Eye on the News

Sol Stern
The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch
How my kids’ progressive school helped teach me the value of a content-rich curriculum
6 December 2013

E. D. Hirsch is the most important education reformer of the past half-century. I came to this conclusion after writing about schools, teachers, and education policy for almost two decades. But the truth is, I first turned to Hirsch’s writing for practical and personal reasons. I was baffled by the educational practices I witnessed at PS 87, the famous New York City public school my sons attended from 1987 to 1997.

Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, PS 87 is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My wife and I were delighted when our older son was admitted to the school. It had just been ranked by Parents magazine as one of the country’s ten best elementary schools—public or private—and the New York Times profiled it as one of the few city schools that middle-class parents still clamored to get their kids into. PS 87 had a reputation for adhering to the “progressive education” philosophy, but this didn’t concern me. I had little understanding of what progressivism would mean for my children in the classroom, other than that PS 87 seemed committed to providing a nurturing and minimally restrictive environment for its students. For example, I noticed that instead of sitting in rows facing the teacher, as I did when I attended the New York City public schools, the children in the early grades sat in circles on a rug and often worked together in groups. I was told that this was the “open classroom” reform, introduced in the 1970s. The new seating arrangement seemed harmless enough. Indeed, I thought it was quite charming.

I soon received a crash course in educational progressivism. Many of the school’s teachers were trained at such citadels of progressive education as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, where they learned to repeat pleasant-sounding slogans like “teach the child, not the text” and were told that all children are “natural learners.” PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about. But I worried a lot, and even more so when my son moved up to fourth grade. His new teacher assigned even more “real-life” math problems, including one that asked students to calculate how many Arawaks were killed by Christopher Columbus in 1492 during his conquest of Hispaniola.

The most troubling thing I discovered was that PS 87’s children were taught almost nothing about such foundational subjects as the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and the Civil War. I can still vividly recall a conversation with my younger son and several of his classmates when they were in the fourth grade. I innocently asked what, if anything, they knew about the famous Union commander for whom their school was named. They gave me blank stares. After more inquiry, I realized that not only hadn’t the children been taught about the brave soldier who delivered the final blow to the slaveholders’ empire; they also knew almost nothing about the Civil War.

More disturbing was what PS 87’s principal said when I informed him of my conversation with my son and his classmates. “It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” he granted, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

By now, tired of the self-serving rationalizations offered by the school principal, I was desperate for an independent explanation of what was happening in PS 87’s classrooms. I found it in Hirsch’s first two education books, published during that period. After reading Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), I felt that Hirsch was accurately describing PS 87’s instructional culture, without ever having stepped foot in the school. Hirsch convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good.

Cultural Literacy became a surprise bestseller because many other parents were also asking questions about who was responsible for the lack of academic substance in their children’s schools. Hirsch addressed these concerns near the beginning of the book: “The unacceptable failure of our schools has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty education theories.” This didn’t happen by chance or because of professional incompetence, according to Hirsch. Rather it was intended, quite deliberately, by the schools of education. It wasn’t that professors of education favored the wrong curriculum, but that they stood for no curriculum at all. Citing romantic theories of child development going back to Rousseau, the progressives argued that, with just a little assistance from teachers, children would figure it out as they went along. That’s because students were capable of “constructing their own knowledge.”

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading. In The Schools We Need, Hirsch suggested that the education reform he advocated—a content-rich curriculum—had become the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before politicians of both parties began using that phrase.

In a chapter of The Schools We Need called “Critique of a Thoughtworld,” Hirsch describes how institutions like Teachers College created an “impregnable fortress” of ideas and doctrines, which were then transmitted to future teachers and to the parents who send their children to public schools. “Like any guild that determines who can and cannot enter a profession,” Hirsch wrote, “the citadel of education has developed powerful techniques for preventing outside interference, not least of which is mastery of slogan.” Prior to venturing into the education wars, Hirsch had trained in literary studies with the New Critics at Yale University, became a distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Virginia, and acquired a reputation as one of the nation’s leading scholars and literary critics. Hirsch could not have anticipated the level of vitriol, even hatred, directed at him when he crossed the border separating the academic universities and their education-school affiliates. As he would soon discover, the ed-school professoriate was not about to accept interference from a meddlesome outsider. The progressive-education establishment turned on the interloper, branding him a reactionary, an elitist, and a defender of white privilege—all for suggesting that American schools should offer their students the academic content that they would need to become proficient readers and knowledgeable citizens.

In 1997, Educational Researcher, the journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—the organization representing the nation’s education professors—published an unprecedented attack on Hirsch’s work by Walter Feinberg, a progressive educator. Feinberg’s 8,000-word broadside unintentionally illuminated what progressives believed about the purpose of American schooling. “Hirsch minimizes a history of racial and gender bias as factors in differential educational and economic achievement,” Feinberg wrote. “He dismisses complex theories of social class reproduction, and he demotes the importance of pedagogies that encourage the construction and negotiation of meaning across communities of difference. He insists that teachers and the texts are the proper bearers and students the proper recipients of meaning and refuses to understand the importance of meaning as a negotiated product in a multicultural society.” Since Hirsch supported traditional, content-based education and a rich curriculum, one has to admit that he was guilty as charged. But in this one paragraph Feinberg powerfully confirms the fecklessness of the ed schools.

