5 September 2005

To Achieve Equity: Rediscover the Lost Ingredient-Knowledge

"I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock." Matthew 7:27-28


The goal to achieve equity is not new.  In 1988, the Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life issued a report entitled "One-Third of a Nation"; it stated America must embark on a twenty year drive to close the gap between the races on income, education and other measures of status.  The report laid out a "simple but essential" goal that in twenty years America's minority population will have attained "a quality of life as high as that of the white majority."  We have only three years left and we have missed the mark.  Evidently, our efforts were not "founded upon a rock".

The "rock" our educational policies are founded upon is our educational philosophy. We should take a look at the philosophical foundation upon which our policies are based so that seventeen years from now, we are not left with the same disappointing results as "One-Third of a Nation".

Over the last 100 years there has been a dramatic change in educational philosophy; emphasis has slowly drifted away from the primacy of knowledge toward an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking skills.  This paper argues that like a bread recipe that inadvertently leaves out the yeast, today's educational policy recipe that leaves out a primary emphasis on knowledge will, despite the rising optimism of today's educational reformers, fail to rise to the hoped for results.

The first reaction to such an argument is likely disbelief.  Don't our schools teach plenty of facts and knowledge?  And, can't our students find any facts they want in just a matter of seconds on the computer? Besides, isn't the teaching of too many facts the problem?  Don't they spend too much time on "drill and kill" and rote memorization?  Don't we know that what we need today is critical thinking skills in this information economy?  In spite of all these questions, our redesign efforts are doomed to failure unless we rediscover the importance of a traditional knowledge-rich education.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

You cannot be around education experts very long before you hear the terms-"problem solving" and "critical thinking".  They are ubiquitous; they have subtly gained the status of the primary goal of our educational system.

They have gained this status from the teaching and application of Bloom's Taxonomy.  Bloom's Taxonomy is basically a hierarchy of thinking skills; it is usually illustrated as a triangle with problem solving and critical thinking at the apex, and knowledge, facts, and memorization, at the base.  There is actually nothing wrong with Bloom's Taxonomy; the problem comes from its misapplication.  Since knowledge, facts, and memorization are at the bottom of the triangle they have become labeled "low level skills"; since problem solving and critical thinking are at the top of the triangle they have become labeled "high level skills".  It stands to reason that no one wants to work on low level skills when you can focus on the high level skills.  Unfortunately, if there is no foundation of knowledge, facts, and memorization, the apex will end up crashing down to the bottom. 
Diagrammatically, it looks like this:
As Conceptually ConceivedAs Currently Practiced
Our educator preparation programs and influential high school "redesigners" stress that the educational system in its present form was developed during an age of information scarcity.  They recommend that instead of memorizing facts, students should be taught how to find, use, and apply knowledge. In this popular view, knowledge and facts take a back seat in our schools, and now, in the vast majority of our public schools, knowledge and facts are deemphasizedWhat an irony!  The one institution in society whose purpose is to dispense knowledge and facts has deemphasized this mission.

This philosophic emphasis is also reinforced by our state testing system. The TAKS is not an assessment of basic knowledge, as many assume it to be; it is a basic skills test of problem solving and critical thinking.  The Texas Business and Education Coalition praises the test because it assesses our children's abstract reasoning abilities.
The Problem with Problem Solving

Problem solving's problem is that it is an inadequate foundation for education. It can't carry the load that has been placed upon it. This overemphasis on problem solving and critical thinking then undermines our educational efforts in four major ways.

First and foremost, problem solving and critical thinking are knowledge dependent; therefore, knowledge is greater. Knowledge is power. Knowledge gives us the ability to think. Knowledge doesn't build on thinking; but thinking builds on knowledge.  The greater one's knowledge, the greater one's ability to problem solve.

Think about what it takes to become a problem solver. Common sense tells us that we solve a problem by first knowing a lot of details about the problem; then, in our minds, we connect the relevant facts to discover a solution. Before one can think and solve one must first have something to think about. Surgeons must be drilled and saturated in the facts of anatomy before they problem solve with the scalpel. Air conditioner repairmen must know the properties of Freon like the back their hand.  In fact, what makes a professional is the mastery of the language and the facts of their profession.

