If you follow education news, you may already have seen E.D. Hirsch, Jr.,’s March 22 Op-Ed column in the New York Times. The piece, “Reading Test Dummies,” makes exactly the kind of argument Hirsch’s fans are by now used to: That standardized tests assessing reading skills have merit, when used appropriately. “These much maligned, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests,” Hirsch writes,
are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available. The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.
Fair enough so far, right? And Hirsch goes you one further by explaining that “[f]or a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.” Not only that, but
Our current reading tests are especially unfair to disadvantaged students. The test passages may be random, but they aren’t knowledge-neutral. A child who knows about hiking in the Appalachians will have a better chance of getting the passage right; a child who doesn’t, won’t. Yet where outside of school is a disadvantaged student to pick up the implicit knowledge that is being probed on the reading tests?
[b]etter-defined standards in history, science, literature and the arts combined with knowledge-based reading tests would encourage the schools to conceive the whole course of study as a reading curriculum — exactly what a good knowledge-based curriculum should be. Schools would also begin to use classroom time more productively, which is important for all students and critically so for disadvantaged ones.
Hirsch ends with this zinger: “We do not need to abandon either the principle of accountability or the fill-in-the-bubble format. Rather we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to.”
For the sake of expediency, let’s ignore for now the fact that “teaching to the test” and “tests that are worth teaching to” are in effect the same thing. (You can put lipstick, a bubble skirt, and high heels on a pig, but….) Let’s leave aside the deeper, more concerning question: Who gets to decide what those standards are, and what evidence is there that setting these standards across subject-areas would benefit disadvantaged students any more than any previous “curriculum reform” has?
In fact, no, let’s not leave that question aside–not for now, not ever. Hirsch argues for curriculum standards, presumably along the lines of the Core Knowledge he promotes in his nonprofit organization. (When I say “core knowledge,” you think “western canon.” Core: Western. Knowledge: Canon.) It is only in this way, he believes, that we can preserve the knowledge upon which our culture was built. In fact, this is where conservative educational thinkers show their rhetorical skill: Their arguments, as Michael Apple points out, are linked to a nostalgia for the past, for a time when the questions about what to teach and how to teach it were less thorny and easier to answer–when white men ruled and everyone else got in line or fell out. Apple points to conservatives like Hirsch, Dianne Ravitch, and William Bennett,
all of whom seem to believe that progressivism is now in the dominant position in educational policy and practice and has destroyed a valued past. All of them believe that only by tightening control over curriculum and teaching (and students, of course), restoring ‘our’ lost traditions, making education more disciplined and competitive as they are certain it was in the past—only then can we have effective schools. (p. 6)
The questions about what to teach and how to teach it get increasingly difficult as participatory technologies, and the social skills and cultural competencies linked to success at using these technologies, become increasingly valuable and valued. As culture shifts toward this participatory model, it becomes increasingly clear that memorizing a canon of information is less important than having the skills to know when and how tap into that canon. The entire body of world thought is, as always, distributed across a vast set of networks; but until very recently, it was difficult or impossible for people outside of academic institutions to access very much of those networks.
(For more responses to Hirsch’s op-ed, you can read letters to the editor at the New York Times Letters page.)