My daughters attend a K-8 charter school near our house. Being a charter school, the school has a board of directors, on which I have recently considered participating. To that end, it is required that board members read two books by Ed Hirsch, "Cultural Literacy" and "The Schools we Need."
The books are very well researched and lay the groundwork for why America's K-12 education has fallen as defined by standardized mathematics and reading tests compared to other developed nations. They trace the major shift in pedagogy (teaching) starting in the 1920's with the Romantic ideal of teaching the student (vs content), learning to learn, more group projects (vs memorizing facts) and less testing.
Several of the criticisms hit home. I attended public school in Pennsylvania (K-3) and then Tennessee (4-12). In the absence of a national curriculum, it is likely that I missed some material or doubled up on some material. I was an average student in Pennsylvania and an above average student in Tennessee. I also recall how History and other Social Studies courses in Tennessee were downplayed. Typically one of the athletic coaches would teach the subject and we would get as far as we got, I was rarely exposed to history after World War I.
In going through the list of what every American should know, I was woefully illiterate in terms of world geography, history and culture. In reading the book, my grasp of vocabulary was challenged and since it was hard copy, I could not just click up on my Kindle to find the definitions.
All parents want better for their children, and I believe a core knowledge curriculum is a step in that direction. Children are inherently eager to learn. Class advancement should be a meritocracy versus social promotion (advancing kids to the next grade even if they are not ready). My kids have had to repeat gymnastics classes multiple times as they do not have the skills to succeed in the next class. I would hate for them to be held back at school, but I would prefer that to the alternative of being lost in the system.
As an example of being eager to learn, while "snowed in" on Sunday they were playing school complete with writing assignments, reviewing science fair projects, art and even PE. They both lamented not having a rope to climb (I can't imagine my wife allowing one in the future).
I agree that there should be some universal standard and that ethnic minorities and underprivileged students should be provided extra considerations. Rather than that be in the form of scaled test results or non-standard examinations, it should be in the form of bringing core knowledge up to the point that they can succeed in school.
For advanced students, I disagree that the job of the school to hold them to a higher standard. I feel like that should be left to the household. In Taiwan, kids are divided into advanced and standard curricula. The advanced kids do much better than the world average and the standard kids are behind the world average. In contrast Japan has the same curriculum for all students and while the mean is higher than the world mean, the highest scores are missing. America should not be considered as the mean and number of advanced students is well behind both Taiwan and Japan.
A point that hit home for me is that American Colleges and Universities are world class because the failings of K-12 education is not present. There is no social promotion. There is rigorous testing and you cannot complete a degree in a given course of study without demonstrating that knowledge. Finally the teachers are subject matter experts as opposed to be experts at teaching.