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May 3, 2010

Hirsh on how to save the schools

E.D. Hirsh's review of Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education is not very good--as a review. Ravitch's book is important, and Hirsch doesn't really analyze it. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his own view. But his position is worth considering: it is orthogonal to the main debates in education.

The main debates concern incentives or pedagogy. That is, the two main strategies for improving schools are to change the rewards and punishments, or else to convince/educate teachers to act differently.

Strategies that involve incentives appeal to several types of reformers. Some want to test students and allocate resources according to the test scores (the NCLB approach). Some want parents to be able to choose schools for their own children and let the public money follow the kids. Some want to raise teachers' pay in order to motivate qualified people to enter and remain in the profession. All share the assumption that the government can't or shouldn't improve our 120,000 public schools by directly influencing the content of education in each one. We improve other sectors by shaping external incentives for innovation and impact, and the idea is to do the same with schools.

Strategies that involve pedagogy are equally controversial. The two main poles of this controversy are Deweyan progressivism versus traditionalism. Progressives are "child-centered" or "constructivist" (see my summary here). They want kids to shape their own learning according to their diverse interests and motivations--to be active participants in interpreting and creating knowledge and culture. Traditionalists worry that leaving children to make such decisions short-changes them. They think that students benefit from being told and explained things. Both sides want to influence our 120,000 schools by training or persuading our 3.5 million teachers.

Hirsch is a traditionalist on the question of pedagogy, but he has an alternative strategy for reforming schools. He focuses on the curriculum. This is his lever of change. For him, the curriculum is a set of things students should know: facts, concepts, names, dates, and places on the world map. Put another way, it is a set of texts that students should read and understand (texts that competently present the things that students should know). The curriculum as a whole should be:

Unlike proponents of vouchers and charters, Hirsch is perfectly willing to say that all schools should change the content of the education they provide. Unlike the proponents of various pedagogies, he doesn't trust in a strategy of changing what teachers do. He wants to redefine what they teach.

I have not made a study of the independent research on Hirsch's approach. In theory, it could work. The question seems strictly empirical to me. As an advocate for civic or democratic education, I care most about civic outcomes. I want to see students prepared to play active and effective roles in our public life. I do not take it for granted that the path to that outcome must itself be democratic or participatory. Maybe all kids should read The Federalist Papers and Letter from Birmingham Jail (and other texts), and that is all they need. I sort of doubt it, but I respect Hirsh for putting an alternative on the table.

May 3, 2010 8:35 AM | category: education policy | Comments



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