Archives for category: Curriculum

I am very pleased to let you know about the publication of a newly revised edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Perhaps you read it when it was first released in 2010. It was big news at the time, because I broke ranks with the conservative think tanks and policymakers who had once been my allies. I spoke out against the misuse of testing and the dangers of privatization. This was unexpected from someone who had been an Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, who served as part of three conservative think tanks, and who had written many articles about the “crisis” in American education.

I thought I had made a clean break with the Bush-Obama agenda. But in time I realized that I had not completely escaped the old, failed way of thinking (like a state, tinkering with people’s lives from afar). The book continued my longstanding support for a national curriculum and predicted that it would be smooth sailing now that the culture wars were over. I was wrong again!

In this new revision of the book, I have removed any endorsement for a national curriculum or national standards or national tests, and I explain why. The controversy over the Common Core standards taught me that the U.S. will never have a national curriculum, and furthermore, should never have one.

I also explain why a national curriculum and national examinations will not reduce the achievement gap among different racial and ethnic groups and will not reduce poverty. The advocacy for them–from the same people who support privatization–continues to be an excuse for avoiding the issue of poverty. And I rewrote the chapter on “A Nation at Risk,” showing how it dodged the most important issues in our society, which were economic and social, not educational.

Yes, there is a “crisis” in education, but it is not a crisis of test scores or failing schools. The crisis is caused by policymakers, federal officials, foundations, and business leaders who are imposing failed ideas on the schools. These impositions are hurting students, teachers, principals, communities, and public education itself. They have failed and failed, again and again, but those who support the Bush-Obama agenda of competition, choice, testing, and accountability refuse to re-examine their assumptions. Their inability to recognize their own failure has created disruption (which they admire), turmoil, and massive demoralization among educators.

I hope you will consider reading the book. I think that D&L continues to speak with passion to the terrible and real crisis in American education, a crisis caused by non-educators who want to turn our schools into job-training units, who want to emphasize standardized testing to the detriment of students, educators, and public schools, and who foolishly think that privatization will improve education.

Will Fitzhugh is the tireless publisher and editor of The Concord Review. He taught history in a public high school for many years, then stepped away from teaching to found The Concord Review. TCR publishes student work in history, original research papers that are well-written and reflect deep study. It has subscribers all over the world and submissions from students from many countries. It is a fine publication that recognizes the value of excellent historical studies in high school. But Fitzhugh has struggled throughout the life of TCR to keep it alive. He has applied to and been rejected by every foundation and government agency that he could think of. The journal gets plaudits from all who see it, but Will Fitzhugh has exhausted his savings keeping it alive. He is a man with a mission. Please consider subscribing to TCR and make sure that your history students are aware that they can submit essays for possible publication. If you happen to have a foundation, please consider subsidizing this wonderful publication so it will survive. TCR “is the only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic research papers of secondary students.” It should be in every high school.



Will Fitzhugh wrote in the December 2015 issue of TCR:



When teachers say they have to spend so much time preparing for math and reading tests that they cannot give any attention to history, I always want to suggest that if they give their students history to read, they will not only get practice in reading, they will learn some history, too.


When some argue that only in literature can one find good stories of human fears, troubles, relationships, hopes, competition, and accomplishments, I have to believe that reading history was not a big part of their education.


I was a literature major in college, and only came to read history seriously afterwards. No one emphasized the benefits of history when I was in school. And I realize that the appreciation of history is a bit cumulative. That is, when a student first reads history she doesn’t know who these people are or what they are doing or why that might be important to know.


Teachers have to assume some responsibility for expressing their assurance that history is not only interesting but also essential—that is, if they are aware of that themselves. Things go slow in learning any new language. Students can’t love French poetry or Chinese philosophy right away. They have to work to learn the language basics first.


That goes for history as well. But after reading history for a few years, people and events come to be more familiar, and the chronology turns out to be no more difficult and perhaps even more interesting than irregular verbs.


People rightly defend the stories in literature. But history is nothing but stories, too, with the difference that they are true stories, about actual people, who faced and coped with real problems of very great difficulty, with varying degrees of wisdom and success.


These are the people and the stories who form the basis of the civilization the students have inherited, and neglecting them does indeed rob students of an important part of their birthright.


I believe high school students in particular, with whom I am most familiar, having taught in high school for ten years, should read at least one complete history book a year. After all, many of these students are reading Shakespeare plays, studying calculus, and perhaps Chinese and chemistry, so a good history book should be easy, and perhaps a bit of a break for them as well. And not only would they learn some history in the process, but they would experience some exemplary nonfiction writing at the same time. All our students deserve such opportunities. And most are now denied them.

