When it comes to problems with our schools, there's a lot more insight in Robert Jamieson's Thursday column than in the school district's curriculum audit by consultants Phi Delta Kappa International, summarized elsewhere in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's local section by Jessica Blanchard.
Prominent among the problems Phi Delta Kappa discussed is the tension between centralized and decentralized (sometimes called "school-based") management of the district. The consultants, as reported by Blanchard, come down in favor of tighter central controls, which is where Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno want to go. That's a full swing of the pendulum from the locally popular school-based budgeting of the past 10 years and decades of independence for schools and teachers that has largely dominated K-12 education nationally, not just in Seattle, since the late 1960s.
It's also a big swing for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators which, through its magazine, Kappan, has for decades beaten the drum for "progressive" education, including school autonomy.
But today in Seattle, as Blanchard reports, school autonomy takes the blame for a "'fractured' school system that has Ã¢'ê¬Ëhindered high achievement for every child'" in the PDK audit. At root is a fractured curriculum, blamed for inequities among schools and low achievement. The district wants a stronger core curriculum through which students in all schools would progress at the same rate, though Santorno hastens to assure ready critics that this would not link teachers in lockstep, that creativity would be preserved.
Actually, this is not a bad idea, but you have to look at Jamieson's column for a peek beyond the fads of education professionals to see why we have this problem in the first place. Jamieson riffs on a study titled "Still at Risk: What Students Don't Know," published by an organization called Common Core, which is affiliated with American Enterprise Institute. (Readers can impute a bias if they'd like.) It demonstrates pretty convincingly that American high school students are abysmally (an understatement) ignorant of history. The columnist finds blame in most of the usual places — American anti-intellectualism (often exploited by the religious right), No Child Left Behind, the PC critique of "Western" thought ascendant in higher education when he was at Stanford and, of course, too much TV. We could add more.
But it all adds up to this: We don't know what to teach. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when anti-war baby boomers turned on America's culture and the civil rights movement and immigration began to bring competing claims for cultural legitimacy into the classroom — not to mention the moral imperative to actually educate all these different kids — America's educators have been unable to find common ground, common values or anything else on which to build or rebuild a common curriculum. What should we teach? Who should decide? It's these problems, more than the questions of governance — central administration or school-based management — raised by the PDK audit that lie at the heart of what's wrong with our schools.
Increasing centralized control of Seattle schools may — and probably will — help create something more like a core curriculum. It may be the expeditious thing to do just now. But don't expect too much. (You'll probably hear more about "benchmarks" and "competencies" than content.) After all, the most recent surrogate for a curriculum that actually tells us what every kid in America should know, and more or less at what grade he or she should know it, is the so-called "standards movement," which brought us the justly reviled No Child Left Behind Act and our very own Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the WASL, both of which ended up substituting testing for learning.
Jamieson's column wisely leads us to these questions: What shall we teach? Why should we teach it? Who should decide? The PDK study offers an answer only to the last of these, but until we get the first two worked out, we're likely just watching another swing of the pendulum.