The Curriculum Reformation

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2012

Sol Stern has a piece in the new issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which echoes a point made on this blog about Common Core State Standards: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever.   “For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement,” Stern writes, “and that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.”

Stern calls Hirsch, the “odd man out in the school-reform movement.”  But with the widespread adoption Common Core standards, “Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards,” Stern writes.  That includes New York State which earlier this year awarded the Core Knowledge Foundation a multi-million dollar contract to produce a pre-K through second-grade ELA curriculum aligned to the standards.

Since a pilot of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program initiated under then-Chancellor Joel Klein began to show strong results according to the New York City DOE’s own research three years ago, Stern has played gadfly ever since, frequently asking why New York City did not more broadly implement a curriculum its own research indicated was more effective than its widely used balanced literacy approach. Stern offers up a scoop:

“Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. ‘I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,’ Klein wrote. He added that ‘the early results’ of the pilot were ‘enormously encouraging.’

“And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was ‘well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.’”

On Common Core State Standards, Stern notes political objections as well as “the far more serious criticism” leveled by Ze’ev Wurman, Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards “are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours.  Massachusetts reformers in particular, Stern notes, “have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993…The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work.”

“Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Stern concludes by arguing—correctly, I believe—that adoption of CCSS by states isn’t enough.  States need to choose effective, specific curricula to meet the standards.  He cites work by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, which demonstrated the effect size of curriculum and instructional materials rival those associated with differences in teacher effectiveness, the go-to strategy in the ed reform playbook.

“The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults,” Stern warns.  “Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of ‘rich content knowledge.’”

“That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory,” writes Stern.


  1. Deval Patrick is a moron. He’s fought MCAS and MERA since he became governor. He almost single-handedly was responsible for the state adopting the less rigorous common core standards to replace arguably the best state standards in the country since 1993.

    Beyond this objection, what good are the CCSS going to be if states adopt anemic curricula and then establish a limbo low threshold of proficiency for their state tests? For what? SO they can tell parents and taxpayers their students are performing well? Come on. We’ll be back to square one. In a nutshell; all the time energy and good intentions of establishing the new common standards will have been another colossal waste – COLOSSAL.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 23, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  2. In my mind the issue will always come down not to standards, but curriculum. There are Core Knowledge schools in the Bay State that have thrived under the existing state standards. And Core Knowledge, as I’ve pointed out, fulfills the CCSS. Thus what force
    do abstract standards have if any really good curriculum fulfills both existing standards and CCSS? Or more to the point, why would a successful Massachusetts school stop doing what has been working, when it will surely continue to work under CCSS?

    School me, Hoss.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 23, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

  3. Successful Massachusetts schools (CK or not) will continue on their merry way and do what they’ve been doing for years – succeeding.

    Most, if not all, suburban schools pay zero attention to the state standards. They’ll pay even less attention to CCSS. Is it their SES that allows them to get away with this? Probably. They spend their days teaching stuff (information/knowledge/data), not skills, which translates into a rigorous curriculum, which is why they are so successful. There’s really no secret to any of this.

    Again, ole Sol’s article is dead on and great.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 23, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

  4. I think the push for heterogeneous grouping and mainstreaming has weakened the ES (and maybe the MS-the HS still has great honors and APs) my kids attended, when there were levelled classes in ES and honors in MS, so there’s probably more attention to state/county standards and more test prep. At MS and HS, for my kids, it amounted to (maybe) one period looking at sample questions for the writing and government tests, along with a reminder to fill in the name etc. section legibly and to make sure the number of the question and the number of the answer bubble matched – at least in honors classes.

    Comment by momof4 — July 24, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

  5. Here is a post I wrote a few months ago explaining the links to the 8 Year Study and how Outcomes Based Education is linked to Ralph Tyler’s Invention of the term “Objectives” to obscure what was being measured and what the actual aims are.

    The post quotes an 2009 AERA Newsletter on the new definition of learning being used by Common Core. Since I wrote that post we encountered that same definition of learning for Common Core in the National Research Council report issued a few weeks ago called Education for Life and Work that I wrote about July 14

    I get I have a different view than what is commonly accepted. It is because federal ed officials are directing our attention to one place while enacting all sorts of different policies in other places that relate to the actual US economy the US government now wants to create. For example, yesterday’s light reading after I wrote the above post and the earlier post on my blog was to tackle yet another NRC report. This one “Rising to the Challenge:US Innovation Policy for the Global Economy” lays out the express adoption of a government directed Neomercantile economy where the government picks the economic winners and losers and is the primary source of research financing for “innovation.” New ideas built around the areas of energy, climate, and health. It expressly rejects free market ideas and the previous distinctions between the public and private sectors.

    That’s the dirigiste future the real Common Core is getting students ready for. It’s a different definition of internationally competitive built around industrial policies all over the West. Now I was shocked by how graphic that report was but I had been writing about dirigisme for months precisely because I did see the attempt at government redesign of an economy that was never designed in the first place. Unless we face these realities, we are about to discover there is no widespread prosperity in any economy built on intervensionism.

    Which is why most of my reading in recent months that is not massive NRC or UN reports has been economics. To analyze the likely consequences of what has been expressly declared.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 25, 2012 @ 7:18 am

  6. Is it too cynical to assume that educational publishers will repackage the same old crap under a shiny new label? One only needs to google Company XYZ to see they are all now claiming to be “uniquely positioned to help schools and districts transition to the Common Core State Standards”. Just as they were uniquely positioned to implement NCLB and the reforms that came before that.

    Comment by Just a mom — July 25, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  7. [...] ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge [...]

    Pingback by Curriculum is back — and Hirsch has got it — Joanne Jacobs — July 27, 2012 @ 9:30 am

  8. [...] the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum [...]

    Pingback by A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads « The Core Knowledge Blog — January 7, 2013 @ 9:05 am

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