In my recent review, I argued that Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children From Failed Educational Theories by E.D. Hirsch was perhaps the most important education book of 2016. Indeed, I believe that Hirsch's call for a more rigorous and rich elementary school curriculum has significant implications for addressing persistent education problems like the historical achievement gap between poor and affluent students. In a series of follow-up posts I'd like to explore Why Knowledge Matters in greater depth, starting with a look at how Hirsch's ideas fit with our existing content frameworks like the Kentucky Academic Standards.
Standards versus curriculum
First, it's probably worth taking a moment to distinguish between "standards" and "curriculum," as this is a confusing and subtle distinction that even many educators have never pondered. Education standards, which are generally issued at the state level and apply to all public schools within their jurisdiction, are an expression of the goals of learning - what we want students to know and be able to do as a result of their schooling experience. Curriculum, on the other hand, includes the instructional materials used to help students achieve those goals.
As the Excellence in Education Foundation puts it, "Standards are the end. Curriculum is the means." Or, as Robert Pondiscio recently described it in his excellent discussion of the controversial Common Core State Standards, standards can be thought of as the construction, plumbing, or electrical code to which an architect must adhere when designing a new building. As such, standards provide no more restriction on what and how teachers may teach than construction codes place as minimum standards of how a new building must function:
I would wager that when I.M. Pei was commissioned to design the Louvre Pyramid, his first move was not to reach for a copy of the Paris building codes for inspiration. It should be no different for teaching. First things first: What is it you want to teach? Which stories, poems, or novels are worth your students' precious time? What do you want students to know about art, science, history, and literature? Answer those questions, then reach for the standards and build your lessons and units "to code."
Essential to Hirsch's argument in Why Knowledge Matters is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are insufficient by themselves to design a quality learning experience for students. This is explicitly noted in the CCSS documents themselves, which state "The Standards...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." As Hirsch responds, "These are golden words. But no district I know of is paying attention to them - for they are words without consequences."
Why Knowledge Matters argues that schools need to be far more explicit about the actual curriculum that will deliver these standards. Schools rely too much on the narrow language of the standards and invest far too much time in focusing on certain standards-related skills to the exclusion of important content knowledge students need to know (via a specific and fairly detailed curriculum) for success in later grades and in life.
To illustrate Hirsch's case, I took some time to compare the Kentucky Academic Standards for English/language arts, science, and social studies in kindergarten through second grade with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a framework of content and skills promoted by Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation and used in over 1,200 schools (the Core Knowledge Sequence is available for free download via the Core Knowledge website). I focused specifically on the early grades because Why Knowledge Matters argues strongly that this is where curriculum has suffered the most in recent years, doing untold damage to students from low-income families who lack the access to cultural knowledge outside of school. Hirsch says that the Core Knowledge Sequence is not necessarily the best or only example of a specific curriculum schools should consider, but does meet his goals of being field-tested, topic-specific, well rounded, coherent, cumulative, and selective.
The Kentucky Academic Standards for English/language arts come directly from the Common Core State Standards. They include a description of grade-by-grade skills associated with reading literature and informational texts, foundational skills like understanding the sounds letters make, writing skills, and skills related to speaking and listening. There is a great deal of overlap the Kentucky ELA standards and the Core Knowledge Sequence, both in the organization of materials and in the specific skills and content described. For example, the Kentucky ELA Standards say that first graders should "use illustrations and details in a text to describe its key ideas." The Core Knowledge Sequence, meanwhile, says first graders should be able to "Answer questions requiring literal recall and understanding of the details and/or facts (i.e., who, what, when, where, etc.) about a text that has been read independently."
In most ways, the Kentucky ELA Standards and Core Knowledge Sequence seem compatible. The key difference is that Core Knowledge is much more explicit. For example, when the Kentucky ELA Standards say first graders will "know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs," the Core Knowledge Sequences specifically lists the digraphs (and other consonants sounds-spellings) that first graders will be taught: "/sh/ spelled 'sh' as in ship." Of course, Kentucky first grade teachers don't just pick the digraphs they teach willy-nilly. But those decisions do have to be made, either by individual teachers, or at the school level, in order for second grade teachers to have any reasonable way of knowing what their incoming students should theoretically be able to do. Hirsch's argument is not necessarily that Kentucky should dictate which digraphs should be taught when, but that those decisions are critical, and when and how they are made can have a huge impact on student learning.