In writing and communicating, these same rules apply. Thus, to be an effective writer or communicator you must have command of an extensive vocabulary and know the rules of the game-grammar. The example of Winston Churchill, probably the greatest orator of the last century, proves the point.  He was considered such a dunce in high school that he twice had to repeat English grammar. He wrote: "It was a kind of drill.  We did it almost daily.  As I remained in the Third Fourth three times as long as anyone else, and had three times as much of it, I learned it thoroughly.  Thus, I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence-which is a noble thing." Also, a large vocabulary is an excellent example of an accumulation of knowledge. There is nothing more relevant to our children's success than a lot of knowledge.

Second, this overemphasis on problem solving and critical thinking undermines the mandate Texans have given their state legislature by our State Constitution.  The Constitution calls for "a general diffusion of knowledge".  The original wording of the Constitution of 1876, still unchanged today, states:

"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." (Article 7, Section 1)

This idea and phrase was popular with our nation's founding fathers. James Madison stated: "The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty." In 1778, Thomas Jefferson, while a state legislator in Virginia, actually wrote a "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge". Later Jefferson commented: "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness". George Washington also added: "Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness." Evidently, our Texas forefathers agreed and incorporated these ideals into our own State Constitution.

Third, with the lost emphasis of "the general diffusion of knowledge", the constitutional purpose for providing education in the first place-"the preservation of liberties", is undermined.  Children need to have a reason to be in school. Today it is fashionable to say that the purpose of education is to train the workforce of tomorrow. Our Constitution says differently.  If we renew our commitment to what is mandated in the Constitution, we will give our children a much better reason to be in school. Neil Postman observes that the founder's rationale for education is much greater than today's shortsighted views of economic productivity. He states:
"There was a time when American culture knew what schools were for … Thomas Jefferson, the Moses of the great democracy-god, knew what schools were for-to  ensure that citizens would know when and how to protect their liberty. This is a man who produced an essay that could have cost him his life ….  It would not have come easily to the mind of such a man, as it does to political leaders today, that the young should be taught to read exclusively for the purpose of increasing their economic productivity."

Fourth, we are losing a vital part of the foundation for hard work. Some say that motivation for learning is not what it was in the good old days: that today's students are not motivated by fear and respect for authority; they also claim that it is obsolete to motivate children with the idea of hard work with deferred gratification. They say we need to redesign our system to these new realities. Actually, we owe it to the children, and society expects us to reinforce these values.

Why the willingness to give up on these values? Is it even possible to design a successful school system where the student does not need to work hard? Acquiring knowledge is hard work. Studying is hard work. The lack of emphasis on knowledge philosophically supports giving up on these values. A restoration of the importance of knowledge implies a recommitment to hard work. Acquiring a substantial base of knowledge is the kind of rigor that is needed today in our schools.

The Way to Teach Problem Solving

Of course we want our students to be able to solve problems and think clearly, therefore, how do we accomplish this?  Simple, just fill our children's minds full of knowledge and facts.  A mind filled with knowledge will, in a process that can not be described, relate those facts in a meaningful way, ignore facts that don't apply and then build an airplane, write a novel, design a constitutional republic, etc.  How did Detective Friday solve the crimes on Dragnet?  By repeating: "Just the facts ma'am." Also, the more facts a child's mind can effortlessly recall, the more the mind will be free to solve problems.
Rudolf Flesch in The Art of Clear Thinking, 1951, states "…here is your definition of thinking: It is the manipulation of memories."(p. 8) But what are memories? Memories are the recordings of knowledge, facts and experiences in the mind. Minds cannot function in a vacuum. J.Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, notes "The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd notion that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be 'drawn out' of the mind before anything is put in."(p. 176) Hy Ruchlis in Clear Thinking, 1962, makes the connection of facts to problem solving by observing "…. a body of facts accumulates and makes it possible for people to solve many more problems than they could ever hope to handle successfully solely by their own thinking processes."(p. 17)
This is the way our founding fathers were taught. Henry Grady Weaver described it thus:

Before he was sixteen, the philosophy and history of the entire European past had been pounded into his head.  Thus when he was old enough to begin thinking things out for himself, he had in his own mind a storehouse of knowledge, covering thousands of years of human experience. Also, he was drilled in logic and the accurate meaning of words as a protection against fallacies of fancy rhetoric!

