Cultural Literacy Creator Carries On Campaign

By Liana Loewus — October 11, 2016 9 min read
E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s newest book comes as his ideas are seeing a resurgence in schools and instructional materials across the country.
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For nearly three decades, E.D. Hirsch Jr. has been beating the drum on a simple idea, though one that’s proved a hard sell: To become good readers and communicators, U.S. students need a shared curriculum that teaches them about science, history, math, geography, literature, and the arts.

In other words, more than skills and strategies, students need knowledge.

His philosophy first came to the general public’s attention in 1987 when, as head of the English department at the University of Virginia, he wrote Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. The book included an appendix listing about 5,000 names, dates, places, and ideas—everything from the adrenal gland to zeitgeist—that students should learn in school.

The list made the book a best-seller—and it also made Hirsch persona non grata in plenty of liberal education circles. He was labeled Eurocentric and an elitist, and many wrote off his ideas entirely.

But Hirsch, an avowed liberal who champions the idea that having students learn the same things will lead to equal opportunities for all, hasn’t backed down. And now, at age 88, he’s at it again with a new book about the need for a knowledge-based curriculum. The book’s publication comes as Hirsch is seeing his theories rebound and creep their way into more schools, teacher trainings, and instructional materials—largely, many say, thanks to the Common Core State Standards.

But in Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories, Hirsch excoriates the education policies of the day, including—interestingly—the use of the common core.

The reading standards’ focus on all-purpose comprehension skills rather than content, while it may be politically necessary, is “a deep misfortune,” he said.

“It’s a pointless approach,” he concludes.

Role of Background Knowledge

Asked why he thinks his work is undergoing a renaissance, Hirsch answers plainly: “There’s been a sense that what we’re doing isn’t working very well.”

Average reading scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have declined significantly since 1988, according to the most recent long-term-trend assessment, as Hirsch notes in his newest book. At the same time, reading scores have risen among 9- and 13-year-olds, which he chalks up to improvements in how foundational reading skills are taught. But those gains are lost when students meet more demanding texts in high school.

In addition, racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps have remained large and unyielding.

“Most people seem to agree that over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a narrowing of the curriculum to make time for more math and reading,” said Lisa Hansel, the director of Knowledge Matters, a campaign launched this past spring to encourage knowledge-building in schools. (Hirsch is a board member of the group.) “Somehow, spending more and more time on reading isn’t giving us the long-term reading results we’re after.”

Plus, as both Hirsch and other scholars note, a growing body of research shows the critical role background knowledge plays in reading comprehension.

A year after Cultural Literacy was published, researchers Donna R. Recht and Lauren Leslie published a seminal study looking at the link between what students know and their reading proficiency. When given a passage about baseball, students deemed poor readers (by a standardized reading test) who were knowledgeable about baseball showed better comprehension than good readers who knew little about the sport.

A 1997 study by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich likewise found a high correlation between reading ability and general cultural knowledge. And, more recently, Gina N. Cervetti and other University of Michigan researchers found evidence that students who read a series of texts on a particular topic, becoming experts on the subject in a way, improve their vocabulary and comprehension.

“Cognitive models of reading emphasize that a lot of the information you need to make connections between ideas and text are typically left out of the text,” explained Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies K-12 education. For instance, if you read, “ ‘I got a puppy. My landlord is really angry,’ that’s readily understandable but relies on you knowing about the kinds of things puppies do to carpets and the attitudes landlords hold toward damage to their property,” he said. Students need that background knowledge to understand the text.

“In some ways, Don [Hirsch] was ahead of his time,” Willingham said. “The persistent importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension is really quite evident in the last 30 years.”

Common Core Pays Homage

Hirsch’s ideas, and the research backing them, “mattered a lot” in the development of the common core, said Sue Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the English/language arts standards.

David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team at Student Achievement Partners, a professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common core, points to Page 33 of the standards, which calls for systematically building knowledge in English/language arts. However, he admits that many people overlooked that page, at least at first, because it’s not part of the grade-specific goals. “I’ve done [professional development] with thousands of teachers—possibly 10,000. Not one of them recognized [the page] at first, but those 10,000 know it now,” he said.

Seven years after the standards were published, more educators are noticing that language and beginning to pay it heed, said Hansel of Knowledge Matters. “It’s taken a while to get to the point where folks at the state, district, and school level and community partners have had the chance to read and digest the whole standards document,” she said.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., photographed at the University of Virginia, where he taught for 34 years, denounces standardized tests and the common core in Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories.

