Fork in road facing DPS chief

Academic success at stake

The Rocky Mountain News
July 16, 2005

[Original here]

Michael Bennet, newly appointed superintendent of Denver Public Schools, has a momentous choice to make as he starts work. As he's already discovered, there are two major educational philosophies competing for the hearts and minds of non-traditional superintendents like Bennet. For the sake of Denver's children, it is imperative that he choose the right one.

And then he has to hire as his chief academic officer someone who supports and will implement that philosophy throughout the district. But that choice is easy in comparison.

The two camps can - to greatly oversimplify a subject on which shelves of books have been written - be called progressive and traditional.

Traditionalists adhere to the common-sense notion that if you want children to learn something, teach it to them. Teach them the correspondence between sounds and letters in English. Teach them how to multiply whole numbers and add fractions. Don't turn them loose to reinvent the alphabet and the wheel for themselves; far too many won't succeed.

Teach them a structured and logical curriculum, in an orderly classroom environment. That's especially important for children whose home lives are stressful and even chaotic, or who arrive at school already far behind academically.

Progressive educators tend to subscribe to idealized notions about how children learn. That leads them to adopt fads like "whole language" reading instruction or what critics have called "fuzzy math," which downplays the importance of mastering computation and other traditional skills. They talk a lot about child-centered classrooms, self-esteem, multiple intelligences and discovery learning. Some disdain what they call "mere facts," as well as the idea of practice to make perfect, which they deride as "drill and kill."

We count ourselves in the traditionalist camp, because we believe most of the evidence shows it achieves superior results on average - especially with poor and minority students at higher-than-average risk of failure. We hope Bennet will agree, and choose accordingly - in full awareness that progressive camp-followers are hugely dominant in schools of education.

When he was being considered for the job, Bennet mentioned that he wasn't familiar with the Core Knowledge program, but now would be a good time for him to learn about it. Colorado has a number of successful Core Knowledge schools, including five that the Core Knowledge Foundation has designated as models. We're not saying every elementary school in Denver should switch, but a chief academic officer who doesn't appreciate why this model is successful is a bad choice. Direct instruction is another successful research-based model that is scarcely mentioned in most teacher-preparation programs. It is particularly effective with at-risk students.

Bennet's entire legacy may depend on this critical decision. He should take his time and get it right.

For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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