I particularly like the way you portray progressivist emphasis on helping the children gain the skills they need and assume that that will also satisfy the essentialist need to do well on the test. That is my bias too, to teach my students how to learn and how to reason while teaching core material. Apparently, like you, I am pulled by both camps. I feel that the core subjects are essential to success in life. At the same time, it’s far from clear to me that teaching narrowly to a test cements that core knowledge meaningfully.
However, as I consider these two philosophies, it occurs to me that some test results in some populations are so spectacularly poor that these differences of philosophy become largely irrelevant. In LA Unified School District, the percentage of elementary students scoring proficient or advanced on the CST (i.e. with ‘acceptable’ scores) falls generally between 30%-60%, depending on ELA or Math, grade and year of test) (California Department of Education, 2010). In most cases, over 50% of the students failed to meet ‘proficient’ or better. This is not in any way to belittle the importance of educational philosophy, both personal and system-wide. But it is a reminder of the breathtaking failure of some parts of the system in ways that seem to demand addressing at a more existential level as well.
California Department of Education. (2010). 2009 STAR Test Results. Retrieved on January 20, 2010 from http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2009/SearchPanel.asp?lstTestYear=2009&lstTestType=C&lstCounty=19&lstDistrict=64733-000&lstSchool=&lstGroup=1&lstSubGroup=1