From the outside, P.S. 67 in the South Bronx looks like a bitter parody of America’s mythic little red schoolhouse. The four-story brick building, barred and begrimed, sits alongside an empty lot strewn with plastic bags, foul rags, and weirdly contorted metal refuse and in front of a vacant “playground” whose concrete surface must be cleared of crack vials periodically so children can improvise their games. Across the street is the boarded-up Happy Land Social Club, where a disastrous flash fire killed 87 people in 1990.
But inside, P.S. 67, known as the Mohegan School, is a secure and buzzing oasis for just under a thousand students between 4 and 14 years old. The clean, recently painted walls, busily decorated with student artwork along spacious, orderly hallways, reflect the kind of grassroots leadership that has burnished public education here and there in many American cities. But the Mohegan School is more than that. The children are all black and Hispanic, all poor enough to qualify for a government-provided lunch, many from foster homes, shelters, and broken families—in short, the kind of kids common opinion would pronounce virtually ineducable. But they are learning: the Pyramids, cell structure, Beethoven. Islam, the French Revolution, the Underground Railroad. I could go on.
The curriculum of the Mohegan School is the brainchild of E. D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy and head of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. Core Knowledge is one of those transparently simple concepts viewed with suspicion by an educational establishment enamored of trendy innovations and highfalutin theories. The principle of Core Knowledge is that in order to become effectively literate, children need the knowledge widely shared by other educated members of their society. “’Content’ must receive as much emphasis as ’skill,’” Hirsch says—a distinctly unpopular view these days. Hirsch is not particularly interested in teaching techniques, cognitive processes, the details of testing and evaluation, or much of the psychobabble and arcana that fill the curriculum of education schools—not because none of these matter, but because he wisely believes in leaving instructional methods and psychology to the teacher who must actually put them to use.
Hirsch divides Core Knowledge into the traditional categories of language arts, geography, world civilization, American civilization, fine arts, mathematics, and natural sciences. For each grade from first to sixth, his foundation has assembled a list of names, books, phrases, concepts, and legends of increasing complexity to serve as a guideline for teachers introducing children to what he calls “the whole system of widely shared information and associations.” First graders read Pinocchio, The Ugly Duckling, Aesop’s Fables, and world myths; they learn, among other things, familiar sayings like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and the names of American Indian tribes and the world’s predominant religions. Fifth graders read Tom Sawyer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Chief Joseph’s “I Will Fight No More Forever,” and learn phrases like “run of the mill” and “on tenterhooks.” As the name “cultural literacy” makes clear, Hirsch’s program has at its center a profound concern with language.
It may seem a pipe dream to bring an ambitious and rigorous academic program into a South Bronx elementary school, a forgotten territory in the moribund New York City school system. But despite the obstacles, Mohegan’s principal, Jeffrey Litt, has been able to focus his innate optimism and obvious affection for children to make dramatic improvements in the school. Litt is a savvy, energetic veteran of the school bureaucracy; under his direction, there appears nothing overly romantic about the project. On the contrary, according to Litt, Core Knowledge offers precisely the discipline and concrete, attainable goals that his kids sorely need.
Up from the Ashes
Until several years ago, Mohegan reflected the miserable fortunes of its surroundings. The local neighborhood, encompassing East Tremont and parts of West Farms and Hunts Point, was once a solid, working-class community. East Tremont Avenue, the main commercial strip which cuts across the area a block away from the school, bustled with restaurants and shops. A fifth-grade teacher at Mohegan who grew up nearby remembers walking the avenue in the evening, windowshopping with her family, perusing the unbarred storefronts.
But in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the area suffered a terrible decline. Apartment houses burned down or were boarded up—transformed, often it seemed overnight, from modest family homes into havens for drug dealers, addicts, and sometimes even decomposing bodies. Violent crime increased to barbaric levels. The day before Litt arrived in 1988, a teacher dismissing her students was wounded when she was caught in a drug shoot-out at the entrance to the school.
The 1980s were the “Dark Ages” at P.S. 67, according to Maria Alba, who teaches English as a Second Language. The Board of Education shamelessly left the school to rot along with its surroundings. After her first day at the school in 1978, Alba recalls, she went home and cried. Windows were broken; the roof leaked; the torn and saw-toothed chain-link fence around the school “guarded” not a playground, but a cratered plot of asphalt. After a fire destroyed a classroom, it was left, like many buildings in the neighborhood, in its charred state. The once well-equipped brick building reeked.
