The Common Core Tests in Language Arts Will Soon Be Coming to Your Child’s School. Tell Your Local Superintendent: “Don’t Worry. Students Will Ace Those Tests If They Learn History, Civics, Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.”

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
August 5th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on July 30, 2013.


“A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.” 

This comment from an able and experienced teacher is one among several similar ones that teachers have recently posted on the Core Knowledge blog. Their worry is also mine.

The success of the Common Core Standards in Language Arts, adopted by more than 40 states, is supremely important for many reasons, not least because of the recent intensification of income inequality. Student scores on language arts tests are the single most reliable academic predictors of later income. The new language arts standards of the Common Core represent an historic opportunity for beneficial change in American schools—if they are put into effect intelligently.

But if you look at the data in Amazon books, you will see that the bestselling books about the Common Core are “skills-centric” ones that claim to prepare teachers for the new language arts standards by advocating techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity” as though such skills were the main ones for understanding a text no matter how unfamiliar a student might be with the topic of the text. The fact is, though, that students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

We need to learn from recent painful experience. The failure of No Child Left Behind in fostering advanced language ability can be traced to the skills-centric test-prepping that left little room for the systematic gaining of knowledge. Of course there is one facet of the skills-centric approach to reading that should be applauded, and which did improve under NCLB—the teaching of decoding. Learning to translate those symbols on the page into sounds and words is a skill that ought to be taught systematically between kindergarten and second grade, beginning with simple letter-sound correspondences and progressing step-by-step to complicated Greek-based spellings. More systematic instruction in phonics explains why test scores went up in the earliest grades under NCLB. But its neglect of knowledge building explains why student scores did not go up in later grades when tests emphasize comprehension.

Test anxiety was paradoxically the main reason that schools spent so much time on abstract skills like “comprehension strategies” and “inferencing.” My aim in this blog post addressed to parents is to explain why the best test prep for their child under the new Common Core standards will be a more systematic approach to imparting knowledge. My argument is simple: If understanding a text depends on some prior familiarity with the topic, then that will also be true of the passages on a language-arts test.

The more a student knows the better he or she will perform on any language-arts test—whether or not that test is said to be “aligned” with the new Common Core standards. If we take a step back from the details of the Common Core standards we can see why this claim necessarily must be true. Older language arts tests—such as Gates-Macginitie, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford 9, the Degrees of Reading Power, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the verbal sections of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—correlate well with each other, indicating that they are all accurately probing underlying competence in language. If the results of the Common Core tests are not strongly correlated with these well-validated ones, then the technical validity of the new tests would rightly be deemed unsatisfactory, and no state ought to adopt them. There is no reason to think that the top experts making the new Common Core tests are not well aware of this technical issue of correlation. It’s the schools, rather, that need to reconsider what will really prepare their students for the new tests—and a productive life.

One reason that the schools have been applying a skills-centric approach is that they have regarded reading as a uniform skill that develops in stages, rather than a highly variable skill which depends on a person’s topic knowledge. The schools cannot be blamed for this. The stage-by-stage conception of reading is the theory that even top experts held up to a few decades ago. The notion that any text on any topic at the right level would enhance reading ability has encouraged our schools to tolerate a topic-incoherent curriculum in language arts. This indifference to knowledge building is the chief reason the verbal scores of our school leavers have stayed flat and low.

Cognitive scientists have found, however, that a student’s average level of reading skill, which is reasonably accurately indicated by the standard tests, masks wide fluctuations depending on the test taker’s familiarity with the topic. That’s why reading tests typically use multiple passages on different topics—characteristically about ten—to try to capture that average. And even then, the passages are not random but have been filtered through the net of grade-level criteria like word rarity and sentence length. The whole system has conspired to make schools think that the topic knowledge is less important than “reading level.” But now we know that the topic of the passage is far more important than the level. The more students know about a topic, the further above their level they can read on that topic. This new understanding of reading ability demands nothing less than a revolution in language arts instruction, with less emphasis on technique and more emphasis on the systematic acquisition of knowledge.

The new Common Core standards have recognized this research finding. They state that these standards “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.” And they add: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Well said! And we have to take care that the schools and the experts hear and act on that truth. Parents and concerned citizens should make sure that they do.

If any school wants to see a model for what this means in actual practice, there are a couple of resources on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website that should be useful. Here is a grade-by-grade content sequence for all subjects in preschool through eighth grade that is downloadable for free. This sequence takes into account the knowledge that is most needed and used in written language in the United States—imparting topic familiarity as well as deeper insight across the topics that are most enabling for written communication. When schools use this sequence to write a rigorous curriculum, their students do well on language tests. Second, here is an early reading program—preschool through third grade—that systematically brings many history, science, and literary topics into the language arts classroom in sufficient depth so that the student becomes familiar with them. This pre-k – 3 program will be downloadable for free soon. For now, here’s the list of topics, with each taking about 2-3 weeks to teach. Each has about 10-12 teacher read-alouds and related class discussions and extension activities.