In response to an earlier post about the decline in teaching fiction since 2011, and to the limits on fiction set in the Common Core standards (not more than 30% of instructional time in high school), a reader named Laura responded in a comment. Why limit fiction? Why does it matter? I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Laura writes:

“The study of literature (i.e. fictional texts) is essential to the development of critical thinking. When a student engages with a piece of literature, the student must step into the shoes of someone else and evaluate the decisions made and the actions taken by that character. When we teach literature, we teach students to hypothesize by making predictions, and we teach students how to synthesize different pieces of information in a way that makes sense. With literature, students learn how to understand and how to make analogies, thereby developing their ability to compare and contrast ideas as well as to evaluate those comparisons and contrasts.  

“Literature provides the opportunity for students to understand human relationships as well as historical events in a way that is more personal and more accessible. I know a student is hooked when the student says, “This character is just like X in my life.” When a student can identify with a character and with a story, then a reader is created, and that reader will go on to read anything else they encounter in the world. Therefore, literature allows students not only to develop their vocabulary and their reading comprehension skills but to develop a consciousness as a member of a larger community of people. It allows students to access different perspectives, and especially on controversial issues, this can sometimes be the only point of access that a student might have.  

“Gates, Walton, Broad, Zuckerberg, et al are not interested in critical thinkers who might question their decisions. They want human drones who have enough tech skills to produce but not enough critical thinking skills to challenge the way things are.  

“Anyone who views literature as an option is misguided. Literature is absolutely and fundamentally essential to an educated populace and to democracy.”

Tom Loveless, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has studied NAEP results for years. In this post, he discusses whether the recent flatlining of NAEP was caused by the adoption of the Common Core standards. He says it is too soon to know. We will have to see what happens in 2017 and 2019, maybe even 2021.


But what he does observe is a marked decline in teaching fiction, as compared to informational text. The decline has occurred since 2011, as implementation of Common Core intensified across the nation. The shrinkage of time for teaching fiction was equally large in both fourth and eighth grades. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Common Core standards are causing a decline in teaching fiction.


The Common Core standards recommend that teachers spend 50% of reading time on fiction and 50% on informational text in grades K-8. In high school, the standards propose a division of 30% fiction-70% informational text. When English teachers and members of the public complained about the downgrading of fiction, the CCSS promoters insisted that they referred to the entire curriculum, not just to English. But fiction is not typically taught in science, math, or social studies classes (and when it is taught in social studies classes, it has a good purpose).


Where did these proportions come from? They are drawn directly from NAEP’s guidelines to assessment developers about the source of test questions. The NAEP guidelines were never intended as instructions for teachers about how much time to devote to any genre of reading.


No nation in the world, to my knowledge, directs teachers about the proportion of time to devote to fiction or non-fiction. This is a bizarre recommendation.


I write informational text, so I am all for it. But I think it should be the teachers’ choice about whether to emphasize literature or nonfiction. I believe that learning to read and learning to interpret text can be accomplished in any genre. A student could study all informational text or all literature and be a good or great or poor reader. The genre doesn’t matter as much as other factors, like the student’s level of interest, the age appropriateness of the text, and how it is taught.






Once more into the math wars, dear friends. I confess I am an innocent bystander. I have never taught math, and I am astonished at the expectations that our middle school students meet. When I was in high school, I studied Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, but math instruction has moved far beyond what I learned. So I invite math teachers to comment on Wendy Lecker’s new article about what the Common Core math gets wrong. To all the pundits and politicians who ridicule our students and teachers, I have a standing challenge: Take any eighth grade math test and publish your scores.



Lecker writes:


At parents’ night this fall, a high school math teacher I know begged parents to teach their children long division “the old-fashioned way.” She explained that the new way students had learned long division impedes their ability to understand algebraic factoring. She lamented that students hadn’t been taught certain rote skills, like multiplication tables, that would enable them to perform more complex math operations efficiently.

It turns out that brain science supports this math teacher’s impressions. Rote learning and memorization at an early age are critical in developing math skills.

A study conducted by Stanford Medical school examined the role of a part of the brain, the hippocampus, in the development of math skills in children. The authors noted that a shift to memory-based problem solving is a hallmark of children’s cognitive development in arithmetic as well as other domains. They conducted brain scans of children, adolescents and adults and found that hippocampus plays a critical but time limited role in the development of memory-based problem solving skills.

