Why Not Use What We Already Know?

Since Richard Rothstein has nothing to say about the criticisms I made in my last post, I see nothing useful in raising those points again. I would only note that he now takes his determinist view about the possibility of in-school reforms raising the achievement of disadvantaged children to new heights (or should I say to new lows). Consider this remarkable statement by Rothstein: “It is unreasonable and irresponsible to expect schools and teachers to overcome social class differences while exempting every other institution and public official from taking action to do so.”

No one is suggesting that schools “can overcome class differences.” However, what some of us in the school reform community do believe is that schools have not even come close to fulfilling their potential for improving outcomes for the disadvantaged. As I pointed out in my last post, there is a strong scientific consensus that the black-white gap in reading achievement in the early grades can be substantially narrowed with the use of programs that follow the protocols of scientifically based reading research. In the current issue of Education Week, E.D. Hirsch reiterates his long-held claim that, “there is still no definite, coherent academic curriculum in the early grades” and that this lack of content knowledge is the source of a significant part of the low achievement of American students. Until the schools start paying attention to what cognitive scientists have discovered about the best instructional methods for teaching reading and the need for a knowledge-based curriculum in the early grades, it is useless to speculate about how much of the academic achievement gap is produced by “social class differences.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”