It’s not so much that we have bad teachers (even tho they do exist): It’s an incoherent educational system that is at fault

Very interesting article in Atlantic by E.D. Hirsch on the problems facing American education. Among other things, he finds (as I do) that Value-Added Measurements are utterly unreliable and, indeed, preposterous. But most of all, he finds that the American educational system is extremely poorly run because its principal ideas lack any coherence at all.

Here are a couple of paragraphs:

The “quality” of a teacher doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Within the average American primary school, it is all but impossible for a superb teacher to be as effective as a merely average teacher is in the content-cumulative Japanese elementary school. For one thing, the American teacher has to deal with big discrepancies in student academic preparation while the Japanese teacher does not. In a system with a specific and coherent curriculum, the work of each teacher builds on the work of teachers who came before. The three Cs—cooperation, coherence, and cumulativeness—yield a bigger boost than the most brilliant efforts of teachers working individually against the odds within a system that lacks those qualities. A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.

American teachers (along with their students) are, in short, the tragic victims of inadequate theories. They are being blamed for the intellectual inadequacies behind the system in which they find themselves. The real problem is not teacher quality but idea quality. The difficulty lies not with the inherent abilities of teachers but with the theories that have watered down their training and created an intellectually chaotic school environment. The complaint that teachers do not know their subject matter would change almost overnight with a more specific curriculum with less evasion about what the subject matter of that curriculum ought to be. Then teachers could prepare themselves more effectively, and teacher training could ensure that teacher candidates have mastered the content they will be responsible for teaching.”


Reactions to John Merrow’s recent piece on E.D. Hirsch

It is an odd mixture, but I hope you will glance at the short post, on the occasion of Don’s 85th birthday.

Here’s the link:


Thanks for this, John.

I have very mixed reactions to EDHirsch — not all necessarily at the same time.

About a decade or so, I thought EDH was just plain wrong, but decided I should read what he had to say, so I did just that. It was a painful experience, but I had to admit he made a lot of very convincing points. I wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post about that time, in an article that was mostly critical of what I saw a poorly-thought-out and clearly never-tried out math curriculum  that was being foisted on the students of DC by administrators who had no clue. I think I concluded by endorsing his effort over what was being tried in DCPS at the time – long before charter schools started spreading like fungus or mushrooms.

In any case, my opinion is that Hirsch is worth reading, but he’s a very powerful, logical, and persuasive writer, and if you immerse yourself in his work without having time to discuss it with friends or acquaintances or colleagues or students, you may find yourself being won over by Hirsch, simply because you were unable to argue back with actual data and facts (not just rhetoric). Some of what he argues is correct, but I disagree with him that it is really possible to come up with a single, standard curriculum for everyone, and I also think that a number of educational experiments that he condemns as utter, outright failures have actually been successful at times.

(I should go back and look at my copy and see if I write any comments in the margin. )

In any case, if I had it to do today, I would probably withdraw the endorsement I made at the time, unless I had a chance to visit one of the Core Knowledge schools myself and see how they do it. CK schools may not be perfect, and probably wouldn’t suit me or my wife or my kids, but it might be a pretty good.way of teaching that doesn’t do too much harm, and produces some good results. It seems from your piece, John, that the CK model seems to be working at the schools you visited, and seems well-organized and providing a reasonable education.

Which is about the best one can hope for!

We are not all going to agree  on one and only one perfect way of raising or educating children. Disagreements on what should be emphasized and what should be discouraged are part of what make us human.

That’s fine.

However, what’s not fine is to cheat and abuse kids, and, unfortunately, that’s happening a lot. It should not be the case that the children of the rich and near-rich get an excellent education, with small classes, teachers who aren’t being micro-managed, and lots of ‘extras’ like art, music, sports, drama, and project, but the children of the poor and near-poor, particularly but not exclusively minorities, get a lousy one. Irony of ironies, those ‘extras’ are being removed from the education of those poor students — in the name of improving it! Influential “reformers” like Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg say it’s a wonderful idea to have 50 to 100 students in a room with a single, inexperienced and untrained teacher who has no plans to stick around in the teaching profession. What planet do these nuts come from? Have they ever taught a class themselves?

Oh. They never have. That explains a lot. Neither did Arne Duncan.

Unfortunately, it appears from the objective facts that a good number of organizations that claim to be all for the children seem to be mostly focused on increasing profits for a tiny handful of corporate billionaires, following some arbitrary educational philosophy that has exactly ZERO experimental support and which has FAILED to achieve any of the miraculous results they boasted they would achieve, not even raising test scores. In other words, kind of like latterday, educational snake-oil salesmen, and what they are proposing is quite demonstrably NOT WORKING. If you want examples, look at my blog as well of those by Valerie Strauss, Diane Ravitch, EduShyster, and anybody else we point to on our blogs.

