When Mike Petrilli, a national expert on education policy, complained in a Web site post about the thin content of social studies and science lessons in his son’s Montgomery County first-grade class, he received a friendly e-mail from Marty Creel, director of curriculum and instruction for the Montgomery County public schools.
Creel said he shared Petrilli’s admiration of University of Virginia scholar E.D. Hirsch and his view that even 5- and 6-year-olds must learn about the wider world — important names, places and events — in order to have the context to become good readers. “World knowledge is the entry to word knowledge,” Creel said. He said the district had been trying to put more content into science and social studies, since the Maryland State Standards don’t have enough.
I was startled then, when, while preparing a column, I asked Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig for a response to Petrilli and got a message seemingly different from what Creel was saying. Tofig said he understood Petrilli’s advocacy of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program, supported by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where Petrilli is president. “However, our teachers say differently, and we should listen to them: They are the ones doing the work, not just talking and writing about it,” Tofig said. “Teachers say there is too much content to cover” in the standards they have now.
“We should listen to them,” Tofig said, “and we do.”
I read these contrasting perspectives several times because I wanted to make sure I understood the nuances. Tofig was defending teachers and Creel was defending the district’s standards, but eventually I realized there was much more than that in what both were saying. They were actually in tune with each other, describing different sides of the same effort by a first-class district to serve all its students.
As a longtime schools spokesman very good at his job, Tofig was giving me the reality. Getting more content into young students’ lessons might be recommended by scholars who have shown it helps kids read, but teachers see it, with good reason, as just more orders from above. They don’t have a way to provide all that extra stuff before the bell rings.
Creel is a former history teacher who had been an intellectual force in his district for many years. He was sharing with Petrilli the so-far unfulfilled hopes of those who have seen the reading research and want to keep history and science alive. He said Montgomery County experts fought successfully against federal testing pressures to narrow curriculum so “subjects like science and social studies would have to be taught.” He said the county was doing better than Petrilli thought, but it was still a struggle.
Andrew Rotherham, a former education policy adviser in the White House and former Virginia state school board member, also has young children in public schools. He told me in an e-mail that Petrilli “is rightly worried . . . that the content knowledge quickly gets lost in the focus on the conceptual. . . . He just wants to know some specifics that will be covered because the specifics undergird the conceptual. You see a lot of lessons that miss it.”
“The problem is very few schools generally are good at doing this right now for a host of reasons,” Rotherham said. He blamed, in part, the failure to help teachers with better curriculums and teacher training. “This is a huge liability facing all the pushes for deeper learning,” he said. “They give lip service to content but fail to engage with the hard work.”
Virginia’s standards, deeply influenced by Hirsch’s research, are more specific than Maryland’s and the District’s. But there is little evidence that Virginia’s content is being taught more vigorously, since their teachers are also short of time. It would be nice to know what classroom educators think of this debate. Do kindergarten and first-grade teachers feel their students need more content? They can reach me by clicking the mail icon at the top of this column.