Must-Read: Sol Stern’s Quest to Improve His Sons’ Education

by Guest Blogger
December 10th, 2013

Over at City Journal, Sol Stern has yet another terrific article—perhaps his best—on the importance of a content-rich, coherent education. Here are some of my favorite passages:

E. D. Hirsch is the most important education reformer of the past half-century. I came to this conclusion after writing about schools, teachers, and education policy for almost two decades. But the truth is, I first turned to Hirsch’s writing for practical and personal reasons. I was baffled by the educational practices I witnessed at PS 87, the famous New York City public school my sons attended from 1987 to 1997….

Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, PS 87 is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side…. I soon received a crash course in educational progressivism….

The most troubling thing I discovered was that PS 87’s children were taught almost nothing about such foundational subjects as the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and the Civil War. I can still vividly recall a conversation with my younger son and several of his classmates when they were in the fourth grade. I innocently asked what, if anything, they knew about the famous Union commander for whom their school was named. They gave me blank stares. After more inquiry, I realized that not only hadn’t the children been taught about the brave soldier who delivered the final blow to the slaveholders’ empire; they also knew almost nothing about the Civil War.

More disturbing was what PS 87’s principal said when I informed him of my conversation with my son and his classmates. “It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” he granted, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”…

Tired of the self-serving rationalizations offered by the school principal, I was desperate for an independent explanation of what was happening in PS 87’s classrooms. I found it in Hirsch’s first two education books, published during that period. After reading Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), I felt that Hirsch was accurately describing PS 87’s instructional culture, without ever having stepped foot in the school. Hirsch convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good….

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading. In The Schools We Need, Hirsch suggested that the education reform he advocated—a content-rich curriculum—had become the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before politicians of both parties began using that phrase….

“American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world,” Hirsch wrote in 1989. “But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above all, elementary schooling.” This was Hirsch’s portrait of American K-12 education almost a quarter-century ago. Remarkably, that grim assessment remains true today. According to a recent report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year [1971].” There have been some improvements in reading and math scores in the lower grades, but these gains aren’t significant if they disappear in high school and if students entering college or the workforce—the end product of the public school system—need remediation in reading and writing.


  1. Lisa,

    I agree with you and Sol Stern that progressivism harms those who have the weakest home environment the most, but every aspect of the legally mandated Common Core implementation continues to point toward viewing the transmission of knowledge as anathema. As a lawyer, Common Core is not an idea to me. It’s a matter of tracking which people or institutions have the ability to legally bind the classroom now and what they are mandating. Using Common Core as an excuse and as an invisibility cloak.

    CCSSO itself is now using the term College, Career and Citizenship Ready and added that third C in a February 2013 report. It troublingly laid out desired student dispositions that should not be anyone’s affair in a country that seeks to remain free. Also occurring in February was a national conference with a new view of citizenship.

    That unbelievable report came out last week the day before Thanksgiving and I caught it and wrote about it here.

    That Stanford report makes it appear that historical facts are not to be taught anymore because that’s not the America that students are supposed to know about. Nor are they to learn about anything that reenforces the utility of the nation-state system. Then the students cannot contradict whatever interpretation of the Civil War best aids the expressed desire for political and social transformation.

    Comment by Robin/Student of History — December 11, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  2. Sol Stern was able to discern things that were not desirable in his children’s education, he was able to seek out other perspectives, and he was open enough to accept them. I have known other parents who also fought successfully to get a better schooling for their children. However, I suspect that most parents cannot serve their children this way. I think that overall we–as a society–do not really know what education is. That is not surprising of course, because it is complex and people do not like to talk about education. Nevertheless, the topic, what school can and cannot do and what children need from school, needs to be talked about.

    Comment by Susan Toth — December 11, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  3. This piece in Houston Press spells out the same crisis:

    Amid All the Good Things Going On in HISD, Why Is It So Many of Our Kids Still Can’t Read?

    There were several common refrains from these high schoolers in a series of interviews with the Houston Press: I can read but I don’t know what the words mean. I can read but not if the story is long or boring. I forget what I read and the questions at the end don’t make any sense to me. I wish we could learn one-on-one. I don’t like to be embarrassed in class. I need someone to explain it to me along the way. I’d like to have a tutor. A few said they hope to become engineers, figuring that wouldn’t require much reading, just math. All said they intend to go to college.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 12, 2013 @ 11:32 am

  4. DC Parent-

    I have a new book out and Chapter 2 explains what was always actually going on in the so-called “reading wars.” The next chapter does the same with math and science.

    I also have a copy of the English language progression through elementary school. Common Core heavily pushes the Fountas & Pinnell programs that were built on Marie Clay’s work. Every ed school I have looked at is pushing largely sight reading, and I have tracked state NCLB waivers signed off by the federal DoEd that seek to no longer have the inability to read be an impediment to getting promoted or a diploma.

    I keep wondering if anyone will now tell the kids or parents how off track they actually are. Heartbreaking. I have raised it with administrators who snarl because I read the fine print. Then they mention it’s OK in a group project world.

    Comment by Robin/Student of History — December 12, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

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