The coming of the Common Core standards and tests need not be a new, harrowing imposition on already besieged schools. Rather they are an historic opportunity—a new slate on which schools can write either a topic-indifferent, fragmented curriculum similar to what has failed before, or a new, exciting and successful orientation to knowledge. That’s what the top experts – the cognitive scientists—are telling us, and it’s a message that all parents, educators, and concerned citizens need to act upon.

Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information

by Lisa Hansel
July 29th, 2013

Here’s a question I’m often asked: Now that we have Google and smartphones are becoming less expensive, isn’t the Core Knowledge approach obsolete?

For anyone who knows that (1) cognitive science shows that having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory is essential to reading comprehension and critical thinking and (2) Core Knowledge is about providing a broad base of skill-enabling knowledge in preschool through eighth grade, the answer is obviously “No.” If anything, Google makes the Core Knowledge approach even more essential. In a sea of information, young people need a lifeboat.

(Lifeboat in the sea of digital information courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Fortunately, at least some of those who are up on smartphones and down on memorization are realizing that knowledge is necessary. Take, for example, a July 25th article on Scientific American’s website: “Smart Phones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts.” It starts with a bit of a straw man about memorizing the presidents. Do you need to be able to rattle off the presidents? Probably not. But can you really grasp US history without solid factual, contextual, and conceptual knowledge stored in your long-term memory about Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, etc.? No.

What I find most interesting about this Scientific American article is that it greatly downplays the need for memorization—but then in a sidebar it highlights the need to commit to memory pretty much everything in the Core Knowledge Sequence! I think we have a simple case of the author, a knowledgeable adult, taking the broad knowledge he learned early in life for granted.

In the article, we read:

Maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary—and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).

Of course, it’s a spectrum. We’ll always need to memorize information that would be too clumsy or time-consuming to look up daily: simple arithmetic, common spellings, the layout of our hometown. Without those, we won’t be of much use in our jobs, relationships or conversations.

Then in the sidebar, “6 Reasons Smartphones Won’t Replace Our Brains,” we read:

We’ll never consult our phones for everything. Some things are so important we’ll have to commit them to memory even if we reach the age of universal digital retrieval. Here are a few of the life categories where memory will always beat digital lookups….

  • The Cultural Factor: You can’t function for long in society without some basic grounding in history and culture. Without knowing these references you won’t have the context to comprehend current events—or even know what you’re missing or what questions to ask. You won’t understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles. And you won’t get anybody’s jokes. You’ll be unemployable and undatable….
  • The Productivity Factor: Even if your daily work requires something you could easily look up, like molecular weights, stock symbols or commonly prescribed drugs, your work would bog down to a halt if you had to interrupt your flow every few minutes for a lookup. You need fluency in your own career facts to operate effectively.
  • The Lookup Factor: Our gadgets may always be able to call up information on demand—but only if you know how and where to look for it. You still have to know how to use the tools of modern up-lookings: like Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, or—What’s the other one? Oh, yeah—Google.

What does a “basic grounding in history and culture” consist of? What knowledge is needed to “understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles”? Those are questions E. D. Hirsch asked three decades ago. His research—and that of many cognitive scientists—found that a great deal of content knowledge was needed in long-term memory to function as a literate adult. Through a series of studies Hirsch and his colleagues identified the specific knowledge that is most essential—and then that became the Sequence.

For a well-researched and thoughtful look at the impact of Google on education, let’s turn to “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” an article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer that was recently published in Educational Psychologist:

[One] legend has it that all that one needs to know and learn is “out there on the web” and that there is, thus, no need to teach and/or acquire such knowledge any more. This has led, for example, to the demotion of the teacher from someone whose job it was to combine her/his knowledge within a domain combined with her/his pedagogical content knowledge so as to teach those lacking this knowledge to someone whose role is standing on the sidelines and guiding and/or coaxing a breed of self-educators. These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning, seeking, finding, and making use of all of the information sources that are freely available to them….

The premises underlying the idea of substituting information seeking for teaching is that the half-life of information is getting smaller every day, making knowledge rapidly obsolete, and because it is all out there on the web, we should not teach knowledge but should instead let kids look for it themselves….

The idea that the present body of knowledge is rapidly becoming out of date or obsolete is far from true. First, a distinction needs to be made with respect to the difference between knowledge obsolescence and information growth…. The fact is that much of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful. What is true is that there is an increasing amount of new information becoming available, some of it trustworthy, some not….

Although students are often thought of as being competent or even expert in information problem solving (i.e., that they are information and digitally literate) because they are seen searching the web daily, research reveals that solving information problems is for most students a major if not insurmountable cognitive endeavor…. Learners not only have problems finding the information that they are seeking but also often trust the first thing they see, making them prone to “the pitfalls of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams”….

Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web…. Unfortunately, in most cases students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter is minimal. From research, it is known that low prior knowledge negatively influences the search process….

This leads to essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Since research clearly shows that effectively using the internet requires knowledge, does that mean students should be kept offline when they are first learning about a topic? I don’t think so. Later in their article, Kirschner and van Merriënboer discuss ways teachers can direct and support students’ learning online and offline. The key takeaway is pretty simple: don’t expect students (of any age) to be able to Google effectively about topics that are new to them. One obvious option appears: limit their research to a small pool of trusted sources.

Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions have been particularly great about making online collections teachers can draw from for engaging, but appropriately limited, online research. I couldn’t possibly list even a small fraction of the good ones, so I’ll close by noting one I recently learned about: the Primary Source Sets created by the Library of Congress. There are more than two dozen sets, designed for classroom use, on topics ranging from baseball to women’s suffrage.


Inching Toward Equity: What Should Schools Do to Increase Social Mobility?

by Lisa Hansel
July 24th, 2013

The great equalizer. It’s what public education is supposed to be. It’s what draws many of us to the field of educational improvement. And it’s what drew me to Core Knowledge. Taking the knowledge and skills that have long been exclusively in the minds of the educational elite and spelling out a grade-by-grade plan for that same knowledge and skill set to take root in all minds—that’s the great equalizing force of the Core Knowledge approach.

I was reminded of that today while reading, and reading about, a new study on social mobility. With data from across the United States, researchers asked questions like this: Of children born into families in the lowest income quintile, what percent are in the highest income quintile in their early 30s? The answer depends largely on where those children grow up.

For a quick summary, let’s turn to the New York Times:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest,… with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Want to explore social mobility in your area? Take a look at the two addictive, interactive graphics that the New York Times created. In one, you scroll over an area to see answers to the question of what percent moves from the bottom to the top income quintile:

In the other graphic, you can select an area on the map and slide up and down the parents’ income percentile to see where, on average, children end up:

Even if you only play with these graphics for a few minutes, stark differences in social mobility—in the extent to which America is the land of opportunity—are apparent.

Why? For that, let’s turn to the researchers’ summary of their findings:

To understand what is driving this variation…, we considered other sets of factors that have been proposed in prior work. Here, we found significant correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, economic and racial residential segregation, measures of K-12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area). In particular, areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility. In contrast, a high concentration of income in the top 1% was not highly correlated with mobility patterns. Areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were also particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility. The quality of the K-12 school system also appears to be correlated with mobility: areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels), lower dropout rates, and higher spending per student in schools had higher rates of upward mobility. Finally, some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents. Each of these correlations remained strong even after controlling for measures of tax expenditures. Likewise, local tax policies remain correlated with mobility after controlling for these other factors.

In my mind, these findings boil down to this: communities have choices to make. If you are lucky enough to be on the upper end of the spectrum, you can choose to go bowling alone in your gated community. But if you are concerned about the American experiment, you might want to start asking yourself whether or not your choices add to or subtract from equality of opportunity.

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.

I’m not going to pretend to have any advice or expertise on the matter. I will, however, point to someone who does: Richard D. Kahlenberg. Kahlenberg is a lot like E. D. Hirsch. He’s an independent-minded scholar with a brilliant idea and the research to back it up—and he’ll stick with it no matter how loud the naysayers’ cries grow.

Here’s his brilliant plan: do whatever it takes to integrate schools by socioeconomic status. Kahlenberg, along with a team of researchers, has explored every facet of the benefits, costs, and feasibility of such integration. For all the details, see The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy. For an essay that sums up the work (and is free online), check out Kahlenberg’s recent article in American Educator. Noting that socioeconomic integration of schools is “a very old and profoundly American idea and, at the same time, novel and mostly unexplored in practice,” he writes:

On the one hand, the idea of economically integrated schools runs deep in American history. In 1837, Horace Mann, who famously argued that public education should be “the great equalizer,” wrote that in order to serve that role, public schools had to be “common schools,” by which he meant institutions in which “the children of all classes, rich and poor, should partake as equally as possible in the privileges” of the enterprise. The idea of socioeconomic integration received a big boost more than 100 years later with the publication of the 1966 Coleman Report. Coleman’s analysis—examining 600,000 students in 4,000 schools—found that the socioeconomic status of your classmates mattered a great deal to your academic performance. The report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

On the other hand, in 1996, when I began researching the topic of socioeconomic integration, almost no American school districts explicitly sought an economically integrated student body. Racial integration was a widely recognized goal, but racial desegregation was seen mostly as a legal remedy for the crime of de jure segregation and as a desirable social goal for society at large.

Racial integration is a very important aim that I fully support, but if one’s goal is boosting academic achievement, the research from Coleman (and subsequent studies) found that what really matters is economic integration….

