Mike Petrilli is the new president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, one of the most energetic and influential education policy think tanks. He also is the father of a child in the Montgomery County school system. Education leaders are often put off by parents who know a lot about schools and won’t shut up. Petrilli is definitely in that category.
Take, for instance, his recent post on the Fordham Institute’s Web site: “Montgomery County’s elementary school curriculum: Where’s the beef?”
Petrilli said he recently attended back-to-school night at his first-grade son’s school. He said the teacher was in her own classroom for the first time but seemed great. She had attended one of the best teacher prep programs in the country and was getting much support from other teachers and administrators.
His complaint was not about the teacher but what was being taught. The first-grade social studies and science curriculum seemed to him “extremely weak.” The parents’ guide said history lessons would focus on “differences between past and present; people and objects of today and long ago.” Geography would be about how “people modify, protect, and adapt to their environment; geographic tools used to locate and describe places on Earth.”
“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.
Which brings us to the Common Core State Standards, this year’s leading educational debate topic. I delayed citing it because my wife immediately stops reading any article that mentions the Common Core. I suspect others share her disenchantment. I beg your indulgence. Petrilli’s complaint reveals why many people support the Common Core and why it is likely to be a hot topic at PTA meetings for many years to come.
The Common Core standards being adopted in the District, Maryland and most other states grew in part from the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr., a University of Virginia scholar who persuaded many advocates like Petrilli that children often don’t learn to read very well because they have not been taught enough facts about their world to understand what they are reading. Virginia didn’t adopt the Common Core standards in part because it was already happy with its Standards of Learning, written by devout Hirschites in the 1990s.
You can make fun of people who fret over 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds not learning enough history or science. But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read. Many parents do this with their kids even before they can talk. Shouldn’t schools also take this seriously?
In his piece, Petrilli celebrates part of a key Common Core document that Robert Pondiscio, another leading Hirschite, dubbed “the 57 most important words in education reform ever.” They are: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”
Montgomery County curriculum expert Marty Creel has since told Petrilli that there is more beef in the kindergarten and first-grade plan than the parents’ guide revealed. We shall see. My eldest grandson, a kindergartner in southern California, appears to be getting a similarly weak brew of social studies and science. What’s happening in your schools’ early grades? I don’t think it’s boring for us, like Petrilli, to go find out.