Common Core’s Best-Kept Secret

Shout it from the rooftops, tell all your friends: The Common Core era signals a return of history, civics, literature, science, and the fine arts to the elementary school curriculum. That’s if we don’t let misguided ideas stand in our way.

If this news to you, you’re not alone. But E.D. Hirsch, Jr., is doing his darndest to spread the word:

The success of the Common Core Standards in Language Arts, adopted by more than 40 states, is supremely important for many reasons, not least because of the recent intensification of income inequality. Student scores on language arts tests are the single most reliable academic predictors of later income. The new language arts standards of the Common Core represent an historic opportunity for beneficial change in American schools—if they are put into effect intelligently.

But if you look at the data in Amazon books, you will see that the bestselling books about the Common Core are “skills-centric” ones that claim to prepare teachers for the new language arts standards by advocating techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity” as though such skills were the main ones for understanding a text no matter how unfamiliar a student might be with the topic of the text. The fact is, though, that students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

There’s a lot about Common Core implementation that’s tough work and highly controversial. This is not one of them. What parents or educators don’t want their kids to learn great content? History, civics, literature, science, and fine arts? Yes please!

Yet the education field might still find a way to screw this up—because it thinks of reading as a “skill,” because of its fealty to the “social studies” ideology, and over concerns about what’s “developmentally appropriate.” In a great blog post today inspired by a current controversy in New York over the “appropriateness” of teaching Ancient Civilizations to first-graders, Dan Willingham takes on the latter:

If it seems impossible or highly unlikely to you that 6 year olds could really get anything out of such lessons, I’ll ask you to consider this. Our understanding of any new concept is always incomplete.

For example, how do children learn that some people they hear about (Peter Pan) are made up and never lived, whereas others (the Pharaohs) were real? Not by an inevitable process of neurological maturation that makes their brain “ready” for this information, whereupon they master it quickly. They learn it bit by bit, in fits and starts, sometimes seeming to get it, other times not.

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

So spread the word. As Hirsch urges in his article’s title, “Tell Your Local Superintendent: ‘Don’t Worry. Students Will Ace Those [Common Core] Tests If They Learn History, Civics, Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.’”

Content is back!

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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