Problem Solving Summary

It may seem wise to stress problem solving and critical thinking, but when you make it more important than the acquisition of knowledge you will get less of both. This seriously impacts our quest for equity. Consider the child who shows up on our school doorsteps with a huge knowledge deficit, with this lack of emphasis on knowledge this deficit is greatly magnified-possibly preventing the child from ever getting caught up-making equity impossible.  Again, our schools are the one institution in society whose specific job is to dispense knowledge.  If they don't do it, it won't get done; it won't get done until we make it our number one priority; and if we don't make it our number one priority, we will never resolve the equity problem.

Standards-Based Reform's Impact on the Emphasis of Knowledge

Our current reform efforts-standards-based reform-has, itself, diminished the role of knowledge. No Child Left Behind has institutionalized standards-based reform throughout the nation. It is seen by the reformers as "our greatest hope that all our children will be exposed to the rich curricula and high expectations that can guarantee their success."  Is it "our greatest hope"? Due to standards-based reform, our schools are spending an incredible amount of the student's time drilling for the test.  This focus has resulted in the phrase "teaching to the test" and the "narrowing of the curriculum". This is a serious charge and one which deserves a better answer than "if you teach the curriculum the kids will do well on the test."

Time is a nonrenewable resource in education and too many children arrive at school with a time deficit. The "advantaged" child is a child who arrives at school with their preschool time richly filled with many experiences, books, travels, and stimulating conversations. The "disadvantaged" child is a child who arrives at school without many experiences, books, travels, and stimulating conversations. For these children especially, it is imperative we do not waste their time. Every moment of the precious school day should be filled with engaging their minds with facts, knowledge and experience, and reading, writing and arithmetic. We must close the deficiency of their knowledge and experience gap as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in our Texas schools today, too much of the student's precious time is spent on practicing for the TAKS.

Achieving Equity: How Are We Doing?

With the current educational philosophy and reform policies in place, we should ask: "What are our actual results? What has been the impact of the loss in emphasis on knowledge? Has it undermined our reform efforts and made them less effective?" Let us answer and analyze some crucial questions that are not normally asked and discussed.

1.        Have we enabled our children to grow stronger as they progress through the grade levels?  No.
A disappointment in the lack of progress through grade levels has caused many to focus on the inadequacy of our middle schools and high schools.  Looking at performance levels on national and international tests, it appears that we are doing a good job in the elementary schools and losing ground in high school.  Could the truth be just the opposite?

Why the overall drop off in scores beginning at the middle school and continuing through high school?  The answer could be found in the fact that a mind deprived of basic knowledge is crippled in the future.  For example, how can a child that had never learned the basic geography locations of Europe, Asia, North Africa, of Germany, Russia, Japan, England, of the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, in elementary school, ever follow a book or a teacher in high school as they study World War II?  They would find most of the book and teaching confusing and meaningless. The same can be said for the lack of knowledge of dates, and events. One needs a peg to place historical knowledge.

Another crippling trend in our elementary schools is that we are, in the words of Sandra Stotsky, Losing Our Language. She details the loss of academic goals in our elementary readers. For example, in a discussion of twelve stated characteristics of a reading series she notes "that only one characteristic is academic in nature-the third. It alone mentions "knowledge," although it remains to be seen what constitutes knowledge in this series."

Also, many of our children are left crippled in math; they are leaving our elementary schools without fluency in arithmetic. Again, the cause is the prevailing educational philosophy coupled with the untimed state math assessments that focus only on abstract reasoning.

Without geographical and historical facts, without a rich heritage of literature, and without fluency in the facts of arithmetic, our children's progress in high school must fall off. With the lack of emphasis on knowledge in our educational philosophy and with the state test forcing our elementary schools to focus on abstract reasoning skills, our students are simply not prepared for high school.

Anecdotally, many discriminating parents (whom twelve years ago, before standard-based reform, placed their children in our public schools), are now homeschooling or private schooling their children for the elementary grades, yet still placing their children in a public high school.  Why? If our high schools are failing, why would they do this?  Paradoxically, these parents, by their decisions, are rating our high schools as better than our elementary schools.

