The Unlikely Triumph of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2012

At last week’s forum of the Education Commission of the States in Atlanta, Core Knowledge Founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was honored with the organization’s James Bryant Conant Award.  Given annually since 1977, the prestigious honor is bestowed upon “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to American education.”

E.D Hirsch, Jr. at last week's ECS Forum in Atlanta

For Hirsch, it has been quite a ride to arrive at this moment.   His ideas about education reform and reading burst into the collective consciousness with the 1987 publication of Cultural Literacy, a surprise publishing phenomenon which spent over six months on the New York Times best-seller list.  However, the book had the misfortune of coming out at the height of the ‘80s culture war battles and became, as Dan Willingham observed, “possibly the most misunderstood education book of the last fifty years.” Hirsch’s critics—and they were many and loud—largely ignored what he was saying about the fundamental role of shared knowledge in reading comprehension and literacy instruction. Instead they were aghast at what they mistakenly perceived as, in Hirsch’s words, “a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was–an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge.”

In a 2007 interview, Hirsch expressed relief  about the emerging awareness that “all the time, the Core Knowledge project has been what it said it was – a progressive effort to improve schools and empower low-income and minority students.”  He elaborated in his acceptance remarks last week.

“Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is not mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.”

“Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award,” Hirsch concluded.  The turnaround, he noted, “can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge.”

The complete text of Hirsch’s acceptance remarks can be found here. A video of those remarks can be found here.

Remarks on Receiving the Conant Award, July 10, 2012

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation, and the University of Virginia, I want to thank ECS for adding my name to a list that includes some of the most admirable people in American education. When I first heard of this honor, I identified with Dr. Johnson and his wife. There was a fable that the wife of the great dictionary maker found him in bed with another woman. “Dr. Johnson,” she said, “I’m surprised.” “No, Madam,” he said “I am surprised. You are astonished.” When I heard of this award, I was both!

The remarkable list of predecessors includes Ralph Tyler, who started NAEP among many other things, and Thurgood Marshall who won the verdict in Brown v Board of Education among many other things. As I ponder the other distinguished names, I see a few patterns in the themes that have mattered most to ECS and to the country – the goals and policies that have dominated our educational efforts since 1977 when the Conant Awards began.

I have lived through those decades and more – beginning as a first grader in 1934 at our neighborhood public school, the Lennox School in Memphis, Tennessee. There I learned that it didn’t matter who my parents were, or where their parents came from. My teachers explained that we were all free Americans, where one person is just as good as another. I quickly and permanently bought into idea.

The public school teachers of those days committed themselves very powerfully the Americanizing mission of the schools. And that aim was also reflected in our schoolbooks. This Americanizing mission could be called nationalism, but it was different in a fundamental way from the nationalism being taught in other lands which had not been created from the egg on the authority of written documents devoted to universal principles. Those other countries, including France, existed before the Enlightenment. They were not conceived in liberty and dedicated to abstract propositions. Their students were being taught a more tribalistic form of nationalism, founded on language, place and parentage, history, blood and soil – going back to the root sense of nationnatio – meaning birth.

Here in the New World, we were told, it wasn’t your birth that determined who you were, but your ability and diligence, and you pledged your allegiance to a multi-national community based on freedom and equality. The schools instilled in us an un-tribal patriotism, and a sense of equal worth that empowered some of us, including me, to rebel against our own parents, just as our predecessors rebelled against George the Third.

But this is not the occasion for narrating my history starting in first grade. More pertinent to the occasion is our common educational history since the Conant Awards began. Their most consistent and noble theme has been equality of educational opportunity.

That was the title of the Coleman Report of 1966, which showed authoritatively that during the 1960s families had more impact on academic achievement than schools did. Yet the Conant awards show that we as a nation have remained dedicated to changing that result. Several Conant awardees besides Thurgood Marshall have devoted their lives to equal educational opportunity – including, Carl Perkins whose name appears on the national Perkins Act of 1984 which aimed to improve the access for those who had been underserved in the past. It includes James Comer and Robert Slavin who have devoted their professional lives to equal educational opportunity, and it includes the redoubtable Kati Haycock who received the Conant Award three years ago. Despite our disappointingly slow progress, the goal of equal educational opportunity is never far from our minds. And I hope that you will think of the Core Knowledge effort by my colleagues and me as belonging to that common goal of equalizing educational opportunity.

