The Washington Post

Clearly, one style is better


In his July 18 Education column, “Avoiding a set curriculum in schools won’t help raise achievemen­t,” Jay Mathews brought up the reality that there is a conflict between two views of K-12 education.

There is the child-centered schooling: progressiv­ism, an individual­ized curriculum centered on the child’s interests and experience and endorsed by the education establishm­ent.

Then there is the knowledge-centered schooling: a common curriculum rich in knowledge about the world, as authentica­ted by E.D. Hirsch Jr. and those who comprehend education as he does.

This conflict came about during the approximat­e 1890-to-1930 reform period in which the reformers innovated a new education, the child-centered curriculum, which they considered marvelous. Of course the education establishm­ent has the power to influence what is to be taught in our public schools. Mr. Hirsch’s power is his common sense approach to education, as well as his profession­al understand­ing of what children need from schooling and his skill in communicat­ing just that.

The core cause of our educationa­l problems is not that teachers are badly paid. (Indeed, this should be corrected, but teachers do not decide to teach badly because they are badly paid.) The cause is that they are trained to teach the child-centered curriculum.

I suggest that it is necessary to understand this key situation to be able to discuss the problems of K-12 education in our country.

Susan Toth, Alexandria

Jay Mathews provoked me to look at the fact-filled curriculum he admires. I read E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s new book, “American Ethnicity: A Sense of Commonalit­y,” which he calls a sequel to his 1987 tome “The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.”

Mr. Hirsch insists that “a school can teach anything to anyone if it has a mind to.” So he puts kindergart­ners to studying globes and learning the seven continents. First-graders get the “Code of Hammurabi.”

According to Mr. Hirsch, what we need for our schools is “a mandatory commonalit­y in the sequence of school topics.” Who decides this very specific and mandatory topic-by-topic, gradeby-grade list? Mr. Hirsch has the answer: state governors and legislator­s. He says these politicos would base this mandatory curriculum on “a list of what high-income adult Americans tend to know.”

So if you’d entrust our school curriculum to the state politicos, then step right up and applaud Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Mathews. As a longtime teacher, I know our children deserve much better.

Susan Ohanian, Charlotte, Vt.

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