President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has set off a new round in America’s long-running education wars. Teachers’ unions and progressive activists are warning of impending disaster—that DeVos and other “billionaire privatizers” are out to dismantle America’s public schools, the pillars of our democracy. Pro-choice education reformers, on the other hand, are cheering the DeVos appointment, and see great opportunities ahead for their movement. DeVos is one of the nation’s most tenacious advocates for (and generous funders of) the market approach to education. She likes charter schools, but is a true believer in vouchers—the policy of giving parents of children stuck in failing public schools tax dollars to pay tuition at the private schools of their choice. Even more encouraging, DeVos will presumably have the backing of a president who pledged on the campaign trail to use $20 billion in federal education funds to boost voucher programs in the states. 

Unfortunately, hyperbole seems to be trumping reality (pun not intended) in this latest dust-up over the schools. Both sides ought to consider a ceasefire in order to begin focusing on the major cause of bad schooling in America: a half-century of discredited instructional practices in the classroom.

Let’s dispose of a couple of canards. First, the Trump administration isn’t about to privatize the public schools—far from it. During the campaign, the Republican-dominated Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that includes provisions severely limiting the federal role in K-12 education. These restrictions make it exceedingly difficult for the new administration to launch any sort of national school-choice program or to do away with Common Core. For better or worse, the future of all such reforms will remain exactly where they began—in the states.

Second, neither side in the debate has been entirely candid on the issue of charters and vouchers. We’ve already had several decades of robust school-choice experiments in the states and localities, many of which have been thoroughly evaluated. The results provide little confirmation for either side’s argument on how best to improve the schools. Charters seem to have produced significant gains for students in some school districts, including New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York. On the other hand, the largest study of charter school effects nationally (conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found that only 17 percent of all charters had higher academic gains than similar public schools, while 37 percent had worse performance. Forty-six percent of charters performed no better or worse than public schools in the same district.

The grade for voucher programs is also an Incomplete. The country’s largest voucher experiment was launched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 26 years ago. Today, more than 28,000 students are enrolled in the program, one-in-four of all the city’s students. Most minority parents are happy with their voucher schools—not a small point in its favor—but there has been no Milwaukee academic miracle. In fact, the city’s black children have recorded some of the worst test scores of any urban district in the country, as measured by National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

I once was convinced that vouchers and other choice programs were the most promising solutions for America’s failing urban schools. I called school choice the “last civil rights battle” long before it became a catch phrase for the reform movement. I still believe there’s a compelling moral argument (call it a “civil right” if you like) for giving poor, inner-city families more of the education options that wealthier families take for granted. Nevertheless, evidence needs to be acknowledged. It’s unlikely that in the foreseeable future such reforms will create a breakthrough in learning for disadvantaged children.

Meantime, the nation’s education conversation has turned sterile and somewhat disconnected from reality. While partisans on both sides continue to exchange fire over the true statistical meaning of every new choice study, it seems to have gone unnoticed that the house of education is burning. The existing K-12 school system (including most charters and private schools) has been transformed into a knowledge-free zone. It is now producing the “dumbest generation” ever, to borrow the title of Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 book. In The Dumbest Generation, Bauerlein showed how digital-age social media stupefies young Americans and makes them less interested in serious reading than any previous generation. Add in the education establishment’s refusal to teach knowledge in the classroom and the result becomes a toxic mix of intellectual apathy and ignorance.

Our millennials know not the Founding Fathers, nor the Civil War and World War II, nor anything, really, about the world we live in. And that’s true whether these young people come from poor or middle-class families and regardless of the types of schools or colleges they might have attended. Surveys conducted by NAEP and other testing agencies reveal an astonishing lack of historical and civic knowledge. Two-thirds of high school seniors were unable to identify the 50-year period during which the Civil War was fought; half didn’t know in which half-century World War I took place. Over half couldn’t name the three branches of government. A majority had no idea what the Gettysburg Address was all about. Fifty-two percent chose Germany, Japan, or Italy as “U.S. allies” in World War II. Such widespread ignorance is the result of adult malfeasance.

A solid body of scholarship has long been available showing that proven instructional practices were abandoned in the nation’s schools beginning in the 1960s. Both sides of the school-reform debate ought to familiarize themselves with the education theories of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Hirsch’s seminal work, Cultural Literacy, which became an instant and surprise best seller. Here’s the essential discovery that Hirsch first made three decades ago, the missing link that explains why our schools spend more money than ever, yet produce increasingly worse academic results and increasingly ignorant Americans: starting in the 1960s, the nation’s schools were subjected to a pedagogical upheaval fomented by self-styled “progressive” educators that succeeded in stripping away any semblance of a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. The progressives resurrected romantic theories of child development dating back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and then powerfully reinforced in the 1930s by the American philosopher John Dewey.

In the nation’s education schools, future teachers were now instructed that children were capable of “constructing their own knowledge” and that the classroom teacher should be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” Most elementary schools concluded that it was more important for children to “learn how to learn” rather than to accumulate “mere facts” and useless knowledge.

In Hirsch’s critique, this new “child-centered” pedagogy turned classroom instruction upside down, disrupting the transmission of civic values and traditions from one generation to the next. This was precisely a reversal of the Founding Fathers’ insight that the nation’s schools must follow a common curriculum in order to teach future generations the historical facts and general knowledge needed to sustain the Republic. But few teachers-in-training learn this civic wisdom. Instead, in their ed-school courses they are often urged to use the classroom to turn children into social-justice warriors.