The research is clear. Low-income students in middle-class schools (in which less than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) are surrounded by: (1) peers who, on average, are more academically engaged and less likely to act out than those in high-poverty schools (in which at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch); (2) a community of parents who are able to be more actively involved in school affairs and know how to hold school officials accountable; and (3) stronger teachers who have higher expectations for students.

In the wealthiest nation, we have schools with and without science labs, theaters, fast computers and internet connections, musical instruments, libraries, gymnasiums, and more. Is such blatant inequity in keeping with our character? I hope not.

Core Knowledge’s contribution is a curriculum that provides intellectual equality of opportunity. That is essential to increasing social mobility, but it is not sufficient. Excellent curricula in socioeconomically integrated schools probably would not be sufficient either—but research shows that it would help.

Upward spiral of knowledge, skills, and social mobility courtesy of Shutterstock.

Ask Not What Our Schools Can Do for You

by Lisa Hansel
July 19th, 2013

I’m not the spa vacation type—I can’t get through a 30-minute massage without mentally creating a to-do list. But spending the past several days in a workshop on the democratic purposes of education was, for me, just as relaxing an invigorating as others claim a spa retreat can be.

Discussions started where you would expect, considering the foundational historical and civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for responsible, active citizenship. Much to my delight, those discussions expanded to include wonder, humility, virtue, craftsmanship, voice, and compromise. We spent time thinking about using Greek myths to question the relative worthiness of courageous acts, exploring humanity’s drive for freedom as depicted in works of art from around the world, and devising simple ways to incentivize student participation in community service. For large chunks of each day, we tuned out the rest of the world and focused on each other’s ideas.

We also focused on ideas from the past. I am especially grateful for this because it filled a large hole in my knowledge of civically minded education: Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech on April 30, 1930, titled Good Citizenship: The Purpose of an Education. Her speech is well worth reading; hopefully these highlights will draw you into the full piece:

What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women. The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books, and the learning of facts. Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that “the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.”

If this is the goal—and in a democracy it would seem at least an important part of the ultimate achievement—then we must examine our educational system from a new point of view….

Theodore Roosevelt was teaching by precept and example that men owed something at all times, whether in peace or in war, for the privilege of citizenship and that the burden rested equally on rich and poor. He was saying that, no matter what conditions existed, the blame lay no more heavily on the politician and his machine controlling city, State, or nation, than on the shoulders of the average citizen who concerned himself so little with his government that he allowed men to stay in power in spite of his dissatisfaction because he was too indifferent to exert himself to get better men in office.

Indifference on the part of many Americans, rich and poor, is still a large problem. So is a lack of sense of efficacy. Logical arguments have been made by both economists and weary single mothers about the futility of voting. For those of us who value voice and participation, perhaps our best arguments for civic activism rest on responsibility. And perhaps our educational focus should be on both the duties of citizenship and on showing how leadership and governance work. With such knowledge, more of us could engage in creative problem solving, which could be energizing enough to lessen indifference and increase efficacy.

Eleanor Roosevelt began with the basics of such an education, then revealed the civic value of the whole schooling enterprise:

In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective—informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.

How shall we arrive at these objectives? We think of course of history as a first means of information. Not the history which is a mere recital of facts, dates, wars, and kings, but a study of the life and growth of other nations, in which we follow the general moral, intellectual, and economic development through the ages, noting what brought about the rise and fall of nations and what were the lasting contributions of peoples now passed away to the development of the human family and the world as a whole.

Then we come down to our own history, observing the characteristics and the backgrounds of the people who founded our nation and those who have come to us since; the circumstances of pioneer life and the rapid industrial development. We trace the reasons for present-day attitudes of mind and for the establishment of customs and points of view which make up the rather elusive and yet unmistakable thing known as the “American spirit.” We study the men in our history who have really made a constructive contribution, and those who have held us back, in order that we may know what qualities of mind and heart formed the characters which have left a mark on their time….

I would have our children visit national shrines, know why we love and respect certain men of the past. I would have them see how government departments are run and what are their duties, how courts function, what juries are, what a legislative body is and what it does. I would have them learn how we conduct our relationships with the rest of the world and what are our contacts with other nations. The child seeing and understanding these things will begin to envisage the varied pattern of the life of a great nation such as ours and how his own life and environment fit into the pattern and where his own usefulness may lie.

Contrast Roosevelt’s vision with our typical approach to elementary social studies. If the early years are spent on families, neighborhoods, communities, states, regions, and then the nation, how will we have time to get to the far more interesting and important knowledge and character-building studies she recommends? As most schools implement the Common Core standards, bringing far more informational text into the elementary grades, perhaps this is the moment to rethink what our young students are capable of learning. Ancient civilizations, America’s founding, the very concepts of representational government and the freedom for direct, nonviolent action—these things are within the reach of young children if we construct our units carefully.

