Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

by Guest Blogger
March 20th, 2013

While yesterday’s post came as a surprise, the birthday boy now knows what I’m up to, so allow me a quick personal message: Happy Birthday Professor Hirsch! No doubt you would like to give me a completely different reading list for the week (starting with William Bagley and ending with Orlando Patterson, perhaps?), but I beg to differ. At a time when the nation’s educators are grappling with the new Common Core State Standards, isn’t it appropriate to revisit the many benefits of a common core of content?

Today I’m focused on an undeniable fact that, to my way of thinking, trumps all arguments against common content: student mobility. The damage done to highly mobile students by our national (and state) refusal to specify any common content is, as E. D. Hirsch has pointed out, one of the worst forms of injustice—an avoidable injustice.

In the preface to Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch wrote: “That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum.” In the 25 years since he wrote those words, education reformers have tried pretty much everything except fixing the fragmented curriculum. The Common Core Standards are a step in the right direction, but educational excellence and equity are still far in the distance. Today’s excerpt, from The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, reveals why common content—not merely common goals—is essential.*

The following selections on student mobility are from pages 109 – 120. As you read, keep in mind that what Hirsch is calling for is commonality, not uniformity; he is calling for about 50% of what schools teach in each grade to be specific, agreed upon, common content. The other 50% would be up to each school (or district), as would 100% of pedagogy.

The percentage of economically disadvantaged students who migrate during the school year is appallingly high, and the effects are dishearteningly severe. One study has analyzed those effects on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade. The researchers found that the adverse effects of such social and academic incoherence are greatly intensified when parents have low educational levels and when compensatory education is not available in the home. But this big fact of student mobility is generally ignored in discussions of school reform. It is as if that elephant in the middle of the parlor is less relevant or important than other concerns, such as the supposed dangers of encouraging uniformity or of allowing an “outsider” to decide what subjects are to be taught at which grade level.

The finding that our mobile students (who are preponderantly from low-income families) perform worse than stable ones does not mean that their lower performance is a consequence of poverty. That is to commit the fallacy of social determinism. Where there is greater commonality of the curriculum, the effects of mobility are less severe. In a summary of research on student mobility, Herbert Walberg states that “common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation) … alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.” The adverse effects of student mobility are much less severe in countries that use a nationwide core curriculum than in the United States, where no national guidelines alleviate the trauma and incoherence of the fragmented educational experience of the millions of students who change schools in the middle of the year….

The average mobility rates for the inner city lie routinely between 45 percent and 80 percent, with many suburban rates between 25 percent and 40 percent. Some schools in New York and other cities have mobility rates of over 100 percent—that is, the total number of students moving in and out during the year exceeds the total number of students attending the school.

Given the curricular incoherence in a typical American school even for those who stay at the same school, the education provided to frequently moving students is tragically fragmented. The high mobility of low-income parents guarantees that disadvantaged children will be most severely affected by the educational handicaps of changing schools, and that they will be the ones who are most adversely affected by the lack of commonality across schools….

As American students advance through the grades, their preparation levels become ever more diverse. This was a finding that Stevenson and Stigler emphasized in The Learning Gap, a superb comparative study of American and Asian schools. American teachers now take it as a matter of course that in the same classroom they must teach students who have gained and who have not gained the most basic knowledge they need to understand what is to be taught. Here we are speaking not about differences of ability but about huge differences in relevant preparation….

Stevenson and Stigler found that teachers have much greater job satisfaction when they can depend on one another in a supportive chain over the grade levels. Then all the students in a class can be counted on to have a reasonable level of preparation for the new grade level….

In the face of extensive student mobility, we need to reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon subject matter should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the Mayflower, then we have an obligation to decide when the Mayflower will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for the Mayflower. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age….

The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some disadvantaged students will never hear about the Mayflower while others will hear about the Mayflower ad nauseam, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.

As if that were not bad enough, our national refusal to do the hard work of devising a common core of content actually harms all children. Turning now to pages 71 – 74, Hirsch explains that whether or not our schools teach it, our nation does in fact have common content—it is used by highly literate adults every day.

