Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 12
New Book Beats Drum for Teaching Content Knowledge
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
Role of Background Knowledge
Asked why he thinks his work is
undergoing a renaissance, Hirsch
answers plainly: "There's been a
sense that what we're doing isn't
working very well."
Average reading scores for
17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
have declined significantly since
1988, according to the most recent
long-term-trend assessment, as
Hirsch notes in his newest book. At
the same time, reading scores have
risen among 9- and 13-year-olds,
which he chalks up to improvements in how foundational reading
skills are taught. But those gains
are lost when students meet more
demanding texts in high school.
In addition, racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps have remained large and unyielding.
"Most people seem to agree that
over the past 10 to 15 years, there's
been a narrowing of the curriculum to make time for more math
and reading," said Lisa Hansel, the
director of Knowledge Matters, a
campaign launched this past spring
to encourage knowledge-building in
schools. (Hirsch is a board member
of the group.) "Somehow, spending
more and more time on reading isn't
giving us the long-term reading results we're after."
Plus, as both Hirsch and other
scholars note, a growing body of research shows the critical role background knowledge plays in reading
A year after Cultural Literacy
was published, researchers Donna
R. Recht and Lauren Leslie published a seminal study looking at
the link between what students
know and their reading proficiency.
When given a passage about baseball, students deemed poor readers
(by a standardized reading test) who
were knowledgeable about baseball
showed better comprehension than
good readers who knew little about
A 1997 study by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich
likewise found a high correlation
Christopher Tyree for Education Week
down. And now, at age 88, he's at
it again with a new book about
the need for a knowledge-based
curriculum. The book's publication comes as Hirsch is seeing his
theories rebound and creep their
way into more schools, teacher
trainings, and instructional materials-largely, many say, thanks to
the Common Core State Standards.
But in Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From
Failed Educational Theories,
Hirsch excoriates the education
policies of the day, including-interestingly-the use of the common
The reading standards' focus on
all-purpose comprehension skills
rather than content, while it may
be politically necessary, is "a deep
misfortune," he said.
"It's a pointless approach," he
E.D. Hirsch Jr., photographed at the University of Virginia, where he taught for 34 years, denounces standardized
tests and the common core in Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories.
between reading ability and general cultural knowledge. And, more
recently, Gina N. Cervetti and other
University of Michigan researchers
found evidence that students who
read a series of texts on a particular
topic, becoming experts on the subject in a way, improve their vocabulary and comprehension.
"Cognitive models of reading emphasize that a lot of the information you need to make connections
between ideas and text are typically
left out of the text," explained Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia
who studies K-12 education. For instance, if you read, " 'I got a puppy.
My landlord is really angry,' that's
readily understandable but relies
on you knowing about the kinds of
things puppies do to carpets and
the attitudes landlords hold toward
damage to their property," he said.
Students need that background
knowledge to understand the text.
"In some ways, Don [Hirsch] was
ahead of his time," Willingham said.
"The persistent importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension is really quite evident in
the last 30 years."
Common Core Pays Homage
Hirsch's ideas, and the research
backing them, "mattered a lot" in
the development of the common
core, said Sue Pimentel, one of the
lead writers of the English/language
David Liben, a senior content
specialist for the literacy team at
Student Achievement Partners, a
founded by the lead writers of the
common core, points to Page 33 of
the standards, which calls for systematically building knowledge in
English/language arts. However, he
admits that many people overlooked
that page, at least at first, because
it's not part of the grade-specific
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | October 12, 2016 | www.edweek.org
"I've done [professional development] with thousands of teachers-
possibly 10,000. Not one of them recognized [the page] at first, but those
10,000 know it now," he said.
Seven years after the standards
were published, more educators are
noticing that language and beginning
to pay it heed, said Hansel of Knowledge Matters. "It's taken a while to
get to the point where folks at the
state, district, and school level and
community partners have had the
chance to read and digest the whole
standards document," she said.
The common core's emphasis on
reading complex texts has also gotten educators thinking about the importance of teaching content, some
said. "Teachers are seeing you have
to grow knowledge and you have to
grow vocabulary," Liben said.
In the 1980s, Hirsch helped develop a framework for teaching content called Core Knowledge, which
about 1,000 schools were using for
many years. The program was recently expanded into a full-fledged,
common-core-aligned ELA curriculum, the commercial version of
which is now being used in about
3,700 schools. A free version of the
English/language curriculum has
been downloaded over 5 million
times in the last three years, said
Linda Bevilacqua, president of the
Core Knowledge Foundation.
Hirsch himself is adamant that
there's no single right curriculum
for building knowledge-that Core
Knowledge is just one "workable
example" of how to teach critical
content. (He emphasizes that he
doesn't make a personal profit from
the curriculum sales-the funds are
funneled back to the associated nonprofit foundation.)
And recently, there's been a proliferation of curricula that take a
similar tack. Expeditionary Learning, Great Minds, and Pearson have
all published knowledge-based ELA
curricula for the common core, according to Liben. Some free online
resources are emphasizing content,
too, including one called Bookworms,
devised by two university professors.
