The Two Americas Continued: Schmidt and McKnight

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 15th, 2013

In my last post (“Antonio Who?”) about the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (pronounced gram-shee who was cited as a big influence by Michael Gove the British Secretary of Education), I hinted—but didn’t venture to say—that maybe our educational systems would be in better shape if our top authorities followed Gove’s lead and read more challenging books, while holding fewer committee meetings. Albert Shanker, the brilliant union-organizer-turned-educational-statesman, once told me, mournfully: “They don’t read.” I once looked through Al Shanker’s own library now housed at AFT headquarters, and was amazed to see his annotations in a multi-volume set by the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. But the vision of a top American official reading the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci could happen only in a Woody Allen movie.

On the other side, an argument against reading a lot of books on American education is that it could cause clinical depression. As I peruse the important book by William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight, Inequality for All, I think to myself: this is a companion volume to a whole spate of recent books on American inequality by eminent scholars, including a book by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and a mournfully vivid book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart. The image one gets from Murray is not of red America vs. blue America, but of one zip code full of striving SAT-takers and community-minded citizens vs.  a neighboring zip code of drifting alcoholic semi-literates who lack any sense of community or hope. It is not too much of a stretch to see Inequality for All as identifying a significant cause of these economic and sociological ills. The book is an indictment of the content-incoherence of our schools.

The sad reality is that the American educational system does not provide equal opportunity for all but rather perpetuates vast inequalities in content coverage…. This inequality of opportunity … disadvantages many, perhaps even most, children in the United States….

Variation in content coverage corrupts the entire U.S. educational system, in effect creating an enormous educational lottery in which every student takes part—whatever their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. The system of schooling represents a game of chance that few are even aware is being played.

Given this almost universal curricular incoherence in our schools, students with home advantages are able to overcome ineffectual schooling through home tutoring either direct or indirect. In short, (as Gramsci predicted) the “progressive” American theory of education, with its how rather than what approach to schooling, while it is “advocated as being democratic, is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese complexities” (Notebook 29).  In other words Gramsci predicted the very America described by Stiglitz and Murray as being the effect of the schooling described by Schmidt and McKnight.

Inequality for All focuses on math and science education, showing with authoritative thoroughness the failure of our schools to bring rationality and cumulativeness in the topics taught from year to year.   They make the point that reformers on both the left and right have been consumed with equalizing resources or in fostering competition and accountability, but pay too little heed to the essence of schooling which they see as the delivery of academic content by teachers to students. Hear, hear!

I have tried to make exactly the same point with respect to the general knowledge that students need to gain outside the subjects of science and math. The Gramsci principle that the delivery of academic content is the key to social justice holds even more strongly for general knowledge, which is the key to high literacy and the ability to learn and adapt in the future. Indeed, based on data from the Armed Forces Qualification Test, I’ve argued that general knowledge is approximately twice as important as math in determining a person’s future capacity to function economically and as a citizen, and therefore deserves at least the same care and coherence that Schmit and McKnight want for science and math.  Given their sound view that “the delivery of academic content” is the key to future improvement and to equity, Schmidt and McKnight come out strongly in favor of the Common Core State Standards.

Every day my email inbox fills with relentless attacks on these standards, and renewed attempts to undo the commitments of forty-odd states to follow them. I wish these energies and criticisms could be turned to making the standards function well, rather than to making them go away. They are a work in progress, and instituting them will entail many false steps. But Schmidt and McKnight rightly see them as the best way forward for excellence and equity. They see the issue in educational, not political terms: not as some intolerable imposition of the federal government or the Gates Foundation, but as our best chance to overcome failure, incoherence, and injustice.

Unless the carpers against the common core can come up with an alternative plan that brings coherence to “the delivery of academic content,” they leave us in the unacceptable condition of the status quo.   Let these carpers produce a book half as thorough and authoritative as that of Schmidt and McKnight, with a vision of what needs to be done half as compelling. Then I might be more receptive to their constant stream of mosquito bites against the ambitious vision defended in this important book.



  1. Thank you.

    Comment by Dennis Ashendorf — February 16, 2013 @ 3:06 am

  2. I especially resonate with the point about the need for a cumulative curriculum. I just finished a graduate teaching program and the teaching it entailed and was surprised that there is zero planning as far as building a curriculum over a number of years. Knowledge doesn’t build over the years and is thus nothing more than haphazard, random ephemera. I was teaching 7th graders language arts and I asked my mentor teacher what they learned in 6th grade as I planned my curriculum at the beginning of the year. I didn’t get much of an answer. The problem is that since the 1980s (postmodernism) and even earlier there has been no agreement about WHAT we should teach (and there never will be again). The other students in my cohort were mostly “social reconstructionists” who see everything through the lens of gender and sexuality. I am more of a perennialist who wants focus on “great books.” Maybe this pluralism is okay but, if so, education will never be handled well by the enormous bureaucracies we have designed to deliver it.

    It is strange that there are some people so up in arms over common core. The language arts standards in Oregon are so vague as to be almost meaningless. In my observation, those against any standards are afraid of being held accountable for their students’ learning.

    Comment by Jim — February 16, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

  3. I think that some people not in favor of the Common Core would feel very differently about the actual CK curriculum plus Singapore Math. CC has the potential to have all the power of a national curriculum without having a good one.

