Who wants yesterday’s paper?” Mick Jagger asked decades ago in a song that had more to do with a failed relationship than the newspaper industry. But as a former newspaper reporter, I’ve tended to take that line quite literally and protested, if only to myself: “I do. I want yesterday’s paper.” Because you can learn a lot from yesterday’s paper (it’s not all breaking news, after all) and, for that matter, yesterday’s books and magazines, yesterday’s poetry and music, yesterday’s take on the world.
And what about yesterday’s classroom technology? Or, more broadly, yesterday’s teaching methods and the curricula that went with them? Are they still relevant today? Not only are they relevant, argues Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch Jr. — they’re far superior to the process- and test-based approaches of today, an approach he says is responsible for across-the-board declines in verbal SATs.
“Our national verbal decline transcends this ‘achievement gap’ between demographic groups,” Hirsch writes. “The language competence of our high school graduates fell precipitously in the seventies, and has never recovered. What changed — and what remains largely un-discussed in education reform — is that in the decades prior to the Great Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-based approach that dominates in our schools today.”
It’s an intriguing argument; and, for what it’s worth, I buy some, but not all, of it. Hirsch thinks we’ve all gone skill-based crazy, but at my daughters’ elementary school in Virginia, for example, the approach to skills and content is quite obviously “both-and,” not “either-or.” Is it an outlier? I don’t think so.
Another critique of what some consider today’s newfangled education can be found in The Quick and the Ed, where Richard Lee Colvin proclaims that “dumb uses of technology won’t produce smart kids.” He’s commenting on a recent New York Times article on how state-of-the-art technology has not led to higher test scores in many classes. Once again, his argument is interesting, if taken with a dose of skepticism. I doubt, for example, that Colvin could find a lot of school technology experts who think that dumb uses of technology are just the thing to make their students smarter. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
We’ve quoted from the conservative side (Hirsch) so I thought it only fair to go the other direction, and what better place than to education commentator Susan Ohanian? And it turns out, her guest writer, Yvonne Siu-Runyan, president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), is pining for the old days too. More specifically, a time when school libraries and public libraries weren’t staggering under huge budget cuts. Siu-Runyan quotes an American Library Association study showing that school expenditures for information resources decreased overall by 9.4 percent from 2009 to 2010, and in high-poverty areas by an alarming 25 percent.
It doesn’t bode well for creating the kind of content-rich environments that Hirsch and so many others say are critical to our future.