The hippocampus helps the brain encode memories in children that as adults they can later retrieve efficiently when working with more complex math concepts. The hippocampal system works a certain way in children to help develop memory-based problem solving skills. Once the children pass a certain age, the processes change.

The study also found that “repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development in children contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation.” In other words, rote repetition helps the development of this critical brain system so essential to later more complicated math work.

Those who developed the Common Core State Standards clearly ignored brain research in math, as they did in reading (; The Common Core emphasizes conceptual understanding at every phase of math instruction. So, even young children are required not only to conduct a simple math procedure, but to also explain and justify every answer.


There is more. Open the link and read the rest of the article. Then sound off.

Steve Singer, a teacher in Pennsylvania, warns that the standardization movement will crush educators and students. He sees no value in having a single set of national standards. Is there a school that doesn’t teach reading and writing, mathematics and basic skills? No. If there were, taxpayers would soon close it. Should states legislate about evolution? Good grief, no. Either they would legislate not to teach it, or to give equal time to creationism, or they would then think it necessary to legislate their views on every controversial school issue.


Singer sees the drive to standardize the schools as similar to having every restaurant become a McDonald’s.


We shouldn’t want all of our public schools to be uniform. When everyone teaches the same things, it means we leave out the same things. There is far too much to know in this world than can ever be taught or learned in one lifetime. Choices will always need to be made. The question is who should make them?

If we allow individuals to make different choices, it diversifies what people will know. Individuals will make decisions, which will become the impetus to learning, which will then become intrinsic and therefore valued. Then when you get ten people together from various parts of the country, they will each know different things but as a whole they will know so much more than any one member. If they all know the same things, as a group they are no stronger, no smarter than each separate cog. That is not good for society.

We certainly don’t want this ideal when going out to eat. We don’t want every restaurant to be the same. We certainly don’t want every restaurant to be McDonalds.

Imagine if every eatery was a burger joint. That means there would be no ethnic food. No Mexican. No Chinese. No Italian. There would be nothing that isn’t on that one limited menu. Moreover, it would all be prepared the same way. Fast food restaurants excel in consistency. A Big Mac at one McDonalds is much like a Big Mac at any other. This may be comforting but – in the long run – it would drive us insane. If our only choices to eat were on a McDonald’s Value Menu, we would all soon die of diabetes.

But this is what we seem to want of our public schools. Or do we?
There is a bait and switch going on in this argument for school standardization. When we talk about making all schools the same, we’re not talking about all schools. We’re only talking about traditional public schools. We’re not talking about charter schools, parochial schools or private schools.

How strange! The same people who champion this approach rarely send their own children to public schools. They want sameness for your children but something much different for their own.


The strangest contradiction occurs when the same people advocate on one hand for school choice, but on the other for no choice about what children should learn.

New York policy makers saw a problem: too many students were failing the Algebra exam required for graduation. Result: more kids failed. What happens next? The tests will be made harder. What do you think will happen now? Will the policymakers blame teachers? Will the public figure out that making tests harder increases the failure rate? Why do legislators and policy makers think that kids work harder and learn more if the tests are more rigorous? Tests are not instruction. They are measures.


Some students take the Algebra exam four, five, six times. At one school that raised its passing rate on the Algebra test, the school dropped art, music, and health.


I have been reading Andrew Hacker’s “The Math Myth.” He does a good job of demolishing the claims that everyone needs Algebra.


Common sense, anyone?

A reader reports on first-hand experience with Néw York’s EngageNY curriculum for Common Core:

“As a 2nd grade teacher with nearly 20 years teaching experience, I cannot express how disturbing it is to be forced to use the EngageNY materials every day. It goes against everything we know works effectively to engage and educate our students. As professionals originally hired for our creativity, enthusiasm, and dedication – these materials do everything possible to kill those qualities in each of us.

“We were told from day one that we were to use the program “with fidelity.” It was obvious that no one had actually reviewed the materials (probably due to the fact that many of the modules hadn’t even been completed yet when districts adopted them) or had asked teachers to take a look at what we were being given ahead of time. We also were not given any training – the boxes were just delivered just a few days before the school year began. As the year progressed and it became increasingly evident that there were multiple errors and/or no way to implement all of the many components scheduled in a day with the time allotted, we were then told to “use common sense.” We were not exactly sure what that meant as we were still expected to follow the program and would be evaluated on our use of it as well.

