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The Bomb’s Too Big for the Plane

October 20, 2014

Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.

In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.

During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.

There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.

 

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