E. D. Hirsch: “American Teachers Are Being Blamed for Intellectual Failings That Permeate the System Within Which They Must Work.”

Its hard to believe that its been thirty years since the publication of E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. The book proposes,

…that all public schoolchildren should be provided with instruction aimed at familiarizing them with a wide variety of topics, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art and music, in order to have the background knowledge that would make them successful readers and learners.

The book became famous, or, depending your place on the ed reform spectrum, infamous, for the 63-page index of 5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to students.

Hirsch, a self-described, “almost Socialist” was painted as a neo-conservative and few school districts adopted his ideas.

The current apostasy are Common Core standards.

In many schools an unintended consequence of the emphasis on Common Core-based testing has been purging classrooms of all but what is tested.

Since the 1987 publication innumerable “innovations” or “reforms” have come and gone: from Ebonics to the Common Core; the Core Knowledge Foundation (Explore Core Knowledge Sequences here), continues to support parents and schools that advocate the cultural literacy philosophy.  The foundation, a not-for-profit provides a K – 8 curriculum; a grade-by-grade sequence of lessons, of “knowledge” that Hirsch believes are essential for any American to master.

During the Bloomberg/Klein years, New York City was divided into ten Regions, one of the Regions, implemented the Core Knowledge curriculum in twenty schools, with considerable success; sadly, Klein and his deputy, current chancellor Carmen Farina, who is wedded to Lucy Calkins methodology,  allowed the grant to expire.

Hirsch, at age 88, has a new book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children form Failed Educational Theories (2016) and the current issue (Winter, 2016-17) of the American Educator contains an article by Hirsch, “In Defense of Educators: The Problem of Idea Quality, Not ‘Teacher Quality’.”

Hirsch writes,

… in the last few years the teacher quality issue has risen to the top. I think it may be reform fatigue, possibly desperation. We are blaming teachers because of our disappointments with the results of our reforms.

Hirsch summarizes the reforms of the last few decades, from No Child Left Behind through the Common Core and concludes,

Educational success is defined by what students learn—the received curriculum. Not to focus on the particulars of the very thing itself has been an evasion that is not of the teachers’ doing. The underlying theory of the reforms (reflected in state reading standards) has been that schools are teaching skills that can be developed by any suitable content. That mistaken theory has allowed the problem of grade-by-grade content to be evaded. It was that fundamental mistake about skills that has allowed teachers to be blamed for fundamental failures—the failures of guiding ideas, not of teachers.

Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of yore, teachers were trusted to determine classroom practice. The New York City Board of Education supported a curriculum-writing section that churned out materials written by teachers for teachers. In the era of data, curriculum has been replaced by standards and competent teaching is defined by Charlotte Danielson and obscure mathematical algorithms. It is not surprising that teachers see the union contract as salvation.

When the classroom, which should be a daily reward, becomes a purgatory, one turns to contract stipulations. … We have a system that, according to teachers themselves, does not prepare them adequately for classroom management or the substance of what they must teach. Therefore, my counterthesis to the blame-the-teachers theme is blame the ideas—and improve them.

Hirsch, as you would expect, does not shy away from the reform mantras of the day. He challenges the trope that teacher quality should be at the top of any list, as well as the concept that you can accurately measure teacher quality; he especially challenges the emphasis on value-added measurements of teacher effectiveness, i. e., VAM.

Scores on reading tests reflect knowledge and vocabulary gained from all sources. Advantaged students are constantly building up academic knowledge from both inside and outside the school. Disadvantaged students gain their academic knowledge mainly inside school, so they are gaining less academic knowledge overall during the year, even when the teacher is conveying the curriculum effectively. This lack of gain outside the school reduces the chance of low-socioeconomic-status (SES) students showing a match between the knowledge they gained in school during the year and the knowledge required to understand the individual test passages.

The fifty states are in the midst of complying with the new Every Student Succeeds Act that requires states to author an accountability plan. The law continues the requirement of grades 3-8 tests publicly reported; however. states have wide discretion in what they measure. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests measure Common Core standards acquisition, skills not curriculum-based content. State use tests to measure proficiency not growth.

The results have been disastrous.

High poverty, poorly funded schools have lower test scores than high wealth schools: what a revelation.

Applicants to schools of education have nose-dived, down 20, 30 and 40% around the nation. Teacher attrition continues at disturbing levels, almost 40%of teachers in New York City leave in their initial five years and approaching 70% in high needs middle schools.

While we want to select and prepare students to teach in New York State we require four separate exams (costing over $1,000) to receive certification, with no assurance that the tests produce more effective teachers. Strangely, there is no set period of weeks required for student teaching, the range in teacher training programs is enormous.

Hirsch makes a simple recommendation,

If I were a principal in a primary school, I’d spend my money on teachers, on their ongoing development, and on creating conditions in which the work of teachers in one grade supports the work of teachers in the next, and in which teachers would have time to consult and collaboratively plan.

Can the state support a school district that implements the Hirsch Core Knowledge curriculum?  (The state Engage NY site does support K-2 Core Knowledge sequences) By support, I mean creating assessments of pupil progress that reflect content?    Interestingly one member of the current Board of Regents, Dr. Cashin, was the Regional Superintendent in New York City who supported a cluster of Core Knowledge schools.

The union and the Local Education Authority (LEA) in New York City have created a cohort of schools who have created innovative practices that require changes in contract language and LEA regulations  (See description here).

Can the state create a cluster of school districts with similar arrangements: local unions and school districts creating “innovative” approaches to instruction, curriculum and assessment?

After thirty years the education community may be ready to listen to Hirsch.

4 responses to “E. D. Hirsch: “American Teachers Are Being Blamed for Intellectual Failings That Permeate the System Within Which They Must Work.”

  1. Although you often have brilliant insights, this column is beyond brilliant!!!!


  2. Bravo – Finally someone like you steps up to tell the truth about the root causes of the failings of our educational systems. Can you imagine the progress the children would make it we taught a credible curriculum and assessed their learning based on what was actually taught? And can you imagine the accelerated learning that would occur in the inner cities if we taught grade-level content to all children rather than dumbing down some of them with ‘just right books that deliver content that is without form and too often years behind expectations of basic knowledge acquisition? Can you imagine what it would take for colleges to actually prepare teachers no only with a range best methodologies to promote high level learning but also with a firm grasp of the actual curriculum that teachers are expected to teach? Yes, this would require a substantial change in the current treatment of teacher preparation programs and a substantial change in the old guard, some of whom still focus on the Crayola curriculum and the content of the latest publications of colleagues – after all, publish or perish is still a guiding principle in the ivory towers of higher learning – they too lack a core curriculum or direction. And finally can you imagine the substance and effectiveness of teacher collaboration if it was regularly focused on challenging content and standards (skills), the most potent instructional techniques and yes, lesson planning to motivate and engage the children in meaningful learning and assessments? Sounds logical, but the forces at work for decades have well managed to redirect logical professional practice that makes sense to big dollars and power that support everything but classroom teachers, supervisors and the children. Keep up the good work Peter and someone might actually begin to listen.


  3. To link the word intellectual with an educational system that is driven by Common Corps is an oxymoron to say the least.


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