Suzanne Fields
It's the time of the year when children's smiles begin to look a little pinched. You can feel it when you walk through any school supplies store. While the colored pencils and lunchboxes on display evoke memories of "the good times," they also spark memories of all that filler work -- the spelling and grammar exercises, multiplication tables and the dates of the Revolutionary War.

It's also the time when parents think about what their children will study. We used to know the subjects assigned to the various grades, but common core subjects with common values were abandoned long ago, replaced by progressive theories and the dumbing-down of actual information. The emphasis was on methodology and social-activist doctrine, even in the lower grades. We continue to suffer for it.

America has never had an official national curriculum, but as E.D. Hirsch, the education critic, observes in his newest book, "The Making of Americans," "a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks (insured) that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans." No more. A hodge-podge curriculum and splintered knowledge marks a decline in academic achievement, as compared to other countries.

Hence a reform movement is burgeoning in reaction to many of the changes of the last half-century. Although results are mixed, some are promising and deserve attention. New York City, with a million students in 1,700 schools, for example, became a focus for reform, with instructive lessons for the rest of the country.

After a child-centered focus for children was described as letting each child find his natural path for reading, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor at the time, Joel Klein, looked at the dismal reading scores of children in the lower grades and reread the criticism and creative ideas of E.D. Hirsch. In 2008, they tested the scholar's early childhood literacy program in the real-life laboratory of 10 elementary schools.

Hirsch had said that higher reading levels could be achieved when an emphasis was put on the content of old-fashioned subjects, like history, geography and science, as much as the mechanics of learning. It was something like rediscovering the wheel, but the wheel was soon rolled up the hill, getting positive results along the way.

After a year, the schools with the new curriculum achieved reading scores five times greater than schools with the old curriculum. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute writes in City magazine that after three years, the results continue to be encouraging. It was time for other schools to take a look.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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