Whose Core Knowledge?

by Robert Pondiscio
April 8th, 2009

The normally thoughtful and engaging Clay Burell swings and misses at E.D. Hirsch’s recent New York Times op-ed about reading tests, painting with an uncharacteristically broad brush.   Relying on the standard misperception of Hirsch and Core Knowledge as promoting ”the white male-privileged narrative of history,” Burell writes that such a curriculum is “unfair to those very disadvantaged students Hirsch claims will benefit from his model.”  This ignores the fact that the curriculum has had its greatest success with low-SES students.  Pay a visit to schools like the Carl Icahn Charter School in the South Bronx; P.S. 124 in Queens; Atlanta’s Capitol View Elementary; among others.  I don’t believe you’ll find much evidence of unfairness.

There are a couple of problems with Clay’s analysis of Hirsch’s piece.  First, the immediate benefit of teaching a broad, content-rich curriculum is not cultural (although no apologies need to be made for familiarizing students with the history and culture of their own country and the broader world) but structural.  Reading comprehension suffers in disadvantaged children exactly because they lack the background knowledge to make sense of what they read.  Indeed, Burell himself underscored the crucial role of content knowledge in creating strong readers in a post a few months ago praising Dan Willingham’s Teaching Content is Teaching Reading YouTube video.  Hirsch has been making the same argument for decades. 

Clay wants Hirsch’s essay to address critical thinking, but that wasn’t the point of the piece.  Hirsch’s singular service to education has been to attempt to define the broad body of background knowledge that speakers and writers assume their audience knows, and point out that literacy (as well as critical thinking and other so-called “21st Century” skills) depends on sharing it.  The curse of this contribution is that it is easy to dismiss it, as Alfie Kohn typically does (and I fear Burell does too) as “a bunch o’ facts” and “rote memorization” even though Hirsch has never even so much as hinted that kids should memorize lists of names and dates.  Clay wants the curriculum infused with critical thinking questions, but where is the disagreement?  There’s absolutely nothing in the Core Knowledge curriculum that suggests or implies it has come down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets and must be taught, unquestioned, in a specific way.  Good teachers like Burell, an Apple Distinguished Educator, have always–will always–infuse their teaching with thoughtful perspectives and critical thinking.  How does a set curriculum prevent them from doing so?  How does defining what to teach determine how to teach it?  The answer is simple: it doesn’t.  

He also takes issue with Hirsch’s criticism of reading strategy instruction.  Allowing for Clay’s personal experience, I think he underestimates the damage done to children by a heavy over-reliance on such instruction in the elementary grades.  In many disadvantaged schools, strategy instruction IS reading instruction, at the expense of science, history, art and music.   The result is a vicious circle where kids robotically search for the main idea or “question the author.”  But their lack of content knowledge prevents them from meaningfully answering the ”metacognitive” questions they are trained (speaking of rote memorization) to pose. 

We’re never going to get away from the rhetorical questions with which Burell challenges Core Knowledge (“Knowledge of what? From whose perspective? In whose interests?”) nor should we.  But it’s dispiriting that smart educators like Burell are chary about a specific curriculum out of some misperception of balance, fairness or perpective.  If you want students to be critical thinkers–and to his credit Burell clearly does–what better way than to give them the background knowledge they need to grapple with precisely the questions he suggests?

Clay is on more solid ground, I think when he suggests “If we can talk leaving high school content under the control of local teachers, not dictated by national content tests, then maybe  – high school teachers could fill in the silences left by the national(istic) 3-8 standards, teach race, gender, and class-based perspectives in history that almost surely wouldn’t be covered earlier.”   Not a bad idea, that.  If every kid comes to high school with a shared body of knowledge that is both strong and subtle, then those high school classes could be rich in critical thinking and challenging perspectives.  Without it, we’re frozen forever at the starting line, searching for some shared subject or common ground to engage with and argue about. 

Email me your address, Clay (Seriously).  I’ve got a copy of the Core Knowledge Sequence with your name on it.  See what’s in it, and see how pedagogically prescriptive it’s not, and ask yourself which students would get the most out of your high school humanities class: those who walked in with a firm grasp of the content it describes?  Or those whose sense of history, science and the arts was left to chance?