Our high schools are not necessarily broken, but our elementary schools might be. Our elementary schools are not broken in the sense of doing poorly on the state tests as they have adapted to the new paradigm of focusing on abstract reasoning skills; they are broken in the sense that they are not preparing our children for success in high school.  What is the purpose of schooling? Is it to become an educated person or to do well on a state test? Clearly, the goal in our schools today is to do well on the state tests.

2.        Have we closed the achievement gap?  No.
Again, the disadvantaged child, who arrives at the school door with a huge deficiency of knowledge and experiences and then is drilled in problem solving and critical thinking skills instead of having his mind filled with knowledge, can never catch up.  The advantaged child is able to overcome the lack of knowledge presented in the schools by picking it up at home. Therefore, under the present philosophy and reform efforts, this gap has persisted.

3.        Have we slowed the drop-out rate? No.
Here again, a rediscovery of the importance of knowledge can help. The best solution we have to keep students from dropping out of school is to give them a reason to be in school.  As previously mentioned, a refocus on the Constitutional mandate can provide this reason.  However, for this to be effective, students must know history, be steeped in the stories of our founders and in the  beginnings of this great American experiment that has provided freedom to the greatest extent ever in the history of mankind.

Unfortunately, our students are receiving less and less teaching of history. This last legislative session, social studies teachers heavily lobbied for a fifth grade TAKS test so that the elementary school would again give history its proper prominence in the curriculum. One teacher wisely pointed out that it was the recent immigrants who were most in need of the subject, and also the most likely not to receive it. They are also at high risk of dropping out. Could there be a connection?

4.        According to our experienced teachers, has standards-based reform made our children academically stronger today than in 1993, when standards-based reform began?  No.
This is a question that should be asked of every experienced teacher in the trenches.  These teachers are the ones who know what is happening in our schools. Their answer to this question is invariably: "the children are academically the same or weaker".

5.        Have we helped our children perform better on the ACT and SAT tests?  Have we decreased the amount of remedial courses our students need for college?  No.
It is important to remember that standards-based reform officially began in Texas in 1993 with the adoption of the accountability system. After this twelve year experiment in standards-based reform and emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking, we have made little or no progress. First, we should not talk like these "redesign" reform efforts are some new idea, but we must acknowledge that they have been around for a child's entire educational cycle! These ideas have had their chance to improve our SAT and ACT scores and they have failed.  It might be a good idea for our educational policymakers and our political leaders to rethink the role of knowledge in our schools.


In summary, the disadvantaged child, who comes to our schools with a severe knowledge deficit, is severely handicapped by our current paradigm. Their minds are basically empty when compared with their advantaged counterparts. Since, facts and knowledge are considered a low level and given a low priority, little effort is given to fill these empty minds. This severely handicaps their ability to think clearly. This leads to poor results on the TAKS, especially the older they get. The heavy attention on the test in the early grades does have a slight payoff on passing the test in the early grades, but it totally hamstrings their future progress by leaving them with little in their minds to reason with. This leads to their failure. That leads to their discouragement, and then they drop out.

To help realize equity in our schools and to help every child reach their maximum potential requires some simple but difficult to implement changes. Specifically, we should reestablish knowledge as the focus of our schools. Re-labeling "low level skills" to "foundational skills" and "high level skills" to "secondary skills" in Bloom's Taxonomy would help in changing this focus. Also, as educational leaders, we need to use our bully pulpits to tout the wisdom and benefits of knowledge. Finally, we need to reconstruct the TAKS test to focus more on knowledge and less on process skills or otherwise the schools will still maintain the current orthodoxy.

Failure to consider the philosophical foundation on which our education efforts are based will lead to failure. No matter what you build on the sand, it will not stand. We must be wise and build our educational house on the rock of knowledge. As educational leaders, this is one of the greatest steps we can make to help close the equity gap in our schools, lower the dropout rate, restore the teacher in the trenches to a fulfilling career, and, guess what-develop problem solving and critical thinking in our students and prepare them for the twenty-first century workforce.

Don McLeroy
Vice Chair
Texas State Board of Education