Matt Rainey/Star Ledger/Corbis

Eighth-grade students working out algebra problems at Robert Treat Academy, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey, September 16, 2008


When Mike Rose, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, made some positive remarks about public schools on a call-in radio show a few years ago, one listener phoned in with disbelief: he said he “didn’t know one seventeen-year-old who could make correct change.” Others followed with “assaultive” anger that “did not, in any way, invite engagement, or mutual analysis, or thinking through a problem together.”

In some respects, it has always been so. With the possible exceptions of the postal service and the motor vehicle bureau, few public institutions rival our schools in public dissatisfaction. “We can all agree,” according to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, “that American public schools are a joke”—and it is not hard to find comparable statements from commentators on the left.

What should one make of such claims? In a study published more than a decade ago by the Century Foundation, Richard Rothstein, who later became an education columnist for The New York Times, rattled off a list of similar lamentations stretching back more than 150 years. As early as 1845, when the nation’s first standardized test was administered to a group of fourteen-year-olds under the direction of Horace Mann, the examiners were shocked by the “absurd answers,…errors in grammar, in punctuation and in spelling.” Writing in 1902, the editors of the New York Sun declared that America’s schools had sunk to the level of “a vaudeville show.” By 1955, a best-selling book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, charged that the failure of the schools was “gradually destroying democracy.”

In 1983, the authors of an influential report commissioned by the US Department of Education, A Nation at Risk, summed things up with a memorable quip:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

And in 1998, the year of Rothstein’s report, the National Constitution Center concluded that the war was going badly: barely 40 percent of American teenagers could identify the three branches of government, while nearly 60 percent knew the names of the Three Stooges.1

Measured against our aspirations for public schools, all these expressions of alarm doubtless have some warrant. But measured against the actual schools of the past, how, in fact, are we doing?

Some think this question can be settled by objective measures such as test scores over time. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, combined verbal and math scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) did indeed decline (about 10 percent), which would seem to bolster the view that American schools have deteriorated.2 But today, the SAT is taken annually by roughly two million students of wide-ranging preparation and ability. When it was first administered in its modern form in 1941, it was taken by only around ten thousand students, or less than half of 1 percent of all seventeen-year-olds—a largely self-selected group seeking admission to elite private colleges. And there are other confounding factors, such as the growth of the test-prep industry, which serves the affluent as a sort of school supplement, as well as the growing incidence of allowing students with documented psychological difficulties extra time to complete the test.3 Such developments make it hard to know how well test scores reflect what actually goes on in the schools.

Meanwhile, graduation rates have been rising while reading scores have been falling. But what does this mean? Are today’s high school students less literate than their predecessors, or do the data now include relatively weak students of the sort who would not have shown up in the past because they had left school before the testers got to them?

In short, the more one ponders the statistics, the more murky their meaning becomes. The most reliable data, lucidly presented by Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard, in his book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, do disclose some noteworthy trends. Especially in mathematics, student achievement has lately improved at the elementary school level, but the gains have not been maintained through middle school and high school. Test scores of African-American students in reading as well as in math continue to lag behind those of white students, though the gap has been narrowing. Hispanic students also score lower than non-Hispanic whites, although, as Koretz points out, the meaning of these data is complicated by the fact that “the Hispanic population is constantly refreshed” by new immigrants who, at first, may have difficulty understanding and reading English.4

Yet despite the manifest ambiguities of the data, Americans persist in believing that our schools have fallen from some golden age of excellence—an idea that Rothstein dismissed as a “fable.” It was a well-chosen word, since “fable” is the name we give to a tale whose claims cannot be empirically verified but that may nevertheless contain some admonitory or normative truth.



Ever since its beginnings in antebellum Massachusetts, public education has been regarded as a national imperative, yet running the schools has generally been left to the states. Before the Civil War, when one western state school superintendent observed the “futility of attempting to operate a Free School System, without proper supervisory agents,” supervision was considered a state responsibility, and so it has remained ever since. During the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction, Congress did seek to influence local educational practices through its oversight of the new state constitutions, and through the Freedmen’s Bureau, which set up schools in the South for black Americans who had previously been denied access to education. But it took nearly a century till the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), issued its order that all public schools must be integrated. And it was not until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that the federal government got substantially involved in school reform by directing funds to the states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), with the goal of improving schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.5

So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of “big government,” that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.

