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E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
A Wealth of Words « Back to Story

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This is a little long, but profoundly important regarding pedagogical technique
sha shaba ranks!
I loved this article. After reading one of his articles about the 4th grade slump, I actually started "preaching" his idea, that if students are not doing well in reading comprehension, we should expand their background (general) knowledge. I started a whole vocabulary development program called The New Book of Knowledge. Students made their own vocabulary reference book. It took off in Collier County Florida for awhile. It was neat and most of all, the kids liked it because it made them feel SMART.
Our students are OVER-SKILLED and UNDER EDUCATED!
I have been a teacher in high poverty schools for almost 30 years. About 12 years ago, I started noticing a huge gap between what adults think children know what they ACTUALLY do know. This troubled me because the large publishers would tell the teachers which vocabulary words to "pre-teach" before reading the story, to ensure that the students could understand the story. That sounds alright, but they said be sure the students know "delicious" in the phrase "delicious meals." I made sure the kids knew "delicious" (they did), but I knew to ask if they knew what "meals" meant. Most teachers - and apparently the publisher of the reading series- wouldn't have thought to ask. Not one in my group of 6 first graders knew what "meals" meant. My point is that there is such a lack of BASIC vocabulary, the language of everyday things, that I believe this must be addressed fervently in a systematic way. Family conversation used to provide this BASIC vocabulary, but with the rise in non-English speaking parents and the many families in poverty, there is a lack of conversation in the homes. So children come to school without even knowing the names of their own body parts! How are these same students going to make inferences as they read? How are they going to figure out the meaning of unknown words? Teachers spend so much time teacing isolated reading skills like finding the main idea, that they have no time left to teach "things." What makes someone feel smart, is the amount of "things" they know... the size of their vocabulary.
No one will listen to me about giving priority to building this BASIC vocabulary. If students know basic nouns, they can use that knowledge to understand verbs and adjectives derived from those nouns. Ex: they don't know "gate" so how can they understand a phrase like "gate to riches"?
Please help me figure out how to get my point across.
Thank you.
I'm sure they will fill in bubbles more effectively. We always refer back to these tests. All they do is make money for the test makers. The results are always the same. The higher the poverty level the lower the scores. You will be able to teach higher levels of studies to those who are not living in poverty--they will have higher levels of vocabulary and fill in more bubblesw correctly. This confuses correlation with causation as has been pointed out endlessly.
Excellent article. Schools can only offer a partial solution. It helps to grow up in a home with thousands of books .
Excellent article.

I have a family next door with two boys ages 3 1/2 and 5 years old. I am going to pass on this article to the parents.

Since the kids were babies, I have been trying to enlarge their vocabularies by avoiding child level conversations and by introducing words (concepts) in oblique way that are fun.

The kids have developed a liking for long and unusual words and enjoy saying them .... for the sound... and not necessarily for the definitions (that comes later, in our game).

I don't have a formal "teaching" agenda for fear of becoming a bore. Rather, I look for opportunities where I can slip in words and their concepts naturally. Then, later, I might repeat the word(s) in a different context to reinforce the learning. When they learn a new word, I contrive ways to have the kids use the word(s) themselves.

James Jorquez
Hurricane, Utah
This goes a long way in explaining why the Far Left establishment that is running this country and the education industry at present is so intent on forcing bilingual education and even education solely in Spanish on so many millions of hispanic immigrant children. And even why the push several years ago to let black children learn solely in 'Ebonics', the substandard broken English that is the patois of the hood.
Keep millions of children out of the mainstream, removed from ever being able to achieve a profession and earn a respectable living, and you've got millions of future Democrat voters tied to the party forever to meet their most basic needs.
Speaking of language, I see parents of young children finding the language of the common core standards feeling intimidated. It would be so useful if states or the Department of Education would provide video clips of what the skills described in such language as "composing and decomposing numbers" looks like, practically speaking. In Kindergarten for example, you would see children manipulating the little cubes to see that 4 plus 6 equals 10. The language has also allowed Lucy Calkins and her crew at Teachers' College to over-interpret the standards for their own profit motives. It appears we are going through a bit of a muddle.
We can wring our hands over "income inequality" and the ever-expanding pool of "disadvantaged" groups. We can debate the relative success or failure of various educational fads, and then along comes someone like Dr. Benjamin Carter to remind us of the power of the basics. The catalyst for his phenomenal personal success was an illiterate single mother who loved her children enough to force them to borrow two books a week from the public library and present her with book reports she pretended to read. She turned the TV off and accepted no excuses for failure, from either herself or her children. No government behemoth is going to solve the problem (indeed, there's plenty of evidence to suggest it's the cause of the problem). What can make a difference is the small and the local: families, churches, civic groups and public schools controlled once again by the communities they serve instead of self-interested teachers' unions and Federal experiments.
This reminds of a debate i often have with my bilingual family. They insist i teach my son Spanish and i really do not prioritize it. i have tired to explain to them that their language lacks vocabulary - over the years it has gotten smaller and smaller - and lack of vocabulary makes it not as fun or usefull or creative or pactical. I would rather have more concepts, more fun, more verbal creativity in my communications with my son and i can do this in English. I can't do it in Spanish. So i use my english to give my son more vocabulary and concepts. If the article is true, i have also given him more room for the "working brain" to operate and this leads to more cognitive ability and higher SAT scores.

If the article is true, it also points out how difficult it is for poorly educated people to give their children a strong base of language. I suppose our media could add to that vocabulary. It also reminds of a story i heard long ago of how the kennedy family was raised - the children were part of a dinner conversation on politics and worldwide event every night.
How does scrapping the 3rd person neuter “he” for “she” improve the language. One assumes the author either eschewed Latin or flunked English.
hmmm

Still blaming the victims are we? The link between education and income while always tenuous at best, fell by the wayside as 10's of millions of jobs were outsourced overseas. Today the only reliable indicator of income potential is the socioeconomic status of your parents at your birth. Other than a very brief period of post WWII prosperity your success has always depended on birth. And even within that post war era “success” as defined by income still operated within a very narrow range. That is to say that breaking into the ruling class or “1%” was still virtually impossible for those not born into it.