When I read Feinberg’s essay, I finally understood what my son’s teachers at PS 87 were up to. Instead of teaching students about the American founding and the Civil War, they were “negotiating meaning across communities of difference.” Hirsch wasn’t deterred by the education professors’ attacks. He continued exposing the utter lack of scientific validity in the progressives’ pedagogical principles. Hirsch spent the better part of the decade after writing Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics, seeking to determine which classroom methods best promote student learning. In The Knowledge Deficit (2006), Hirsch cited the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting his theory linking students’ background knowledge to their achievement in reading comprehension.

The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, the last of Hirsch’s quartet of education books, deepens his argument that a rich curriculum is essential for citizenship in our ethnically diverse democracy. The Founders relied on the common schools for imparting the virtues and knowledge that would keep the new republic intact. The best way to do that was to teach the same grade-by-grade curriculum to each child. Thomas Jefferson even proposed a common curriculum, so that children’s “memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.” Tragically, the Founders’ republican principles are not in safe educational hands today. Few teachers-in-training learn that the purpose of schooling in America is to create knowledgeable, civic-minded citizens, as Jefferson envisioned. Rather, in their ed-school courses, they often learn that it is acceptable to use the classroom to undermine the Founders’ ideals and turn children into champions of “social justice”—as defined by their leftist education professors.

In reviewing Hirsch’s education writings, I was struck by an essay he published in The New York Review of Books in March 1989 titled, “The Primal Scene of Education”—one of those rare instances when the title of an article conveys a meaning beyond the article’s content. For Hirsch, the “primal scene of education” was, of course, the classroom. He meant this in two ways. First, it is in the classroom that the progressives’ fantasy that children can construct their own knowledge finally collides with reality. Second, the classroom is also the primal scene for all education reform schemes. Hirsch was suggesting that school reformers who primarily stressed structural changes within the education system were missing an important element: all reform schemes ultimately must be judged by whether they produce good classroom instruction. “The effort to develop a standard sequence of core knowledge is, to put it bluntly, absolutely essential to effective educational reform in the United States,” Hirsch wrote. “Amid the other improvements that may occur . . . the inherent logic of the primal scene of education itself still remains.”

“American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world,” Hirsch wrote in 1989. “But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above all, elementary schooling.” This was Hirsch’s portrait of American K-12 education almost a quarter-century ago. Remarkably, that grim assessment remains true today. According to a recent report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year [1971].” There have been some improvements in reading and math scores in the lower grades, but these gains aren’t significant if they disappear in high school and if students entering college or the workforce—the end product of the public school system—need remediation in reading and writing.

It’s tempting to speculate about how different this picture of academic stagnation might look if more attention had been paid to Hirsch’s plea for a content-based curriculum. Yet Hirsch never lost his faith in the power of ideas and his conviction that good ideas eventually triumph over bad ones. “When I am feeling hopeful, I imagine to myself how things might change,” Hirsch wrote in his New York Review article. “A few schools scattered over the country will hold their pupils accountable for acquiring an agreed-upon minimum core of knowledge grade by grade. Because classroom work in such schools will be more effective and interesting for their pupils, children will feel more curious and eager. Their abilities to speak, write, and learn will improve noticeably. Students from such schools will make significantly higher scores on standardized tests of scholastic aptitude and achievement. Neighboring schools will observe the results, and, not wishing to be outshone, will follow the lead. District and state offices will find it convenient not to resist these successful undertakings.”

With the royalties from his best-selling Cultural Literacy, Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. The foundation, in turn, created a knowledge-based curriculum and a national network of 1,000 Core Knowledge schools, both charters and traditional public schools. Hirsch hoped that these schools would spread the news to teachers and parents that a content-rich curriculum works better than the “fragmented curriculum” favored by educational theorists. The most important breakthrough for Hirsch’s ideas occurred in 2009, when New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein admitted that he might have been wrong in choosing the Teachers College literacy program for the city’s schools. Klein then created a three-year pilot program in which ten elementary schools using the Core Knowledge literacy program were matched with ten demographically similar schools using the “balanced-literacy” reading program. The study confirmed that classrooms using Core Knowledge far outperformed those using the Teachers College program.

The New York Times essentially endorsed Hirsch’s reading plan when it reported that children using Core Knowledge “outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days.” At about the same time, the final draft of the Common Core State Standards was released and eventually adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The 220-page English Language Arts section of the Standards makes no mention of Hirsch, but it nevertheless represents a vindication of his education vision. Here is what the Common Core says about the need for a coherent school curriculum: “While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document [emphasis added].”

Until the Common Core Standards arrived, Hirsch and his supporters had little luck convincing school districts that the key to lifting student academic achievement is a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Now, with the states’ adoption of the Standards and their commitment to complement them with “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum,” there is an opening to do just that. New York, the first state to adopt the Standards, chose the Core Knowledge Foundation to create the reading curriculum for grades K-2. The curriculum is now posted on the state education department’s website and available to every school in the state.

After a quarter-century of neglect by the education establishment, this is a redemptive moment for E. D. Hirsch. It’s also an opportunity for teachers in my kids’ old elementary school, PS 87, to reeducate themselves about the need for a rich curriculum that includes, among many other things, the Civil War.

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