Back to Basics

Lately I have been lying awake at night thinking about basic skills. To be precise, I am wondering what you — or I — would do if we were in charge of getting America “back to basics” in education. Just what are ‘the basics’ anyway? Is that a place we’ve actually been and now have to return to?

For me, there are four basics in education — but more about them in a moment. Three events prompted this line of thought. The first was an encounter with a teenage girl, perhaps 16, at a skating rink. To get a locker, I had to give her $10.50 but would get some money back when I returned the key. “So how much does the locker cost me,” I asked? She said that I would get $6 back, but something about the way she said it made me ask my question again. She said she didn’t know — and she reached for a calculator. That girl is in school now, at a time when all systems are focused on math and reading, but she wasn’t able to work with a fairly simple problem that entailed some thinking, not just calculating.

While an apple for the teacher can remain an education basic, we need to focus our attention in four key areas to see results.

A week or two later I discovered that a woman I know, who is about 40, has trouble writing a coherent page of prose; she went to good schools and a top university but cannot present a logical argument on paper. She went to school in the 70’s and 80’s, the height of an earlier ‘back to basics’ phase/craze, but somehow her writing flaws went undetected or untreated.

If ‘back to basics’ didn’t work for those two (admittedly random) examples, what’s ahead for the next generation, including my 6-month-old granddaughter, who has been living with us for the past week? What are the basics for her education, and the education of your young children and grandchildren?

“Back to basics” is a silly notion without some understanding of what is basic in the life of a child and where schools fit into the picture. So here are my four: 1) reading and writing; 2) numeracy; 3) creativity; and 4) health and nutrition. Our short-sighted leaders have in the past focused on ‘The Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, which is euphonious but short-sighted.

Reading and writing are inseparable and are the first ‘basic.’ We read to gain information, and we write to convey it. While neither is a natural act and therefore must be learned, they belong together. I’ve seen first graders reading and writing competently and confidently in some very poor neighborhoods, so there’s no doubt that schools can handle that basic:

Numeracy (‘rithmetic) is also a basic skill, and the best teachers engage their young students in the joy of mastery of the mystery and utter rationality of numbers. They use Cuisinaire Rods and other manipulatives, they create puzzles and group challenges, and they allow students to make and learn from mistakes.

“‘Suppose we were going to repaint this classroom. What colors? How much paint? How much would it cost? How long would it take?” That’s a ‘real world’ problem that most kids would enjoy solving. Similar ideas were recently discussed on the Learning Matters podcast series.

I remember a teacher drawing two (uncut) Pizza pies on the board and asking her class whether they would rather have two pieces of Pizza or four? Everyone opted for four pieces, of course, at which point she divided one pie in half, the other into eight pieces….and waited while her 4th graders reconsidered their decision.

Achieving success in teaching these two ‘basics’ will require some changes: smaller classes in the first four or five grades, team teaching, ungraded classrooms, serious professional development, and appropriate technology. Our most qualified teachers belong in those classrooms, and they cannot have people looking over their shoulders at every turn.

The third ‘basic’ is creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have reminded us:

I believe the earlier ‘back to basics’ movements failed because schools obsessed about The Three R’s to the exclusion of creativity, fun, art, music and physical education. The current focus on student achievement is making the same mistake. The problem is not the testing itself but far too much time on bubble-measured ‘education.’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said (including on our Twitter Town Hall) that 10 days of tests and test-prep in a school year is too much, but I will wager that almost every school district in the nation spends more time than that.

William Sanders, the pioneer in value-added testing, trumps the Secretary. “Three days max!” he told me recently, citing a study that indicated that the more time teachers reported spending on test prep, the worse their scores on value-added measurements!

We need courageous leaders at the Board and Superintendent level who will say ‘No more!’ to the excesses of bubble-testing, but I haven’t heard of anyone making a serious effort to even keep track of how much time is devoted to those exercises, let alone restricting the time.

