- From: Judi Hirsch <judih@OUSD.K12.CA.US>
- Date: Tue, 23 Nov 1999 16:32:06 -0800
- Reply-to: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
- Sender: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
who is this from? and who is this to?
----- Original Message -----
From: Gerald W. Bracey
Sent: Sunday, November 21, 1999 8:58 AM
E.D. Hirsch, Jr.,
Unibersity of Virginia
Your remarks in Wise, Virginia about the Virginia Standards of Learning Program, Core Knowledge and the condition of education have been passed along. You will not be surprised, I am certain to find, that I disagree with many of the things you said. I will limit myself to just a few of those.
First, if, as you assert "romantic progressivism finally succeeded in abolishing the emphasis on traditional academic content," in the 1970's and 1980's please answer the following questions:
1. How come achievement test scores fell from about 1965 to about 1975, started climbing around 1975 and attained at record highs in the mid to late 80's?
2. How come the number of students taking AP tests has climbed from 98,000 in 1978 to over a million currently?
3. How come a substantial (I haven't yet learned the precise percentage) of high school students are taking courses at colleges and universities?
4. How come the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the SAT-M is at an all-time high? This proportion rose from 7.1% in 1981 to 12.4% in 1995. After the
SAT scale was recentered, ETS calculated the proportion for me on the old scale for 1996 and 1997 and it remained at 12.4%. For the elite 10,654 white kids
living mostly in New England who set the standards for the SAT, we know that the proportion was 6.68%. The gains are NOT mostly due to Asian students.
There was a 57% percent gain with Asian kids removed from the sample.
5. How come so many NAEP scores are at record highs?
NAEP is of particular interest because the usual statistic reported in the press, the overall average, obscures gains seen when one looks at ethnic groups separately. Over the 20 years for which we have trend data, virtually all scores for all ages and ethnicities are at record highs. These data are shown for science on page 155 of the "Ninth Bracey Report" in the October Phi Delta Kappan. Math is quite similar, reading a bit more muted.
If you look at that table you will see that over the 20-year period, the scores for black students at the 5th percentile rose 32 points; for blacks at the 50th percentile 28 points and for blacks at the 95th percentile, 20 points. To me this doesn't look like the debacle of "romantic progressivism."
The overall averages show less gain because in 1977, when trend data began, blacks and Hispanics were a much smaller proportion of the whole than now. As you add more and more of their lower-but-improving test scores, the overall average gain is attenuated. This is a common statistical phenomenon called Simpson's Paradox, explained in the 9th Bracey Report.
Second, you say that "A classroom of 25 or 30 children cannot move forward until all students have gained the knowledge necessary to "getting" the next step in learning." This "convoy" theory of instruction is absurd as any teacher, even in your own CK schools will tell you. You also say "Each child in each grade must learn what he or she needs to know in order to be ready to learn the knowledge of the next grade." This presumes that knowledge is both cumulative and hierarchical. It is not usually cumulative and it is almost never hierarchical. In fact, we do not know what "needs" to be learned, or even what can be learned at a particular age except in the most arbitary of senses.
Consider a recent Washington Post article. While the focus of the piece was the math wars as they are being played out in Maryland, the article used a sixth grade classroom as its center. The story mentioned in passing that the teacher was using Venn diagrams in his instruction. Venn diagrams!?!?!? I encountered Venn diagrams for the first time in a logic course I took as a junior in college. Another Post reporter affirmed that he, too, had not seen them until well into college. Yesterday I heard the same thing from teachers in Los Angeles: they had not used Venn's before college but were now, as early as third grade.
Three, you say "factual knowledge leads to critical thought." This is a major statement about how the brain works. Could you please supply at least one citation that might provide some data in this regards?
In connection with the obsolescence of knowledge you state that "the basic principles of chemistry and physicas have stayed pretty much the same for the last 70 years." What do you mean by "principles." Yes, it is true that gravity existed prior to Newton, but many aspects have changed. The world is now full of charmed quarks, DNA, and strings. They weren't around in school when I was memorizing phyla and learning Newton's laws of motion. I was a fairly good computer programmer in grad school, but barely literate anymore. By the way, many of the best programmers I knew had music or music theory backgrounds--it wasn't the "facts" of Fortan or Algol that seemed most important in their creative programming.
You claim that "The basis of deep understanding is factual knowledge, and can only be factual knowledge." What about people like Srinivas Ramanujan. Ramanujan could not pass his school examinations in India, yet he developed elegant proofs in mathematics. He was especially good at number theory and modular function theory. Some of his "proofs" were intuitive and defied formal proof for over 3/4 of a century. Ramanujan managed to get the attention of famed English mathematician, G. H. Hardy and later visited Hardy in England. Ramanujan fell ill and once when Hardy visited him at the hospital, he said that he had taken taxi #1729, "a singular unexceptional number. Ramanujan immediately pointed out that it was actually quite a remarkable number, being the smallest integer that can be represented in two ways by the sum of two cubes, 1(3) +12(3) and 9(3) + 10(3). How do you suppose factual knowledge helped him in this instance? An exceptional man, yes. But in science a single counter example refutes a theory.
At a slightly more mundane level, kids show up at Julian Stanley's shop at Hopkins and at the U of Denver's gifted center able to do mathematics well beyond their instructed level. They don't know how they do it. They just do. Ramanujan-lite. Recently, by the way, I saw a mathematician on TV who reaffirmed an old saw about mathematicians. When the hostess mentioned getting him to help her balance her check book, he agitatedly demurres and said he couldn't balance his own, that he was totally incompetent in arithmetic. Number "facts" don't appear to contribute much to deep understanding in math.
At an even more mundane level, a recent book claims that "Japanese teachers believe students learn best by struggling to solve mathematics problems, then participating in discussions about how to solve them, and then hearing about the pros and cons of different methods and the relationships between them." Sounds kinda romantic and progressive to me.
Finally, you say that "apologists for the current state of public schools" offer one of two determinisms: social conditions or genetic abilities. No. We say that social conditions are like gravity--they affect virtually everything in a kid's life. Poor kids are at increased risk of virtually every risk you can name. But conditions are conditional: treat the condition and achievement improves. You mention France, but France has done just that: provided increased resources to poor people. In turn, achievement improves. We should certainly learn from that, but in the meantime, please provide a citation for any other nation than France.
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