A Singular Honor for E.D. Hirsch

by Robert Pondiscio
June 27th, 2012

It’s a proud day for Core Knowledge.

From the Education Commission of the States today comes word that Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., will be the recipient of its James Bryant Conant Award in honor of his “decades of work in developing and spreading the idea that students become proficient readers and learners only when they also have wide-ranging background knowledge.”

Hirsch joins a distinguished list of education luminaries to have received the Conant Award, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children’s Defense Fund’s  Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Claiborne Pell, Fred Rogers, and Ted Sizer.

“For decades, Dr. Hirsch has been a thoughtful contributor to understanding how kids learn and helping our educational system better meet their needs. He is truly deserving of the Conant Award,” said ECS President Roger Sampson in a statement announcing the accolade.

Hirsch burst into the public eye with his surprising 1987 best-seller Cultural Literacy.  With his subsequent books The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Knowledge Deficit, and The Making of Americans, he solidified his reputation as one of the most influential education reformers of our time.

What fewer people know about Hirsch is that long before Core Knowledge, he was an influential literary critic and English professor who made a sudden and unexpected turn into K-12 education reform.  A 2008 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein described Hirsch’s growing awareness that  “literary theory and literary study were drifting ever farther from the pressing intellectual needs” of college students, and Hirsch’s unanticipated response.

“There was no apparent reason for Hirsch to do anything else except stay on track, continue the theory debate, publish in Critical Inquiry, field job offers and lecture invitations, and train the next generation of literary critics and theorists. But he changed focus and slid down the education ladder….He turned to primary education, dedicating his life, and lots of income, to improving the system.”

Hirsch has often told the story of being “shocked into education reform” while doing research on written composition. Conducting research at a pair of colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining a student’s ability to comprehend a passage, an even more important factor was the student’s background knowledge.

“African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant,” Hirsch recalled. “They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students,” he said.

Thus was born Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986, and a year later brought out Cultural Literacy, which remained at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months.

Hirsch will receive the Conant Award at the ECS National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta on July 10.  ECS’s announcement can be found here.

An extraordinary and richly deserved honor.


  1. This is splendid news. Congratulations to Hirsch, and kudos to the ECS.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 27, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  2. Congratulations to Prof. Hirsch, this is well deserved indeed. I remember reading his book “Cultural Literacy” just as I started college, and found it fascinating. Today, today as a homeschooling parent, I am happy to have the Core Knowledge Foundations books “What Your — Grader…” available. (I just wish the series would continue through 12th grade!) Prof. Hirsch has made such an impact on education, but only on those who will listen, which doesn’t appear to include the education establishment.

    Comment by Laura — June 27, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

  3. Wonderful news! The more attention Core Knowledge gets, the better.

    Lucy Calkins is gonna be pissed!

    Comment by alamo — June 27, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

  4. More than richly deserved!

    Comment by Peter Meyer — June 28, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Hirsch is an inspiration; Cultural Literacy is by my bedside.

    Comment by S. Bridget — June 28, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  6. Congrats for the award.

    Although ECS is not my favorite organization. I am tired of having to tell legislators that the info they got from ECS is not true.

    I wish they would use their ability to push a common message about education to the states to get around the 10th Amendment to create a mandate for CK.

    Much better than all this social and emotional learning that’s been quietly embedded.

    Knowledge first, not feelings, is not a bad slogan.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 28, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

  7. A richly deserved honor, indeed.

    Who would have ever believed an individual who pushed for the acquisition of knowledge would be an aberration in the world of education and singled out for his relatively outside the box philosophy?

    Congratulations, Don Hirsch. You are to be commended for your tireless efforts.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 29, 2012 @ 5:44 am

  8. Congratulations to Dr. Hirsch for this well-earned recognition. I will always be personally grateful for his role in providing a great education for my own kids at their Core Knowledge schools.

    Hirsch’s work on education is a great illustration of the Wisconsin Idea in practice, which advocated that public universities broadly serve the people of their state: “…to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.”

    Hirsch’s influence extends far beyond his native Virginia, but regrettably his ideas are supported by only a minority of the K-12 world. His most natural curriculum allies should be high school teachers in the humanities, who have to realize how essential content knowledge is to real higher order learning. Core Knowledge is a K-8 program, but maybe it is best marketed to teachers of older kids, who can use their influence to bring this great curriculum into their own schools.