Roosevelt sees opportunities to teach responsible citizenship throughout the school day:

It is not, however, only in the courses bearing directly on history and government that citizenship can be taught. The child taking Latin and mathematics is also learning invaluable lessons in citizenship. The power of concentration and accuracy which these studies develop will later mean a man or woman able to understand and analyze a difficult situation. For example, arithmetic is necessary to a later understanding of economic questions….

Mathematics and humanity are strangely intertwined, and an ability to understand both is essential to well-balanced decisions in questions of this kind. From the point of view of character-building, the harder these subjects are to master the greater will be the sense of self-mastery and perseverance developed.

The other school contacts—social activities and athletics—develop team play, cooperation, and thought and consideration for others. These are all essentials in good citizenship….

Learning to be a good citizen is learning to live to the maximum of one’s abilities and opportunities, and every subject should be taught every child with this in view.

“Every subject should be taught to every child.” While other lines have more poetry, this one is my favorite. In schools that seize the early grades as an opportunity to introduce students to the beauty and wonder of our world in scientific, artistic, historical, and literary ways, a strong foundation is built for children maximizing their abilities, finding their strengths (and working on their weaknesses), and opening up new opportunities by seeing what others have done.

Of course, to be effective, this needs to happen in all schools—most especially the schools that our least advantaged children attend. As Roosevelt said:

As the great majority of our children are being educated in public schools, it is all-important that the standards of citizenship should be of the best. Whether we send our children to private school or public school we should take a constant interest in all educational institutions and remember that on the public school largely depends the success or the failure of our great experiment in government “by the people, for the people.”

Our collective success does indeed rest largely on our public schools. Yet our collective reaction to that fact is usually to blame our schools for our shared failures. So, even though it sounds corny, here’s a plea for my fellow citizens in the school reform movement: Ask not what our public schools can do for you—ask what you can do for (not to!) our public schools.


A Game-Changing Education Book from England

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
July 2nd, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 27, 2013. For more on education reforms in America and England, you may also be interested in this interview of E. D. Hirsch by English journalist and educator Toby Young, as well as Chester Finn’s “Reforms that cross the Atlantic—and don’t.”


A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas — brilliantly deconstructed in this book.

Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher. She currently directs a non-profit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.

Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the US has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.

She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.

Here are Ms Christodoulou’s seven myths:

1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”

This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “21st-century” ideas that invoke Google and the internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late 19th-century ideas which came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-20th century. What educators purvey as brave such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:

I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it. … For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.

The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new “Common Core Standards,” comparable in scope to the recent experiment named “No Child Left Behind,” which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that adequate yearly progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.

Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.

Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB — if they had been uninfected by the seven myths — they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S. It’s available at Amazon for $9.99 or for free if you have Amazon Prime.


What Can Ed Schools Learn from Charters?

by Lisa Hansel
June 28th, 2013

This isn’t about governance structures or threatening paradigm shifts. It’s about Chumbawamba.

I’m a middle-of-the-pack mountain biker, and I often ride with the chorus from Chumbawamba’s “I Get Knocked Down” playing in my head:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You’re never going to keep me down

That started playing in my head as I read CREDO’s new study of charter schools. In CREDO’s 2009 report, charters got knocked down. Now we see that they’ve gotten back up. And since there’s evidence that charter supporters are getting more and more serious about quality, it looks like they won’t be kept down:

Over the five growth periods in this study, we see slow and steady progress in the performance of the charter school sector. The numbers align with the evolving concern over the past five years about charter school quality and, we believe, reflect the serious attention paid to the subject. The dialogue among educators, policy makers, community members and a growing fraction of parents and students has raised awareness and commitment to the academic quality of charter schools. Several charter-related organizations, including operators, authorizers, funders, charter support organizations, and national groups, have taken on the challenge of assuring quality in the sector, in some cases against their own self-interest. The progress reported here is important not only to the charter school movement but as a more general example of school improvement efforts.

For the future charter sector to attain higher performance, more work is needed. Efforts to expand the role of parents as consumers and advocates for high quality education are essential; only when large numbers of families are fully vested and engaged will there be sufficient clout to realize the goal of high quality seats for all charter school students. In addition, charter school operators and their support organizations could emulate the proven practices in the higher performing charter schools….

While the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than local [traditional public schools] TPS to structure their operations and allocate resources to address the needs of their students. Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools….

“Flexibility,” ought to be treated as a privilege. Moreover, it is necessary to move beyond the assertion that it is hard to discern quality before a school opens and begin to build evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing schools. A body of expertise in “picking winners” is vital to the long-run success of the sector….

There is no doubt that care is needed in how closures are handled (witness the District of Columbia and Georgia, both of which closed the same percentage of schools but which resulted in improved performance of the charter sector in DC but flat results in Georgia). But equally obvious is that allowing the closure option to rest unexercised will lead to atrophy of what we have come to view as a singular and unique feature of charter schools. Much like representative democracy, it is critical that when needed, people can “throw the rascals out.”

