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?


  1. Robert-After rereading some of Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t have them, I can agree with him on the importance of content at the grade levels. I know that I’ve been critical of Hirsch in my recent posts(mostly because his writing style seemed a bit formal), but this op-ed that he wrote where he stands up for minorities and urges the use of tests that actually emphasize the important content in the subjects so that the kids will be able to have a working background knowledge is something I can agree with.
    His suggestion to incorporate it among the familiar cultural surroundings of mioritiies and lower-income kids is laudable. Does Prof. Hirsch endorse the same kind of grade-by-grade standards at the high school level? I think that would be a good idea because when I was in high school, I took honors and AP classes that emphasized test-prep over any content. The only real problem with Hirsch that I had was really in the book that I previously mentioned where he spent, I think, too much time attacking progressive ideas. If he had spent a little more on how Core Knowledge would work, then that would have made the book even better. He mentions the SAT’s and I was wondering if you think that they should be done away with because they don’t include much normal high school content at all. I think that standardized tests can be redeemed but that the tests the College Board and the NCLB uses include the sloppy kind of testing that Hirsch rightfully ridicules. What are your thoughts?

    Comment by Alex — April 8, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  2. What are the three major religions in the world?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — April 8, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  3. Fun and thoughtful response, Robert. If the count is 0-1, I guess there’s still hope.

    I’d love a copy of the sequence. (And unless I missed it, a pdf version downloadable from your site would be a good application of 21st century skills. ;-) From what I’ve seen, the history curriculum you suggest is all Western Civ stuff, instead of global. If I’m wrong, school me, but if not, that’s the biggest indicator of the dreaded white male narrative bit.

    I sometimes think you folks seem to want it both ways (I’m in a hurry, so don’t take that as snark, because I _am_ sympathetic to the need for an understanding of the – or better, “a” – Big Picture framework). On the one hand, I read you saying, “We only suggest you devote _half_ your curriculum to CK, and you have leeway to supplement that with whatever you see fit in the other half.” Good, fine. But then there’s so much deriding of 21st Century Skills and less canonical stuff that could very easily add value to that “other half” that I wonder why you can’t be more open to a synthesis.

    Re: reading strategies, I’m no elementary educator, so I can’t speak to your claim on that. I’ll only repeat that I find it hard to believe it has to be so time-consuming, and easy to believe it helps comprehension.

    More later. I’ll send you my email address off-line.

    Thanks for the inning.

    Comment by Clay Burell — April 8, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  4. Here’s that mea culpa I promised in the email: I didn’t realize your sequence was in book form, so that explains the absence of a pdf. Hope you got the email. Look fwd to reading the book.

    Comment by Clay Burell — April 9, 2009 @ 1:47 am

  5. @Tom: if that’s an American question, my answers would be: shopping, drinking, TV.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 9, 2009 @ 1:49 am

  6. I have to echo Clay. It is hard to argue for reason in this conversation without being put into a camp. Each side accuses the other of instilling some kind of robotic response in kids (either the regurgitation of dates and facts or the mechanical search for a main idea or to “question the author).

    As so much of this is coming directly from Core Knowledge (it was here that the Ohio Governor’s assignment of core content to the same circle in a chart as 21st century skills was derided as an impossibility) camp, rather than others who have an interest in assuring that students have a rich understanding of content, I think that it is appropriate to ask whether it is rich content that is being defended per se, or THE content that is purveyed by Core Knowledge.

    Taken in pieces, I would suggest that CK has much to recommend it. Taken, and defended, as a whole, I have to underline what Clay (and many others) has pointed out, that it speaks to a viewpoint of western white maleness.

    This is where the divide rests and ought to be acknowledged. I really don’t think that Core Knowledge folks teach something other than looking at the “main idea” in learning to understand content (although they may consider themselves to be less slavish to it than others)–and perhaps they toss questioning the author (having alread selected authors who are above quesion–or is that being snarky?). In the end, I don’t think that they are really opposed to bringing in some group activity, or using technology (at least I hope not).

    What they fear, and see 21st Century as a opportunity to oppose, is the possibility that other points of view might also be organized into curricula of rich content. These curricula might give a greater voice to writers, thinkers and doers who are not western, not male, not white. This is a great threat if the purpose of your curriculum is to get everyone on the same page culturally, as opposed to providing students with the tools to become scholars in their own right.

    They can garner some support by foisting fears (and these are likely very realistic) that the 21st Century bandwagon looks attractive to the folks who have not done well in purveying content of any kind and find 21st Century appealing because they see it as being a collection of test-resistent, subjectively rated “soft skills” that they can fall back on to to prove the “hidden worth” of what they have been doing all along. Recall the cries about how teachers and schools should be rated not on the level that kids reach, but how much growth they demonstrate. That is, until measures of growth were developed and put in place. It turns out that there are a bunch of kids who start behind and get further behind the longer they stay in school.

