Do the
Fundamentals
of K-12
Education
still matter?

Growing up as the son of a Polish immigrant, former New Mexico Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski heard regularly from his father that “reading is the key to all knowledge.” According to his dad, reading is the “path to choice, options, conversation, expression and opportunities of all stripes.” Who could argue with him? In his opinion, literacy created life’s possibilities for his children, one of whom became a social studies teacher and went on to lead one of the most diverse school systems in the nation.

Ruszkowski’s inspiring family history lends credence to the notion that literacy is fundamental to learning, and the promise of education in America can best be realized — and is maximized — by “staying focused,” as he puts it, on ensuring that every child can read.

To those who say it’s more complicated, Ruszkowski puts it simply. “Should our students develop critical thinking skills, social-emotional resilience and creativity?” he says. “Definitely, yes. But without literacy for all, there will be continued injustice. I rarely met a working parent of a student in New Mexico who didn’t feel the same way.”

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Christopher N. Ruszkowski & Kevin Hoffman

Civil Discourse Prompts
Do parents expect schools to ensure their children can master the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic — or more?

Have Ruszkowski and Hoffman described mutually exclusive goals? Does our education system have the capacity and capability to simultaneously teach students to read well, do math well and develop key character traits like collaboration and critical thinking?

Contrast Ruszkowski’s perspective with that of Kevin Hoffman, a former math teacher who oversees innovative learning for a network of 40 charter schools in California and Tennessee. Hoffman believes the fundamentals of education are broader. He champions the development of four key character traits in children: creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. “Delivering on those competencies in an equitable fashion would seem to prepare this generation of students for navigating their futures,” he says.

In his own life, Hoffman points to teachers who helped him build these competencies as being a model for public education — then and now. “They helped me identify and use my grit, perseverance and self-management,” he says. Concurrently, he says these teachers also provided him with a “strong base of knowledge.”

So, do the fundamentals still matter? Ruszkowski and Hoffman would agree that the answer is “yes.” But what exactly are the fundamental underpinnings of a strong public education? That is the essence of the conversation that unfolds here.

“The 21st century learning competencies have been around forever ­— just ask Dewey or Plato or Aristotle or Socrates.”Jordan Tinney, superintendent/CEO of Surrey Schools, from his keynote at the iNACOL Symposium 2017

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