In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates. As part of the “stimulus package,” it has announced plans for dispensing some $4 billion on a competitive basis to states that adopt what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls “common, internationally benchmarked K–12 standards.” The new initiative is called “Race to the Top,” and one of its provisions encourages the growth of charter schools that are exempt from many of the regulations governing the hiring, firing, and promotion of teachers, and whose charters are subject to revocation depending on performance as measured chiefly by test results.6

Not so long ago, charter schools were opposed by liberals wary of union-busting and privatization, and were supported by conservatives seeking to inject entrepreneurial energy into a system they regarded as paralyzed by life tenure for teachers and a salary structure based on seniority. Today, charter schools have found a degree of bipartisan support, public approval of them is growing, the teachers’ unions are on the defensive, and in every region of the country—in traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools—standardized testing has become so pervasive and begins so early that, according to Deborah Meier, founding principal of the well-known Central Park East School in New York City, “five-year-olds worry, not about whether they will make friends, but whether they will be held over because they haven’t yet learned all their letters and phonemes.”7 The notion that ideas about improving schools can be neatly divided between “liberal” and “conservative” seems increasingly incoherent.


Now we have two new books by authors who would seem to come at the problem of education from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Before assuming his current position at UCLA, Mike Rose taught for years a variety of students ranging from kindergarteners to adults enrolled in job-training programs. His tone and instincts affiliate him with the liberal left. He is suspicious of flag-waving patriotism, indignant at corporate greed, dismayed at the growing gap between rich and poor. E.D. Hirsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, has had a distinguished career as what might be called an anti-theory theorist associated with the traditionalist wing of literary academia. In the 1980s he achieved fame (in some quarters, notoriety) as the author of a best-selling guidebook, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which conservatives welcomed as a counterattack on the identity politics of “multiculturalism.” Since then, Hirsch has led the “Core Knowledge” movement, a nationwide initiative to establish a curriculum based on the premise that all children should attain shared knowledge of history, fundamental political and philosophical ideas, classic literary texts, and basic scientific concepts.

Both writers feel besieged, but from different directions. For Rose, the enemy is the number-crunchers who want to measure everything by tests and thereby reduce education to a “knowledge-delivery system.” For Hirsch, the problem is the “anti-curriculum” crowd, people he regards as deluded by the romantic idea that children somehow possess innate knowledge that can be released through play or self-paced learning or other forms of what he considers vapid “progressive” education. To Rose, children—especially those whose parents are poorly educated—are ill served by schools that treat them as little learning machines; to Hirsch, they are cheated by schools that treat them as members of preciously distinctive cultural groups whose sense of self would be damaged by a standard curriculum required of all. But the real divergence between these two writers, and the one of most consequence to anyone interested in education, is the difference in their views of what Rose calls “the picture of human cognition.”


Hirsch’s account of early childhood has a determinist flavor. With good reason, he sees the fund of knowledge that children acquire early in life as dictating their prospects in later life, and he thinks we have failed to deal with the plain fact that children from homes where reading takes place and dinner-table talk reaches beyond household events enter school with an immense advantage. “The chief problem in American education,” he writes, “is not diversity of income, race, and ethnicity but diversity of preparation.”

Hirsch looks to schools to counteract this invidious diversity. His book amounts to a restatement of a faith once articulated by Horace Mann as follows:

If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relationship between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor.8

Hirsch would agree with this nineteenth-century credo, but he knows it does not get us very far toward understanding what actually goes on, or should go on, in today’s classroom. To this end, he gives the helpfully mundane example of a third-grade reading assignment about farming in ancient Egypt. He makes the reasonable assumption that children from poor backgrounds will never have encountered some of the key words in the passage —such as “annual” and “fertile”—while children with more advantages are likely to have heard such words at home. His point is that if the school, in first and second grade, has built up a foundation of basic knowledge—“that Egypt was a country in ancient times, that the year has seasons, that farming depends on planting seeds in moist soil”—most children should be able to grasp the passage, and, in the process of reading and discussing it, disadvantaged children will add to their vocabulary some words that their better-prepared classmates may already know. Hence “we witness a tiny bit of gap narrowing” by which disadvantaged kids can gradually catch up to their better-prepared peers.