As I discuss in my recent book, The Making of Americans, equal opportunity was a primary mission of our schools from the start –as they were conceived by Jefferson and Noah Webster. That was one of the two main aims. The first was to give each person an equal chance, and the second was to unite the huge spread-out country into a national community in which loyalty to that larger community would trump regional, local, and private interests. George Washington even left money for the schools in his will for the express purpose of “spreading systematic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire, thereby to do away local attachments and State prejudices.”

You will hear tomorrow from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor about the civic mission of the schools. I want to devote my few remarks to the place of language mastery in achieving equal opportunity, greater civic participation and greater economic effectiveness. In the triad of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, we are pretty clear about what’s needed in arithmetic, but only recently has cognitive science corrected some widespread misconceptions about reading and writing, listening and speaking.

Those misconceptions have held us back. Overcoming those misconceptions is key to achieving language mastery for all. And language mastery is the key not only to citizenship, as Jefferson said, but to all of those information-age skills that have been termed 21st-century skills – critical thinking, the ability to work in teams, the ability to look things up, the ability to communicate well, and the ability to learn new skills readily. All of these skills depend on the possession of a large vocabulary.

I need hardly remind this group of that fact that our students’ verbal scores declined in the late 70s and have stayed flat ever since. According to the Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which correlates verbal test scores with income level and job competence — vocabulary size and reading comprehension are critical to raising student abilities and overcoming the achievement gap. No single general test of academic achievement is more highly correlated with income and civic competence than a verbal test such as the NAEP 12th-grade reading test.

Behind this correlation of verbal scores with life chances lies the deep truth that reading skill implies more than reading, and language implies more than language. A large vocabulary is, on average, the best single predictor of job competence and life chances. And a large vocabulary can only be gained by acquiring broad general knowledge, not by studying words. Nor can a large vocabulary be gained by practicing reading strategies and thinking skills – those dominant topics in our elementary schools. Such how-to ideas are enormously attractive, but they have not worked, and cognitive science tells us that they cannot work. Broad substantive knowledge, not formal technique, is the key to achievement and equity.

In 1987, many thought that my book-length foray into education reform called Cultural Literacy was a book about the culture wars. That’s why the cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, called it the most misunderstood education book in the past 50 years. What he had in mind was the mistaken assumption that the book was a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was – an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge. That misunderstanding arose not just because the word “cultural” was in the book’s title, and not just because the culture wars were in high gear when it came out, but also because the nature of reading was and still is deeply misunderstood by the general public and many educators.

It was an accident that my combination of research interests brought me into contact in the 1970s with frontier studies the newly developing field of psycholinguistics. Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is NOT mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.

Unfortunately the scientific consensus has not fully made its way into the thinking of teachers and principals. Reading is still thought of as a skill which, once learned, enables you to understand language addressed to the general public – whether in print or over radio, TV or the internet. But reading ability is really two distinct abilities – decoding and comprehending. The single word “reading” has merged decoding and comprehension, causing us to assume that if students learn to decode well they can develop into good readers just by reading widely. But this is false.

Language proficiency is not just mastery of decoding but also a mastery of the broad knowledge that is taken for granted in speech and writing. Here’s a quick example taken from a British newspaper – The Guardian. As I read it to you, imagine that you are a disadvantaged student encountering a reading test like the NAEP.

A trio of medium-pacers–two of them, Irfan Pathan, made man of the match for his five wickets. But this duo perished either side of lunch–the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before–and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket. Clarke clinically cut and drove to 10 fours in a 134-ball 81, before he stepped out to Kumble to present an easy stumping to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

That passage reminds me of a comment made after a public lecture by Einstein: “I knew all the words. It was just how they were put together that baffled me.” My colleagues at Core Knowledge have shown that this is precisely the kind of bafflement felt by disadvantaged children who encounter a passage on a reading test when they are unfamiliar with the background knowledge relevant to the passage.

If we consider the importance of unspoken, taken-for-granted knowledge in understanding language, and if we also consider the demonstrated importance of language comprehension for 21st-century skills, we are led to the firm conclusion that early schooling ought to be more focused on the systematic imparting of knowledge, and less on strategies and test-taking techniques.

