(edited to include that author identification)
Cultural Literacy hit the bookstores. There, he argued that people with power and privilege share a body of cultural knowledge and went on to argue that schools should make sure that children from less privileged families learned that content. For Hirsch, that was an equity issue, because children of privilege will get that knowledge at home, but others need public school to give them equivalent opportunity. I found that argument compelling (especially after understanding Hirsch’s argument that the shared knowledge can and does and should change over time).
Over the last decade, I’ve become an even bigger fan of Hirsch’s argument about reading. His claim, backed by an array of research, is that reading is a process of making meaning that draws on what readers already know, and that therefore schools should be intentional about teaching students key content from the very earliest years. In PrichBlog’s first year, I blogged about that concept here, here, and here.
Even so, I wasn’t ready for the radicalism of Hirsch’s most recent book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. In that new work, Hirsch argues that failing to equip students with a shared body of content knowledge is why:
- Preschool learning gains fade out by third grade
- Nationwide high school reading scores have barely changed since 1971, even though grade 4 scores have risen significantly
- American school systems continue to use “technically valid, educationally invalid reading tests” with questions that can easily confuse students and mystify parents
- Cognitive research on how expertise is domain specific, depending on a built up body of connected knowledge and with very few skills that can be studied apart from that knowledge or transferred to other domains.
- Long-term results from French education, which switched from a nationally shared curriculum for each grade to local control of content and national concern only for broad skills, and (on Hirsch’s account) saw a substantial decline in achievement and a sharp increase in achievement gaps as a result.
Only a well-rounded, knowledge-specific curriculum can impart needed knowledge to all children and overcome inequality of opportunity. Whether we can summon the will to break the romantic intellectual monopoly that has held us in thrall will be determined by the following concrete test: Will any large American locality be willing to institute a good, content-specific curriculum grade-by grade throughout all the elementary schools of the district? If one single big district does so, it will be a watershed event in our educational history.Hirsch is confident that a sustained effort like that in a single jurisdiction would result in deeper student engagement, yield greater parent satisfaction and teacher enthusiasm, and produce academic results that would be “significantly better and fairer than current results.” Over time, that record would draw attention and wider adoption, contagiously changing education across the country.
I’m partially convinced and ready to do more thinking about whether Kentucky should aim for a shift that big.
The first thing I see, though, is that the shift truly would already be big. Our use of Next Generation Science Standards may already call for a grade-by-grade cumulative approach to knowledge as well as skills, but a matching approach in history, literature, and the arts could require some substantial changes in Kentucky thought and practice.
The shift Hirsch wants would be a revolution, and I'm cautious about major social upheavals. Accordingly, I need to read more and discuss more before I know whether this big move is the right big move for Kentucky’s learners.