December 21, 2005

Hip and trendy, or, Brother, can you pare a dime?

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I've never been trendy, not in clothing, books, or philosophy -- in fact, I tend to be more of the throwback/stick in the mud type, going for the tried and true classics (a black turtleneck, the Beatles, John Steinbeck), and my parenting and home schooling decisions haven't deviated from this path either.

Which is why I was surprised to read another tidbit from Core Knowledge's latest newsletter, Core Knowledge and the Coming Paradigm Shift by Jeremiah Reedy, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Macalester College, to find that classical education is the head of a new education trend. Well, well, well. Who knew that The Well-Trained Mind and others of that ilk would become the low-rise jeans of educational philosophy.

As Professor Reedy writes,
The history of public education in the U.S., since it was taken over by progressivists, is a history of fads and alleged panaceas. Recent fads that come to mind include: the new math, whole language, project learning, discovery learning, multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, the self esteem movement, and brain periodization. In fact, some of these, such as whole language and project learning, are decades old but have been recently refurbished and recycled.

As this list suggests, nothing seems to work, and I argue that nothing will work until progressive education is replaced by a philosophy based on a more realistic understanding of human nature. The fact is that progressivists have failed and are failing America. Their approach to education is especially ineffective for children from disadvantaged backgrounds — hence the "achievement gap." Such students need what is called "direct instruction." Marva Collins, who had inner city students in Chicago reading Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, DuBois and other classics, "traced the failure of the modern school to the theory of education that supported it," and she called for a new philosophy of education. Everyone who is concerned about public education should be praying for a paradigm shift.

Fortunately a "new" paradigm has appeared on the horizon. It is called "classical education." (See Classical Education: The Movement That Is Sweeping America, by Gene Veith and Andrew Kern [offering a distinctly Christian world view, by the way]. See also The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Jessie Wise and Susan Bauer.) Mortimer Adler's Paideia Program, the Core Knowledge curriculum, Marva Collins' approach, and that of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools and numerous parochial schools are all examples of classical education.
Indeed, says Professor Reedy, "classical education is not just the latest theory du jour. It is a return to what worked for millennia before the advent of progressive education with its naïve and romantic notions about children."

I can appreciate that the good professor, who according to the article is "currently working with a group to start a new charter school to be known as the Seven Hills Classical Academy", suggests that of all the possibilities, "the Core Knowledge curriculum is the best thought out and will in the long run produce the greatest improvements in student achievement in my humble opinion." Interestingly, the Core Knowledge Sequence specifically was also selected by the late scholar and literary critic Roger Shattuck in his New York Review of Books essay earlier this year (in April, several months before I started blogging, or you would have heard plenty about this damning indictment of the Vermont school board on which he served, and, by extrapolation, the entire state school system), "The Shame of the Schools," as the best hope for a public school system; you can read the article for free, here, with a bit of extra commentary, or straight from NYRB, but with a price tag of $3.

I liked Shattuck from the moment I started reading his article: "After forty years of college teaching, I had no particular agenda to promote on the board. Principally I was curious to find out what actually is being taught in this rural high school, which has the largest payroll within twenty miles. I soon learned that the board spends little time discussing curriculum. I was told that the best way to inform myself would be to visit a few core courses. I chose English and History, or rather "Language Arts" and "Social Studies." (A return to the earlier names became the first item on my agenda.)" That last part won me over to his side for good.

Shattuck went on to explain why, in his study of different curricula, he had chosen CK:
The New York State Board of Regents, the International Baccalaureate, New Standards, Success for All, the Edison Project, the Core Knowledge Sequence, Direct Instruction, America's Choice, New American Schools—all these programs make differing claims, including comprehensive school reform. I have spent much time in the past three years searching for and scrutinizing these programs and their curricula.

I have found only one curriculum that moves grade by grade (in this case K–8), that uses simple lists of specific content, that does not prescribe teaching methods, that is cross-referenced, and that turns out to be informative and even a pleasure to read. The Core Knowledge Sequence (now in its third edition), prepared and published by the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, accomplishes all this in a no-frills two hundred-page booklet adopted since 1986 by 480 schools and under consideration by four hundred. The moving spirit here is the dedicated teacher-scholar E.D. Hirsch. Everyone concerned about what is being taught in our public schools should examine the Core Knowledge Sequence. The considered selection of such a curriculum by my district would represent the full and proper exercise of local control and a means of coordinating the preparation of students in the five elementary schools feeding Mt. Abe.
Rather more persuasive than Professor Reedy for my money (even though my money is on The Well-Trained Mind, where the studies and disciplines seem to be more thoughtfully arranged and interconnected) and without trying to convince me I'm trendy. But I've always been interested to read the late great Mr. Shattuck and the very-much-with-us E.D. Hirsch on the current state of American education. Whose latest effort, The Knowledge Deficit, is due out in the spring.

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