his charts and visuals.
Even if you think you are against a national standardized curriculum keep an open mind and just think about where the system as it is now has taken our students (downhill).
From what I understand Massachusetts has a plan for their state which is a standard curriculum.
I honestly have not thought much about the 'state's rights issue'. I am more concerned with a system that appears to be highly flawed with no real action moving toward education reform. Something should be done.
Some Books Mentioned in This Post or That Influenced Me
How Children Fail (Classics in Child Development)
How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development)