Hirsch also showed how the new pedagogical doctrines harmed disadvantaged children and made it more difficult for schools to reduce racial-achievement gaps. The anti-equality effect of progressive education shows up in the early grades in the teaching of reading. Because of family and home influences, poor minority kids begin school lagging far behind middle-class children in vocabulary acquisition and background knowledge. The gap can be narrowed in the classroom, but only through explicit instruction, guided by a coherent, grade-by-grade, knowledge-based curriculum.

Relying on consensus findings in cognitive science and psycholinguistics, Hirsch showed that there was no such thing as “mere” facts—indeed, that factual knowledge was essential for students’ ability to read and comprehend challenging texts. When, instead, progressive educators led schools into a curricular wasteland and decided that their students could create their “own knowledge,” they effectively abandoned the very disadvantaged children they claimed to be championing. 

Over the next several years, Hirsch published more books elaborating on the argument for explicitly teaching knowledge in the classroom. Meanwhile, progressive educators continued to dig in deeper. They also condemned the former English professor as an interloper and an elitist. Year after year, the progressives insisted that the schools didn’t have to teach a “Eurocentric” curriculum, while promising that, with just enough funding for the public schools, their humane, child-friendly pedagogical methods would eventually prove effective in lifting up the children of the poor. Year after year, the results from national and international tests revealed something else. 

Education researchers have concluded that the average reading score of high school seniors is among the most useful standards for evaluating a school system’s effectiveness. Reading comprehension is the most accurate predictor of a high school senior’s college preparedness and future economic prospects. Using this yardstick, American education has steadily stagnated since the progressives achieved hegemony in the classrooms. Verbal scores on the SAT tanked in the 1960s and 1970s and have remained flat ever since. The most recent long-term NAEP assessment of the reading proficiency of American 17-year olds revealed a steep decline, confirming the bad news from the SAT tests. During the same period, American students’ scores plummeted on various international assessments. In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading and 31st in math among the major industrial nations. 

At 88, Hirsch has just published his fifth education book, Why Knowledge Matters. It offers a useful recapitulation of his critique of the failed ideas bringing down the nation’s schools. Hirsch also cites new studies in cognitive science confirming that “the achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a vocabulary gap,” as he puts it. One chapter alone, “The Educational Fall of France,” ought to be required reading for both sides in our education debates. Here Hirsch absolutely clinches the prophetic argument he made 30 years ago about the dire consequences for any nation that abandons the knowledge curriculum. The chapter describes what happened to the highly successful French school system after the left-wing government of François Mitterand decided in the late 1980s to emulate American progressivism and dropped its national curriculum—an unprecedented act of folly prompted entirely by political ideology.

For most of the twentieth century, France was blessed with one of the most successful school systems in the world. It achieved this distinction not only through French students’ overall reading and math scores, but also through the system’s ability to narrow ethnic and class-based learning gaps. This record of academic excellence was achieved by sticking to a rich, grade-by-grade curriculum stressing the accumulation of knowledge. 

But French politicians couldn’t leave well enough alone. They caved to political pressure. In the aftermath of the 1968 upheavals, the Left (echoing American progressivism) began grumbling that the education system had become elitist and hierarchical, was unmindful of children’s natural abilities, and needed more “cultural diversity.” In 1989, the progressives finally convinced the ruling Socialists to scrap the old top-down system, along with its national curriculum. Overnight, French schools became decentralized, allowing for more individualized instruction. Not only did most French schools abandon the common curriculum; they also threw over the very idea of universal standards for all the nation’s children. New teacher-training schools were established that (in an almost exact replication of American education schools) began convincing future teachers of the advantages of the new “child-centered” pedagogy.

The results of this monumental change were devastating. We know this because France fortunately retained its excellent national assessment system, similar to our country’s NAEP tests. Within two decades, French students dropped precipitously in math and reading scores, and the achievement gap suddenly widened again. France also lost its edge in international tests. “The results are decisive,” Hirsch writes, “and constitute the most definitive comparative study of curriculum effects ever undertaken in any country.”

In his chapter on France’s schools, Hirsch makes perhaps his most persuasive argument yet that the knowledge-infused curriculum is the decisive factor in determining a country’s level of educational progress. I can’t think of a more succinct lesson about where America is headed if the knowledge and curriculum questions continue to be excluded from the national education debate.  

I see little chance that Hirsch’s powerful new warning will provoke second thoughts among the stand-pat defenders of the public schools as they are, or the progressive education professors. After all, the progressives aren’t unhappy with the qualities of mind of the young people that our knowledge-free schools are producing, including their political predilections and activism. The millennial generation now votes overwhelmingly for the progressive Left; they have been taught all their lives that personal feelings are more important than facts. They don’t know anything about the history of socialism and don’t recognize the names of Eugene V. Debs or Vladimir Lenin, but they believe that socialism is a good thing because it feels like a good thing, just as their favorite political candidate repeatedly told them this year. 

The only realistic hope of restoring a knowledge curriculum in the schools rests with the reformers. I don’t question the motives of the many philanthropic-minded billionaires (yes, they really are billionaires) who have spent enormous sums of money in recent years promoting charters and vouchers. The problem is that the donors have so far paid too little attention—and spent little money—promoting the teaching of knowledge in the classroom. 

Since the choice movement is predominantly conservative in its political leaning, this is a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot. The success of the conservative vision for the country depends on broadly educated citizens and requires exactly what Jefferson called for—graduates of our schools “whose memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.” Will conservatives at long last begin working to restore a knowledge-based curriculum? We can only hope. The survival of the American republic is at stake.

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock


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