Embracing Hirsch’s Concepts, Florida School Aims To Instill ‘Core Knowledge’ in Students

By Debra Viadero — November 20, 1991 7 min read

FORT MYERS, FLA.--As a teacher, Constance Jones had a strong desire to “know what children had learned before they reached me and to know what they were expected to know when they left me.”

Years later, when Ms. Jones, then an elementary-school principal, read E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s best-selling book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, she thought she had found an answer to that problem.

Mr. Hirsch writes that all schoolchildren should be taught systematically from a common “core” of knowledge in literature, history, the arts, mathematics, and science. While some national efforts to reform education may be pointing in the same direction now, Mr. Hirsch’s views raised the hackles of a number of educators, who argued that he was stressing the inculcation of facts at the expense of deep understanding.

But at Three Oaks Elementary School, where Ms. Jones is principal, the idea has become a kind of gospel. The school last year became the first in the nation to embrace Mr. Hirsch’s “core knowledge” curriculum for elementary-school students.

In the spanking new halls of this sprawling suburban school, kindergartners learn, for example, the names of the planets in the solar system. In the 5th grade, they study protozoans and parasites. They read “Treasure Island” in the 4th grade and study ancient Egypt in the 2nd grade.

While skeptics may remain unconvinced, educators here already point to some small successes. The effort has been so well-received in this southwest Florida community, in fact, that 20 of the 31 schools in the school district have elected to follow suit this year. And the idea has spread to other cities as well.

“We had a wonderful year,” Ms. Jones says. “Instead of doing drill and practice from workbooks, our students were actually learning important information about our history and science and reading literature.”

“This is something every school could benefit from,” she adds.

‘Haves and Have Nots’

A major thrust of Mr. Hirsch’s theories is that the failure to grasp a common body of shared knowledge was a major cause of the nation’s educational problems. Such background knowledge, the University of Virginia English professor writes, enables students to make sense of what they read.

The book raised eyebrows for including a list spelling out Mr. Hirsch’s version of what that knowledge should be. He has also taken the idea a step further by outlining a “core curriculum” for grades 1-6. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1991.)

Mr. Hirsch says his purpose was egalitarian. Disadvantaged children come to school with less background knowledge than their peers from more advantaged homes, and the gap between the academic “haves” and “have nots” only widens as students progress through each grade.

“Knowledge builds on knowledge,” Mr. Hirsch wrote. “The inequitable result, surprising for a nation built upon ideals of equality, is that our public educational system is the least fair system in the world.”

That argument has had some resonance at Three Oaks. While the majority of the students at this suburban school are white and middle class, about 32 percent are from families poor enough to qualify them for free and reduced-price lunches. And 18 percent of the students are minorities, most of whom are bused to the school from downtown Fort Myers neighborhoods.

Moreover, nearly one-third of school’s enrollment “turns over” every year as students move in and out of the district.

“Teachers are constantly having to start over with children as they enter the classroom,” Ms. Jones says. The lack of a common curriculum, she adds, “is causing many students to have gaps in their education.”

Educators at Three Oaks tackled Mr. Hirsch’s ideas enthusiastically. Even Mr. Hirsch, who has provided technical assistance to the project, admits they went further than a simple reading of his works might suggest.

Using only the 40-page “core curriculum"--which formed the basis for his new books--as a guide, the educators formed a committee to fold the curriculum into their lessons. Given common planning times, teachers scoured libraries for literature written at their students’ reading levels, on the new topics they would be teaching.

School administrators secured grants to buy new resource materials. And teachers planned hands-on activities to complement their new lessons.

Moreover, all of these efforts were coordinated so that a lesson in one subject could be woven into studies in another.

“Because teachers are excited about this, they’re being more creative,” says Patricia Scott, a 5th-grade teacher at Three Oaks.

This year, for example, after reading Sherlock Holmes novels in their reading and language-arts classes, the 4th- and 5th-grade students will form a forensics unit in their science class. They will study fingerprinting and chromatography and then use those skills to find out who “stole” a turkey from the school cafeteria.

A recent visitor to the school encountered a 5th-grade teacher dressed as Mark Twain in preparation for readings later that week from Tom Sawyer. And, in art class that day, 3rd-grade students made copper- foil medallions illustrating Norse gods and characters from the Norse myths they had learned in their other classes. “Core knowledge is in all our subjects anyway,” says Joanne Anderson, a 2nd grade teacher. “We’re just working different information into the subject areas.”

“The key word,” says Kathy Holzborn, the school’s primary specialist, “is specificity.”

The county-prescribed curriculum, in contrast, requires teaching a broad set of skills rather than specific information. Students were required to study “Native American peoples,” for example, rather than specific tribes.

Paradoxically, the teachers say, the new “specificity” freed them to teach about subjects not normally included in their county-approved textbooks. “Before, I would not have taught about the Russian and French revolutions and the Reformation,” says Jenni Jones, a 5th-grade teacher at the school, “but I probably would’ve gotten off on a tangent and talked about them anyway and then felt guilty because I was not on task.” “This makes it legal,” she says.

At Three Oaks, “core knowledge” topics take up about half of the school curriculum. While much of that information was already being taught at Three Oaks, some of the new curriculum departs radically from the way those subjects were taught previously. In social studies, students as early as kindergarten are now introduced to historical information. In the past, that time was spent teaching them about their families, neighborhoods, and communities.

“I think we really sell our children short,” Ms. Jones, the principal, says. “Children want to learn this information because they regard it as grown-up information.”

And, while children may know little more than names and stories in the early grades, their depths of understanding of the topics are expected to grow as they move through school.

“I know that a lot of people think of ‘core knowledge’ as ‘Trivial Pursuit,’” Ms. Anderson says. “But my 2nd graders can discuss the Shakespeare quote, ‘All the world’s a stage ...’ and really get into it.”

‘Sticks to My Mind’

Anecdotally, the educators say they saw some signs of success almost immediately.

One boy, for example, developed a passion for learning about ancient Egypt after he was introduced to the subject in his 2nd-grade class. He checked out every book in the library on ancient Egypt and chose the topic as the theme for his birthday party.

Teachers say another boy, a 5th grader, checked out a book on poetry from the library this year. Then he showed his teacher how the book included the “witches poem” from Macbeth--verses he had been introduced to in his class the previous year.

And students became fans of"Jeopardy,” the television quiz show.

“In this school, I would know something, and it sticks to my mind,” says John Paul McLean, a 5th grader who moved to the school district this year.

“In my other schools,” he continues, “I would learn something and it would leave.”

By the end of the school year, Ms. Jones, the principal, says, school officials had seen a “slight improvement” in children’s test scores. Pupil attendance rates increased monthly, and the school experienced an 84 percent decline in school suspensions.

“Our children are so actively involved and enjoyed what they were learning so much more, their need to disrupt decreased dramatically,” she says.

What is difficult to determine is how much of those improvements were due to the “core knowledge” curriculum and how much were due to the stimulation of becoming involved in an experimental undertaking, says Janet Emig, a Rutgers University researcher who visited the school last year.

“The question is, three or four years from now, how will they be faring?” Ms. Emig told the Council Chronicle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. No formal studies are being done on the Three Oaks program.

Educators at Three Oaks say, however, that their preliminary success is a direct result of “core knowledge.”

“It’s only been the last couple of months,” Ms. Holzborn says, “when we got to the point where somebody said, ‘Hey, we’re doing something revolutionary here.’”

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Embracing Hirsch’s Concepts, Florida School Aims To Instill ‘Core Knowledge’ in Students