The New York Times’ best letter ever!

FRIDAY, APRIL 26, 2013

It expresses a simple point: A letter in today’s New York Times may be the smartest we’ve ever read in that paper.

The letter may not seem to be smart. But it massively is.

The letter comes from Deanna Kuhn, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. As Kuhn starts, she is discussing the “Common Core standards” which many states are adopting for use in their public schools.

Adopting new standards and testing for them isn’t enough, Kuhn says:
KUHN (4/26/13): Hope runs high that the new Common Core learning standards will fix American education. A risk is thinking that the standards alone can do the job.

The intention of the standards, the editorial says, “is to help students develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now common,” with students by fifth grade “required to produce essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments.”

These are objectives hard to argue with. But simply adopting the standards will not make it happen. Nor will widespread testing to gauge whether they’ve been met.
Kuhn makes a very important point. It’s easy to institute new standards. It’s easy to administer tests to see if students have met them. (Although such testing often gets bungled at this point in time.)

But these two steps aren’t enough, Kuhn says. This is what we still have to do after adopting new standards:
KUHN (continuing directly): Tellingly, it is “the states and localities” that are charged with the more formidable task of figuring out how to achieve these standards.

How does one develop strong reasoning skills in students, and exactly what do these skills look like across different kinds of content?

Teachers can’t be expected to come up with answers to these critical questions on their own. Instead, we need to recognize the standards as only a first step, not a final one. The mission is one that will require significant, sustained investment in research on how children learn, if we are to find out what we need to know to meet such standards.
It isn’t enough to demand higher standards. Someone has to figure out how to do the teaching—how to help students reach those standards! And no, you can’t simply stamp your feet and insist that teachers figure it out!

This is unbelievably basic, but it never gets said. It echoes the point we’ve often made about Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington.

Rhee was constantly threatening teachers and demanding that learning increase. We liked the way she insisted that Washington's kids deserved better outcomes. But did you ever see her explain how to produce increased learning?

Education departments have to do more than simply invent higher standards. Someone has to figure out how to help our actual students reach those higher standards.

The people in charge rarely do that. They simply dream up their brilliant new standards. After that, they name-call the teachers if the new standards aren’t met.

Kuhn makes a stunningly basic point. Despite our many “educational experts,” this point is rarely made.

We fondly recall Mrs. Young: Long ago, teaching fifth grade in Baltimore, we were supervised by the wonderfully upbeat Elizabeth Young.

We’ll never forget the time she read The Hundred Dresses to our class. Truly, it’s a brilliant book. But Mrs. Young had 35 kids hanging on every word about the unfairness visited on a Polish immigrant girl in 1940s Pittsburgh.

None of our students were Polish immigrants. Despite that, they hung on every word, as if they were clinging to life itself.

(If the children of the world ever form a virtual nation, the motto on their coat of arms will say: “But that’s not fair!”)

One day, we told Mrs. Young about our textbook problem. Our students weren’t reading at traditional grade level, or even within a few years of same. They simply couldn’t read the textbooks we were supposed to work with.

Mrs. Young was wonderfully upbeat. We can still hear her response: “Well, Mr. Somerby, you can write your own textbooks!”

Well actually, no—we couldn’t do that! In part, that is Kuhn’s point.


  1. Do I feel morally superior to Michelle Rhee? You bet. She is perfectly happy, indeed seems to relish it, to ruin certain people's lives because she thinks, and only thinks with grossly insufficient evidence, they do their jobs poorly.

    Anyone with strong views thinks they are self-evident to someone with an open mind. Since those views are self-evident, there is no choice but to consider those who reject them morally inferior at least to that extent.

    Railing against people for feeling morally superior is the ultimate quixotic quest. TDH should stick to the language used and parse it carefully, as he has been with the War on Gore, the education war and certain press figures like Matthews, Dowd and Collins. Or identify when language should have been used, or topics raised, but were avoided.

  2. Quaker in a BasementApril 26, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    It isn’t enough to demand higher standards.

    Well that explains why I haven't been able to live off my cat's wages.

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