For Hirsch, the mark of a good school is this kind of cumulative learning, grade by grade, that creates “the preconditions for comprehension…for all children in the class,” which means that “the ground for understanding” the lesson about Egypt he has just described “has to have been carefully prepared by a whole series of earlier lessons, some stretching back to previous years.” Otherwise, disadvantaged kids will almost certainly be bored or mystified by the lesson, and be left with feelings of embarrassment, alienation from school, and self-doubt disguised as contempt for learning. Hirsch makes the further point that since they move more often than middle-class children, children of low-income families especially need a standardized year-to-year curriculum if they are to stay on course as they switch from school to school. Sadly, it is a pertinent point, since the number of homeless children in the nation’s public schools now exceeds one million.9

When Hirsch moves from questions of curriculum to the process of learning itself, another antecedent to his way of thinking comes into view. If Horace Mann is his political touchstone, William James (though he does not name him) would seem to have presented, in his remarkable book The Principles of Psychology (1890), the essentials of Hirsch’s conception of how the mind develops. In a famous chapter of that book, James gave an account of habit as a sort of neurological technology that conserves mental energy by freeing the mind from having to expend itself on conscious exertions. “Habit,” he wrote, “diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.” James then goes on to substantiate the claim:

When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous “cue.” The marksman sees the bird, and, before he knows it, he has aimed and shot. A gleam in his adversary’s eye, a momentary pressure from his rapier, and the fencer finds that he instantly made the right parry and return. A glance at the musical hieroglyphics, and the pianist’s fingers have rippled through a cataract of notes.

Here, in prospect, is Hirsch’s basic argument that “acquiring a skill means acquiring ways of indirectly circumventing the limitations of working memory for the purposes at hand.” The job of the school is to bring all children to a stage of development where they can react habitually, in James’s sense, to the “cues.” Helping them to attain such competence by means of systematic vocabulary-building, a repertory of basic historical and cultural knowledge, grammar drills, diagramming sentences—just the sort of thing of which “progressive” educators, according to Hirsch, disapprove—is not suppressive but liberating.

Mike Rose, on the other hand, puts less emphasis on the determinative effects of early childhood and fills his book with stories of late transformation, including his own. He writes, for instance, about a young man from the inner city who, after getting into street trouble and spending time in a juvenile camp, entered a remedial college preparation program in which Rose was teaching. The premise of the program was that students, even though they had limited reading and writing skills, could begin right away to read, discuss, and write about complex issues such as the history of eugenics or income distribution in the US. “Writing filled with grammatical error,” Rose says, “does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.” After twenty weeks, his student was “writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision-making in the Cuban missile crisis.”

None of this is an argument against Hirsch’s call for closing the deficits that start to accumulate for disadvantaged children early in grade school; but Rose’s book has a never-too-late theme and a resilient sense that education can be effective at any stage if only it is experimental, improvisational, and, above all, if it resists discouragement.10 If Hirsch is chiefly interested in the content of the curriculum, Rose is concerned with “the everyday detail of classrooms, the words and gestures of a good teacher,” with “what happens when teachers…create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new.”

Moreover, although he has written a smaller book than Hirsch’s, Rose gives a larger sense of the interplay between what happens in the classroom and the world outside school. We have come a long way since an eighth-grade teacher could say to Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X) that it’s “no realistic goal for a nigger” to become a lawyer, but, alas, we have a long way still to go before most minority children possess what Rothstein, in his Century Foundation report, called the “unconscious faith that the world is not capricious, and that effort is fairly rewarded.” Rose puts the matter this way: “The hope of a better life has traditionally driven achievement in American schools.”

Perhaps the most damaging deficit with which poor and minority children must cope is their deficit of hope. The first-grader whose parents are respected professionals has reason to expect a good deal from life. But if the first-grader’s father or brother or favorite uncle was shot last week, or has spent the child’s whole life in prison, it is a lot to ask of any school—no matter how coherent its curriculum—to convince that child that learning about Valley Forge or even the Emancipation Proclamation has much bearing on his or her experience, past, present, or prospective.