Every newspaper and book editor and every producer for radio and TV is conscious of the need to distinguish what can be taken for granted from what must be explained. Learning the craft of writing is bound up with learning how to gauge what can be assumed versus what must be explained. The general reader that every journalist or TV newscaster must imagine is somebody whose relevant knowledge is assumed to lie between the total ignorance of a complete novice and the detailed knowledge of an expert…. Reading proficiency, listening proficiency, speaking proficiency, and writing proficiency all require possession of the broad knowledge that the general reader is assumed to have and also the understanding that others can be expected to possess that knowledge….

Most current reading programs talk about activating the reader’s background knowledge so she can comprehend a text. But in practice, they are only paying lip service to the well-known scientific finding that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Little attempt is made to enlarge the child’s background knowledge. The disjointed topics and stories that one finds in current reading programs seem designed mainly to appeal to the knowledge that young readers may already have, such as “Going to School” and “Jenny at the Supermarket.” The programs do not make a systematic effort to convey coherently, grade by grade, the knowledge that newspapers, magazines, and serious radio and TV programs assume American readers and listeners possess….

Here is the first paragraph of an article by Janet Maslin, taken at random from the books section of the New York Times on February 6, 2003. It is an example of writing addressed to a general reader that a literate American high school graduate would be expected to understand.

When Luca Turin was a boy growing up in Paris, according to Chandler Burr’s ebullient new book about him, “he was famous for boring everyone to death with useless, disconnected facts, like the distance between the earth and the moon in Egyptian cubits.” Mr. Burr sets out to explain how such obsessive curiosity turned Mr. Turin into a pioneering scientist who, in the author’s estimation, deserves a Nobel Prize.

This example shows that the background knowledge required to understand the general sections of the New York Times, such as the book review section, is not deep….

What do readers need to know in order to comprehend this passage? We need to know first that this is a book review, which aims to tell us what the book is about and whether it is worth reading. We need to understand that the reviewer is favorably disposed to the book, calling it “ebullient,” and that it is a nonfiction work about a scientist named Luca Turin. We need to have at least a vague semantic grasp of key words like ebullient, boring, obsessive, pioneering, estimation. We need to know some of the things mentioned with exactness, but not others. It’s not necessary to know how long a cubit is. Indeed, the text implies that this is an odd bit of information…. We need to know in general what Paris is, what the moon is and that it circles the earth, that it is not too far away in celestial terms, and we need to have some idea what a Nobel Prize is and that it is very prestigious. Consider the knowledge domains included in this list. Paris belongs to history and geography; so does Egypt. The moon belongs to astronomy and natural history. The Nobel Prize belongs to general history and science.

We may infer from this example that only a person with broad knowledge is capable of reading with understanding the New York Times and other newspapers. This fact has momentous implications for education, and for democracy as well…. Reading achievement will not advance significantly until schools recognize and act on the fact that it depends on the possession of a broad but definable range of diverse knowledge. The effective teaching of reading will require schools to teach the diverse, enabling knowledge that reading requires.

Ultimately, Hirsch concludes, “The only way to attain the long-desired educational goal of high achievement with fairness to all students is through a structure in which each grade, especially grades one through five, builds knowledge cumulatively (and without boring repetitions) upon the preceding grade” (p. xii). “Different schools can teach the same topics in various ways and still attain the degree of commonality we need to use school time productively and foster high literacy” (p. 124).

Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.  


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


You may also be interested in the other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

Part 4: Passing the Test





  1. “A wide range of knowledge and a broad vocabulary supply entry wedges into unfamiliar domains” I love this quote from (most recently) yesterday’s post. Happy birthday, Dr. Hirsch

    Comment by Cherry — March 20, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

  2. Happy birthday Don. The articles I have written about your work and the conversations we have had about your education theories have given me as much satisfaction as anything I have done in my journalistic career. As a writer you have been a model of intellectual integrity and willingness to stand against all the fashionable trends. And now what pleasure it is to see your common sense ideas about what American children should know finally gaining traction in school districts and state education departments.
    As we say in Hebrew, ad meah v’esrim, till 120.
    Sol Stern

    Comment by Sol Stern — March 21, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

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