Contrast this with the new NCTQ study of colleges of education. The vast majority of traditional teacher preparation programs have been knocked down every time NCTQ reviews them. But instead of getting back up—and making research-based changes that would help them stay up—they seem to be digging in.

What if traditional teacher preparation programs took this moment to create a more serious quality agenda? Some may reply that many programs are earnestly crafting changes, but all the chatter sounds suspiciously like what we’ve been hearing for years. NCTQ has now released several such studies; where is the progress? How many universities have closed their teacher preparation programs due to indicators of low quality? How many colleges of education are building bodies of “evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing” teachers?


(No, this isn’t me. Mountain biker who can’t be kept down from Shutterstock.)


If flexibility ought to be treated a privilege among charter, then perhaps academic freedom ought to be treated as a privilege among teacher preparation programs.

For those charters looking for more ways to improve student achievement—and for those ed schools that would like to stop digging and get up—please become well versed in the science of reading and follow that science to its logical conclusion: a coherent, content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum. Harry Webb will get you started:

We don’t help children from deprived backgrounds or children of minorities by refusing to teach them what they need to know to be able to access the key sources of information in our societies. This is not in any way empowering. To refuse to teach factual knowledge about Churchill, for example, on the basis of a prejudice against dead, white men is not at all liberating. Rather, it simply prevents children from making sense of texts that require that knowledge.

Now, you may protest that you can always look it up in a dictionary or use reading comprehension strategies to comprehend the text. The former is a recipe for frustration and the latter provides only limited help. Reading a text slowly whilst asking yourself questions is a pretty useless strategy if you cannot answer these questions. It reminds me of the proverbial British tourist who cannot speak the local language and therefore decides to speak more loudly and more slowly.

If you don’t believe me, or if you’ve never heard of these ideas then this is a good place to start. This article explains the impact of the knowledge deficit on children from deprived backgrounds.

The best way to support effective reading is therefore to build the knowledge base of a child. This then forms part of a virtuous circle; as the knowledge base increases then the access to new knowledge available via reading also increases. This also explains why teaching that focuses on reading comprehension strategies rather than background knowledge perpetuates social divisions. The children of middle class parents gain this factual knowledge at home, in spite of their schooling whereas children from deprived background have only the school to rely on and yet the school is refusing to teach them things….

Recommended Reading

The Knowledge Deficit – E D Hirsch Jr

Why don’t students like school? – Daniel T Willingham

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou


This Is What Equal Opportunity Looks Like

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2013

A few days ago, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote about supporting the Common Core State Standards—and doing whatever it takes to implement them well—simply because they reflect real-world standards. Institutions of higher education and employers have high standards. For many children from disadvantaged homes, rigorous schooling offers the only hope for being well prepared. Tucker recalled:

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

Tucker points out that instead of shying away from the Common Core, we ought to accept it as one necessary step in a total overhaul of our educational approach. “We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.”

All true. I argue that the place to start is standards and curriculum. The standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the specific content. With those as the foundation, we can rebuild the rest of our educational infrastructure—especially teacher preparation.

Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is a comprehensive reading, writing, speaking, listening, and knowledge-building curriculum for preschool through third grade that could be used to strengthen the elementary grades.

Teachers are excited about it because it develops decoding and encoding skills while also engaging students in listening to and discussing rich teacher read-alouds. Fiction and nonfiction, the read-alouds have a mix of fables, science, and history, including tales from around the world, ancient civilizations, the human body, and astronomy.

To really understand it, you have to see it. Take a look at this video featuring two schools that participated in the pilot of CKLA in New York City: P.S. 96Q and P.S. 104Q.

In the video, Alice Wiggins, Core Knowledge’s executive vice president, explains that one great benefit of CKLA is the carefully organized content: Children “are pulling knowledge from what they learned earlier in the school year and even in prior years because of the way the program spirals.”

Hope Wygand, a teacher, has seen this in action. In her hands, CKLA builds knowledge and excitement:

In second grade, I know I have to teach ancient Greek myths because in third grade, they are going to do ancient Roman myths. So it all builds….

When you can start a lesson and the children already know what you are talking about, they are so much more interested because they already have an investment in it—and they want to show you what they know.

But don’t just take it from me. See for yourself.


The Inclusive, Capacious, Diverse, Relevant . . . and Misleading California Reading List

by Guest Blogger
April 8th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor in the Department of English at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.


Last month, the California Department of Education issued Recommended Literature: Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, an updated reading list of books for teachers of English, science, and social studies to use in their classrooms. The press release states that the list will “help students meet the new Common Core State Standards,” which were adopted by the State of California on August 10, 2010. To produce the list, the Department of Education convened teachers, librarians, administrators, curriculum experts, and college professors who deliberated and crafted the final tally, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared “a vital resource for students, teachers and parents.”