Who benefits from the focus on test scores, since the evidence suggests it’s neither students nor teachers? Maybe we should follow the money. Testing companies like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill are pushing hard to sell school districts ‘intra-course’ tests that — they assert — will help teachers modify their instruction. To Dr. Sanders, these companies are “preying upon insecure leaders” who are under pressure from NCLB to make what’s called ‘adequate yearly progress.’ This means more testing, not less, even though Dr. Sanders reports that these tests add less than 1% to overall scores.

My fourth ‘basic’ may push the inside of the envelope for some. To me, health and nutrition are basic components of a balanced education. In this case schools and teachers cannot get there on their own but must develop alliances. It’s disgraceful that the number of children living in poverty is increasing, and it’s outrageous that our political leaders at every level and in both parties are unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy so that the safety net can be repaired.

It’s tough enough being a teacher as it is. Larger classes with increasing numbers of children who are undernourished or otherwise in poor health are not a prescription for a vibrant future, not for kids, not for teachers, not for the nation.

So that’s my view of ‘the basics’ in public education. It’s not about going back to basics, because we’ve never gone there. I think it’s time we did.

What do you believe?

Final note: I participated in a discussion at the Commonwealth Club of California in December of 2011; it was a panel discussion and lasted over an hour — but the participants and topics were great. The video is now online if you’d like to take a look:

14 thoughts on “Back to Basics

  1. I think you should add a fifth basic skill: self-sufficiency. Although this will certainly come about by mastering skills 1-4, it can also be emphasized more overtly. At City and Country school here in NYC, which my daughter attended in the 1st-3rd grade, the students began working in the school store as soon as they arrived. (They also learned basic wood working skills, how to operate a printing press, etc.) In the store their responsibilities included ordering supplies like pencils, paper, etc. They didn’t always get it perfectly right, which is why the school had enough pencils for 5 years, but they learned from their mistakes, and in the process got a sense of ownership and a feel for how to make, and take responsibility for, their decisions.


    • I see self-sufficiency as one of the dividers in today’s workforce. If you cannot work on your own and determine some of the steps on your job can and is being out sourced.

      It is in some ways even more difficult for parents to teach this given current trends such hyper scheduling and frankly our fear of letting kids out of our sight. My spouse and I were debating today if we would let our 10 year old walk to school in upper north-west DC. My spouse was positively opposed because he has so much fear of the very low probability of stranger kidnapping. But these are ever present dangers in parents minds which may be actually putting our children in danger by undercutting their ability to develop self-sufficiency.


  2. John,

    Bravo! This is not a trivial issue. In fact, it is THE most “basic” of all issues – what is the purpose of education? Philosophers, parents, teachers, and politicians have debated the question for centuries. Recent generations of school “reformers”, however, behave as if that is a useless question to ask, one not worth discussing. Instead, they fall into the trap that was an unintended consequence of the craze to measure (quantivatively – please, no real judgments permitted!). And if it can’t be “measured” – that is, reduced to quantitatively measureable results – then it cannot be important and educators should stop fussing with the other stuff. Health? Nope. Let obesity get worse. Creativity? Nope. Can’t write espository essays – can’t even write good descriptive paragraphs. And John, your list of four, nobly conceived as they are, ignores what is perhaps the most basic purpose of compulsory education in a democrdatic society – how to assure continued viability of a democratic and civil society.
    Jim Kelly


  3. Need to add yet another basic: Problem Solving. Important for two reasons at least: (1) it’s through effective problem solving that the learning will indeed be of value, addressing the important real world situations needing attention; and (2) it is through effective problem solving that people can add to the basics in order to stay abreast with the expansion of information that will enable them to stay valuable.


