Winding up for a talk at the Pioneer Institute

I may be nuts to have agreed to be on a panel that the Pioneer Institute is hosting, which Ed Hirsch is headlining (author of many books about core curriculum), but I’m not sure it does much good to just ignore the rhetoric of the conservatives. That is, after all, how we got MCAS!

Ed Hirsch ‘s arguments are pretty “sexy” and convincing to many. In a nutshell, the argument goes something like this: “If there is not a common curriculum, than we will have a weak society. A common curriculum helps to socialize our young people.” Of course I would agree with much of that, but the challenge has always been about what information to leave in and what to leave out. Too often what we get is a curriculum of disparate factoids that can be easily tested. I’m all for knowledge-even the accumulation of knowledge. Who could argue that knowledge is a bad thing? But knowing “stuff” often gets pitted against knowing concepts or learning deep skills. Knowing “stuff” too often translates in single-mode-right-answer-tests that are easy (read cheap) to score.

Those in my school worry rightly about the proposed History MCAS, which is definitely in the genre of easy-quick-cheap to score multiple choice tests. For instance, the Harlem Renaissance isn’t mentioned once in the proposed History MCAS. So, we get to the problem of selection. Who’s to say whether Andrew Jackson’s expansion is more/less important than Harlem Renaissance? But Hirsh’s allies would argue that there IS a common core that should be tested. I’m not so sure.

What I hope to argue at this panel discussion is the importance of developing authentic assessments that allow us to test students’ acquisition of skills as thinking, literate historians. As History professor Steven Cohen of Tufts University has argued: what if we give students four documents (a cartoon, a primary source document, a chart and a map) and ask them to interpret and explain and connect those documents¬† to a period in American history such as the Industrial Revolution, Civil War or the American Revolution? Wouldn’t we learn so much more about what students know and understand than 50 multiple choice questions that students memorized for the test?

I believe what we need to really talk about is: What does it mean to know who the father of the constitution is rather than the importance of the constitution? One question is quick and easy to test. The other helps us develop historians. Which do we want our schools to focus on?

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