Sadly, the result falls well short of that description. Worse, this reading list actually works against Common Core and the expectations that inform them. The document

  • Explicitly violates the spirit and letter of the standards;
  • Does not foster college readiness of high school graduates;
  • Does not ensure that students are exposed to our literary heritage.

Why? For two simple reasons: the list is too long and too indiscriminate. It contains 7,800 titles—2,500 for grades 9 – 12 alone—and it sets dozens of classics among thousands of contemporary, topical titles without distinction. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is followed by Macho, a 1991 tale of an illegal immigrant who becomes a field worker. Little Women makes the list, but the description of it says nothing about its historical status. Every work gets the same treatment, a one-sentence statement of content. The field is overwhelmingly wide and it has only one level, ranking Leaves of GrassHuck Finn, etc. equal to pop culture publications. It has no core, and it ensures that students across California will have un-common reading exposures.

Common Core demands the opposite. One unambiguous standard reads, “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature,” requiring that English classes foreground Ben Franklin’sAutobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, etc. The California list does include such classics, but they are buried in a pile of recent works that have yet to face the test of time. When I clicked on one part of the Grade 9 – 12 list, I counted only three American staples among the 100 works provided. With no other guidance, Recommended Literature effectively says, “This is as good as that,” a flattening that contradicts Common Core’s emphasis on foundational texts. At face value, it implies that a year reading Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in HeavenThe Breaking Point (cliques in a private school), and The Lost Symbol (sequel to The Da Vinci Code) is just as preparatory as a year of The IliadThe Odyssey, and The Aeneid.

The Department’s all-equal approach also undermines college readiness. When students enter college, their professors assume that they possess some cultural literacy, that is, a little knowledge about the Renaissance, the Civil War, ancient mythology, and the American novel from Hawthorne to Ellison. When professors in U.S. history, sociology, or political science mention the American ideal of self-reliance, those who have read Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Washington have a decided advantage over those who haven’t. A high school English teacher who skips those seminal works may feel that contemporary titles speak to the students more immediately, but he or she disadvantages them at the next level (and possibly throughout their lives). Many contemporary works are superb, of course, but they do not provide the background learning that goes with Gulliver’s TravelsJane Eyre, and 1984. And few of them, too, contain the exquisite sentences of Gatsby, the piercing metaphors of Blake, the characters of Flannery O’Connor . . .

In the American setting, great works from the Puritans to the Beat Generation form an essential stream of our national identity, a lineage as crucial as the lineage of the American presidency. How much of our understanding of the Depression comes from The Grapes of Wrath, of the American South circa 1930 from William Faulkner, of old New England from Hawthorne? Without them, students lose a vital connection to their country. In adding so much contemporary literature, the CDE claims a more culturally relevant curriculum, but the relevance it offers amounts to a thin and haphazard version of the culture they inhabit.

Recommended Literature needs another component, one that ranks works by their literary-historical standing. Californians want the CDE to exercise some judgment, to distinguish the superb from the merely interesting, the foundational from the topical, the timeless classics from the temporarily relevant. Common Core does so, and in producing this gargantuan grab-bag of works, this list without a core, CDE has misaligned with the standards it adopted three years ago.


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 4: Passing the Test

by Lisa Hansel
March 22nd, 2013

So far this week E. D. Hirsch has taught us that higher-order thinking depends on knowledge, that highly mobile students suffer acutely from our national refusal to establish a core of common content, and that there is an identifiable body of specific knowledge that facilitates communication. Now, on Hirsch’s birthday, we examine his game-changing policy prescription: curriculum-based reading tests.

Turning to pages 153 – 162 of Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, we learn “How to Ace a Reading Test.”*

Reading tests are attacked for cultural bias and other faults, but such complaints are unfounded. The tests are fast and accurate indexes of real-world reading ability. They correlate extremely well with one another and with actual capacity to learn and communicate. They consist, after all, of written passages, which students are to read and then answer questions on; that is, students are asked to exercise the very skill at issue…. The much more reasonable complaint is that an emphasis on testing has caused schools to devote too much time to drills and test preparation, with a consequent narrowing of the curriculum….

Yet the fault lies not with the tests but with the school administrators who have been persuaded that it is possible to drill for a reading test—on the mistaken assumption that reading is a skill like typing and that once you know the right techniques you can read any text addressed to a general audience. The bulk of time in early language-arts program today is spent practicing these abstract strategies on an incoherent array of uninformative fictions. The opportunity costs have been enormous. Schools are wasting hours upon hours practicing drills that are supposed to improve reading but that are actually depriving students of knowledge that could enhance their reading comprehension….

