Behind the Headline: How Common Core Can Help in the Battle of Skills vs. Knowledge

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How Common Core Can Help in the Battle of Skills vs. Knowledge
New York Times | 8/29/15

Behind the Headline
Romancing the Child
Education Next | Spring 2001

While many people blame standardized testing for narrowing the elementary school curriculum to reading and math, the real culprit is “a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like ‘finding the main idea — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.” So writes Natalie Wexler in an op-ed in the New York Times.

She explains

Skills are important. However, as the cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham and others have demonstrated, you can’t improve reading comprehension just by practicing free-floating skills. For students to understand what they’re reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.

The education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for 30 years that elementary schools need to focus on knowledge. Mr. Hirsch’s ideas were long dismissed as encouraging a reactionary cultural tradition, but they are now beginning to command new respect among education reformers. And that’s largely because of the new Common Core education standards, currently in effect in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Wexler goes on to explain why reading comprehension tests are really “knowledge tests in disguise,” why the new Common Core-aligned tests are shining a brighter light on gaps in knowledge, and why we may see continued growth in schools embracing “content-rich” curricula like E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge.


For more on links between E.D. Hirsch and the Common Core, please read “Knowledge at the Core,” in which Chester E. Finn, Jr. introduces a book on the topic.

Mike Petrilli wrote about Comon Core and the return to content in “Common Core’s Best Kept Secret.”

E.D. Hirsch has written two feature articles for Education Next, “Romancing the Child,” which appeared in the very first issue of Education Next, and “Not So Grand a Strategy,” in 2003.

– Education Next

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