Do the
of K-12
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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Rather, literacy was a path to choice, conversation, expression and the shredding of ignorance

Without the ability to read, all other things in life become almost impossible. It opens up so much opportunity for an individual and gives them more control over how to direct their life and navigate the world around them.

the fundamentals (literacy first amongst them) and innovation lived harmoniously, side by side.

Exactly. It shouldn't be one or the other. Students should be taught literacy and creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Every student deserves the key that unlocks all knowledge. No innovation or R&D effort need be at the expense of literacy and numeracy. Should our students develop critical thinking skills, social-emotional resilience and creativity? Definitively, 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.

I think this paragraph frames very well that ensuring the literacy of students does not mean that we give up teaching critical thinking skills, innovation or creativity. All of these things can coexist. Literacy does dramatically open the doors for students.

our fundamentals of schooling still matter. Now, the impetus must be to deliver on these practices equitably.

This is one of the challenges of our school system; to deliver the fundamentals of schooling equitably. This isn't just a conversation or debate to be had; there must accompany it improved, lasting change that benefits all.

They built personal relationships with me. And they helped me identify and use my grit, perseverance and self-management — all while providing me with a strong base of knowledge that would allow me to continue to excel in high-level courses

Many students that have anger and behavioral issues just want someone to care about them. A teacher that they have to respect, but also shows them love and kindness can really change their lives.

. We remain far away from our sacred commitment of every student being literate

This tragic and unjust reality leads me to wonder if there is a role for parents/guardians/mentors to fulfill this role and be the bridge between the disconnect among students and their teachers. Given that teachers are viewed as a major authority in a (young) student's experience, there must be room for other influential figures in a student's life to support them on their journey towards achieving literacy. On a deeper level, these same influential figures have an obligation to continue developing and enhancing the student's proficiencies in this respect.

Our education system has unjustly denied a huge number of our young learners access to strong fundamentals alongside rigorous, grade-level instruction.

I agree, and we must work towards a just system.

So, do the fundamentals still matter?

The fundamentals definitely still matter. Research shows that other countries who excel far beyond our average high school U.S. test scores take the fundamentals of school very seriously. This is because the fundamentals in school are what lead to stronger critical thinking skills which can be applied to various life situations.

on a science and Harry Potter-themed show for a local elementary school. And I recall my physics teacher posing problems that didn’t have a clear solution or pathway to get there and allowing us as students to be OK with that

I really appreciate learning about teachers who make learning fun and memorable for students. I think that this type of learning follows students for a long time.

Today, some speak of student literacy as if it’s a given, as if it isn’t something for which we’ve all toiled and bled.

In my time working in the colleges I have met with students (usually older students) who have navigated through life, not knowing how to read and write. It has been very humbling to engage them in conversation and to talk with them about how they navigate this world that doesnt cater to those who are not literate.