Content Matters In Education

A wide-ranging discussion between two giants of the conservation education movement concluded the Education 20/20 Summit, hosted by The Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Moderated by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, the main feature was former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett who proposed that a conservative vision for education should be rooted in the Three Cs: Content, Character and Choice.

Secretary Bennett holds that the discussion about high quality content that all student should master got embroiled in the debate over the Common Core. But what he means by content is the common knowledge that all student should know regardless of region, state or school. Content is not necessarily curriculum, but rather the idea that students should be familiar with, for example, The Federalist Papers, great novels, concepts and ideas derived from the ancient Greeks, as well as historical dates and events.

Bennett cautioned that content cannot be mandated, though.

“There is a critical difference between recommending and requiring,” he said.

He also cautioned against chasing after the “newest fad” in education policy.

“The main thing that goes wrong in education is we’re looking for the shiny object,” Bennett told the audience. “We’re looking for a silver bullet. I learned as Education Secretary that ‘innovative’ was a synonym for good, and ‘traditional’ was a synonym for bad.”

If the goal of schools is to enhance the wisdom and character of youth, then it follows that a conservative vision for education should embrace content at the heart of the enterprise, Bennett argued.

He cited Massachusetts, circa 1997 to 2003, as a “shining example” of getting it right. The state mandated excellent content, created some choice among public schools, mandated the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, and even created an extra test for teachers to ensure they were knowledgeable on the subjects they taught. Bennett describes that as a conservative educational view in one of the most liberal states in the nation.

Bennett lays out his comprehensive argument for a conservative vision of education in a detailed paper that encompasses the discussions that took place over the course of the 20/20 series. The paper will be published along with other series speakers’ thoughts in a forthcoming book.

Watch the discussion between Bennett and Finn here.