This post originally appeared on April 25, 2013, on the Shanker Blog: http://shankerblog.org.
Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled “Cultural Literacy,” sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.
In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”
Mediocrity is what filled the void as schools slowly retreated from teaching all children rigorous content. That retreat happened throughout the 20th century: Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth.
E. D. Hirsch was a professor who shared that misunderstanding until his own research awoke him to the (now well-established) fact that broad literacy depends on broad knowledge. Shanker was by far the most prominent educator to grasp the veracity and power of Hirsch’s work.
Rigor is the antidote to risk.
According to Richard Kahlenberg’s terrific biography of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal,* Shanker “believed, with E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that if one really wished to be a political progressive concerned about disadvantaged kids, one needed to be an educational ‘conservative’ who stood for teaching students certain core knowledge that was essential to upward mobility in American society” (p. 10).
It was in the early 1980s, when Shanker read both A Nation at Risk and “Cultural Literacy,” that his particular form of progressivism took shape: Shanker saw that poor children needed a whole array of supports—including a traditional, rigorous curriculum that would give them all the knowledge that wealthier children get from their college-educated parents.
While virtually all education leaders panned A Nation at Risk, Shanker did not. According to Kahlenberg, Shanker’s reaction was “pivotal”:
When the … report was released … Shanker and a group of top union officials sat together and read the document. Sandra Feldman recalled: “We all had this visceral reaction to it. You know, ‘This is horrible. They’re attacking teachers.’ Everyone was watching Al to hear his response. When Al finished reading the report, he closed the book and looked up at all of us and said, ‘The report is right, and not only that, we should say that before our members.’ ” (p. 275)
Shanker did just that in a speech to members less than a week after the report came out. And then he spent the remainder of his life (he passed away in 1997) fighting for several major reforms. A few of the noteworthy ones were peer assistance and review, charter schools, and standards.
Thanks in part to Hirsch, Shanker had a very clear sense of what educational standards needed to accomplish. According to Kahlenberg:
Shanker disagreed with education-school professors who favored general thinking skills over gaining specific-content knowledge. He believed students needed both, and that John Dewey’s education theories had been misinterpreted by some “progressive” educators…. “Dewey himself was shocked when he went into some of these progressive schools and saw what was going on in his name.”
In the 1980s, Shanker became an early advocate of University of Virginia English Professor E. D. (Don) Hirsch Jr.’s argument that American students needed to be “culturally literate”—to master a body of facts that literate American’s know—in order to be successful in mainstream society. A full two years before Hirsch’s bestselling book Cultural Literacy became a phenomenon, Shanker embraced Hirsch’s view that knowing subject matter was important to reading comprehension…. “To read well you need background information that is culture-specific,” Shanker argued. Students needed to be taught Shakespeare and mythology so they could understand common cultural references.
Shanker was also taken by Hirsch’s argument that when students know particular content matter, their interest and curiosity are more likely to be aroused. A student who knows something about dinosaurs is more likely to pick up a book on dinosaurs when browsing through the library. “Subject matter,” Shanker argued, “is the life’s breath of learning.” While some “progressive” educators dismissed Hirsch’s approach as emphasizing “mere facts,” Shanker wrote thirteen separate columns mentioning Hirsch’s theory, invited Hirsch to speak at the AFT’s biennial QuEST Conference, and featured Hirsch on the cover of American Educator….
Shanker … believed that the core knowledge of the dominant culture was essential for all students to master if they wished to advance socioeconomically within the society…. Shanker argued:
Some people have been very critical of Hirsch’s proposals on the grounds that they try to impose the dominant culture on groups that would rather have their children learn their own culture. But the thrust of Hirsch’s proposal is egalitarian. He believes that by starting early and by giving all children the same core knowledge to learn, we can prevent the creation of an educational underclass…. (p. 323-324)
Despite their best efforts, neither Shanker nor Hirsch succeeded in bringing the need for knowledge-building curricula into mainstream reform efforts.
But now, the tide is finally turning.
The Common Core State Standards demand rigor—and a strong curriculum. In the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy, the need for a knowledge-building curriculum is plainly stated and explained:
While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)
To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)
Shanker, no doubt, would applaud the effort. Hirsch certainly is. As more and more states take implementation seriously and support schools in creating the content-rich curricula they need, we all should be applauding.
* In quoting Tough Liberal, I have not included the endnotes.