City Journal

Sol Stern
The Curriculum Reformation
New national standards prod schools to return to content-based education.
Summer 2012

The biggest new thing in American public education these days is a two-volume, 230-page, written-by-committee document called the Common Core State Standards. Forty-five states have pledged to the federal government that they will adopt the standards—which specify the math and English skills that students must attain in each grade from kindergarten to the end of high school—within the next several years. Some of these states genuinely believe that doing so will make more of their students ready for college and careers. Others are on board primarily because the Obama administration has enticed them with billions of dollars from its Race to the Top competition, part of the administration’s economic-stimulus program. Within the school-reform community, the standards have set off a virtual civil war. It pits those who believe that America desperately needs national standards to catch up to its international competitors against those who think that the administration, by imposing the standards on the states, is guilty of an unwise, or even illegal, power grab.

Photograph by Harvey Wang
Photographs by Harvey Wang
Students at the Goldie Maple Academy in Queens use E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, . . .

No matter how the debate over national standards plays out—and it may never be resolved—one undeniably positive development has resulted from all this. For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement. And that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.

During the past quarter-century, Hirsch has warned over and over that something is dangerously amiss in the nation’s classrooms. His diagnosis could be summed up with the admonition It’s the curriculum, stupid. For the first 150 years of the republic, according to Hirsch, most schools followed a shared curriculum emphasizing the explicit content knowledge that children had to acquire in order to grow into literate adults and good citizens. As Hirsch writes in his most recent book, The Making of Americans, the country had “no official national curriculum, but it had the equivalent: a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to ensure that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans.” America’s public schools were the envy of the world during this period.

Starting in the 1930s, however, the progressive-education movement began a long march toward taking over the country’s teacher-training schools and professional teacher organizations. One of the progressives’ goals was undermining the idea of a prescribed curriculum, which they regarded as oppressive and out of sync with children’s natural learning styles. This abandonment of a common curriculum by the schools, Hirsch argues, was largely responsible for the precipitous decline in student academic achievement that began in the 1960s. Academic stagnation set in, both absolutely and relative to achievement in the leading industrialized nations.

In four critically acclaimed books, beginning with the best-selling Cultural Literacy in 1985, Hirsch called for restoring a content-based, grade-by-grade curriculum in K–12 education (see “E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy,” Autumn 2009). He also developed such a curriculum, called Core Knowledge, and created the Core Knowledge Foundation to help spread the word. Today, about 800 schools around the country use the curriculum. Many are charter schools, including the high-performing Carl Icahn School in the South Bronx.

Until recently, though, Hirsch was regarded as the odd man out in the school-reform movement. The Hirsch curriculum has never received anything like the massive amounts of money that philanthropic foundations have poured into structural education reforms, such as creating small high schools (a failed experiment, as the Gates Foundation itself conceded after spending $2 billion on them) or charter schools. No school districts contracted with Hirsch’s organization to supply curricula or professional development for teachers—even as education officials wasted billions of dollars on inferior classroom materials purchased from the big commercial publishers. And it goes without saying that Hirsch’s ideas were anathema in the education schools, where the nation’s future teachers, instead of learning about the evidence supporting content knowledge in the classroom, are force-fed a toxic diet of radical political tracts by “education theorists” like Paulo Freire, William Ayers, and Jonathan Kozol. (Progressive-education doctrine holds that inculcating disadvantaged children in social-justice activism is just as important as teaching them the three Rs.)

But now that most of the country has signed up for the Common Core standards, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards.

I once assumed that the least likely place for Hirsch’s ideas to gain traction was New York City—the nation’s largest school district, with more than 1 million students and 1,700 schools. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his handpicked schools chancellor, Joel Klein, assumed control of Gotham’s public schools in 2002, they won their reputation as education reformers by expanding charter schools, closing failing schools, and introducing accountability schemes linking teacher and principal evaluations to student test scores. Curriculum was an afterthought. The default reading program for most elementary schools was “balanced literacy,” an approach developed by Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins. Her organization received almost $50 million in city contracts to provide a reading and writing program that disdained content knowledge and any prescribed curriculum. Calkins’s “child-centered” instructional model is based on the Romantic philosophy that all children are natural readers and writers. In the proper classroom environment and with a mere helping hand from teachers, they can supposedly be inspired to find their individual paths to literacy (see “Tragedy Looms for Gotham’s School Reform,” Autumn 2003).