Teachers and students alike were demoralized, not merely by the decrepitude of the building and the indifference of some of the many principals who came and went during those years, but also by the instability itself. The District 12 board told teachers to use a different set of textbooks almost every year, determined, it seems, largely by the size of kickbacks district employees were paid by textbook distributors. Children whose troubled family lives and decaying neighborhood taught them daily lessons in chaos, confusion, and indifference received an intensive education in the same values when they went to school. It was not unusual for 15 teachers to be absent on a given day. Things were so bad during the tenure of one particularly inept principal that 150 parents asked for transfers out of the school. During the two years after that principal was removed, P.S. 67 students were under the supervision of 5 different acting principals and 11 acting assistant principals. One of the short-lived principals, who left his position after a heart attack, wrote the district to complain that the school had no pencils, chalk, or textbooks. (Rumor had it that supplies were going out of the district office, to locations unknown, as soon as they came in.) Amidst this chaos, it became easy to use the school as a dumping ground for troublemakers, whether violent, truant, emotionally disturbed, or just plain academically hopeless. The district board finally noticed the monster it had helped create and, with its usual constructive concern, considered closing the school down.
Instead, the board appointed Litt as the new principal on June 1, 1988, three weeks before the end of the school year. He arrived to find a new assistant principal he had never met and a crowd of TV reporters digging up background information on the shooting the day before. Fortunately, Litt, a man with a self-confessed stubborn streak, knew what he was up against; he had served as an assistant superintendent in District 12 several years earlier.
His first task was to restore the building. He read the riot act to the custodian, and they began putting together a recognizable school piece by piece. They peeled off ancient, graffiti-covered wallpaper, fixed the bathrooms, and opened the long-forgotten library, which had been used for storage for the previous ten years.
“Sixty-seven is closed forever. We are the Mohegan School,” Litt announced to his staff one day in 1989. He knew the importance of instilling a sense of shared spirit and identity. Mohegan is the name of the avenue running alongside the school, which, legend has it, had graced the building 92 years earlier when it first opened.
He also began looking for a way to infuse new academic life. Skeptical of the typical bureaucratic admiration for degrees and seniority, he bypassed the Board of Education and recruited teachers with “heart” directly from colleges. He managed to turn over three-fourths of his staff within two years. He finagled 15 Lehman College scholarships so the novices could earn master’s degrees. By 1991, he had the building spruced up, he had a friendly school name, and he had a promising staff of teachers, 90 percent of them minority. What he didn’t have was a clear academic program.
Serendipitously, in the spring of that year, Litt attended a roundtable with Hirsch, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation. Hirsch explained the theory behind Core Knowledge, while Connie Jones, principal of the Three Oaks School in Fort Myers, Florida—the first school in the country to make a full commitment to the Core Knowledge sequence—described its practice. Litt was galvanized. The next day, Jones visited Mohegan with several administrators from her district. In turn, Litt, two of his teachers, and the president of the school’s Parents Association flew to Fort Myers to see the program in action. He immediately began plans to divide the school into five mini-academies. One of them, the Renaissance Academy, would pilot the Core Knowledge program.
Litt had no textbooks or even photocopied materials and no teachers trained in Core Knowledge. One of the Florida administrators who had visited the Bronx expressed his skepticism about the viability of a Core Knowledge curriculum in a school with Mohegan’s population of students. But Litt was undeterred. A group of teachers met over the summer to develop a curriculum cobbled together out of Hirsch’s sequence, the subjects mandated by New York City and State, and the Hispanic and African-American history they wished to emphasize for their students. The teachers of the seven classes, at least one for each grade, were assigned classrooms on the same floor so they could meet together, brainstorm, and share materials. Their enthusiasm was contagious; nine additional classes were set up in February. As word got around, more teachers requested transfer into the Renaissance Academy until September 1992, when the entire school was given over to it, including even bilingual and special education classes.
Overcoming Planned Ignorance
It is hardly news that most New York City public school children, like public school children across the country, fail to learn many of the basic facts about history, geography, science, and politics on which Core Knowledge focuses. What may come as a surprise, however, is that this failure is not the result of sloppy, ineffective teaching, but of careful, bureaucratic planning. For the most part, American school curricula are now organized not around knowledge but around “skills” and “concepts.” In Brooklyn’s District 15, where my own children have gone to school, the Parent Guide to the Early Childhood Curriculum specifies that a first grader is supposed to learn the following about geography: “Places can be located on maps. . . . The globe is a representation of the earth. . . . Location and direction of an object can be stated as relative to some other object.” To this end, children are frequently assigned homework making maps of their streets, neighborhoods, or homes.