Education is certainly important. The problem is that quality secondary and post secondary education is not available to the working classes. There are a few pockets of public education that fulfill Professor Hirsch's ideals around the country. However they are only in the most affluent communities. In general the top 1% do not send their children to public schools. And the top Colleges and Universities have fewer and fewer spots available for the those that cannot pay, in cash or influence. The rest of us are left to receive a post secondary education that offers little more than a piece of paper and pile of debt.

Your notion that a well spoken and well educated workforce will somehow restore the middle class is pure nonsense. Ultimately it is governments that drive employment. And as long as our government is in the tight grasp of the 1% as it has been since at least 1900 there will be no job creation for a legitimate Middle Class. Simply put the 1% will not allow a Middle Class to exist because they have to be paid. The record corporate profits that are being generated in the US are going straight into the pockets of those people that own them. And today in America the 1% owns over 80% of the fortune 5000.

Mere rhetoric no matter how eloquent will never brake the bonds of slavery that have snared the working people of America. It is not a well spoken working man that give the 1/100th of 1% sleepless nights. It is the vision of 75 Million well armed and very pissed off slaves that put the fear of god in those evil tyrants. The only way the Middle Class in America will return is when the other 95% rise up and literally throw the 1% out. And in so doing we must return America to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The spark that finally ignites the will to resist may originate in a well rounded education but the skills required to carry it out do not.
I find it disheartening that, it seems from the comments, many readers of City Journal have never heard of Professor Hirsch or his ideas. On the other hand, I find it very encouraging that a UK minister of Education is quoting Hirsch's books extensively in speeches and is proposing a nationwide content knowledge based curriculum. Fingers crossed that American educators, politicians and a US Secretary of Education take notice and begin to advocate for the same here.
Grammar is not only word classes, noun-phrases, verbal-phrases etc.
Study Cognitive grammar and you'll find out.
I found this very interesting. I have observed that my 91 year old mother has a far greater vocabulary that her college educated grandchildren and often wondered why. Now I know!
Very interesting and insightful article. Confirms the positive impact that a strong language arts curriculum can have on children, even from the start.
No, its:
Cognitive ability = greater vocabulary = economic success.

Why tilt at windmills? There can be no lasting benefit in perpetuating this lie. The stupid will not be made smart. But they can be happy and productive--if we don't swamp them with stupid immigrants. Alas.
The trivium of classical education: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, is a powerful model for building "A Wealth of Words." There is, in fact, a recrudescence of this educational philosophy, particularly in certain highly conservative Christian circles. Perhaps Dr. Hirsch could explore and expound upon this movement in relation to the vital importance of vocabulary and approaches to improving public education. Thank you for an insightful article.
A Wealth of Words:
lunesta, ambien,cialis,war in country here every 3 seconds on tv, also called brainwashing when "they" talk about other countries doing it but ok for them to do it. Just start counting how many times key words are repeated in commercials and the news and watch as the US slowly but surely insinuates that iran and syria are behind hezbollah so that they have an excuse to invade iran for oil which makes those 10% even more rich and will leave us paying 4-5 fucking dollars at the pump even though we have the power to say fuck you to these people if everyone got off of their damn asses, or just stayed on their asses and no one went anywhere at all and no one bought any fucking gas or anything, of course they would just starve us out in the city as we are completely at their mercy to get food, think long and hard about your real position in life here people, this is no wild insane rant. They do only what is necessary to uphold the illusion that they give a miniscule shit about you and that only to support their interests
I can't help wondering if France's Muslim minority participates fully in the preschool/school culture. Since the banlieus in which they live are so dangerous for outsiders that even police and other first-responders hesitate to enter, I wonder if schooling data is reliable, particularly for girls.

As far as this country is concerned, the likelihood of finding enough preschool teachers to model/teach college-grad-style speech and conversational patterns is remote to non-existent. First, the inner cities are dangerous, especially to that kind of outsider. Second, such speech and conversational styles are likely to be resisted by the community as "too uppity" or foreign.
Dear Pulseguy

The story you remember is indeed Leiningen and the Ants. It was first published in North America in Esquire in 1938. Interestingly the story first appeared in Germany in 1937 (Leiningen und die Ameisen).

Millions of little excrescences roaming about.....

As Mr. Hirsch points out, the pre-schools in France are free, and its teachers are highly trained. We are very far from that in the USA, obviously, so I'm not sure how the gap can ever be closed, using the reasoning presented here.
The ecole maternelle system also promotes the learning of French of immigrant children who speak a different language at home, and so by the time many of those kids get to primary school, they already understand French, thanks to the free pre-schools.
What I have observed in the USA is that most children from affluent families attend pre-school, whereas many children from less affluent families do not, as American pre-schools are not free. So ironically, those children who could benefit the most from school at a young age are not going.
Wonderful analysis, I'm surprised you did not mention Montessori because she was right on target with the 'three part' lesson training and her 'teacher should shut up' advice. Good teachers usually arrive at most of those good principles after many years of teaching...but the breaking of the coherence of the curriculum (it was coherent in the beginning)will set back even the most proficient of teachers! I have to say the law of learning corresponds to the way God set up the universe to operate...orderly and in a cause and effect manner!
Very interesting, but I was waiting for the article to touch on the "30 million word gap", or the fact that by their fourth birthday, more advantaged children hear 30 million more words than their peers in poverty. That very early language exposure, and the quality of that language exposure, shape the brain in powerful ways. If you look at any kind of educational intervention, it's relatively easy to impact math scores and much more difficult to impact language scores.
"In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary." So the author advocates a focus on literary knowledge to be gained from the text at the expense of comprehension. I wouldn't quite agree to that. And importantly correlation does not imply causation. This is elementary economics.
Very interesting article that challenges much current thinking. My only criticism is the use of the gendered pronouns "she" and. "her" used by the writer in describing students. Surely it is just as sexist to use these female pronouns to describe all students as it was to use "he" 30 years ago? Surely this is a double standard? Or is gender equality not an issue when males are the victims?
I have long admired the work of E.D.Hirsch. In fact, I was lucky enough to have had a personal conversation with him before a book signing event about 15 years ago. We lamented the fact that curriculum is "dummied down" and that even early elementary grade curriculum could be at a much higher level. Unfortunately, I see little change in curriculum or in specific attention to domain vocabulary immersion in our schools. We need people like E.D.Hirsch to continue to get this information out to all educators and parents!
It makes sense. It compares with the Suzuki method of teaching musical instruments. It reinforces the focus on preschool education. It is being supported by brain science results as noted in the article.
Esther de Burgh-Thomas January 30, 2013 at 4:00 AM
E.D. Hirsch is clearly a brilliant educationalist who has asked questions most of us didn't believe could be answered. He has then brought us back answer after answer - each ringing with its own truth. There is not a country anywhere on this planet whose education system could not be vastly improved by Mr Hirsch in a surprisingly short space of time. Someone needs to tell the world's Education Secretaries about Mr Hirsch before it's too late.
in recent news, wordsmith hypes importance of exotic words.