    Let’s all wish for a long and continued productive life for this great scholar and champion for children.

    Comment by John Webster — June 29, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  9. HURRAH, HURRAH, HURRAH!!! It’s about time!!!

    And Harvard yet!! Tell it to the Ed School!!

    xxx LCS

    Comment by Louisa Spencer — June 29, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  10. John-

    What I am seeing is the teachers are still on board with solid content and the students want it and the new principals won’t allow it.

    They know their chance to move into the lucratice Central Office admin job is premised on pushing a certain model in the classroom.

    That’s why I invented the terms Gypsy Principal and Gypsy Super because the future promotion is based on a willingness to push bad ideas and the affective/learner centered/group project classroom.

    What is really painful is when I locate the beginning of the idea in the late 80s or 90s and the author talks about how controversial this “new” theory of learning will be. And that it needs to be implemented to see what the effect will be.

    And now it’s being mandated under Common Core or an NCLB waiver or through some edict from the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Just to name a few sources.

    Ouch for the taxpayer and students both.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 29, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  11. Congratulations – I’m very thankful for Core Knowledge because it’s one of the few places in the education world that doesn’t feel like the Twighlight Zone. Somehow I think that the professor of the Assessments class I just finished as a requirement for certification isn’t familiar with Core Knowledge given her lecture on how students only need skills since they can look everything else up. We were also lectured about “learning styles” and how direct instruction only works for some populations. The irony of it all is that the class was almost entirely direct instruction and we had to memorize a bunch of facts about assessments – hence, Twighlight Zone.

    Comment by Geena — July 2, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  12. Perhaps this award will be one more step in bringing the concept of a content-rich curriculum in the early grades—the most overlooked strategy for improving American education—to the fore in the policy world. It has taken only about 30 years of untiring effort from E.D. Hirsch to get the world to pay attention to this idea.

    Reflecting on the teaching of Geena’s professor, I think the common misconception that acquired knowledge is unimportant because “you can always look it up” or “knowledge is just a mouse click away” reflects different ideas of what we mean by “knowledge.” After all, if so much medical knowledge is accessible with only a few mouse clicks, why I am not ready to go into medical practice right away?

    One concept of “knowledge” is a simple piece of information that has meaning because the seeker already has the relevant background information needed to ask the question: for example, who was the winning pitcher in last year’s final World Series game? What is the atomic weight of the most common isotope of oxygen? Answers to these kinds of questions are readily accessible with just a mouse click or two. For the same reason, these are the kinds of questions where it is not critical to know the answers ahead of time.

    A second concept of knowledge is possession of enough interconnected information about a topic to be able to understand that topic well. Accumulation of that level of knowledge on a topic takes time, and a decent knowledge of the numerous topics that make up a field of learning takes even more time. We don’t need tomorrow’s voting citizens to be experts in science and history, but we do want them to accumulate more knowledge in those subject areas that can be encompassed in the kind of rushed overview represented by high school courses such as “Biology 1” and “World History.” So we recommend starting early and spreading the learning out over more years, giving teachers more time to cover topics in depth. And we believe that starting early is good for developing students’ interest in the subject.

    Comment by Chrys Dougherty — July 2, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  13. Amen to Chrys Dougherty’s points.

    When I was in my first 2-3 years of teaching, E. D. Hirsch’s and Diane Ravitch’s books kept me going. My two staples at the time were Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them and Ravitch’s Left Back. Other books followed, but these two helped me understand and break through the strange jargon and dogma that I encountered every day.

    I started out as a NYC Teaching Fellow; in the summer training before our first year of teaching, we were supposed to write a curriculum unit. This was to prepare us for schools that didn’t have curricula or that rewrote their curricula every year. How can a school not have a curriculum? I wondered. Well, many didn’t–or their curriculum consisted of “strategies.” I found this odd, and odd it was indeed! Yet there were other strands of thought and practice out there, and I was fortunate to encounter them.

    When I came upon the CK Blog and started contributing to it, it was like finding a home in education-land. The CK conference I attended in 2008 was a delightful experience; I attended as many lectures and workshops as I could. I read the CK Sequence and books for fun.

    Lately my CK contributions have slowed, but I continue to enjoy the blog. Big thanks to Robert for bringing CK to others in such a spirited, thoughtful, and energetic manner. And congratulations again to Don Hirsch.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 2, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

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