An 87-year-old education reformer from the Land of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia is now taking education in the United Kingdom by storm. Since being rediscovered by former British Education Secretary Michael Gove, E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, is enjoying a renaissance. He’s not only captured the attention of Britain’s brightest education scholar, Daisy Christodoulou, but is now finding a new and more receptive audience in Britain. His recent Policy Exchange Public Lecture on September 17, 2015, has made him the darling of education’s chattering class.
Hirsch is being rediscovered by a whole new generation of thoughtful, better-read educators completely fed-up with the “content-lite” curriculum predominant in state schools the U.K. and still blithely accepted across North America. He burst on the American national education scene in 1987 with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, which – in a rare act of intellectual courage– proposed 5,000 subjects and concepts that every American ought to know to be considered a ‘fully educated person.’ He followed it up with his true educational classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999). That book spawned the Core Knowledge Foundation which works across the United States to publish “core content” materials and specifies the knowledge and skills which ought to be taught in every school year.
The educational pendulum tends to swing and today E.D. Hirsch is literally born again as both a wise prophet and a resilient education reformer. Once dismissed as an American “conservative” educator and purveyor of “hard facts,” he’s now being cherished in Britain as a stalwart defender of “knowledge” in state school systems seemingly mesmerized by teaching “competencies and skills” for the 21st century world. Educators everywhere are awakening to the fallacies entrenched in so-called “progressive education” dogma. If everything can now be “Googled,” why do we have schools?
Even though Hirsch is a liberal Democrat, he has been labelled in the United States as an arch-conservative for daring to question the basic premises of John Dewey’s “learn by doing” brand of education. In his September 2015 Policy Exchange lecture series, he demonstrates that teaching knowledge to young children is egalitarian because it provides the foundation for becoming better early readers and more informed young citizens. Developing a sound vocabulary and knowledge about the world, not only aid in reading but make for more successful students. Developing that knowledge base is a “plant of slow growth,” so the early years are important to establishing the foundations.
Hirsch is no fan of the fashionable 21st century “students can teach themselves” school of thought. Search engines, he told his British audience at Pimlico Academy, cannot be relied upon to teach vital knowledge. “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder”: it requires some knowledge to know where to look in the first place and then to determine whether the information is completely bogus. It’s like fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch or trying to find that needle in that massive electronic haystack.
Hirsch’s teachings actually flow from a very logical, common sense educational premise: knowledge matters because knowing something remains important — and knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you know, the more you are able to learn. Twenty years ago, in 1993, the State of Massachusetts adopted his “core knowledge curriculum” model and, since then, has surged ahead of the pack among American states. While American education schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston College flirt with Finnish education, the United Kingdom has latched onto the “Massachusetts Miracle” and its initial inspiration, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum.
What we know about reading comprehension owes much to Hirsch. As a professor of English Literature in his mid-fifties, he made a discovery about how reading is taught that, in his words, “changed his life.” The prevalence of poor reading and writing skills among incoming university students troubled him and he set out to address the “literacy gap.” It was most evident in classes where teachers embraced “reader-response” strategies in the study of literature.
Hirsch is best known as a scholar for his impeccable, in-depth research into reading comprehension. He observed that “knowledgeable students” had an easier time comprehending the texts, and then discovered that reading comprehension was greatly enhanced by the early acquisition of “background knowledge.” His ground-breaking studies, summarized in a Spring 2003 American Educator article, demonstrated that the so-called “fourth grade slump” and stagnating reading scores could be traced back to a fundamental lack of background knowledge as well as weak foundational skills.
His research discoveries were transformed into what became the Core Knowledge curriculum framework. It rests on two key principles: 1) Coherent, cumulative factual knowledge is vital for reading comprehension, literacy, and critical higher-order thinking skills; and 2) Children from poor, illiterate homes remain disadvantaged and illiterate because of a lack of cultural literacy and core background knowledge. Not addressing that problem constituted “an unacceptable failure of our schools.”
The “Massachusetts Miracle, “ initiated with the 1993 Education Reform Act, is closely connected with the adoption of knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to those new standards. Between 2003 and 2011, Massachusetts students have soared to higher levels on the NAEP tests in grade 4 and grade 8 reading and mathematics. It is also commonly acknowledged that the state standards are Hirsch’s legacy. That is, more than anything else, what attracted the British Education authorities to Hirsch and the advantages of a core knowledge-based curriculum.
Hirsch’s curriculum reform agenda implemented in the Bay state spread to about 1,000 U.S. schools, driven by charter school adoptions. While his Core Knowledge framework faced fierce opposition from the Columbia School of Education and entrenched “educational progressives,” the architect of the project remained a determined, almost incurable optimist. The American Common Core reform initiative attempted to mimmic his curriculum with mixed success. The British version, promoted by former Education Secretary Gove, is more closely aligned with his model and will likely be a fairer test of its effectiveness.
Why have American education reformer E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Curriculum come once again to the fore? How much of the “Massachusetts Miracle” is attributable to the adoption of the core-knowledge curriculum, standards and accountability program ? What went wrong when the United States attempted to implement the Common Core Curriculum with the sanction of the Barack Obama administration? How important is the mastery of content and the acquisition of knowledge in the most successful schools worldwide?