“Last year we entered our second year with EngageNY. Having been through it once, we are still identifying more and more errors and, most importantly, developmentally inappropriate material that we are expected to present to our students. Mid-year we were told that we would finally have a day to meet with a representative to do some training. All we had ever requested was that someone come in to our school and demonstrate exactly HOW all of the materials were to be used in a given lesson. Please just SHOW US! – we asked over and over. That would never happen. However, during our “training” (which was essentially just a sales presentation showing us each component), again we asked how it would be possible to fit all of these things that were dictated in a lesson into our limited time each day. The representative did finally admit that there really couldn’t be any at to fit 2 1/2 hours worth of lessons in an hour or 1 1/2 hour period.

“We, teachers and students, are being set up to fail. It is so sad to think that I hear teachers talk about “the good old days” when we used to be able to create fun and engaging activities that students enjoyed and we loved teaching! I am sorry that this has been a bit long-winded (and I could go on and on with more about this), but I haven’t had an opportunity to share this with any teachers outside of my own district. It is both comforting (and discouraging) to know that there are others experiencing the same things around the country. I hope that we can come together and fight for what we know is right for our students!”

This post is a description of EngageNY, the scripted curriculum written for use in New York state and now migrating to other states. Ken Wagner, former deputy commissioner of the New York State Education Department, now Rhode Island state superintendent, promises to import them to Rhode Island. New York’s new state commissioner says she used the New York curriculum with great success in Florida. Read this post and decide for yourself. Be sure to read the comments.

Here is a sample:

The same people who gave us standardized testing have now given us standardized teaching, which goes directly to the information a student can get, how the student gets it, and what the student is supposed to get out of each and every class minute. It is 19th-century educational lockstep, pushed by the White House and institutionalized by the New York governor’s office.

If standardized testing dumbed down school and teacher evaluation, standardized teaching takes it a step further: It dumbs down the kids.

The project is called “Engage New York.” It does anything but.

If, say, you are a teacher of 11th-grade English in Buffalo, you get, every 10 weeks, a thick three-ring binder with instructions on what you are to do in every class. The copy I have of one of these runs 587 pages. The volume is excruciatingly boring to read. (I cheated: I skimmed most of the pages.) I cannot imagine what it is like to be a creative and imaginative teacher hamstrung by it. Worse: I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a student in classes that now have to be taught by teachers forced to deliver this drivel or be fired.

The book is divided into teaching “modules,” which list what questions the teachers should ask, what answers they should get, and how they should respond to them. They list what words students should learn each day.

There are regular pages headed “Unit-at-a-Glance Calendar,” telling the teacher the specific lines and paragraphs to be covered in each class. There are pages listing “Activity” items for each class; each named activity includes the percentage of class time to be devoted to it. One, for example has “Activity 1: Introduction of Lesson Agenda. 5%”; Activity 2: Homework Accountability. 10%”; “Activity 3: Masterful Reading. 5%”; “Activity 4: Hamlet Act 1.2, Lines 900-110 Reading and Discussion, 60%.”

Day after day of this, class after class, minute by minute.

The questions the teachers are ordered to ask are often so banal they read like a Monty Python parody. Here is an example. The teacher is told to ask the question, “What information do you gather from the full title of the play: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark?” (All teacher questions are in bold type.)

Permissible student answers are:

—The play is about a person named Hamlet.

—This is a tragic or sad play.

—Hamlet is a prince.

—This play likely takes place in Denmark.

This is drivel. The book is full of things like that. It is also full of misinformation.

Mercedes Schneider posted a letter written by a Néw York algebra teacher to parents of his students.

He begins:

“Dear Algebra Parents,


“The results from this year’s Common Core Algebra exam are now available and have been posted on the high school gymnasium doors. They are listed by student ID number and have no names attached to them. The list includes all students who took the exam, whether they were middle school students or high school students.


“I’ve been teaching math for 13 years now. Every one of those years I have taught some version of Algebra, whether it was “Math A”, “Integrated Algebra”, “Common Core Algebra”, or whatever other form it has shown up in. After grading this exam, speaking to colleagues who teach math in other school districts, and reflecting upon the exam itself, I have come to the conclusion that this was the toughest Algebra exam I have ever seen.


“With that in mind, please know that all 31 middle school students who took the exam received a passing score. No matter what grade your son or daughter received, every student should be congratulated on the effort they put into the class this year.


“Although everyone passed, many of you will not be happy with the grade that your son or daughter received on the exam (and neither will they). While I usually try to keep the politics of this job out of my communications, I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the two-fold tragedy that unfolded on this exam. As a parent, you deserve to know the truth.


“I mentioned how challenging this exam was, but I want you to hear why I feel this way.”


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