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Middle School Muddle: What should every 6th grader know?

Why Are middle school curriculums so different? And should every 6th grader be expected to learn the same things? What should every sixth-grader know?

These questions have been on my mind since I began my second round of District Two middle school tours in Manhattan this fall.

I’m trying to find the best fit for my 5th-grade son, but I’m also trying to figure out what is actually taught in 6th grade, why each school approaches it so differently and how much it ultimately matters. How does one define a good education?

Should 6th graders study Newton and the Laws of Nature, The Rise of Napoleon and Greek and Latin Roots? Should they learn trillions, integers and square roots? Child Labor and Mexican Independence? The French Revolution and Ancient Rome? In what grade and in what sequence?

All of the above are among the suggestions for 6th graders by noted author and educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. in What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know.

I read the book recently and had the chance to spend some time with Hirsch at a conference. I noticed that only some of his suggestions have made it into the middle schools I’ve visited so far.

Hirsch says parents should examine curriculums to make sure that “they spell out, in clear and concrete terms a core of specific content and skills all children at a particular grade level are expected to learn by the end of the school year.’’ I have yet to leave a tour with a curriculum in hand, although I always try to ask what will be taught.

So far, it seems to vary widely from school to school – and often changes from year to year.Hirsch touched off a debate when he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy, Hirsch rejects the idea that a set curriculum is either authoritarian or conservative, instead describing it as “super democratic.’’

I can’t help wondering, as I continue these tours, who makes the decision in each school for what must be taught, beyond what will be on state tests that schools are increasingly judged – and graded on.

Whether or not you agree with Hirsch’s assessments of what every 6th grader should know – and many don’t -- the questions he raises seem both worthwhile and interesting to pose on tours.

I’ll try to find more answers.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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