Knowledge at the Core

Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or something akin to it—en route to successful attainment of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

Five of the essays included in the volume were first presented at a December 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the Fordham Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Video from that event, and a terrific documentary about Don and his contributions to American education, are available on our website at

That day left us hopeful—not a word that often comes to mind amidst the rancorous debates now swirling about education in general and the Common Core in particular. Yet Don himself is, by admission, an unwavering optimist; his enthusiasm is as contagious as his ideas are bracing. So in that spirit, let us make the hopeful case that many more of America’s schools are on the precipice of finally embracing those ideas—and thereby boosting their students’ chances of achieving the lofty goals that the Common Core standards prescribe.

Rethinking reading

Commence with this key Hirsch insight: Teaching knowledge is teaching reading—and reading will never be mastered beyond the “decoding” stage without a solid foundation of knowledge. Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about the world—about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. This is not a value statement about what students “should” study; rather, it reflects decades of cognitive science and reading research.

Once children learn to decode the words on a page, greater literacy is attained only through greater knowledge. Reading comprehension, and thus learning by reading, depends on knowing something about the content of the passage at hand. If a fifth grader knows a lot about baseball, for example, she will comprehend complex stories about baseball at a high level. But if she doesn’t know a lot about the ocean, she will struggle to comprehend anything beyond simple, introductory books about marine life. The only way to help children become strong readers, regardless of topic, is to equip them with a large store of general knowledge—to help them learn something about everything. And that means implementing a well-designed, sequential, content-rich curriculum, especially in the early grades.

Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.” As Ruth Wattenberg, the former editor of the AFT’s American Educator magazine, explains in her essay, the elementary-school curriculum has been a content-free wasteland for decades, one that grew even more barren in the No Child Left Behind era. Is it any wonder that, even as national assessment data have shown decent gains in math achievement in recent years (at least in the early grades), reading outcomes remain dismal? Although some relatively small gains have been made (most likely due to Reading First’s spread of phonics-based decoding instruction), high-school scores have been flat for decades.

Bad news. But there’s some encouraging news, too. In his essay, based on focus groups that he conducted with teachers, Steve Farkas explains that elementary teachers welcome the notion of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Indeed, they take for granted that it’s valuable. They may have been taught otherwise in ed school, but they’re not philosophically opposed; most aren’t even aware of the ideological battles waged between “progressives” and “traditionalists” within the halls of academe. Building students’ knowledge is, to most teachers, simply common sense—and they’d like to do more of it. But first, the misguided progressive ideas shaping schools need to be more widely recognized, as Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern writes in his trenchant essay.

Another bit of good news: the single greatest force currently shaping American education—the new Common Core standards, now in place in forty-five states—explicitly endorses Hirsch’s ideas and calls for the kind of curriculum that he favors:

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.” —Common Core State Standards

Says Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the advocacy group CitizenshipFirst, those are “the most important fifty-seven words in education reform since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.”

But they are, alas, just words on a page. They’re not hard to decode—but how many people grasp their content? How many states and school districts will heed their call?

Though fundamentally an optimist, Don Hirsch does not yet observe much heeding. In his keynote address to the December conference, included in our book as the essay “Sustaining the American Experiment,” he expresses his worry:

District preparations for the Common Core in language arts are looking like district preparations for No Child Left Behind, with lots of how-to processes, under new names, but with no emphasis on systematically imparting facts—which are still considered “mere.”

That’s precisely what Wattenberg found when she examined textbooks, basal readers, and state websites that are supposedly “Common Core aligned.” They do, indeed, pay attention to the skills demanded by the standards, even to the challenge to assign “appropriately complex texts.” But in almost every case, they ignore (or never even understand) the charge to put in place a content-rich curriculum so that students can actually read these more challenging texts with understanding.

And while most rank-and-file teachers have no ideological bone to pick with content knowledge, many of their supervisors and administrators still hold fast to the false dichotomies and faulty notions that Hirsch has debunked for years. Just weeks ago, Carmen Fariña, the new chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, displayed her own misunderstanding of the role that knowledge plays in education: “It’s always been something I’ve believed in—we learn facts maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life.” (As if one can fruitfully think if one doesn’t know anything.) In his keynote, Don said, “The effectiveness of the Common Core standards will depend on the adequacy of the ideas held by those who try to put them into effect.” Indeed.

The way forward

For thirty years, Don Hirsch has tried to capture the attention of America’s policymakers, policy thinkers, educators, and philanthropists to persuade them to undertake perhaps the one reform we’ve never tried: the widespread adoption of a coherent, sequential, content-rich curriculum that intentionally and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Yet beyond a band of acolytes, a handful of funders, about 1 percent of the nation’s schools, and some thousands of home schoolers, his arguments have mostly fallen on deaf or uncomprehending ears.

What might change the outcome over the next thirty years? Here’s a to-do list:

1. Continue to build the evidentiary base.

Don has long made a compelling, research-based, and scientifically sound argument for content knowledge in the early grades, and top-notch cognitive scientists agree with him. While a small pilot study was conducted in New York City to test and improve an early version of the program, Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) has not yet been subjected to a rigorous evaluation (it is just now being completed and made available to all). We need more evidence that schools that use CKLA—or other content-rich curricula—do better, particularly in reading.

2. Develop an open-source version of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through grade 5.

(Preschool through third grade has already been developed—and made available for free—thanks to a variety of funders, including a Race to the Top grant from the New York Department of Education.) It’s one thing to promote the “idea” of content knowledge; teachers appear receptive. But to make it come alive, there needs to be an actual “program” or “curriculum” that schools can easily acquire and install, whether via purchase or for free. Core Knowledge Language Arts already exists, and it’s terrific, but it doesn’t have to be the only such curriculum. Schools would benefit from having quality choices in this realm.

3. Attract philanthropic support.

Many donors are looking for ways to make a significant impact at scale, and many are generously supporting Common Core implementation. To date, however, that has seldom included the development and dissemination of curricular materials that are not just “aligned” with the Common Core but that also embody the spirit of the standards’ call for building knowledge through a content-rich curriculum. There is enormous potential to achieve tremendous leverage via curriculum reform, as scholars such as Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution have argued. Making high-quality books and professional development available to schools—including but not limited to Core Knowledge Language Arts—could transform America’s elementary schools, and without the controversy that follows most of today’s reform efforts.

4. Forcefully advocate knowledge.

We like to think that Ms. Fariña is an anomaly and that most superintendents, principals, and teachers would be open to implementing a content-rich curriculum if presented with the cognitive science demonstrating the importance of broad knowledge—and with accessible, usable options. Someone might fund a campaign to “Rethink Reading” that would target these key educators via conferences, social networks, advertising, etc. Common Core funders would be smart to support such efforts, both to boost the odds that these standards can actually be met and to demonstrate—especially to conservative critics—that the Common Core is wholly compatible with, perhaps even dependent upon, Core Knowledge.

Are you game to help with any of those four objectives? If so, let’s talk.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli

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

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