School & District Management Opinion

An Epoch-Making Report, But What About the Early Grades?

By E.D. Hirsch Jr. — April 22, 2008 7 min read
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In American educational history, A Nation at Risk is significant as a very dramatic official recognition in the 1980s that our schools were declining in effectiveness not only in relation to schools of other nations, but also in relation to our own results in earlier decades. In the 25 years since the report was issued, energetic reform efforts have been put forth, to small overall effect. The best single gauge of overall national school effectiveness—the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test of 12th graders—has remained flat, and has even declined slightly. This persistent lack of significant improvement is owing to the unwavering persistence of the very ideas that caused the decline in the first place—the repudiation of a definite academic curriculum in the early grades by the child-centered movement of the early 20th century. Given the continued content vagueness of state standards in early grades, especially in language arts, that underlying condition has not much changed. There is still no definite, coherent academic curriculum in the early grades. That is the principal source of the low academic achievement of our high school students.

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The elementary grades are much more important than is apparently credited by philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently been giving many millions to high school reform—with negligible results per dollar. For many years, the philanthropic and policy worlds have placed a lot of emphasis on the two ends of precollegiate education—high school and preschool. They are right about preschool—but not about high school. The general knowledge and vocabulary required for effective learning at the high school level are the fruits of a long process. The way to reform high school is to prepare students effectively in the elementary years to thrive there. If, in recent decades, high school has become a place where students are offered a smorgasbord of watered-down subjects, that is because watered-down subjects are all that our ill-educated students are now prepared to understand.

Philanthropies cannot be altogether blamed. In their emphasis on high school, they have followed the lead of A Nation at Risk, which was overwhelmingly concerned with high school. Its assumption was that the elementary years are foundational, and should be spent on the enabling skills of reading, writing, and reckoning. The authors therefore conceived the truly decisive arena for educational improvement to be grades 9-12, where there had been a severe decline in verbal and math scores. Indeed, for most of its length, A Nation at Risk ignored the first eight grades of schooling. Then, in its last pages, the report finally alluded to the early curriculum as follows:

The curriculum in the crucial eight grades leading to the high school years should be specifically designed to provide a sound base for study in those and later years in such areas as English language development and writing, computational and problem-solving skills, science, social studies, foreign language, and the arts. These years should foster an enthusiasm for learning and the development of the individual’s gifts and talents. (Page 72)

It was natural for the 18 members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education to seek reform where the most notable declines seemed to appear—and this emphasis on later grades was reinforced by the observation that the declines were being accompanied by ever more fragmented high school curricula. But when we take a longer historical perspective, the watering down of high school was less a cause of its lower scores than a consequence of a gradual decline of learning in pre-high-school grades. In rereading A Nation at Risk, I was reminded of the comment many years ago of a repairman who came to fix a leak in our washing machine. He asked my wife where the leak was, and she replied—“at the bottom.” He looked at her knowingly and said, “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

The writers of <i>A Nation at Risk</i> took the how-to view of early education which now dominates the American educational world. Any sensible content that develops the necessary foundational skills will do.

The writers of A Nation at Risk took the how-to view of early education which now dominates the American educational world. Any sensible content that develops the necessary foundational skills will do. They cannot be faulted for taking this view. How could they think otherwise when there was such unanimity among experts? Here is how they described a hearing on “Language and Literacy,” held in April 1982:

A panel of five commission members … heard testimony regarding the development of the higher-order language skills necessary for academic learning. Six invited speakers presented national perspectives on teaching reading, writing, and second languages, and discussed related concerns with the commission members. Sixteen other speakers presented their views on the hearing topics, predominantly from regional and local perspectives. The general theme provided by the witnesses was that the language skills that should be emphasized were the more sophisticated, integrated, concept-oriented skills of comprehension and composition. (Page 55)

Throughout their report, the commissioners implied that the battle for educational improvement in the early grades would be won when they went beyond the basics and emphasized these “higher-order skills.” As a consequence, neither the commissioners nor their witnesses said anything about the actual content of early schooling. The path to improvement was considered to lie less in the substance of the first eight grades than in developing higher-order proficiencies regardless of the topics studied.

Decades later, elementary schools continue to follow the advice of the anti-curriculum experts, and work to achieve higher-order skills like “critical thinking” and “problem-solving.” Yet, according to international studies, these turn out to be the very skills that our students lack compared with students in Asian and European countries that have placed less emphasis on formal skills and more emphasis on coherent year-to-year subject matter. Higher-order skills are important, but they are not gained best by endlessly focusing on them. Anybody who is reading this probably possesses the skills advocated by A Nation at Risk. They can read the words with comprehension, and think about them critically. Somehow we have gained these higher-order skills without being taught them directly. Few of us learned critical thinking by taking lessons in critical thinking.

How did we manage that? Cognitive science is clear on the point—through practice. By the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, cognitive psychology had achieved a consensus about the importance of long practice and the content-based character of most academic skills. But the science of psychology was not often alluded to in A Nation at Risk, and today, 25 years later, there is still little crossover between cognitive science and educational policy.

A Nation at Risk simply assumed that gaining an academic skill such as reading or reckoning is independent of the specific curricular content through which the skill is taught. This is wrong. There is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.

In his superb book The Number Sense, Stanislas Dehaene makes an observation about high expertise in mathematics that has general application to most academic skills. He asked how it could be that some people who are only very modestly above average in basic math abilities should, after a time, perform astonishing feats of mental calculation—far beyond what ordinary people can achieve. The key, it turns out, is the little phrase “after a time.” Mental calculators are made, not born. They begin with a tiny basic advantage in math ability. This leads them to take pleasure in math. The process of doing problems and practicing calculations is a rewarding activity for them, and they practice math more and more. Those of us who lack that tiny initial edge take less pleasure in the activity and practice it much less.

What makes a math genius is thus in large part what makes a great musical performer—a small advantage in talent leads, over time, with long effort, to a big advantage in achievement—as in the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” In general, it is not some Kryptonitic superiority of Superman-like endowment that accounts for high expertise in any subject, but rather tenacity of practice (lasting on average some 10 years). What is true for math and music is also true for language abilities. Wide knowledge and a large vocabulary—the prerequisites to high achievement in high school—are gradual accretions. You cannot gain them by a sudden intensive incursion into high school.

The time is ripe for a new edition of A Nation at Risk that gives due attention to the need for a definite academic core curriculum in the early years. With a slow, tenacious, and effective buildup of knowledge and vocabulary in elementary school, high school will almost take care of itself.

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as An Epoch-Making Report, But What About the Early Grades?


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