A short manifesto for schools: time to focus on knowledge
Ever since I was an elementary school student myself, I have been chronically disappointed with the American education establishment. Don’t get me wrong–I get along fine with most of the educators I encounter, who are good people and full of all sorts of good ideas and real competence. But I also believe a sickness pervades the entire American system of education, the sickness of anti-intellectualism.
I read plenty of blogs, tweets, and articles on education and ed tech, as well as the occasional book, from all sorts of cutting-edge teachers, administrators, and education theorists. They are all abuzz about the latest online educational resources, which I love and use (and develop) too. But whenever the subject of learning facts or substantially increasing levels of subject knowledge, and–especially–tests of such things comes up, I seem to hear nothing but boos and hisses. This might be surprising, because, after all, what are those educational resources for if not to increase levels of subject knowledge? It seems an exception is made for technology.
But to focus attention on ignorance among students, poor test results, etc., apparently means caring too much about “direct instruction” and a lot of other betes noire of the education establishment. If I talk much about raising standards or returning the focus to knowledge, I threaten to reject “student-centered” education, the project method, “useful” (read: vocational) knowledge, and authentic assessments, and replace such allegedly good things with “drill and kill,” learning “trivia,” boring textbooks, and in general a return to soul-killing, dusty old methods discarded long ago and rightly so. What I rarely encounter from the education establishment–though critical outsiders like myself talk endlessly about it–is evidence of an earnest concern about, quite simply, how much students learn.
Enter this Atlantic article about a recent study of the factors correlated with test success, by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer–not education professors, but economists who know a thing or two about research methods. Dobbie and Fryer discovered, unsurprisingly, that higher student scores are correlated with a “relentless focus on academic goals.” Such a focus entails “frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations.” The factors not correlated with school effectiveness, by contrast, included “class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree.” My hat is off to these researchers for reminding us, and giving new supporting data, for what those of us outside of the education establishment already knew: a culture of commitment to academic success is the main thing that matters to academic success. But we may confidently predict that the education establishment will dismiss this study, as it has done so many others that came to similar conclusions.
Reading about the study inspired a few thoughts. First, it is indeed the culture of a school that determines whether its students are successful. This claim makes sense. If the goal of schools were to inculcate knowledge in students–success at which is might be measured by the study’s “credible estimates of each school’s effectiveness”–then it is simple rationality, and requires no special studies, to conclude that the school’s staff should have a “relentless focus on academic goals.”
If you want to make schools better, it’s important that they be absolutely focused on academic goals, which is to say, on knowledge. Excess resources won’t buy such a focus (and the study indicates that this might be inversely correlated with success). Class size doesn’t matter. Focus on “self-esteem” doesn’t help. What is needed more than anything is a pervasive, institutional commitment to knowledge as a goal.
Sadly, increasing student knowledge is not the overriding goal of American schools.
I wish I had time to write a book for a popular audience of parents, teachers, and older students, defending knowledge (not “critical thinking,” which requires knowledge; not self-esteem; not social training; not high-tech training) as the most important goal of education. I’d also like to make the case that the education establishment has been really, truly, and in fact anti-intellectual and “anti-knowledge.” I’m merely asserting this perhaps startling claim in this post–this isn’t the place to make the case. But those who are familiar with intellectualist critiques of American public schools will understand.
If you really want to know why so many kids in the United States do poorly on exams and are basically know-nothings who turn into know-nothing adults, I’ll tell you. It’s because many parents, many teachers, the broader education establishment, and especially the popular culture of “cool” which guides children’s development after a certain age are simply anti-intellectual. Europeans and especially Asians do not have such an albatross around their necks. They actually admire people who are knowledgeable, instead of calling them nerds, and (later in life) dismissing their knowledge as “useless” and dismissing them because of their less-finely-tuned social skills, and (after they gain some real-world status) envying them and labeling them “elitist.”
It’s been widely believed and often admitted for a long time that the United States has a long, nasty streak of anti-intellectualism. Democrats love to bash Republicans on this point. (And recently I bashed geek anti-intellectualism as well.) But anti-intellectualism in schools? This is apt to make many Democrats, and the more establishment sort of Republican, pretty uncomfortable. Still, it’s true. This broad societal illness has kept our schools underperforming not just recently, but for generations.
The common complaints about standardized testing are misplaced. If schools were filling their charges’ minds adequately with academic knowledge and skills, they would welcome standardized tests and would not have to spend any extra time on preparing students for them. The focus on the project method is misplaced, too. Projects and experiments are important as far as they go, but it is simply inefficient–if the goal is to develop student knowledge–to make projects the centerpiece of pedagogy.
Finally, the generations-long the flight from books, especially well-written books, is a travesty. Books are where the knowledge is. If you want students to know a lot, have them read a lot of non-fiction books. They will inevitably become very knowledgeable. If you make sure that the books are well-written–not boring library fodder like so many geography books, for example–and hand-picked by students, they will more likely enjoy their reading. Having read probably a few thousand children’s books to my son in the last five years, I can assure you that there is no shortage of excellent children’s books on most subjects. We’re in a sort of golden age of children’s books–never before has there been such a tremendous variety of offerings so readily available.
Principals and teachers need to lead the way. They need to convey to their students and their students’ parents that their schools are all about getting knowledge. “When you leave our school, you will know a lot,” educators should be able to tell their students–honestly. “But we will expect you to pay attention and read a lot of books. We will expect a lot of you. Learning at this school won’t be easy, but the effort will definitely be worth it. It will open up your eyes to a world that is far larger and deeper than you knew. The knowledge you will gain will make you, in a way, a bigger person, more connected to everything all around you, and better prepared to make the world a better place.”
Finally, if schools don’t throw off this anti-intellectualism, which has become positively stodgy and stale, and which is so contrary to their mission, they can expect to encounter more and more competition in the form of charter schools, school vouchers, homeschooling, and now virtual schools. If parents who really care about learning run toward new educational systems that have a better chance of actually educating their children, who can blame them?
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.