And one of their biggest pitch-ladies, Michelle Rhee, who actually did teach for a while in Baltimore, has been proven to be a serial fabricator of facts. Or, in plain English, a big fat liar, as I and you, John, and many other people have repeatedly shown. Every claim Rhee made about her supposed successes in Baltimore are demonstrably false. (Whether she ate a bee or not, I don’t know and I don’t care.)

I don’t put E.D.Hirsch into that category of Rhee-ly big liars, because I have no evidence of any phoniness or fraudulence on his part. (Then again, I haven’t looked. Has anyone?)

But I have one big question, the answer to which I have no clue, again because I’ve never looked:

What kind of attrition rates for cohorts are there at the schools modeled by EDH? 

(That’s an enormous indictment of even the highest-flying charter schools: they find that they have the exact same difficulty that the regular, urban public schools (RUPS) have been increasingly unable to solve: RUPS are forbidden from expelling, suspending, or otherwise sanctioning in any way the most difficult-to-handle, violent, mentally disturbed students. Teachers have in fact been disarmed of the weapons they need in the classroom: the promise that if a student is seriously disruptive, the student will be removed by another adult and will face very unpleasant consequences that the kid and his/her family actually care about, up to and including removal to another institution that’s much less free. There is absolutely no disciplinary support behind teachers in most non-magnet public schools. And, sorry, NRA, a teacher carrying a gun is the absolutely worst solution I can think of for this problem. I mean, a teacher is ALWAYS considered to be in the wrong if he/she happens to come into any physical contact whatsoever with a student – whether to straighten a collar, remove a “kick me” sign from the back of an unsuspecting patsy, congratulating a student with a pat on the back or head, god-forbid! actually hugging a student for ANY reason, or trying to stop a fight. I know of a number of cases just like this, and could give you lots of details if you cared to listen for a few hours. What the charter schools DO have, and here in DC they use it liberallty, is the right to get rid of students. They have many subtle and not-so-subtle ways of doing it; if public schools could do it, they would be a lot more orderly than they are today. It’s quite difficult to manage a class with just one or two out-of-control students when you have neither administrative nor family support. I honestly assure you that this happens in many public schools and also in some charter schools I have visited.)

So, if a charter or alternative school claims that they are achieving superior results in test scores and attendance and graduation and college acceptance rates, in comparison with the exact same population that’s in the regular public schools, they are simply lying. For one thing, you have to look at the attrition rates. I know a little bit about my few  strengths and many weaknesses as a teacher over my 30 years teaching in public schools in DC. You may find it hard to believe that a lot of my students actually went on to college, even Ivy League in a number of cases I know about — and some went on to jail. Some went on to productive lives doing all sorts of things. Most, of course, I have no idea, but I do run across some of them from time to time.


Guess what, no surprises: a strong correlation between family income & education on the one hand and student achievement on the other. (Academic achievement and actual smarts for life are two different things: many of my kids were way smarter than I was at many things — some that I know of even ended up doing much more mathematics or sciences than I ever did, at much deeper levels, so that I can’t follow what they are doing at all. Others were soooo good at emotionally manipulating a situation in ways I seldom could anticipate.


Teaching in south Anacostia (DC) is quite different from teaching in Chevy Chase (DC) – and that was as true 35 years ago when I started as it is today. You don’t think I tried to overcome that? I did, I tried as hard as I possibly could, and I failed.

We’ve all failed. Nobody has won.


Any “reformer” who claims that the gap has been overcome that gap is probably referring to a charter or private school where the truly emotionally disturbed kids, the ones most affected by what it means to be poor and black or Hispanic in America, the violent and disruptive crazies, have been either made to shape up or ship out. Or never entered in the first place.

We in the public schools have lost the “ship out” solution.

Why? Is it the intention of the today’s ruling class — as publicly advocated by wingnuts like Jerry Fallwell — that the public schools must fail?


To restate my question, what in fact do they do at Core Knowledge schools about the attrition problem?

Guy Brandenburg, Washington, DC

From: John Merrow <>
To: John Merrow <>
Sent: Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:26 PM
Subject: Some thoughts about E.D. Hirsch, Jr and the randomness of life–an odd mixture

It is an odd mixture, but I hope you will glance at the short post, on the occasion of Don’s 85th birthday.

Here’s the link:
John Merrow
Education Correspondent,
PBS NewsHour, and President,
Learning Matters, Inc.
My blog:
The Influence of Teachers:
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