The argument over content vs. context has reached public education

Public education has gone through many changes throughout my three decades teaching. When I first started teaching chemistry both the teacher and the student was responsible for the success of the student. The administration’s primary responsibility was to support both the students and their teachers.  At that time my success was equated by how well my students understood the concepts and mathematic logic of this central science. Motivation was critical back then because many teachers equated success when their students decided to further their studies in the subject they taught. This seemed logical because the teacher has a passion for their discipline and if they could transfer this passion on to their students the success rate of their students had to be insured.


Right before the turn of the millennium we were told that many public schools across our nation were failing. This failure was based on their low graduation rates and social problems. I did not see this in the school I worked.  In fact, few schools across our region had the problems many parts of our nation were suffering through. With the quick national fix of programs like, “No Child Left Behind”, all schools, including the successful ones were put through impossible tasks in order to prove their viability. All of a sudden local control of our schools was replaced by a very large and expensive bureaucratic network.


This program did not help our schools. In fact, it did the opposite. Our rank in global society plummeted to # 28 in math and science. The motivation to learn was replaced by an anxiety that teachers had to teach to a test and the students had to do well in order to keep federal funds flowing into the school. The irony of this program is that money was taken away from the poorest schools that needed the most help.

Today, we are going through another transition run by another federal bureaucracy. This one is called “Common Core Standards” that advises teachers to only teach what will appear on the test, that now has the title, “Smarter Balance”. In fact, all levels of teaching have evolved into devaluing content in order to concentrate on context. This philosophy of teaching has reached all levels of our public schools including The College Board’s Advanced Placement Testing. This new philosophy has yet to evolve into our universities or private institutions.


Webster defines content as being: “facts and ideas stated.”  Context is defined as being, “the parts directly before and after a concept that influence its meaning.” In other words, this newest of education fixes states you can understand and use the content by first understanding the context of which it was defined. I don’t understand this. How could any of my students understand why something occurs without a clear definition of how it occurs?

I clearly understand my philosophy of education is obsolete. I’ve always been an objective teacher who worked his students hard with mathematical explanations for chemical phenomena and abstract ideas. The only means I had to reach this end was to use every tool at my disposal. My primary quest was to have my students enjoy the logic of our universe that is based on laws. Content was critical in every level I taught. Motivation and success was the only value of my proud profession. I am now truly a dinosaur of education.


I hope this new concept of public education is successful. I believe this is the first time in my career I hope I’m wrong. I also pray the parents of my students pay attention to these changes. They did when it was clear the NCLB program failed. Parents have to ask their children if they understood or were motivated by the new computerized testing system. They have to review what is being taught to their children and how it is being taught. They have to understand curriculums are changing including the way their children are being instructed. During a time of change parents have to become involved in the education and thus the future of their children.  I hope this change is a wonderful thing.

Jim Fabiano is a teacher and writer living in York, Maine

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