At Mohegan, however, Hirsch’s curriculum ensures that a first grader will learn the names of continents, oceans, important nations and world civilizations, directions, and the equator. “My kids do not go home and draw a map of their own apartment,” Litt says. “What my first graders are learning, fourth graders are learning elsewhere, if at all.” It seems safe to assume that a child who can identify continents and oceans on a globe has managed to absorb all three of the District 15 concepts to boot.
It’s worth asking, then, why so many contemporary educators look upon a curriculum like Core Knowledge with suspicion. For the most part, the education establishment, grounded in progressive theories of education and childhood, believes that a curriculum must be centered on the child rather than the outside world. By arousing children’s natural interests and native abilities, the reasoning goes, the teacher helps children become active participants in their education. “What is crucial,” writes Herbert Kohl, the author of numerous books on teaching and one of the more compelling contemporary exponents of this sort of idea, “is the ability to observe and discover students’ skills and needs, and build a learning environment that grows from them and does not violate them.” The actual content of the material under study is secondary; as long as it can charm the student and stimulate mental involvement, it will do the job. “If students are interested in paper airplanes,” Kohl asserts, “it is more sensible to build a unit around flying than to ban them and assume police functions.” Standardized, information-based curricula are seen as conforming to what another theorist has called “the banking concept of education,” wherein the teacher deposits information into passive students. Kohl, who is highly critical of Hirsch, argues that virtually all structured curricula encourage teachers to become inflexible, deaf to the vitality and individuality of their charges.
Several of these points can be answered by a casual visit to the Mohegan School. First, Litt has introduced an Individualized Education Plan; teachers meet on Saturday mornings to develop a particularized program to adapt to the learning style of each child. Second, there is a great deal of flexibility allowed within the curriculum. Hirsch’s sequence is a guideline, intended to cover 50 percent of class time, and says nothing about the method of presentation. As long as they are teaching the required content, teachers are free to use plays, videotapes, cooperative learning, art and writing projects, and debates as they see fit. Third, concerns about passive, indifferent students seem to assume that children will always respond to a curriculum as if it were an ill-tasting medicine. Perhaps this is true with some dull or poorly presented plans. But teachers at Mohegan talk excitedly about how often their students’ curiosity has been piqued, over the most unexpected subjects. A number of them expressed amazement at the pleasure taken by impoverished children in the paintings of van Gogh and Picasso. Evidently, in the right environment, kids can find the Pyramids or modem art as meaningful as their own apartments or paper airplanes.
Another criticism is that Hirsch’s idea of literacy is facile, that it “elevates superficial acquaintance with words to the status of knowledge,” as Kohl has put it. This requires a more careful answer, for it unwittingly reveals a confusion prevalent in American education today. Hirsch does not believe that literacy consists solely in acquiring information, but that information is a necessary condition. The neat distinction between rote learning and deep understanding so fervently held by many educators is false and easily belied. Take this example given in Cultural Literacy, from an unexceptional article in the Washington Post.
A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a Missouri farm, saying that U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt-ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended.
In order to achieve a genuine understanding of this passage, Hirsch points out, a reader needs to know, if only vaguely, the structure of the American court system and the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government. It would also help to know where Missouri is and what foreclosure is. In other words, we need a great deal of general background information even to understand a simple article in a “family” newspaper.
The continuum between factual information and real understanding is in constant evidence at the Mohegan School. For example, I observed a musical play about the Constitutional Convention. Fourth graders, neatly outfitted in white shirts and dark pants and skirts, the actors in powdered wigs and the chorus in red, white, and blue cordons, dramatized and sang about the events leading to the plan for the two houses of Congress. By enacting the debate between the smaller colonies, holding out for a vote by state, and the larger colonies, demanding a vote determined by size, the actual details like the names of the colonies, their sizes, and their locations inspired deeper understanding.
It is true that without talented, dedicated teachers, an information-based curriculum could be an invitation to colorless, mechanical teaching, not to mention incoherent, scattered knowledge. But at Mohegan, part of the excitement for many teachers has been working at ways to make the new curriculum their own by finding connections around themes. Some, aspiring to give their students a sense of historical continuity, have organized their subjects around historical periods. Evelyn Hernandez, whose quiet fascination with material that is largely new to her surely permeates the classroom, spent last September guiding her fifth graders through the Renaissance. Its history, which includes the great explorers, also suggested lessons in geography. Its artists led to classes in science; she used da Vinci’s inventions as a means to bring in concepts like force and speed. Renaissance writers were also a rich source of related material; her class read an abridged version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which both recalled the children’s previous study of the Roman period and, in a perfect example of “cultural literacy,” introduced phrases such as “Et tu, Brute?” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” which the children are likely to encounter again.