Here is the beginning of an actual passage from a New York State reading test for fourth grade:

There is a path that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, 2,167 miles later. This path is called the Appalachian Trail. If you want, you can walk the whole way, although only some people who try to do this actually make it, because it is so far, and they get tired. The idea for the trail came from a man named Benton MacKaye. In 1921 he wrote an article about how people needed a nearby place where they could enjoy nature and take a break from work. He thought the Appalachian Mountains would be perfect for this.

The passage goes on for a while, and then come the questions. The first question, as usual, concerns the main idea:

This article is mostly about

1. how the Appalachian Trail came to exist.

2. when people can visit the Appalachian Trail.

3. who hikes the most on the Appalachian Trail.

4. why people work together on the Appalachian Trail.

Many educators see this question as probing the general skill of “finding the main idea.” It does not. Try to put yourself in the position of a disadvantaged fourth grader who knows nothing of hiking, does not know the difference between an Appalachian-type mountain and a Himalayan-type mountain, does not know where Maine and Georgia are, and does not grasp what it means to “enjoy nature.” Such a child, though much trained in comprehension strategies, might answer the question incorrectly. The student’s more advantaged counterpart, not innately smarter, just happens to be familiar with hiking in the Appalachians, has been to Maine and Georgia, and has had a lot of experience “enjoying nature.” The second student easily answers the various questions correctly. But not because he or she practiced comprehension strategies; this student has the background knowledge to comprehend what the passage is saying….

It has been shown decisively that subject-matter knowledge trumps formal skill in reading and that proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another. Test makers implicitly acknowledge this by offering, in a typical reading test, as many as ten passages on varied topics. (If reading were a knowledge-independent skill, a single passage would suffice.)… Contrary to appearances and educators’ beliefs, these reading tests do not test comprehension strategies. There usually are questions like “What is the main idea of this passage?” but such a question probes ad hoc comprehension, not some general technique of finding the main idea. Reading comprehension is not a universal, repeatable skill like sounding out words or throwing a ball through a hoop. “Reading skill” is rather an overgeneralized abstraction that obscures what reading really is: an array of separate, content-constituted skills such as the ability to read about the Appalachian Mountains or the ability to read about the Civil War….

A reading test is inherently a knowledge test. Scoring well requires familiarity with the subjects of the test passages. Hence the tests are unfair to students who, through no fault of their own, have little general knowledge. Their homes have not provided it, and neither have the schools. This difference in knowledge, not any difference in ability, is the fundamental reason for the reading gap between white and minority students. We go to school for many years partly because it takes so long to build up the vast general knowledge and vocabulary we need to become mature readers.

Because this knowledge-gaining process is slow and cumulative, the type of general reading test now in use could be fair to all groups only above fifth or sixth grade, and only after good, coherent, content-based schooling in the previous grades. I therefore propose a policy change that would at one stroke raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. (As a side benefit, it would induce elementary schools to impart the general knowledge children need.) Let us institute curriculum-based reading tests in first, second, third, and fourth grades—that is to say, reading tests containing passages based on knowledge that children will have received directly from their schooling. In the early grades, when children are still gaining this knowledge slowly and in piecemeal fashion, it is impossible to give a fair test of any other sort….

We now have an answer to our question of how to enable all children to ace a reading test. We need to impart systematically—starting in the very earliest grades by reading aloud to students, then later in sequenced self-reading—the general knowledge that is taken for granted in writing addressed to a broad audience. If reading tests in early grades are based on a universe of pre-announced topics, general knowledge will assuredly be built up. By later grades, when the reading tests become the standard non-curriculum one, such as the NAEP tests, reading prowess will have risen dramatically.

Policy makers say they want to raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. But it seems doubtful that any state can now resist the anti-curriculum outcry that would result from actually putting curriculum-based testing into effect. Nonetheless, any state or district that courageously instituted knowledge- and curriculum-based early reading tests would see a very significant rise in students’ reading scores in later grades.

States would also see impressive results right away on the curriculum-based tests since the passages would be about content that all students had actually been taught. Just imagine: With curriculum-based tests, “test prep” would consist of studying literature, history, science, and the arts. Bringing that imaginary world to life relies on our leaders working together. So, this birthday retrospective ends with a call to the left and right, drawn from pages 186 – 187 of the Making of Americans.

One of the gravest disappointments I have felt in the twenty-fine years that I have been actively engaged in educational reform is the frustration of being warmly welcomed by conservatives but shunned by fellow liberals. The connection of the anti-curriculum movement with the Democratic Party is an accident of history, not a logical necessity. All the logic runs the other way. A dominant liberal aim is social justice, and a definite core curriculum in early grades is necessary to achieve it. Why should conservatives alone favor solid content while my fellow liberals buy into the rhetoric of the anti-curriculum theology that works against the liberal aims of community and equality? Practical improvement of our public education will require intellectual clarity and a depolarization of the issue. Left and right must get together on the principle of common content.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


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.


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

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song


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

by Lisa Hansel
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