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Kids’ progress in reading lags when they pick curriculum, educator says


University of Virginia professor emeritus ED Hirsch Jr. is one of our nation’s most respected education experts. At age 94, he has become impatient with us for overlooking trouble in our elementary and middle schools.

American students, he says, must learn more about the world to be good readers and halt a slump in literacy aggravated by a wrongheaded emphasis on students choosing their lessons. He thinks all children should have a set curriculum with wonderful details about history, geography, culture and literature that emphasize our similarities, not our differences.

Racism? Guns? Immigration? Those arguments are fine for adults, but our youngest need to absorb first the same intriguing facts about our country and the world. Hirsch recommends developing a national ethnicity — the kind of shared educational background found in other countries where literacy is higher.

Reading Hirsch’s new book, “American Ethnicity,” is like being told by your grandpa to turn off cable news, admit we are all part of the same USA tribe and make sure all our children learn essential facts and concepts. Hirsch doesn’t mention former president Donald Trump, who criticized what he called “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” But Hirsch seems to be saying that whether we’re for or against Trump, our kids need help.

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Hirsch attacks a key premise of progressive education, the notion that each teacher must set young minds free to explore whatever interests them and be “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

“That brilliant slogan depends upon a false analogy between the natural development of the human body and the schooling and socialization of the human mind,” he says. “The young mind requires a sage on the stage. The child’s neocortex is a blank slate. It doesn’t ‘develop.’ It gets instruction from outside — if not from the sage on the stage then from influencers outside the classroom. The child’s neocortex awaits intelligent instruction from the elders of the tribe.”

Hirsch has made this argument before, although his call for a united ethnicity is new. I am among many who think agreement on a national curriculum is impossible, but we can make progress by supporting local schools that adopt something like the Core Knowledge approach that Hirsch developed long ago. Hirsch told me this might be better done under the radar, as the notion of a national ethnicity may only inspire more arguments.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the best federal measure of our schools, shows some long-term improvement in reading but a lag in recent years. The average score for fourth-graders improved 12 points from 1971 to 2020 but showed no significant gain since 2012. Eighth-graders in 2020 were just five points higher than in 1971, and they dropped three points after 2012. when we see the post-pandemic reading data. Hirsch also notes little progress since 1990 in narrowing the gap between White and Black students’ math and reading achievement.

Our current approach is to avoid set curriculums and specificity. “Disadvantaged children are unable to catch up when our schools do not provide the specific knowledge for the specific tasks at hand,” Hirsch writes.

Hirsch cites preliminary data from a study by University of Virginia researcher David W. Grissmer showing much higher achievement among low-income children in Core Knowledge schools in the Denver area, compared with similar children who did not win the lottery to get into those schools.

Israeli researchers Aviva Svedlov and Dorit Aram found a significant difference between American teachers and parents on the chief goal of kindergarten. The teachers wanted positive self-esteem. The parents wanted literacy and mathematics skills, which was last on the teachers’ list.

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Hirsch interviewed teachers who have worked in both child-centered and knowledge-centered schools. “Child-centered schools tend to be more compartmentalized,” one said. “We take our students on day one, and we go as far as we can with them until day 180. But everything is kind of disconnected and self-contained.”

Still, Natalie Wexler — one of our best writers at elementary schools — finds it encouraging that some states, blue and red, are nudging districts to adopt knowledge-building literacy curriculums. New York has made such programs freely available. Wexler said on the Substack online platform that Louisiana, in addition to creating its own open source literacy curriculum, “has established a rating system for other curricula and made it easier for districts to purchase those that build knowledge. Tennessee has a rating system and has done lots of outreach to districts. . . . Like New York, Texas is making curricula freely available online.”

Stanford researcher Sam Wineburg asked high-schoolers to name the 10 most famous Americans in history they could think of who were neither presidents nor first ladies. Three people — Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman — were the only ones to be listed by more than 40 percent of students. Seventy percent of the respondents were White, and 13 percent were Black. The survey results suggest lessons on slavery and the civil rights movement are reaching students, just as Hirsch desires.

In his book “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone),” Wineburg says: “To claim that curriculum alone has caused these shifts would be simplistic.” Sure, but it’s interesting.

Are our children quietly constructing Hirsch’s national ethnicity while we clueless adults bicker on Twitter? There might be some of that. More teachers are coming around to the notion that giving all kids the same rich lessons in our history and culture, the stories of both Crispus Attucks and Paul Revere, the poems of both Langston Hughes and Stephen Vincent Benét, would intrigue them and be good for the country.

Maybe. But they will have to make sure nobody alerts cable news.


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