Sol Stern has a piece in the new issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which echoes a point made on this blog about Common Core State Standards: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever. “For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement,” Stern writes, “and that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.”
Stern calls Hirsch, the “odd man out in the school-reform movement.” But with the widespread adoption Common Core standards, “Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards,” Stern writes. That includes New York State which earlier this year awarded the Core Knowledge Foundation a multi-million dollar contract to produce a pre-K through second-grade ELA curriculum aligned to the standards.
Since a pilot of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program initiated under then-Chancellor Joel Klein began to show strong results according to the New York City DOE’s own research three years ago, Stern has played gadfly ever since, frequently asking why New York City did not more broadly implement a curriculum its own research indicated was more effective than its widely used balanced literacy approach. Stern offers up a scoop:
“Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. ‘I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,’ Klein wrote. He added that ‘the early results’ of the pilot were ‘enormously encouraging.’
“And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was ‘well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.’”
On Common Core State Standards, Stern notes political objections as well as “the far more serious criticism” leveled by Ze’ev Wurman, Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards “are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours. Massachusetts reformers in particular, Stern notes, “have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993…The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work.”
“Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”
Stern concludes by arguing—correctly, I believe—that adoption of CCSS by states isn’t enough. States need to choose effective, specific curricula to meet the standards. He cites work by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, which demonstrated the effect size of curriculum and instructional materials rival those associated with differences in teacher effectiveness, the go-to strategy in the ed reform playbook.
“The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults,” Stern warns. “Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of ‘rich content knowledge.’”
“That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory,” writes Stern.