i bet skill at theorem proving in high school
geometry, or facility at mental calculus is
a better marker of intelligence.

america needs more people with first rate math
skills.

we have enough wordsmiths.
Unfortunately, the author confuses causes and effects. A child is smart therefore a child has a bigger vocabulary, not vice versa.
Smarter children also have better math abilities, long term planning abilities, etc... Then, they achieve better success in life than their less smart counterparts.
I understand that the author feels bad for less intelligent people. I don't understand why the author wants to shove Oxford Dictionary down their throats - it won't make them smarter, it will just make them sound like they graduated with an English Literature degree.
I worked for a time doing No Child Left Behind funded tutoring in Los Angeles. Politics of the program aside, the kids I was working with we're low income kids who really needed extra one on one help.

One relevant example was a girl named Fatima who exemplified what I believe is wrong with educational policy. A first grader, child of immegrant parents who worked all the time to put food on the table, she was failing her standardized tests - indeed, she failed the test I gave at the start of our association. The test told me that she didn't understand synonyms, adverbs, and several other language concepts. What I found when working with her is that she knew the concepts just fine, she just didn't know the words they were using to test those concepts. With English as a second language, she might know the word 'middle' but not the word 'center' and so couldn't find the synonym.

I spent most of my time with her working on learning vocabulary, and teaching her how to learn vocabulary. I found that she was interested in poetry, so we read poems together and talked about what the words meant. I also used poetry to teach parts of speech, syntax, grammar, and the other things the test told me that she needed, but she picked those up very quickly and answered correctly when they were paired with words she knew. When we finished the semester, I gave her a book of poems and a picture dictionary--the first books she had owned in her life.

I totally agree with the premise of this article- that low income kids need to expand their working vocabulary in order to succeed in school and especially on the standardized tests. We should also realize that standardized tests do not always test what they say they're testing, and beware of tying things like teacher salaries to them. Teaching to the test (a practice I've seen mandated in elementary schools) won't teach tre kids what they really need to know.
Public libraries are the public investment that can help the disadvantaged increase their vocabulary. What's so cool about public libraries is the advantaged also benefit - as research shows public library use increases with income. How come? Because as an investment, it is so easy for families to get double, triple, or quadruple their annual return on investment back from a public library. Who doesn't love a socially-conscious great investment?
My verbals when tested were off the top of the scale. One of my employers asked why i chose to work as a temp labourer when i clearly spoke as an educated man

So it does not follow that education should lead to upward mobility, not when my education sees that all the glittering prizes I could have bothered to earn are so much dross
Excellent article. Schools can only offer a partial solution. It helps to grow up in a home with thousands of books etc.
Minority Bolshevism January 28, 2013 at 11:40 AM
Dumbing down education affects all, not only the disadvantaged (SAT Scores prove that). The policies at the heart of this phenomenon are deliberate; they are designed to make the population less resistant to political correctness, multiculturalism, demagoguery and brainwashing of any kind.
Who benefits?
Minority Bolshevism.
Is it not possible to include the learning objectives of “the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future,” within a domain-immersion curriculum? Is it necessary for domain-immersion and what Hirsch refers to as “how-to-ism” to be mutually exclusive?
My grandfather told me, "Education started going downhill in this country when they stopped requiring Greek in high school." Well, I was graduated from high school in 1974 with a meager two years of Latin and no Greek.

However, I learned early on always to attend to etymology; thus, words like 'excrescence' are no mystery. Nowhere in Hirsch's article is this mentioned, which seems an oversight.

Once you know a few thousand Classical roots, you can read in nearly any technical field with some hope of comprehension.
Given your analysis of today's educational system, might part of the problem lie with the broader society, either with social structure or cultural issues?
This is so depressing. And the bitterly ironic thing is that the dumbing down has been promulgated by so-called progressive elites.

Who pays the price for such hubris? The working class, i.e. those with the least purchase on the cultural capital that counts. For shame. 100 years on the road to nowhere.

I myself received the best possible education, but in retrospect see the gaps in what I, and indeed any child, should have been given. I resent never having studied rhetoric, grammar (at least intensively), never really having memorized poetry as had my parents, and even logic, to name a few things. But social studies? Oh yes.

Today we reap what was sown, and the popularity of magical thinking especially telling. As I grow older I am less tolerant of the smashers.
Of course. it couldn't be that the plutocrats and vampires like R-money have shifted all the manufacturing jobs to slave colonies in the 3rd world, and even college grads have their jobs shipped to India, and the benefits of automation have accrued to the 1%, and that unions have been destroyed.
The idea that you can take kids from broken homes, living in bad conditions, unable to afford college etc and simply improving vocabulary get them moving into middle class etc is absurd.