And so the premise behind some of the more ambitious efforts to help disadvantaged children is that real educational reform cannot begin and end with school. Programs such as Early Head Start, the Educare Centers, or the Harlem Children’s Zone seek to provide home support—counseling single mothers, providing assistance in dealing with government and medical bureaucracies—in order to help the child, starting at a very young age, experience school not so much as a shelter from, but as an extension of, home.

In this respect, Rose gives a fuller picture of what is sometimes called the child’s “learning environment” by expanding the frame beyond school, and he also has a more capacious sense of what can happen within the interior world of the classroom. Hirsch reports with a mixture of horror and derision some titles drawn from a best-selling first-grade reader: A Dragon Gets By, Roly Poly, How Real Pigs Act, It’s Easy to Be Polite, Mrs. Brown Went to Town, and many more. His point seems to be that such readings are trivial and banal (he thinks they may even explain the drop in verbal SAT scores); but he doesn’t say what should replace them. Abridged editions of classic literature? Perhaps.

Rose, by contrast, observes a gifted teacher reading a story called A House for Hermit Crab with her first-grade students. She has furnished the classroom (probably at her own expense) with a glass case containing live crabs, and has the students watch their behavior in different environments—cold water, warm water, dry surfaces—and then write about what they have seen. The exercise helps them learn how “to observe closely and record what they see, to form hypotheses, to report publicly on their thinking, to gain the feeling of being knowledgeable.” And it is also an introduction to the pleasure of writing as an act of communication. For Rose, a good teacher can turn almost any material to good use.

Rose trusts teachers more than Hirsch, who wants to give them, in effect, not just a year-long but a multiyear lesson plan. To be sure, there is much to be said for Hirsch’s prescriptive curriculum as template and guide; his ideal school is rigorous and orderly—a place filled with a genuine sense of egalitarianism and, though he does not use the phrase, tough love. And he certainly recognizes the extracurricular challenges faced by disadvantaged children. In an article published in these pages he wrote approvingly of the view that schools need a “new structure, involving teams of counselors and teachers, who would deal with the psychological problems of learning as well as the cognitive problems.”11

From Rose we get a sense of how a creative and instinctively responsive teacher can transform a young life by mixing rigor with humor, by taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, by conveying his or her delight in learning and in helping others to learn—something that no curriculum can make happen or keep from happening. We get the sense that it’s never too late, even for those children who are seemingly lost, if they have the great luck of encountering an extraordinary teacher.


It seems to me that both these writers get a lot of things right. Both emphasize universal education for citizenship as indispensable for democracy. Both are trying to open the discourse about K–12 schools, which is badly in need of fresh air. Hirsch wants to end the standoff between left and right (he cites approvingly such icons of the left as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, and even that quasi-scriptural text Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks12), and, for his part, Rose concedes that “standardized tests can well be part” of responsible assessment, as long as they do not “overwhelm it.”

If there is to be progress in the schools, we need more of this kind of moderation. Otherwise we will remain caught between the usual warring parties: pro-teacher-union verses anti-union groups; those who favor mayoral control against those who prefer community control; devotees of phonics versus “whole language” theorists; “open classroom” versus fixed-seat advocates; those who believe in “pull-out” groups versus those who believe in whole-class learning; those who believe that tests motivate academic improvement versus those who think tests hold teachers unfairly accountable and create a climate of fear; those who think the formative period is early childhood against those who are sure it is adolescence; those who see private initiatives like Teach for America (TFA)—which recruits teachers straight out of liberal arts colleges—as an answer to teacher burnout against those who think TFA gives municipalities an excuse to cut school budgets.

The disputes have gotten tired, and Hirsch and Rose know it. Almost in spite of themselves, they give hints of a middle ground. One can only hope that such conciliatory gestures won’t turn out to be as empty as those we heard early on in the so-called health care debate, and that we won’t find ourselves at what Rose calls another “civic dead end.”

Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for talented, well-educated, passionately committed teachers—on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends.

This Issue

November 19, 2009