In a typical balanced-literacy classroom, phonics and decoding skills are taught only episodically. Beginning readers try to intuit the meaning of words through context clues in the text. One of Calkins’s innovations is the “writer’s workshop,” in which first- and second-graders write first drafts without any attention to sentence structure, paragraphing, grammar, or spelling. The students then edit one another’s drafts until a “publishable” work emerges. The teacher’s role in this process is mostly advisory; as the progressive-education credo puts it, she must be “a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.” This is the antithesis of the explicit teaching of phonics and academic content required in Hirsch’s early-childhood reading curriculum. As Hirsch might have predicted, the city’s reading scores on the gold-standard federal NAEP tests largely remained flat from 2003 through 2011.

More than halfway through his tenure, however, Klein did something extremely unusual for an ambitious education official. He was curious enough to read Hirsch’s books, he considered the evidence, and he began to have second thoughts about the instructional approach that his own administration was invested in and still publicly defending against a handful of critics (myself included). Klein was particularly impressed by Hirsch’s third book, The Knowledge Deficit, which came out in 2006 and summarized the consensus in cognitive-science research that children, to improve their reading comprehension, must acquire extensive background knowledge. In fact, Hirsch has proposed as a fundamental law of language that “prior relevant knowledge” is essential to building reading comprehension, particularly in the early grades. Thus, the Core Knowledge curriculum requires that teachers spend as much time on content knowledge in history, geography, and science as on the actual mechanics of reading. And Hirsch has emphasized that building this background knowledge is even more important for disadvantaged minority children, who begin school far behind their middle-class peers in vocabulary and general knowledge of the world.

Klein exchanged e-mails with Hirsch about The Knowledge Deficit and, in the fall of 2007, invited Hirsch and Core Knowledge Foundation president Linda Bevilacqua to the Department of Education’s headquarters for a series of private meetings. Klein told his visitors that until he read Hirsch’s book, he hadn’t found anyone who could satisfactorily explain why the city’s NAEP reading scores were so disappointing, particularly in the eighth grade. Bevilacqua briefed DOE officials, explaining the theory and research behind the Hirsch literacy program.

Out of these meetings came an agreement between Klein and Hirsch to set up a three-year experiment. Beginning in September 2008, ten city elementary schools would use Hirsch’s early-childhood literacy program. These Core Knowledge schools would be matched with ten demographically similar schools using “balanced literacy,” allowing the Department of Education to compare the two approaches. At the DOE, the Hirsch pilot program became known as “Joel’s pet project.”

Photograph by Harvey Wang
. . . which emphasizes phonics and knowledge acquisition . . .

On September 22, 2009, Klein called a press conference at P.S. 30, one of the Core Knowledge schools in the South Bronx, to announce the results of the experiment’s first year. With Hirsch at his side, Klein presented data showing that students in the schools using the Hirsch curriculum had made gains in reading five times greater than those in the comparison schools. “The results we’re announcing today represent an early but promising indication of Core Knowledge’s effectiveness,” Klein said. “Teachers and principals have been very happy with the program, and the participating students have made important progress toward becoming skillful readers.”

A New York Times reporter then asked Klein a question about the implications for the city’s education policies: “These results are strikingly good; the theory is convincing. When are you going to insist that all classrooms start instituting this?” Klein’s answer: “We have finished one year of a three-year pilot. We will see the pilot through. Meanwhile, you will notice that the teachers want to continue the program.”

The Times never published anything about that first-year press conference. But it did recently report the results of the full three-year experiment, which ended with the 2010–11 school year: “Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study.” Reporter Anna Phillips identified the methodology used in the comparison schools as balanced literacy. Calkins, cited by the Times as “an architect of the city’s balanced literacy program,” defended her work by attacking the experiment as “a very problematic study. As far as I can tell, they gave resources to 10 schools to support content literacy and then they tested all of the schools on content literacy.” In fact, the study used CTB/McGraw-Hill’s TerraNova reading test, a standard assessment widely used around the country.

The Times account of the study’s results was an education milestone for the city: here was the “paper of record” reporting that the Bloomberg administration’s own research study had indicted as ineffective the reading program that the administration had used for a decade. And that made it all the more admirable that Klein, understanding the risk, had supported the Core Knowledge pilot in the first place. Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. “I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,” Klein wrote. He added that “the early results” of the pilot were “enormously encouraging.”