The writer begins with reference to the growing gap in incomes in America and then rather than noting the impact of this dwells instead on vocabulary.

Try teaching even at a community college and yiou will note the baggage than students have while trying to improve their lot.
INFLUENCE OF CULTURE
Very interesting articel and spot on. While repudiating the petulant expostulations in the comments, it seems quite obvious that vocabulary is crucial to intelligence and understanding, since our thinking IS vocabularistic through and through - apart from thinking in mathematics and music, which have their own independent logic and communication. But there is also the influence of culture, which can work both for and against thinking. For instance, German academic writing has a strand of creating word mist which - instead of clarifying a subject - serves to show the size of the author's personal library, and / or to suggest depth of meaning where there is none. In England there is a tradition of using unfamiliar words to stress one's social class and standing, quite separately from the words' actual meaning, thus implementing barriers between groups, often delivered in an ironic way as to make sure the other person knows he is excluded. Good literature seems to be the best way of acquiring both a sophisticated vocabulary and understanding of life, which in France seems to be working quite well, given the regular literary programs on TV5 (the international francophile station). However, it remains to be seen whether a better vocabulary increases life chances in an egalitarian society like China or, in the past, Soviet Russia. Interestingly, in the Netherlands, with its cultivation of egalitarian ideas and the proletariat's liberation from unfair professional requirements, a sophisticated vocabulary is a serious handicap. I know of cases where really gifed individuals got marginalized in their field, excommunicated, 'punished' as it were, for not conforming to low average intelligence skills and related vocabulary, academics loosing their jobs for being too good at it, employees at business offices with a thorough work ethic being ostracized for unintentionally showing-up the inadequacies of their collegues. Sometimes even the authorities violate their own laws to stop skilled individuals from appearing 'too good', from a misdirected sense that achievement will result in authoritarian intervention into an egalitarian field. I know of a case of a brilliant young academic who, after years of struggling against a hostile environment, committed suicide, the last drop of gal being the failure of getting the job which was rightfully his, according to his achievements. Highly skilled Dutch people emigrate to other countries, fledding a society where they cannot function. So, while reducing inequality of income seems to be a very good reason to improve early education, the context of national culture is equally crucial. Equal chances should not be related to an egalitarian society and skills and talent should be welcomed and rewarded - otherwise there is no incentive for any education whatsoever, as the example of Holland shows.
Why has vocab narrowed?

Simple answer -- departmentalism. The profs in America's corporate academe have all niched themselves in departments. There, to advance, one learns not to stray over into other departments for any references, examples, or other connections. Shear yourself is the final careerism of corporate academe.
This is an issue that makes me despair because neither side of the political spectrum can be honest about the main causes.

The right blames fashionable educational theory, left-wing teacher unions and the foolishly well-intentioned "dumbing down" of content in order that children from lower socio-economic groups aren't made to feel inadequate.
On the other hand, the left blames the right for cutting funding, increasing class sizes and pursuing a narrow anti-intellectual "vocational" approach.

What neither group wants to face - and for totally different reasons - is that the decline started at the precise historical moment when television and rock music became the overwhelmingly dominant forces in our society. Both sell a simple message - that education is boring, nerdy crap and anything that requires effort or an intellectual challenge is a complete waste of time. Reality TV and Hip Hop are the ultimate products, although it may get still worse.

The right won't dare criticize the tycoons of commercial television and the entertainment industry who have served up rubbish for generations. To do so would be attacking the free market so of course we can't do that.

The left has disappeared so far down the post-structuralist tunnel that it now actually believes that commercial popular culture is a spontaneous expression of grassroots creativity and social concerns. We can't criticize stupid TV programs and rock music because then we'd be supporting the elitist patriarchy wouldn't we.

What this whole debate needs is a completely fresh set of ideas but I have little optimism that we'll see it in our partisan and divided society.
I still remember my readers from grade school (in the '50s). Great stories, great writing. They were amazing. One of my favorite stories was "Leiningen and the Ants". (Just guessing at the spelling....it's been a long time.) The stuff they gave my kids to read was terrible. Very politically correct, and politically laden. They never got into them. Fortunately, two of my three were big readers and read tons of books that I had lying around.

I agree, a vocabulary is really important. But, despite what the article says, I don't fully buy into it. The biggest part of success is character. And, in the long, long run, I'm not sure you can teach that.
Constance,

Well worth reading.
"Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States."
For those of us who are education-speak nitwits, what are you referring to?

Probably to the the public school system based on the teachings of John Dewey. Dewey is a fairly interesting figure in his own right - possibly the most influential philosopher America has produced, father of much of what motivates modern social democracy/secular humanism.

Kind of a materialist Rousseau.
Just get on with it and crack a vocabulary builder program: Try The Word Within the Word by Michael Clay Thompson. It's much quicker than the "context" approach advocated here and avoids the meaningless lists which are here reviled.
"Until vouchers are available for every child, good at any school, the US will continue its educational decline. Money is not the issue, choice is."

Vouchers are a start, but not the answer in and of themselves. We really need to start tearing down the whole forced accommodation model that our public schools have adopted for the past 50 years.

Schools need to have the ability to weed out the under-performers, especially in regards to anti-social behavior. As long as our schools are run along the lines of unlimited access daycare, they will fail academically.
Great read. Love how the old Catholic curriculum, rooted in the Scholastic method, still proves to be effective.
Why in the world is City Journal pushing Common Core? This is at least the second major article (propaganda piece actually) singing its praises. Even us rubes have begun to see what an ungodly disaster it is. School districts are removing novels like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and replacing them with EPA Guidelines. Even the mathematics curriculum prescribes "fuzzy" math. Perhaps a better question is why am I subscribing to a publication that wants to overhaul education yet again to meet FEDERALLY-enforced guidelines based on the latest experts' opinions?

