Content matters: The real lessons we need to draw from elite schools

Education reform critics often compare the practices of elite private schools to those of traditional public schools serving our nation’s most disadvantaged students and are appalled by the differences they see. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from science teacher Aaron Reedy, retweeted to Diane Ravitch’s 30,000 followers, which said:

We need to look at what works for the wealthy and emulate that in all of our public schools.
Too many of us draw exactly the wrong lessons about what should be replicated from elite private (and public) schools.

It’s a familiar theme, and one that I—and many reformers—are sympathetic to. Unfortunately, when observing teaching and learning at elite private (and public) schools, too many of us draw exactly the wrong lessons about what should be replicated. And by doing so, we unintentionally promote strategies that end up widening the knowledge gap between children born to privilege and those born to poverty.

I wrote about this a year ago, responding to an article written by Alfie Kohn that accused urban schools in engaging in what he called “a pedagogy of poverty.” At the time, I argued:

A lot of education activists, like Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch, like to argue that urban schools should copy the instructional practices of elite private schools…
…What they are missing is what happens outside the classroom: the heavy reliance on parent involvement to help teach their students the key skills, knowledge and abilities they need to succeed. Teachers in these schools can, after all, assign hefty reading and writing assignments as homework because the typical middle class or affluent student goes home to a place where homework is valued and where parents can serve as a teacher-in-residence. That allows for much more flexibility in the school day and takes the pressure off getting every transition perfect or focusing every discussion toward an instructional end.

High-poverty schools simply don’t have that luxury.

But there is another, potentially more serious problem that is aptly illustrated in a recent article discussing the widely recognized and respected International Baccalaureate program. Here is how director general of IB, Jeffery Beard, describes the essential elements of the program:

The [IB] curriculum emphasizes teamwork, critical thinking skills, and cultural and linguistic fluency, and it encourages students to think about issues from different points of view.
The teacher will ask leading questions: Why is this important? Why do you think this way? Students are forced to articulate,” says Beard. Rather than lecture, teachers use discussion and writing assignments to pull out concepts. “It’s ‘explain, define, compare and contrast,’” he adds. “The skills they pick up, as a result, are at a much higher level.”

To be sure, those are important skills—skills that, for what it’s worth, are included in the Common Core. But what’s missing from this article—and, frankly, from far too many discussions about the value of elite programs and elite schools—is a discussion of the rigor of the material being studied. This is the critical what question: What students should be reading, learning, and discussing when they demonstrate mastery of essential analytical skills.

What students are reading, researching, and writing is at least as important as how teachers are pushing them to think.

Yes, we should absolutely push students to analyze and explain, to draw evidence from reading and research to support ideas, and to write for various audiences and purposes. However, what students are reading, researching, and writing is at least as important as how teachers are pushing them to think. And the rigor and content gap between elite schools and traditional schools, while less visible, is much more important that the gap in the way they engage with the materials and content they do use.

That is precisely why we need strong standards and content-rich curricula. (And it’s precisely why states need to take seriously the charge of adding the needed 15 percent content atop the CCSS.) Instructional practices, teaching styles, and critical thinking exercises matter very little if the content being taught is weak. And, historically, the content being taught in elite schools is just far more rigorous than the content being used to drive learning in schools serving our most disadvantaged students.

So, yes, by all means let’s find ways to drive better discussions in the classroom. But let’s also recognize that what makes those discussions work in America’s elite private schools is that they are built atop of solid foundation of rigorous content and hours and hours of practice.

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