  4. Another basic to all of the above and essential to Jim Kelly’s concerns for the future of a democratic society: critical thinking


  5. I suggest a different set of parameters the Five Cs

    Competency easy to test and measure
    Communications the ability to read analyze and present to others
    Curiosity to inquire and question the world around us
    Creativity to develop new insight and and answers
    Character to have the self discipline to persist.

    and perhaps two more in todays society

    Civility – to respect others,The opposite of so many rants in the comments
    – sections such as the NY Times and other publications
    .Citizenship to accept responsibility for the good of the nation


  6. There are really a variety of metrics that might work just swell – from Arnold Packer’s Verified Resume (which itself went through Learning Matters, I believe, which has 8 really cool measures like responsibility, teamwork, creativity, work across cultures, negotiation, and the like, to Robert Sternberg’s Wisdom-Intelligence-Creativity-Synthesized (

    These “soft skills” are much, much better “basics” than data-driven information recall, since they include the reason for knowing something at the same time they track what it is you know. When they’re used in self-assessment activities – as they are in e-portfolios – they give students (and teachers and others) reason to pause, to reflect, and to improve on what once they thought was pretty good stuff. The real reason for “basics” is, after all, to “base” our growth on some useful external criteria, and soft skills are almost always useful, when “hard skills” are only sometimes so.


  7. I agree with Don, with one minor change. I think it should read…

    Citizenship: to accept responsibility for your family, community, and global village


  8. Some very thoughtful additions.
    I also have a question. Anyone know of a school district or school leader who is counting the test/test prep days and making that an issue? That could be a great NewsHour profile…


  9. You are spot on, John – especially the part about “leaders at the Board and Superintendent level who will say ‘No more!’ to the excesses of bubble-testing.” The problem is, the people in these positions have no clue as to how many school days are devoted to test preparation and test-taking. Building principals have this information and in most cases recognize the problem, but they (in an attempt to not rock the boat) lack the courage to “blow the whistle.” Perhaps those of us whose paycheck is not on the line should stand up and speak for the kids.


  10. In nature, one of the most important things parents teach the young is how to identify and find food. Last week, as i walked past the chips, pretzels, and twinkies in my grocery store, I realized that people don’t do that. We don’t even know what food is.


  11. I received this response and am posting it with Zal’s permission—John Merrow

    “Dear John:

    You might be interested in some history on this topic in mathematics. Perhaps you already know this history; if so, I apologize for wasting your time.

    In the 70s, as you know, there was a “back-to-basics” movement in many subjects. In mathematics, that meant a concentration on manipulative skills in arithmetic and algebra and a lessening of emphasis on everything else, including structure and applications. Probably because of the difficulty of learning skills in a vacuum, the result was disaster – SAT scores hit their lowest levels ever (NAEP had just started so there was not much in the way of longitudinal data there). That is, performance on skills went down at a time when there seemed to be more emphasis on skills.

    A conference was held in 1975 in Euclid, OH by the National Institute of Education (purposely in a place with a mathematical name!) to deal with the idea of basic skills. The strategy used was not to fight the idea of “back to basics” but to redefine what the basics were. The report of the Euclid Conference on Basic Mathematial Skills and Learning can be downloaded from

    This report, like most reports, would have been lost had it not been for the National Council of /Supervisors/ of Mathematics (NCSM), which took the gauntlet and in March, 1977, came out with a 4-page position paper on basic skills that was the most influential document in mathematics education until the NCTM Standards of 1989. I have attached a pdf file of basic skills positions of NCSM that includes the entire text of that 1977 paper starting on page 3.

    What is basic today? Some might say it is the set of mathematical practices in the Common Core Standards. Others would still say the skills are basic and would point to the content standards in the Common Core. Business people often have an entirely different set of basic skills – the ability to work in a group, for example.

    But you probably knew all that and just asked your questions rhetorically.

    Zal Usiskin”


  12. Let’s say we accept John’s notion of why we have school. Doesn’t this imply that we should be done by 8th grade? Or, that perhaps students should have much more control of how they spend their time during each day?

    Someone mentioned self-sufficiency. Most schools are the antithesis of self-sufficient environments – you’re told what to do and when to do it. You’re told what’s important, what you should care about and what you need to do with your time outside of school. You’re held to disciplinary standards that are often more restrictive than law. They usually assume that students can’t respect one another before problems occur and then impose adults in adjudicating when some facilitated conversation might well be more productive.

    More democratic and permissive environments are less ordered, but there is evidence that they really do still create fulfilled and happy adults — perhaps more able to take on whatever comes their way — even if someone moves their cheese.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s