And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was “well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.”

Klein is right: the new Common Core standards are creating a historic opportunity to introduce Hirsch’s curriculum to many more schools and classrooms. Written by a consortium representing the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards themselves make clear that they do not constitute a curriculum; they merely state what children should know at the end of each grade level and the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. Each school system still needs to find a curriculum—that is, the particular academic content taught by teachers from lesson to lesson and from grade to grade—that will help its students achieve the standards.

As the standards document for English Language Arts puts it: “While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” Later, we read that “students can only gain this foundation [for college readiness] when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (emphasis added in both quotations).

State and local school officials serious about adhering to these guidelines can’t help noticing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge is a “well-developed, content-rich curriculum,” that it is already aligned with the Common Core standards, and that it has been successfully field-tested. New York—which was one of the first states to sign up for the standards and which has received hundreds of millions of dollars for their implementation from the Race to the Top fund—has already taken notice. This past April, the state’s education department announced that Core Knowledge had won a $5 million contract to produce pre-K through second-grade curricular materials aligned to the standards. The materials and lesson plans will be available to any school in the state. Other state education agencies are also discussing their new curriculum needs with the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Meanwhile, the reign of error of balanced literacy may be coming to an end in Gotham’s schools. The DOE is putting off until the 2012–13 school year a decision about which curriculum it will use to implement the Common Core standards. But it’s hard to imagine that the administration will choose the loser of its own field test.

The Common Core standards haven’t been universally embraced by the nation’s school reformers. While such prominent reform leaders as Klein, the Fordham Foundation’s Chester E. Finn, and former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee are on board, many others are either agnostic or actively campaigning against the standards.

Some of the dissenters argue that the Obama administration has overreached by imposing the standards on the states, violating the letter and spirit of federal education law and perhaps even of the Constitution. It’s an unconvincing argument. Unlike the administration’s controversial health-care law, the standards are not mandatory; states are free to reject them, and several, including Texas, have already done so. If the complaint is merely that the Obama administration is seducing states into adopting the standards by offering them billions of dollars in federal funds, why aren’t the critics equally upset with another provision of Race to the Top, which requires states taking federal money to create teacher-evaluation systems based on students’ test scores? Indeed, it might be argued that “federal coercion” began with the 2002 No Child Left Behind act, which required states to test students in grades 3–8 and to impose sanctions on schools whose students didn’t attain minimum levels of proficiency. Despite this, NCLB was strongly supported by most school reformers—initially, at least.

The far more serious criticism of the standards is that they are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours. Ze’ev Wurman, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education, has offered extremely cogent critiques of the math section of the Common Core standards, pointing out that they fall short of the best international benchmarks and don’t require more than one year of algebra for high school graduates. Sandra Stotsky, a curriculum specialist and one of the drafters of Massachusetts’s important 1993 education-reform act, has similarly noted shortcomings in the English Language Arts section of the standards.

In fact, many of the original Massachusetts reformers have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993 (see “The Massachusetts Exception”). The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work. The sad fact is that even before Massachusetts switched to the Common Core standards, Governor Deval Patrick had embarked on a campaign to dilute the demanding 1993 reform.

Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.

Photograph by Harvey Wang
. . . and is producing dramatic academic gains.

The results of that discussion are exceedingly important. It isn’t enough for states to adopt the Common Core standards; they need to choose specific curricula that live up to those standards. Russ Whitehurst—the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences in the Bush administration’s education department, and now an advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney—makes that clear in a breakthrough research paper recently published with his colleague Matthew M. Chingos. The paper shows that in the existing studies on the subject, curriculum and instructional materials had “large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness.”

Whitehurst and Chingos explained their findings in Education Next, the flagship publication of the wing of the school-reform movement that emphasizes school choice and teacher-accountability policies (such as tying teacher evaluations to improvements in student test scores). The authors warned that policymakers had focused too much on out-of-classroom factors and not enough on curriculum: “It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.” And they issued another warning to states seeking to implement the Common Core standards: “Publishers of instructional materials are lining up to declare the alignment of their materials with the Common Core standards using the most superficial of definitions. The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials, but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials.”

States must heed the warning. The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults. Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of “rich content knowledge.”

That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory.

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