Monday, February 8, 2016

The Common Core and the "Stuff" Curriculum of E. D. Hirsch

In many ways, I see the adoption of the Common Core State Standards as the ultimate victory of E. D. Hirsch and his idea of "cultural literacy." I do not think that it is a coincidence that Hirsch advocates for a "core knowledge" curriculum while the standards are called the Common "Core."

I am far from the only one to make that connection. A while ago, Politico came out with its list of  50 "thinkers, doers, and dreamers who really matter", and there at number 8 was Hirsch side-by-side with the "chief architect" of the Common Core, David Coleman. Over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Common Core cheerleader, Robert Pondiscio notes that while you won't find Hirsch's name on the Standards "his thumbprints are there, if you care to look." Pondiscio thinks this is a good thing. I don't.

Those Hirschian thumbprints that Pondiscio finds on the Common Core are perhaps most clearly found in the percentages of non-fiction texts that are prescribed at each grade level, and in Common Core "aligned" curriculum such as the Core Knowledge driven curriculum adopted in New York that has first graders studying Mesopotamia and Hammurabi. 

I like to think of Hirsch's Core Knowledge as the "stuff" curriculum. For Hirsch, all we need to do is decide what "stuff" to teach and then "stuff" it into kids heads. Hirsch, of course, then creates a list of the stuff all kids should know, and lo and behold, the list reflects a bias toward a particularly conservative Eurocentric view of what we need to know, the literature we need to read and the principles we need to embrace. Hirsch's ideas about education in general and about literacy in particular are clear and simple. And like all easy answers in education they are clearly and simply wrong.

In literacy, Hirsch extends his "stuff" curriculum to reading comprehension. For Hirsch, reading comprehension is simply a matter of knowing enough "stuff." If we stuff kids heads with enough information and vocabulary, they will be able to read and comprehend at high levels. There is a kernel of truth here. Reading comprehension is, of course, highly influenced by prior knowledge. Where Hirsch goes wrong is in over-stating the relationship to the exclusion of everything else we know about reading comprehension.

As Louise Rosenblatt has shown, reading comprehension is a complex transaction between the writer and the mind of the reader. Prior knowledge plays a part in this transaction, but so do the strategies the reader uses to understand a text, the context in which the reading is taking place(a class assignment, personal choice reading, studying for a test), and the qualities of the text itself (textbook, poem, primary document). From literacy researcher P. David Pearson, we know that comprehension strategies (predicting, questioning, summarizing) can be taught to students and applied to reading. We know that students who use strategies skillfully read and comprehend better.

The truth is that today's literacy teachers are preparing readers to comprehend texts that contain information that has not even been thought of yet. As the internet expands, information explodes and the easy availability of information grows. No one can accurately predict what that information might be, but we can all predict that readers of the future will have to be critical consumers of all information because so much of the information they will read will be of dubious reliability.

The Common Core, with its roots in the cultural literacy ideas of E. D. Hirsch, is one of those pieces of information that must be comprehended with a critical eye. Hirsch's simplistic (mis)understanding of reading comprehension is reflected in the Common Core call for "more complex text" and more informational text. As Sandra Stotsky has said in critiquing the Common Core and championing more literature in the schools, this focus on "stuff", may lead to a "reduced capacity for analytical thinking." Analytical and critical thinking must be the goal of a reading curriculum.

Hirsch's ideas on education are regressive. It is small wonder that his ideas have found resonance with Common Core champions. The Common Core itself represents a regressive "back to basics" approach to teaching and learning. Instead of packing kids heads with stuff, we need to equip readers with the skills to deal with an ever changing and growing body of knowledge.

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