Back to school to see Dewey's legacy

Roger Shattuck, a distinguished literary and cultural critic from Boston University, has a fascinating story in the New York Review of Books about serving on a local school board in Vermont. To his chagrin, Shattuck discovers that the Green Mountain State's Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities amount to little more than vague exhortations, prescribing no particular course of study or specific subjects to be mastered. (We've made the same observation; see our recent evaluations of state math and English standards.) Shattuck uses this episode to embark on an examination of John Dewey's famous formulation of the synthesis between "child-centered" and curriculum-centered education. It's a sensitive and disarmingly dispassionate examination of a topic that manages even today to roil emotions, and Shattuck's essay is hard to summarize. We take slight exception to two points. First, Shattuck assumes that Dewey's synthesis of what we now call "constructivism" and "standards-based education" is without inherent tensions and contradictions. That's a bit too neat; in fact, today's curricular and pedagogical battles spring in part from inherent tensions and even contradictions in Dewey's thought. Second, Shattuck makes the mistake of assuming that all standards must be vague and hortatory by their nature, and therefore advocates dropping state standards in favor of adopting curricula that prescribe specific topics, works, and notions. He's wrong; good standards do exist, and the best curricula respond to high-quality expectations from states. In the end, there must be some forum for taxpayers and state leaders to explain, in detail and with specificity, what children should know and be able to do, to use a bit of the edu-jargon that Shattuck decries. Good standards are precisely that forum.

"The shame of the schools," by Roger Shattuck, New York Review of Books, April 7, 2005 (subscription required; article purchase costs $3)