Guess I better demonstrate my intelligence and cancel my subscription.
Howard Hirsch (no relation) January 25, 2013 at 7:02 PM
Very interesting, but no new ground here not already covered by Edward Banfield in "The Unheavenly City" 45 years ago.

The ironic contrast, of course, is with Orwell's Newspeak, in which the objective of the Inner Party was to DESTROY words so that subversive concepts could not be expressed. Our PC overlords are doing quite a good job of that even as we speak.
Why ever would we want to decrease income inequality? Income "inequality" used to be known as "an incentive."
Those of us with scientific degrees really just have to laugh at the Homocrat animal, with their worship of GRID, Gaia, and Marx.

The alternative is actually doing something about them. And we're rapidly reaching the point where it's our duty as HUMAN BEINGS, not just as American citizens.

I will not pay ONE CENT of federal taxes while feces-dwellers like Marten Purdy live.
A Wealth of Words:
The Rethuglicans primary concerns are the protection of wealth of the super rich, which have mostly inherited wealth akin to hereditary rule over successive generations. A typical part of their dogma is their indoctrination that all life is based on survival of the
fittest, see Social Darwinism and Fascism, and only the fit deserve to exist. And their concept of those fit for the environment are those who have wealth, while all those who are poor are simply supposed to work for works sake in producing more wealth for the wealthy. Anyone who isn’t willing to work for the corporate agenda is a parasite and should be removed from society as an unfit whiner.
My only complaint: Dr.Hirsch overlooks the significance of a piece of literature placed within a literary context as the "domain." I have been drawing vocabulary from the novels my students read for years, requiring a number of significant interactions with the words to enhance their very weak vocabularies.
I refuse to read propaganda whose purpose is to inculcate political correctness. Life is short, and there are many things to read. Specifically, I quit reading this article when I found the author using "she" as the gender neutral pronoun. That function belongs to "he", where people of good will readily understand when a writer means only men or all human as the reference. Now it is possible that the author uses "she" in referring to college graduates in recognition of the fact that well over half of bachelor's degrees in the USA now go to women. Evidently, our society is wasting the talent of a lot of men, men who do not get a college education. That seems to be, in part, a consequence of the feminizing of K-12 education that sees natural boyhood as disruptive, where the ludicrous idea of "testosterone poisoning" is acceptable.
Interesting article. It is not too late for adults to improve their vocabularies and advance their career success. Visit www.executivevocabulary.com to learn more
Especially interesting given the political emphasis today on income inequality.
I'm not an education researcher in the strict sense. I'm a motor control researcher who studies what might be fairly be called the "epistemology of movement." Because motor control can be related so easily to physical, measurable, mathematical quantities, we have an easier time describing what learning might be and might mean. If you'll tolerate a description that will be in places poorly worded and grounded in topics not commonly studied, I'd like to present to you an alternative explanation of some of the findings you present.

Please entertain a definition of knowledge: models composed of symbols whose purpose is to explain and predict experience, communicated in yet more models composed of yet more symbols.

Consider a simple model: "Invisible unicorns are red." A noun, a verb, and two adjectives strung together according to the syntactical rules of the English language. This model explains nothing, makes a strong (untestable) prediction, and is easily communicated via shared experience. While invisibility and unicorns cannot be experienced in any “true” first-hand sense, we all have considerable first-hand experience with "red" and "being." Invisibility can be constructed without first-hand experience as the opposite of visibility, just as we can construct abstract ideas about death from life. Tales of unicorns and dragons arose in antiquity, morphing slowly through appropriation and retelling into the first-hand experiences now available to theater-goers.

With that in place, let's consider the experience of a bilingual individual told in English that "Invisible unicorns are red," and asked to translate it into a second language. In the case that the second language is also a "natural" language, this task's difficulty will probably depend on the similar between the language's conceptions of unicorns. While the legend spread broadly in antiquity, not every language was exposed. For instance, this task is monumental in Kwak'wala. To convey "unicorn," you have "horse" and "horn" and the words for placement available, but the mystical properties and virtues attributed to unicorns are very different from the mystical properties and virtues the Kwaki'utl culture concerns itself with. As you've demonstrated in your article, the necessary shared experience can be created and named giving you the symbols necessary to convey "unicorn" in Kwak'wala. Consider the case that the second language is instead a formal language, even if it's also learned by shared experience. "Red" and "invisible" are contradictory values for some schemes, but some other schemes would allow it (the red/green/blue/transparency scheme frequently used in computer graphics being an example).

Attempting to dodge needing to explain Chomsky, Pinker, and the mathematics of formal languages, my hope is that with these examples I shown that language is a compression and decompression process aided by appeal to shared experience or formally defined properties. By naming shared experience, we can invoke that experience with a fraction of the information contained in that experience. This is both lossy and noisy, but very efficient: "I talked to Joe for several hours, he's not handling Fluffy's death very well." I can reduce "several hours'" evidence to a conclusion that takes less than a second to utter, but explains why I would invest several hours.

I need one last bit before I can jump from oversimplifying linguistics into a questionable attempt to convert some of the more useful bits of statistics and nonlinear control theory into laymen's terms. Bilingual people change values and principles when they change languages (Sander, 1934). More recent work (Kellman 2000) shows that they're even aware of this.