    Comment by momof4 — February 18, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  4. “CC has the potential to have all the power of a national curriculum without having a good one.” And therein lies the problem.

    What concerns me most about CC is its apparent emphasis away from the acquisition of knowledge while attempting to highlight problem solving and critical thinking. How can students be expected to solve problems or think critically if they don’t first possess the rich background knowledge necessary for these higher order “skills?”

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 19, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  5. @Paul “What concerns me most about CC is its apparent emphasis away from the acquisition of knowledge . . .”

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this. CC clearly states in the section on English Language Arts Standards:

    “Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts–within and across grade levels–need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grades should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics.”

    Comment by alamo — February 19, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  6. @alamo,

    What you’ve cited is what many of us hope will materialize. The problem, which camp will get their way? There are many who hope the acquisition of knowledge group wins the war, but there are clearly a number (progressives) willing to support lesser academic heights.

    College and career ready? What, exactly, does that mean? Ready for Harvard or ready for a slot at the local community college? From a global perspective, the group that has me the most concerned is the one that want kids to be able to think critically and solve problems without first providing them with the background knowledge as their foundation. Unfortunately, there are many who think this to be desirable and direction we should proceed. Again, this has my attention and is cause for great concern.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 20, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  7. CK and Singapore Math already exist and their high-content, sequenced focus is KNOWN – as opposed to the CC, which doesn’t yet exist and which may well be hijacked by the “critical thinking, higher-order skills” crowd. The overwhelming weight of the ed world is progressive and I’m afraid that serious content will be transformed by its usual disdain for “mere facts”. I feel that this is particularly likely, since the more serious content and specific knowledge is included in the curriculum, and tested, the more differences in student outcomes will become obvious. The current anti-content focus enables the pretense that “all” are learning, since mastery of anything is not demanded.

    Comment by momof4 — February 20, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  8. “CK and Singapore Math already exist and their high-content, sequenced focus is KNOWN – as opposed to the CC”

    That’s like comparing apples and oranges. CK and Singapore are curricula, CC are standards. And the CC standards, while not a curriculum in itself, explicitly call for a content-rich curricula to be used with the CC stands.

    Comment by alamo — February 20, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

  9. I am aware of that difference but don’t trust the CC to emerge, in practice, as a content-rich entity and that’s why I object to it. Some places will undoubtedly choose good curricula and some – maybe most – will not. The whole package can be sabotaged by curriculum consultants, textbook publishers, admins, teachers and politicians.

    Comment by momof4 — February 21, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  10. The new post on this site, Skills Stranglehold, explains why I don’t trust CC and would rather see a specific curriculum adoption; teachers and admins see “critical thinking etc.” as transferable skills, independent of content.

    Comment by momof4 — February 21, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  11. Yes. let’s go with Pearson, Murdoch, Joel Klein, Eli Broad, Jeb Bush, and Bill Gates who are just like Antonio Gramsci and Che Guevara.

    Besides, “Unless the carpers against the common core can come up with an alternative plan that brings coherence to ‘the delivery of academic content,’ what alternative do we have except the status quo.

    Meantime, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, et al. will send their own kids to the Lab School.

    Comment by Harold — February 21, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

  12. The argument that “the fix is in” is no argument. Rather, it is the argument of expediency. and is exactly what got us into our present situation. That E. D. Hirsch, formerly a poet and respected scholar has sunk to this level is a sad commentary.

    The commercial media companies and the military should not be allowed to dictate the education that citizens will receive. At least there should be an entity like the Library of America to publish text books. Get rid of the commercial text book companies. And don’t accept bribes from millionaires.

    Dewey was someone who in his seventies said that his favorite recreation was reading Plato in Greek not someone who opposed either to standards or to classical tradition. Dewey was known and loved by all who knew him because of his warmth and unquestionable integrity, which is more than can be said of Wall Street, and media types like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein who are trying to dictate today’s “standards” (and now I understand even Donald Rumsfeld is chiming in)!

    Dewey was not interested in education of the upper grades. He was only concerned with the youngest children. And he was completely right. Young children do not learn by being presented with lists. They learn, just as Dewey said, “by doing” and by talking and thinking about what they are doing.

    Comment by Harold — February 23, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

  13. “Poetry has historically been allied with religion and morals; it has served the purpose of penetrating the mysterious depths of things. It has had an enormous patriotic value. Homer to the Greeks was a Bible, a textbook of morals, a history, and a national inspiration. In any case, it may be said that an education which does not succeed in making poetry a resource in the business of life as well as in its leisure, has something the matter with it—or else the poetry is artificial poetry.” –John Dewey, Democracy in Education, 1916

    Comment by Harold — February 25, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  14. [...] [...]

    Pingback by A News Roundup | CUNY Institute for Education Policy — February 27, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  15. “Antonio Who?” does not show up anymore, and I would like to read it and probably send it to a friend.
    Also, has anyone here read the book The Beautiful Tree, by James Tooley? The only way this country will achieve educational equality is if educational choice is taken out of the hands of the government and teacher’s unions and put into the hands of parents.

    Comment by TM Willemse — March 4, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

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