Education Opinion

The Knowledge Deficit

April 14, 2006 2 min read

Few will disagree with E.D. Hirsch’s observation in his latest book that American students have trouble reading. In fact, the longer they stay in school, the worse they perform compared with their peers in other countries. Nor is anyone likely to dispute his assertion that the gap in reading skills between Hispanic and African American students and their white counterparts is “tragic,” a wound in the American Dream. Not that whites read that well, either—more than half fail to do so at proficient levels.What will be argued and debated is Hirsch’s analysis of the root causes of this dismal situation and his proposed remedy for it.

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The professor emeritus and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation lays most of the blame on the many philosophical heirs of John Dewey advocating and practicing child-centered instruction throughout the American educational community. As he did in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, his controversial 1987 bestseller, Hirsch denounces these “progressive” educators for institutionalizing the belief that the teaching of “mere facts,” a “specific, content-based curriculum,” isn’t necessary. For them, he says, it’s enough to teach children general-purpose how-to skills, which, in the case of reading, include finding the main idea, summarizing, and predicting.

Under current reading programs, Hirsch argues, most children learn to sound out words at an appropriate age, but by 4th grade they are struggling with comprehension. “We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is—a knowledge problem,” Hirsch writes. Once children learn how to decode the printed word accurately and fluently, he adds, the main reason they do not read as well as they should is that they do not know as much as they should about the various subjects the printed words refer to.

This makes a fair amount of sense. Just because I’m able, for example, to decode the printed marks on the page doesn’t mean I can comprehend a technical passage on astrophysics. For that, I must possess background knowledge. But Hirsch stretches credulity when he claims that flawed educational theories are “the significant reason”—more significant than even poverty—for the reading gap between social groups. In short, he says the problems educators like to blame on society are actually their own fault.

Hirsch’s solution for low reading scores is relatively simple and direct. He proposes that schools follow a grade-by-grade, knowledge-based, nationwide curriculum. Of course, as with most proposed reforms, this one creates its own problems, such as how to get local school boards, notoriously jealous of their power, to give up control over curricular matters.

Despite being crammed with statistics and heavily footnoted, Hirsch’s book is an ideological tract—a screed rather than a balanced academic study. Its value lies not in its ideas, which are conservative and narrow, or its analysis, which is petulant, but in its power to provoke reflection and debate on the best way to teach our citizens to read, an issue no democracy can ignore.