The next bit is Bayes theorem and Bayesian inference. We don't need a deep understanding of these, but we do need to briefly acknowledge that they are the demonstrably optimal way to combine our past experience with new experience and others' communicated experience to predict our own future experience. We can experience things first- and second-hand. Humans need to combine both forms of evidence into models and policies. While models are built from symbols using some grammar readily addressed from linguistics, policy is a notion that comes from optimal control and nonlinear control. Based on belief about the costs and rewards of various methods of interacting with a particular environment, we can observe that environment and formulate a response that maximizes some abstract *expected* reward or minimizes some abstract *expected* cost. The key here is that both observation and action happen in symbols, too. If I don't see or have a word for a consequence of my actions, it doesn't factor in. Similarly, evidence from infant development (Von Hofsten and Lindhagen, 1979) and stroke (Rohrer et al., 2004) suggest that motor control is planned in discrete parts with a very simple "vocabulary." The result is papers like Krakauer's 2009 paper that describe how automatic components of learning can proceed despite conscious attempts to prevent them and how we explicitly differentiate the cues that prompt the use of various learned adaptations subconsciously. Said another way, we can ethically study learning environments where contradictory cues prompt recall of learned behaviors maladapted for day-to-day life. From this, we've learned that certain "symbols" are incorporated into certain models and others are not, and that this transpires in a roughly Bayesian way.

Luria's work with Russian peasants and Belenky et al.'s 1986 work with abused women both document that pushed as low as possible, the human mind deals primarily in first-hand experience. Since people in this state can still (be forced to) learn to perform manual tasks accurately, they must be nearly Bayesian while doing so, just like everyone else. To explain their way of knowing as compatible with Bayes, we have to assume that they treat others' experience as an infinitely noisy channel of information. Said another way, due to failure of decompression/empathy/experience, they cannot make good use of knowing that comes from others even as they can still comply. The best way to do something from this standpoint is to repeat your most successful prior attempt at it. For obvious ethical reasons, you can't keep someone in this state in order to study its exact properties. This way of knowing can't be kept "pure" without substantial, ongoing abuse or hardship.

This explanation immediately suggests another way of knowing based on shared experience. If a teacher can give me named, shared experience, I can use that shared experience to predict the future. For obvious reasons, this is very useful. My ability to use these shared predictions need not result from testing them directly. Consider authority as evidence. If many many sources of shared knowing predict that knowledge from a particular authority is useful even if I value my experience over 10 or even 100 other sources, 101 sources may indicate that authority X is an expert and should be trusted to proscribe how to do things. Consider the Milgrim experiment. An authority given all the physical markers of authority informs a subject that the best way to procede is something obviously inhumane and counterproductive, most people comply regardless going so far as murder. From this perspective, an individual will seldom receive second-hand evidence that they are the acknowledged authority on a topic. Instead, a particular authority will most commonly be suggested as particularly apt at specifying belief or policy.

This then suggests the next way of knowing. When authorities conflict, experience with their prescriptions specifies a better outcome for one prescription than another. There's a key idea here. Beliefs grounded at least partially in second-hand knowing are used to evaluate prescriptions also at least partially grounded in second-hand knowing. If evaluation happens instead in emotional value of "best for me," perhaps due to conflicting second-hand prescriptions, it becomes possible to choose among second-hand prescriptions based on a return to "lower" criteria: trying multiple prescriptions and seeing which turns out best. On the surface, this may seem like a regression. Instead, we can view this as using the limbic system to reason in place of following instructions. The limbic system integrates our emotional experiences in a roughly Bayesian way, being part of the human brain, but with some biases demonstrably suitable for survival on the African savannah. Reverting to experience now includes some information about variable outcome from variable experience. Of course this performs somewhat better by freeing a knower to choose the best external framework among many based on first-hand experience over prescription by an authority of unquestioned provenance.

"What's really best for me?" That's a difficult question to answer until a symbol is chosen as a metric. At the point, optimal control has ready answers. The formulation of explicit goals over emotional goals (since a good many things are rewarding and a good many things are painful) allows the formulation of a policy that translates being past and present observation across a variety of symbols and behavior along a variety of symbols. Generally speaking, the less noise and bias in the observation of the symbols and the more symbols, the more effective behavior can be as it is less noisy, biased, and under-informed in turn. Those with experience in machine learning will recognize this as training and using a model. Training is the process by which model symbols are combined to explain as much as possible about the training data. Prediction is the use of that explanation to predict future observations.

While it required a good deal of effort to reach this point, I can now address what I consider a very dangerous misunderstandingac in your article:
"In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself."

The capacity to extract key symbols and question the suitability of the author's ideas are of the utmost importance. They cannot be taught be taught by someone considered primarily with first-hand, second-hand, or emotional evidence of suitability, however. The best understanding is the understanding that both explains and predicts future experience. A teacher who prescribes a particular interpretation has not optimally explained. A teacher focused on comparison of explanation against emotional history does not test prediction. While you are certainly correct that more and better symbols leads to better models, teaching optimal construction of those models is necessary to make sense of the cacophony of false authority that pervades modern life.

We should teach a Bayesian way of knowing: statistical and uncertain observation lead to statistical value of policy. This is unquestioned and natural in motor control and motor learning. While the motor system CANNOT learn to incorporate certain types of symbols, our language and ability to reason with it appear considerably more flexible. Knowledge is constructed by the knower from symbols of uncertain provenance and quality, but should be made suitable to both explain and predict, otherwise we should not call it knowledge.


Another fluff piece from the halls of academia. The cold hard facts are, upward mobility for the average American is a thing of the past.
"The aristocracy of family seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit has receded."

Isn't it rather that family and merit are now the same in general? Naturally, there are many exceptions, but good families in general raise good children who then do well.
Welcome back professor Hirsch
Until vouchers are available for every child, good at any school, the US will continue its educational decline. Money is not the issue, choice is.

As important as educational opportunity is, the increase in educational opportunity is the primary cause of today's increasing income inequality. Specifically, far more women go to college these days and enter professional career paths. These women marry equally professional men, dramatically increasing household income. Lower class, generally less educated women tend to not be married, and often not even working. Many have figured out that her household income goes up with each child she has, courtesy of entitlements.

