In his recent response to a David Brooks column, Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio writes about the language of privilege in the United States and argues that kids need to learn it in school. He’s spot-on there. I also agree that privilege code-cracker E.D. Hirsch has been unfairly maligned as a defender of “Dead White Guys,” when he really wanted to ensure all kids have equal access to the secret code.
Pondiscio expects his support for a common, code-based curriculum will receive pushback from progressive educators and local-control advocates. It’s likely he’ll get it. He will also get challenged by people of color who know that children benefit when they see their culture valued and respected in school—the place where they spend the majority of their working hours. Teaching essential elements of those cultures right alongside the language of privilege is a key way to show that respect.
But before we can argue over background knowledge and national curriculum, we have to look even deeper. I would say the real challenge is not over curricular ideology, but over economic and political will. Could we put the basics in place so that every school can offer sustained time in all four core subjects, art and music?
We know that schools and districts—in my view, unwisely—chose to respond to accountability pressure to raise test scores by reducing time for science and social studies. The line of reasoning appears to have been: If we need higher test scores in math and reading, let’s spend more time on computation and the mechanics of reading skills.
I am not against accountability based on reading and math scores, but the most common strategy used to raise them misses important factors about teaching science and social studies students that could actually help increase them. Science and social studies provide the context that arouses curiosity and the ground in which to apply math and reading skills to learn new information.
Can we buy time for social studies and science?
I see this up close in my own home. My daughter loves social studies. Our walls are covered in maps of the continents she made as a Montessori preschooler. She has a world historical atlas published in 2016. But at her Chicago charter school, she spends at most two hours a week on the most rudimentary of social studies activities, like learning the points of the compass. She wants to know more about geology and engineering, but again, she does not spend enough time on science in school to approach those topics in any depth. I have to supplement through day-off camps at places like Kids Science Labs. Most of her classmates can’t afford to do that.
It is in science and social studies that we ask the questions that inspire deeper learning about how the universe works, how people interact and why things are the way they are. And how we might change them.
My daughter loves to sing. She plays flute in her spare time. When I was her age, I had a music class in school. I learned a host of American songs, from “My Country Tis of Thee” to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My daughter does not know either of these songs by heart. She doesn’t have a school music class.
Now, I love our school. We chose it for its Spanish-English dual language program and emphasis on health and wellness. I believe our school is doing the best it can do to fulfill its mission. Chicago and Illinois public schools are in perhaps the deepest financial crisis in the nation. But kids all over the country are denied art, music, science and social studies through a combination of inadequate resources and ill-advised priorities among educators. When will this change?
At this point, rather than argue over whether the classical European canon should be central or side-by-side with the essential artifacts of other cultures, I’d rather focus energy on creating funding pools and delivery systems that ensure every public school has the time, talent and resources to give every child a strong daily dose of math, reading, social studies, science, art and music. That’s what will get the language of privilege to the children who need it most.