Education journalist Wexler (co-author: The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, 2017, etc.) mounts a compelling critique of American elementary schools, which, she argues, focus exclusively—and futilely—on boosting reading and math test scores, ignoring social studies, history, and science.
As a reaction to the drilling and rote memorization that characterized 19th-century public schools, child-centered progressive education systems began to emphasize “hand-on activities” that would respond to students’ interests and minimize teachers’ roles in “the transmission of knowledge.” By the mid-20th century, the “bitter, long-running conflict known as the Reading Wars” pitted those who supported teaching phonics against “whole language” theorists who believe that children will “naturally pick up the ability to read and write if allowed to choose books and topics that interest them.” Neither approach accounts for content. Wexler distinguishes between decoding, which she asserts can best be taught by “systematic phonics,” and comprehension, which she finds is now taught by systematic strategies—finding the main idea, summarizing—rather than by building a student’s knowledge base. The author finds this lack of teacher-directed knowledge egregious: There is little evidence that practicing skills improves test scores. In contrast, “nine countries that consistently outrank the United States on international assessments all provide their students with a comprehensive, content-rich curricula.” Comprehension is related not to skills but to a student’s familiarity with a subject, Wexler argues, and yet some educators believe that teaching history to young children is “developmentally inappropriate.” Besides citing various studies, the author offers vivid anecdotal evidence from classroom observation of a content-rich curriculum. Like E.D. Hirsch, whose 1987 book Cultural Literacy unleashed “a political firestorm,” Wexler admits the considerable challenge of creating curricula that foster critical thinking abilities, build logically from grade to grade, reflect “a diversity of viewpoints” with texts that “appeal to different constituencies,” and can be assessed by “general knowledge tests.”
An informative analysis of elementary education that highlights pervasive problems.