Income inequality is a necessary and desired result of opportunity and free choice. The failure in the chain is that not everyone has a free choice in where her children attend K-12 school. This must be fixed.
The decline coincided with the advent of mass adoption of television. How about analyzing library usage and book sales to see tv's effect on raw reading time.
Good article--motivating to read more widely
Words are good.
The author has ignored the real answer because it's politically incorrect and he doesn't want to be attacked. In the article the author describes the large negative changes in France beginning in 1980. Well that exactly corresponds the large scale changes in immigration policy of that country. While all progressives fight desperately to make the elephant in the room disappear it just isn't possible. All one needs to do to fully understand this issue is to look at the 6 year graduation rates of the various ethnic groups in America. Immediately the left will reflexly claim it's the result of racism but whites do not have the highest graduation rates and it's just impossible to credibly argue that Asians have any advantages since many of them are new immigrants are relatively poor. In the end it has little to do with race and everything to do with whose ancestors have a long history of literacy.


http://edpond.blogspot.com/2012/04/us-college-graduation-rates-by-race-by.html
Very interesting article!!!
I teach and tutor English. Do not forget prefixes and suffixes- "ing", "ion." We are using nouns for verbs. Horrible syntax.
Great Article. Fascinating read.
My rough guess as to "why Johnny can't read" would be that the absurdly limited vocabulary of the primers introduced c. 1950, coupled with the round-robin reading class, is a way to teach Johnny to hate reading. If you probe into the difference between students who acquire large vocabularies, versus those who do not, you'll probably find early readers - children who learned before they started school - and those for whom those two sentences per day may represent the sum total of their reading instruction. The first group are utterly bored with the Round Robin; the second group are not getting enough personal attention to develop fluency. You will find no Round Robin classes in the home school, nor will you find such a limited selection of books. You'll find children who enjoy reading a wide variety of books, with a minimal amount of "how to read" instruction, a lot of freedom to read, and some form of feedback, which could be as simple as "Tell me about that book? What happened?" or (for younger children) "Can you read a page or two?" followed by "do you know the word X? Let's look it up?" -- in short, the child does a lot more of the work, and sets more of the agenda, and the teacher finds and pays attention to the weak spots.
Why do Catholic schools succeed in "raising all students, rich or poor, to high levels of achievement?" One could look into specific details of their curriculum, teaching methods, and so forth - but the simple answer is that they must, or they will be unable to attract paying customers. The flip side of this is that government schools, which are nearly immune to such economic considerations, do not have the same incentives to deliver a quality product at an affordable price. Political "accountability" is a very poor replacement for the genuine accountability of the profit-and-loss statement - goods and services must be worth more to voluntary consumers and contributors than the cost of provision, or private-sector entities go bankrupt.
Excellent article. Unfortunately in my school district the research on vocabulary boils down into "Here is a list of vocabulary words your students need to know--teach them!" with no guidelines or curriculum. Way to not get the point.
Also, as a former first-grade teacher, I always tried to tie my science and social studies curriculum to the reading curriculum. So if I had a theme of “Home Sweet Home,” my social studies curriculum would focus on maps and community. (In fact, when I taught using “Me on the Map” I had my students create their own Me on the Map book, starting with their place in the classroom and moving out to the whole globe.) Most themes could be tied to science or social studies, and if they couldn't, well, I didn't spend as much time on it.
I'm not an educator.
Excellent article. I agree with the importance of vocabulary and St Mathew principle. I'm a french teacher and I can witness that french school is not what it used to be because, as you noticed, it turned into constructivism a few decades ago. Pre school is certainly a good thing but there would be a lot to be said about what is really done in these classes: does it deserve the title of "school", or the title of "free day nursery" ? A study by Linda Ben Ali, http://www.formapex.com/telechargementpublic/mendepp2012a.pdf showed that schooling at the age of 2 had practically no effect.
Sincerely,
Françoise Appy
Good article.
I really think education in this country is the greatest civil rights tragedy of our time. Politicians will never make the change, the unions will not let them.
Was it not W Wilson who said children need to unlearn as much of what their parents know as possible?
What kind of comment system does not show the comments below the article?

A stoopid one.
Did you ever consider how formatting would improve readability?
"I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.

to

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential:
* better preschools, run along the French lines;
* classroom instruction based on domain immersion;
* and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.
"Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States."
For those of us who are education-speak nitwits, what are you referring to?
Answer to Miles:
Head Start has been such a nullity because of its total lack of academic content. Think of who's hired to look after the kids--it's basically an entitlement for people who, however good-hearted they may be, are simply not educated. If we could expose the young, disadvantaged children to the kind of language environment that the children of professionals are surrounded by, ... (sigh). At one point, if you remember, that was derided as "imposing middle-class values."
The key to increased upward mobility is expanded vocabulary
I would have like to have heard why 'Head Start', America's pre-school program, has been such a failure.
What if high IQ leads to a large vocabulary which leads to success? No curriculum will cure that.
We have this subject as an in-house problem. My wife is foreign and our daughter's friends are largely of foreign parents as well. The daughter needs this article as do very few. It will be a key to explaining to the both of them where she needs to go with education.

I intend also to use it as leverage to try to inflict "Obama Rules." No television or electronics during the week. Extra work reading and writing. What these good parents are doing with Sasha and Malia.

Too often CJ publishes ideologically tainted pap. If they could meet this standard, this would be an important forum. I come for Nicole Gelinas. Happy to find you, Dr. Hirsch. Thank you.
This could explain the consistent failure of blacks and latinos to succeed on standardized tests. Their vocabulary is dreadful.
Hirsch likes the Common Core statement: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Unfortunately, it is quite unlikely that teachers in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines will (or can) develop reading lists that will provide reinforcing content with each other as well as with literature. And "intentionally and coherently structured" curriculum has been a fantasy of Hirsch's for years that, sorry to say, will never come to be widely accepted.
I second the comments of Stuart and Monique, but I take issue with Hirsch's approving reference to the correlation of college graduation and later success on various measures. It's correlation, but I don't see it as causation. It's necessary to remember that the current college-grad population includes MANY who date from the time when only the top of the academic pyramid even started college and when colleges quickly flushed out those unable/unwilling to do the work.In other words, the college grad population was significantly different from the non-college-grad population, from the beginning. I think that the recent practice of admitting and graduating lots of very weak students (academically and work ethic)will not produce the same positive outcomes.