The common core’s emphasis on reading complex texts has also gotten educators thinking about the importance of teaching content, some said. “Teachers are seeing you have to grow knowledge and you have to grow vocabulary,” Liben said.

In the 1980s, Hirsch helped develop a framework for teaching content called Core Knowledge, which about 1,000 schools were using for many years. The program was recently expanded into a full-fledged, common-core-aligned ELA curriculum, the commercial version of which is now being used in about 3,700 schools. A free version of the English/language curriculum has been downloaded over 5 million times in the last three years, said Linda Bevilacqua, president of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hirsch himself is adamant that there’s no single right curriculum for building knowledge—that Core Knowledge is just one “workable example” of how to teach critical content. (He emphasizes that he doesn’t make a personal profit from the curriculum sales—the funds are funneled back to the associated nonprofit foundation.)

And recently, there’s been a proliferation of curricula that take a similar tack. Expeditionary Learning, Great Minds, and Pearson have all published knowledge-based ELA curricula for the common core, according to Liben. Some free online resources are emphasizing content, too, including one called Bookworms, devised by two university professors.

“In terms of uptick among schools, I really feel like this is the first break-out moment for Don’s ideas,” said Hansel.

Her group also links the renewed energy around Hirsch’s theories to the recently passed federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law repeatedly refers to the need for a “well-rounded education” and lists subjects outside of reading and math that students should be exposed to.

‘Empty’ Standards

But to hear Hirsch talk about the common core is to get a different story entirely.

He calls the reading standards “empty” and “deeply flawed” because they teach all-purpose reading-comprehension strategies rather than facts and information. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to what he refers to as “the tribulations of the common core.”

“The people who developed the common core had a choice. Either [the standards] were going to be educationally correct or they were going to be politically viable,” he said. “They chose the second.” Forty-six states agreed to adopt the standards right away, which he argues “could only be accomplished if you didn’t specify the content of the curriculum.”

One standard in particular that galls Hirsch asks students to find the main idea of a text.

“There is no such thing as an abstract main-idea-finding skill,” he said. “Just think of it—how in the hell would I find the main idea if I didn’t know what the ideas were?”

Willingham, the University of Virginia psychologist, said Hirsch is right here—to a point. “If you apply a reading-comprehension strategy to a text where you lack backgroundknowledge, it’s not going to work,” he said. “But there are lots of studies showing that teaching students comprehension strategies does boost reading comprehension.”

Such studies show that students only need about 10 sessions of practicing a strategy. After that, the effect fades away, Willingham explained.

But many teachers still worry that Hirsch’s push for teaching facts rather than encouraging independent exploration and learning is out of date in the internet age and will bore students. “At what point do we value being able to make sense of all of it over trying to recall some disconnected facts?” asked Will Richardson, an author, consultant, and former teacher with expertise in digital learning. “You risk losing a whole generation of kids as learners because you’re just force-feeding them stuff.”

Unfair Reading Tests

In his new book, Hirsch also claims that empty standards have led to reading tests that are neither fair nor productive.

“A fair test would be a curriculum-based test that tested the reading comprehension on subjects that the schools had taught,” he said. “That’s not the nature of reading tests now. It cannot be the nature of the reading tests because the test-makers don’t know what the curriculum is, because there is no set subject-matter curriculum that all 3rd graders all 4th graders are going to study.”

That’s particularly unfair for disadvantaged students, he said, who are likely coming to school with less background knowledge than their more affluent peers.

While many of the ideas in his new book reiterate his previous work, Why Knowledge Matters also makes the argument in a new way: by looking to the education history in France.

Hirsch writes that between 1977 and 1989, France had a national elementary curriculum. When that was replaced under an education reform law with locally determined curricula and instruction focused on general skills such as “critical thinking,” achievement declined across demographic groups, and social stratification increased.

“It was a natural experiment what happened in France,” Hirsch said. “If we don’t take note of it, we’re just sticking our heads in the ground.”

His discovery of the research on France compelled Hirsch to write the new book, which he won’t say for sure is his last. “I thought the book before was my last,” he said. “But if it’s important, you can’t say it too often.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as Cultural Literacy Creator Carries On Campaign


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