"In terms of uptick among schools,
I really feel like this is the first
break-out moment for Don's ideas,"
Her group also links the renewed
energy around Hirsch's theories to
the recently passed federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law repeatedly refers to the need for a "well-rounded
education" and lists subjects outside
of reading and math that students
should be exposed to.
But to hear Hirsch talk about the
common core is to get a different
He calls the reading standards
"empty" and "deeply flawed" because
they teach all-purpose reading-comprehension strategies rather than
facts and information. An entire
chapter of his new book is devoted
to what he refers to as "the tribulations of the common core."
"The people who developed the
common core had a choice. Either
[the standards] were going to be
educationally correct or they were
going to be politically viable," he
said. "They chose the second." Fortysix states agreed to adopt the standards right away, which he argues
"could only be accomplished if you
didn't specify the content of the curriculum."
One standard in particular that
galls Hirsch asks students to find
the main idea of a text.
"There is no such thing as an abstract main-idea-finding skill," he
said. "Just think of it-how in the
hell would I find the main idea if I
didn't know what the ideas were?"
Willingham, the University of
Virginia psychologist, said Hirsch is
right here-to a point. "If you apply
a reading-comprehension strategy
to a text where you lack background
knowledge, it's not going to work,"
he said. "But there are lots of studies showing that teaching students
comprehension strategies does boost
Such studies show that students
only need about 10 sessions of practicing a strategy. After that, the
effect fades away, Willingham explained.
But many teachers still worry
that Hirsch's push for teaching
facts rather than encouraging independent exploration and learning
is out of date in the internet age
and will bore students. "At what
point do we value being able to
make sense of all of it over trying
to recall some disconnected facts?"
asked Will Richardson, an author,
consultant, and former teacher
with expertise in digital learning.
"You risk losing a whole generation
of kids as learners because you're
just force-feeding them stuff."
Unfair Reading Tests
In his new book, Hirsch also
claims that empty standards have
led to reading tests that are neither
fair nor productive.
"A fair test would be a curriculum-based test that tested the
reading comprehension on subjects that the schools had taught,"
he said. "That's not the nature of
reading tests now. It cannot be the
nature of the reading tests because
the test-makers don't know what
the curriculum is, because there is
no set subject-matter curriculum
that all 3rd graders all 4th graders
are going to study."
That's particularly unfair for disadvantaged students, he said, who
are likely coming to school with less
background knowledge than their
more affluent peers.
While many of the ideas in his
new book reiterate his previous
work, Why Knowledge Matters also
makes the argument in a new way:
by looking to the education history
Hirsch writes that between 1977
and 1989, France had a national
elementary curriculum. When that
was replaced under an education
reform law with locally determined
curricula and instruction focused on
general skills such as "critical thinking," achievement declined across
demographic groups, and social
"It was a natural experiment what
happened in France," Hirsch said.
"If we don't take note of it, we're just
sticking our heads in the ground."
His discovery of the research on
France compelled Hirsch to write
the new book, which he won't say
for sure is his last. "I thought the
book before was my last," he said.
"But if it's important, you can't say
it too often."
Coverage of the implementation
of college- and career-ready standards
and the use of personalized learning
is supported in part by a grant from
the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education
Week retains sole editorial control over
the content of this coverage.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - October 12, 2016
Bilingual Education Poised for a Comeback in California Schools
Cultural Literacy Creator Carries On Campaign
New Teachers Turn to Web for Mentoring
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Modern E-Rate Puts Telephones On Hold in K-12
Sides Seek to Avert Chicago Teachers’ Strike
Labor Dispute Simmering In Buffalo, N.Y.
Shooting Reignites Safety Concerns
Kan. Governor: Tax Hike Needed If State Loses Funding Case
Court to Weigh Level of Benefits for Special Ed. Students
Literacy Program Reflects Clinton Policy Agenda
Snapshot: School Finance A Judge Gets Tough
News in Brief
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
PAUL REVILLE: A Call to Action For K-12 Leaders
LYN MIKEL BROWN: A Field Guide to Girl Empowerment
JOHN URSCHEL: The Winning Equation In Math Education
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Modern E-Rate Puts Telephones On Hold in K-12
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 2
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 3
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - News in Brief
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Report Roundup
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Labor Dispute Simmering In Buffalo, N.Y.
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Shooting Reignites Safety Concerns
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Kan. Governor: Tax Hike Needed If State Loses Funding Case
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 9
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 10
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 11
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 12
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 13
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 14
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 15
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Literacy Program Reflects Clinton Policy Agenda
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 17
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Snapshot: School Finance A Judge Gets Tough
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 19
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 20
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 21
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - LYN MIKEL BROWN: A Field Guide to Girl Empowerment
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - JOHN URSCHEL: The Winning Equation In Math Education
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - Letters
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 25
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 27
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 28
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 29
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 30
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 31
Education Week - October 12, 2016 - 32