Thus, the children become aware that the dustbin of history is rich with hidden nuggets of meaning. “History repeats itself,” Hernandez often tells her students, and they have begun to understand what she means. Having read about World War I, another teacher noted, they have become more attentive to the current war in the Balkans. Having read about Stalin, Mussolini, and Caesar, they debate dictatorship. Having been read A Christmas Carol, some fifth graders were excited to come upon a newspaper headline about a “Scrooge landlord” and an article about a “Dickensian childhood.” These phrases were no longer merely meaningless noise from the alien and forbidding outside world—they offered the means to understand that world.
In this light, the most common objection to Hirsch’s program—that it is elitist and Eurocentric—seems woefully misguided. Cultural literacy has often been mistakenly seen as an attempt to turn children into stuffy little traditionalists who can ape the dead white truisms of the past. Actually Hirsch’s approach to the European past is more utilitarian than reverent. When the Core Knowledge sequence includes an everyday saying like “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”—to give one example that troubled Herbert Kohl—it is not intended as prescriptive advice, but merely as part of a common, educated vocabulary. Indeed, Hirsch contends that it is the essence of democratic education to give disadvantaged children the information to which many middle-class students have automatic access. In a sense, his goals are more modest than his critics have realized. Unlike most prominent American educators of the past century, he is not seeking to shape a utopian world, but merely to make children effectively literate, improving their chances at a good life and, perhaps, at improving the world.
Moreover, cultural literacy today requires multicultural information, which abounds in Hirsch’s curriculum. Children in any Core Knowledge school will know about Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, Egyptian civilization, American slavery, Reconstruction, and so forth. And because Hirsch’s curriculum is meant to take up only half the school’s time, teachers have ample opportunity to include subjects that will be of special interest to their students. At the Three Oak School in the Gulf Coast city of Fort Myers, students study the sea in every grade. At Mohegan, children spend substantial time on Hispanic and black history. During each assembly there is a color guard holding an American, Puerto Rican, and African flag, and the children sing the Star Spangled Banner, the African-American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and, in Spanish, the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinqueña.”
In a first-grade class I visited, Tracey Torres, who orchestrates her restless youngsters with the cool, controlled elegance of a bandleader, explained to the children the three different ethnic groups of Puerto Pico: the Taino Indians, Spaniards, and Africans. She played music and asked the children to identify the instrument: maracas, guitar, and drums, each reflecting a different strand of ethnic heritage. These young children were receiving something more than the standard multicultural fare, designed to pump up their self-esteem; they were getting a message that, if they are lucky, will be repeated many times in their education: that civilization, as Jacques Barzun has put it, is “a collective piece of work.”
Beating the Odds
For all these successes, there remain immense obstacles at Mohegan. Most disturbing is the brutality of the lives of many of its children; the school has the highest number of child-abuse reports in the district. Litt has introduced several programs to ensure at least some children maximum time within the safety of the building. A hundred kids stay until 6 P.m. every day in a city-funded latchkey program. Another extended day program provides remedial attention to about 150 children. A Police Athletic League group meets several nights a week until 9 P.M. But only so much can be done to protect the children from the chaos without.
Mohegan suffers from an enormous “mobility rate”: 47 percent of its students move to or arrive from another school every year. Though reading scores were up by an impressive 13 percent in 1992, the high student turnover makes it difficult to interpret such numbers. And teachers still complain about shortages of material, though this problem has been mitigated by grants from the Manhattan Institute.
Then there is the New York City Board of Education. In 1992 the Bush administration honored Mohegan as both a Break the Mold School and one of the Thousand Points of Light; it has been the subject of numerous national television programs and magazine articles. But 110 Livingston Street appears not to know Mohegan exists—literally, since according to the bureaucracy it is still P.S. 67. Only one low-level administrator from the Office of Curriculum and Instruction has ever come to observe the school, and no one from the board has spread the word of Mohegan’s innovations to other educators.
Nevertheless, Mohegan teachers have found in Hirsch’s curriculum and Litt’s leadership a way to keep up their spirits. The staff has achieved the sense of shared mission so integral to the life of any effective school. And Litt continues to expand his efforts. Fearing that violence and anonymity would envelop his graduates as they moved on to middle and high schools with thousands of students, Litt has already extended Mohegan to the eighth grade. He has plans for a high school next to the existing building, to be funded in part by private foundations. Litt’s efforts prove once again that the only way to succeed within the educational bureaucracy is to work around it, putting aside fashionable educationalist orthodoxies in favor of a no-nonsense approach to learning.