I also take issue with the comments on the curriculum in the Catholic schools. In the days of nuns and older, now-retired teachers, it was true, but Catholic school teachers now come from the same ed-school philosophy as public school teachers. I took some (excellent) stat courses from a great professor in a Catholic ed school, and heard lots of ed classes in progress. It was progressive, constructivist, process-oriented, content-weak, social justice drivel and BS and nothing about solid instructional methods and content.

Albigensian: I've heard the "it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read" mantra since the early 50s. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. High-quality fiction and non-fiction, across all disciplines, is valuable; reading junk isn't. Content, vocab, grammatical structure and style do matter.
Thank heavens for Mrs. Parker, my 12th grade English teacher. While I was always a reader, from early on, Mrs. P., at her own expense, got me a series of vocabulary work books to improve my grasp of the language. My high school senior counsellor told me I was not college material and I should go out and seek a trade. Not sure that all the vocabulary work made the difference but I went on to college, eventually getting a Ph.D. Then, I went through school before all the changes in education philosophy had a chance to work all their unfortunate changes. I have dealt for years, in the young people who have come to work for me, with the unfortunate consequences. They can't read, they don't know much, they have trouble with complex ideas--linking them up--and think the Internet is a research tool. They're not dumb just not educated. Sad.
It's hard to argue with the author's assertion that specific knowledge is often required for understanding. Even if it flies in the face of the ever-green educationists insistence that what's needed is to only to learn how to learn.

But the key to building vocabulary- and to respectable SAT verbal scores- may just be reading. Lots of reading. Even if what's being read is junk.

Which means, students who read on their own, on their own time, because they want to and not because they have to.

Of course, there are still many students who read on their own time. But it's hard not to be pessimistic, as the attraction of staring at bits of ink on paper (or text on an electronic screen) all too often loses when it has to compete with more immersive media, such as video.

And if reading requires quiet contemplation, how many students live in an environment where quiet is even possible?
Great article even though my research shows that CCSSI's trumpeting of content is primarily a PR move to gain political approval. After that, the sccreditation standards that do not mention knowledge only social, emotional, and physical needs in what must be a student centered classroom take over implementation. Then they meet the Effective Teacher evals written around the teacher implementing behavioral practices around Charlotte Danielson's OBE handbook from the 80s.

Then we get disabilities law coming into play with the incorporated Universal Access to Learning that makes textbooks and lectures discriminatory and promotes ICT use for all instead. Visual, not mental. And we get Positive School Climate and Positive Behavior for All coming in through mostly unread edicts.

And that's just a start of all the legally enforceable edicts affecting classroom implementation instead of the language of the standards. We have not gotten to the real nature of the performance assessments being created.

Language is the tool used for thought which is why vocabulary matters so. Which is why the ELA Language Progressions that seem to dole out vocabulary and concepts that a fluent reader could access by 2nd throughout elementary school with a sight word focus so troubling. Especially to the disadvantaged.

Then we get the catch-up so the changed definition of Literacy is less apparent with copyrighted practices and terms like Accountable Talk.

We are going to have to confront the collision between Equity and Content in education. Content accentuates differences even if everyone is better off.

Equity leaves most students starved for knowledge and most on a substantially lower plane of real academic achievement, not the pretend achievement full of affective measures to obscure the lack of classroom content.

It's time to choose but that is only possible if we puncture through all the Orwellian Newspeak definitions deliberately used in education. And read the actual governing documents guiding the implementation.

And then we can use Hirsch's work on the importance of core knowledge especially for disadvantaged kids.
An excellent article; I come to CJ regularly because of such writing. Thank you.
riesce a tradurlo - riassumerlo, ma senza elencare i testi usati nelle scuole americane, dando un'idea del contenuto e dei concetti?

Lo manderemmo poi ai docenti e alle scuole, anche con la dicitura ' tradotto a cura di Emanuela Borgnino'

100 euro, ma lo faccia lentamente e bene!
With twenty years teaching in College and University for me the student assesments have been a major problem for teachers. Firstly, let me say I fully agree with senior teacher/ peer review of teaching and teaching material. That said, student review is a real problem, if you keep discipline, mark accurately, which means a higher than average failure rate, no prizes for guessing the student reviews at the end. The Heads then come to berate you, despite the fact they know it is a poor review due to actually teaching to a standards. You give up, let standards slip, grade inflate and the same Heads, come to pat you on the back and discuss promotion. This was my experience teaching in the UK, Spain and Australia, I now work in company training on a higher salary, OK the holidays are gone, but so are all the Sundays spent marking and preparing work all term, plus the late nights at the end of each semester marking and report writing.
While this is a well-written article, there are some key points with which I disagree. The real revolution that has created inequality occurred in the 1980s, with the well-intentioned but disastrous movement that postulated that all children should be given good grades so as not to damage their "self-esteem." This rewarded laziness and stifled motivation, not to mention it essentially trained this cohort to have unrealistic views of the adult world they were about to enter.
We now have two generations of people who have grown-up with the notion that they are owed good-paying jobs, whether or not they have the requisite skills. They have trouble assembling articulate sentences, a fact that is reflected in the increasingly poorly constructed sentences found even in well-regarded news publications, spell-checkers notwithstanding.
None of the proponents of the self-esteem movement thought far enough ahead to realize that the reduced skill set with which these students graduated made them unattractive to employers, not to mention ingrained the attitude that these neophyte employees are entitled to good salaries not commensurate with either their education or work experience.
In my opinion, we need to return to fundamentals and stress old-fashioned work ethics. Children who do well, should get good grades. Those that do not apply themselves should not, as it deludes them into thinking they are more capable than they are and it also punishes the children who have made the effort to earn and be rewarded with superior grades. And if children need remedial assistance - for whatever reason - it should be made available to them.