E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy and American Democracy

“E.D. Hirsch has contributed what is to me the most persuasive idea of the past half century on how to improve the performance of American education,” writes Nathan Glazer in the Summer 2010 issue of Education Next. The idea is the importance of cultural literacy—the necessary information that students must have to understand what they read. After arguing, in Cultural Literacy (1988), that young people are not becoming good readers because they lack cultural literacy, Hirsch set out to remedy the problem by “spelling out, grade by grade, in detail, what students must know in a variety of fields if they are to be competent and understanding readers.”  In addition to this Core Knowledge curriculum, Hirsch has launched a system of Core Knowledge schools to teach it and a Core Knowledge Foundation to support them.

In February, the Core Knowledge Foundation announced that it would work to align its curriculum with the Common Core standards currently being developed by the NGA and CCSSO, and that it would give away its curriculum sequence for free instead of charging for it, all in an effort to ensure that the common standards are supported by a curriculum to help interpret and implement them.

In a blog entry appearing on the Washington Post’s blog “Answer Sheet,” Hirsch today makes the case that the Common Core standards have the potential to revolutionize reading instruction. He writes

There is a way we can sail out of the reading doldrums.

The recently released English Language Arts Standards drafted by the National Governors Association Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers may provide desperately needed wind we need to move forward… Note the unusual title it carries: “Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science.” The title shouts that language mastery requires knowledge of history, and science, (music and fine arts I hope will be included in due course) not just fiction and poetry. It states explicitly that these non-literary subjects should be generously represented in the long classroom hours devoted to literacy.

This emphasis on non-literary content is defended on the grounds that building “a foundation of knowledge in these fields will give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.”

That is an especially important consideration for the early grades, which now spend up to half the school day on literacy. Here is something new under the sun. It resists the infamous narrowing of the curriculum. And it is an important reform also for helping to overcome the test-score gap, which is essentially a knowledge gap, between racial and ethnic groups.

Transforming the elementary school “literacy block” into a rich, meaningful and sustained engagement with subject matter would be the single greatest transformation of instructional time in decades. If there is one Big Idea that can help arrest the decline of reading achievement in American schools, this is the one. To their credit, the authors of the Common Core standards have taken pains to get this right, and it is a master stroke.

In a new book, The Making of Americans, which Nathan Glazer reviews in the Summer 2010 issue of Ed Next, Hirsch more explicitly connects the idea of cultural literacy to the subject of civics—“the role of a common system of public schools in educating a citizenry to the level necessary to maintain a democracy.”  According to Glazer, the book looks back at the ideals guiding the development of American publication and how we have moved away from them in recent decades.

As Hirsch explains, “This book concerns itself…with overcoming low literacy rates and narrowing the achievement gaps between demographic groups but places those themes within the broader context of the founding ideals of the American experiment, which have been a beacon to the world and ourselves.”

Nathan Glazer and Paul Peterson discuss E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and  The Making of Americans in a video  here.

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