I want to close with a final thought about the historical context of today’s Conant award. As Bob Dylan said: “The times they are a changin’.” Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award. I’ve had little to say in my work about such current reforms as charter schools, or teacher quality, or accountability systems, or school-management policies. My persistent theme has been that only a knowledge-based approach to early schooling, starting in preschool and pursued systematically over several years can overcome the language gap caused by family disadvantage. The findings of the Coleman Report can be reversed, but only if we abandon the how-to approach that we have followed for many decades.

Today’s award suggests that we are beginning to understand that the key to lifting achievement and narrowing the gap is a systematic approach to imparting knowledge, starting in preschool; that not only our curricula but also our tests need to be based on the knowledge domains of a coherent curriculum.

Thanks to a recent report in the New York Times, more people are now aware of the results of trials with the Core Knowledge early literacy program which have been stunning. And now with the Common Core standards, there’s a new emphasis on introducing broad general knowledge within the early literacy block.

Despite the criticisms that have been launched against the new Common Core standards, the principles behind them are sound – especially in their call for more units on science and history within the class hours devoted to language arts. For if general knowledge is the key to language proficiency, then early language-arts needs to help impart general knowledge coherently and systematically.

Some have rightly warned that merely following the letter and not the spirit of the new Common Core standards will leave us just where we already are. For if we teach helter-skelter bits of non-fiction (on the how-to theory of reading) rather than coherently developing student knowledge, we will not really have changed our practices or our results.

Perhaps your selecting me for this year’s Conant Award can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge. If that turns out to be true, you will have given me much more than this great honor. You will have renewed my optimism about the future of our schools and country. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.


  1. Congratulations! Bravo! And it’s about time, too!

    Comment by Celia Wagner — July 16, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

  2. When content-rich early education starts to rival charter schools, high school restructuring, and teacher evaluation as a focus among the education change advocates, we’ll know that this excellent idea has finally arrived. It would also be OK if advocates ignored the idea but early elementary educators in thousands of schools enthusiastically implemented it.

    The reference in the last paragraph of Don Hirsch’s talk to “the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge” makes an important point: a content-rich education is likely to be interesting to students. I can attest to that from my personal experience as an elementary school science teacher a number of years ago. (How many years ago, I hate to admit.) Exposing students early to content in a subject, especially if the content is taught in an interesting way, can help develop lifelong interest in the subject.

    Comment by Chrys Dougherty — July 17, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

  3. Congratulations again to Dr. Hirsch for this well-earned recognition. For me, the most interesting point of his acceptance speech came when he pointed out that the cognitive science eventually caught up with his theories, and nowadays irrefutably supports those theories.

    Chrys (Comment 2) brings to mind a topic I sometimes wondered about as I observed my kids progressing through their Core Knowledge elementary school. Most people probably believe that the best educated teachers should teach higher grade levels, especially high school. At first glance, this seems obvious, as the depth of content knowledge required to teach, say, biology or English literature to 10th graders seems much greater than the depth an elementary teacher would need for analogous grade level subjects.

    But I wonder: isn’t it important for an elementary teacher to know how the less complex facts/knowledge she is imparting fit into the higher level thinking about a given topic? For example, a 4th grade teacher can teach her students, as a bare fact, that every state has two U.S. Senators. Shouldn’t she also know that this fact is the result of the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that helped resolve the conflicts between the large states and small states, which led to the ratification of the Constitution by a sufficient number of states (thankfully, all this is taught in 4th grade CK American history).

    Without having this deeper knowledge, the temptation might be to think that the stuff about two Senators is “mere facts”, worth knowing as a Jeopardy contestant but not in other situations. The same idea applies to all kinds of other “mere facts” that taken in isolation seem meaningless, and are thus more likely to be skipped over by the teacher or presented in a dull, rote manner.

    Aren’t teachers who have this deeper understanding much more likely to teach their elementary students in an interesting way, because these teachers realize how crucial these “mere facts” are to higher order thinking?

    Elementary teachers usually teach all or most of the various topics in the curriculum, unlike a specialized high school biology or English teacher. A solid liberal arts education, of course, is valuable for all teachers. But if my brainstorming above makes sense, then shouldn’t our elementary teachers be our most broadly educated teachers?

    Comment by John Webster — July 18, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  4. I have been a follower and a fan of Dr. Hirsch since he first published Cultural Literacy in the 80′s. So many great thinkers and talents don’t live to see their ideas embraced by the so-called experts in their field. It is wonderful that he is finally being recognized as the expert in the filed of education and education reform. Bravo!

    Comment by Bill Oldread — July 31, 2012 @ 3:00 am

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