    There are in fact emerging measures of the kinds of things that 21st Century speaks to, as these measures are further developed and come on the scene with a degree of validity and reliability, expect the slackers to fall by the wayside in their support.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — April 9, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  7. Margo, you wrote: “What they fear, and see 21st Century as a opportunity to oppose, is the possibility that other points of view might also be organized into curricula of rich content. These curricula might give a greater voice to writers, thinkers and doers who are not western, not male, not white. This is a great threat if the purpose of your curriculum is to get everyone on the same page culturally, as opposed to providing students with the tools to become scholars in their own right.”

    That’s quite a statement. Care to offer any support for it?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 9, 2009 @ 9:42 am

  8. Robert:

    How’s this–excerpted from the introduction to the first edition of the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

    “The form and content of this common knowledge constitute one of the elements that makes each national culture unique.
    It is our contention that such a body of information is shared by literate Americans of the late twentieth century, and that this body of knowledge can be identified and defined.”

    If the term “literate Americans” doesn’t automatically give the reader pause, one might read further into Hirsch to see how he determined what the commonalities were–predicated on who the “literate” Americans were. There is quite a bit of cultural loading that goes into his process. The end result is that those who are “culturally advantaged” remain the keepers of the “official” cultural viewpoints. In the end, the pieces may each stand alone as having great value. However, other pieces, not already within the zeitgeist of the literati, would by definition be omitted.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — April 9, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  9. OK, perhaps I’m missing something, but the term “literate Americans” does not give me pause, nor can I conceive of why it should. My desire to add to their number is why I stopped what I was doing several years ago and became a teacher. And when I saw that the current, preferred, content-free methods of doing so were not working particularly well and started wondering why, that’s when I stumbled upon this fellow Hirsch whose explanations perfectly described the conditions on the ground that I was witnessing in my South Bronx classroom.

    Sorry, Margo, but I’m not sure how the quote you cite, a rather bland statement of fact, is tantamount to my (or anyone else associated with Core Knowledge) fearing of other points of view, as you accused. I’m not a culture warrior, and I’m not particularly interested in becoming one.

    In fact, the quote you cite makes my argument for me. The very reason for the existence of the Core Knowledge curriculum — and the clear, unambiguous thrust of Hirsch’s work for the last 30 years — is to make sure that we don’t have two classes of citizens in this country, the intellectual haves and have-nots. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, too. So if that makes me a cultural hegemonist, I’ll (proudly) plead guilty as charged. But as I said in my post yesterday, the argument for Core Knowledge is not cultural, but structural. The quote you cite makes precisely that point.

    Hirsch himself said it quite well in an address at the University of Tennessee several years ago. “It’s my fervent belief, reinforced by everything I have learned from study and experience, that public education has no more right to continue to foster segregated knowledge than it has to foster segregated schools.”

    If you choose to turn this into an academic argument about “keepers of official cultural viewpoints,” that is your perfect right. But it’s not a subject that particularly interests me. Indeed, it’s the type of thing that is the exclusive luxury of those of us who already have cultural and intellectual capital. My interest is not in protecting my “cultural advantage.” And it’s not about defending Western civilization. It’s about making sure kids — all kids — can thrive within it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 9, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  10. Margo —

    Are you suggesting that the mere phrase “literate Americans” somehow excludes Americans who are “not western, not male, not white”? That’s a rather remarkable implication to read into the mere word “literate.”

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 9, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  11. These curricula might give a greater voice to writers, thinkers and doers who are not western, not male, not white. This is a great threat if the purpose of your curriculum is to get everyone on the same page culturally,

    Well okay, firstly, many important bits in contemporary English-speaking culture come from non-western sources. For example, I would expect a literate American to recognise some meaning to the words “Mohammed”, “Confucius”, “Arabian Nights”, “Kama Sutra”, “Genghis Khan”, “Geronimo”, “Samurai” and “Buddha”. Also, I would expect a literate American to recognise the names “Indira Gandhi”, “Florence Nightingale”, “Jane Austen”, “Elizabeth I”, “Catherine the Great”, “Marie Curie”, “Hillary Clinton”.

    Secondly, I think you are right that there is a threat in expanding covering in that the more you try to cover the more difficult it is to get everyone on the same page culturally, some teachers will not manage to get through the entire ambitious programme in one year so students will end with differing amounts of knowledge. Furthermore, there is some hysteresis, in that if you take up teaching every student in the USA about “Maui the Great Explorer” there will still be many years in which most of the population will have left school before said introduction and won’t recognise the history.
    But I wouldn’t say that this is a *great* threat. After all the hysteresis problem would apply to the Core Knowledge series to a slightly lesser extent in that most of the population was not taught core knowledge systematically, and the extent to which people draw on those ideas is driven by their own reading outside school. Furthermore, one could easily expand western male white writers, thinkers and doers to such a point where the problems of trying to cover too much overwhelmed teachers. So I don’t think you have identified a “great threat”, just a problem that every single curriculum must face.
    Thirdly, you assume a dichotomy between getting everyone on the same page culturally, “as opposed to providing students with the tools to become scholars in their own right”. When did the two become conflicting? Surely the more we know, the better scholars we can be? Do you have any evidence that there is a conflict between the two goals?

    Comment by Tracy W — April 14, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

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