Also of importance, the Core Knowledge Sequence offers a fairly lengthy list of poems, nursery rhymes, books, and other works of literature students should study at each grade level. The Kentucky ELA Standards do provide a list of recommended texts "illustrating complexity, quality, and range of student reading" in each grade (see page 90), but this is another great example of the difference between standards (where we're going) and curriculum (how we'll get there) that has to be navigated by educators. Hirsch argues we should be much more explicit - at least at the local level - about the curriculum that will be used to deliver these standards.
If there is a fairly strong linkage between the Core Knowledge Sequence and the Kentucky ELA Standards, the differences become more stark when we consider science and social studies. Kentucky's uses the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as its standards framework. NGSS structures each science topic around a combination of content knowledge, science practices (the kinds of activities scientists and engineers actually do when they use science content), and cross-cutting ideas that link content and skill across a variety of science fields, all of which contribute to performance expectations that students should be able to demonstrate as a result of learning.
The Kentucky Science Standards do not, however, break any of these concepts or skills down into specific grade level content, but rather group them into bands for grades K-2, 3-5, etc.. Again, teachers and schools are left to do this work, and if it is not done with great intentionality, there is a distinct possibility the ideas will simply not be taught in the early grades, especially if insufficient time is allocated for doing so (more on this below). The Core Knowledge Sequence, on the other hand, provides a very specific framework of science ideas that first graders should master, including living things and their environments, the human body, matter and its properties, an introduction to electricity, earth science concepts, and the biographies of scientists. A similar sequence of specific science concepts are articulated for every grade level, K through 8.
Kentucky's Academic Standards for Social Studies have not been updated in many years. All efforts at establishing social studies standards via the Common Core have been politically unfeasible due to the highly controversial nature of many social studies concepts, though CCSS does include English/language arts standards as they are applied to social studies and science. Kentucky's social studies standards are organized into five "Big Ideas" (government and civics, cultures and society, economics, geography, and historical perspectives), each divided into "understandings" (broad concepts students should know) and "skills and concepts" (articulating how students should apply that knowledge).
These "understandings" and skills are indeed broad, and require the educator to add many layers of curriculum to make them meaningful. For example, students in the primary grades (individual grade levels are again not specified) should "explain why people move and settle in different places; explore the contributions of diverse groups." But this begs many questions educators have to answer: Which people? Which places? What groups? What contributions? The Kentucky social studies standards do not give guidance on these questions.
The Core Knowledge Sequence for each grade spells these matters out clearly. For example, first grade students should begin their study of American Westward expansion, including "Daniel Boone and the Wilderness Road, the Louisiana Purchase, the explorations of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea" and be able to locate specific geographic features on a map like the Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Mississippi River, among many other specific items of knowledge. When these things are left to chance, many schools lack a coherent framework of social studies knowledge to impart to students.
Where does the time go?
More importantly, when teachers rely too heavily on the standards without a sufficient attention to curriculum they have no guidance as to how much time to devote to particular concepts. As a result, we have the current situation that Hirsch describes so vividly in Why Knowledge Matters whereby elementary subject areas besides math and reading have experienced a 47 percent reduction in instructional time in recent years.
Teachers have mistakenly over-emphasized the skills-heavy standards because they think that's how students will be tested on annual statewide assessments. But Hirsch argues that even reading tests are ultimately tests of content knowledge. Test makers are forced to invent tests based on the content-anemic standards, but test items will invariably reward students who know more. By neglecting domain-specific content, teachers are in the long-run putting their students at a disadvantage on standardized tests. According to research cited by Hirsch, generic reading skills like finding the main idea of a passage can be taught in as little as two weeks, and then instructional time can be devoted to the exploration of specific, intentionally-selected texts that build students' content expertise.
Far more attention needs to be devoted to curriculum, and there's nothing stopping educators from doing so, including the ever-present shadow of "testing." It seems clear Hirsch would love to see states articulate curricula more clearly for all schools, but he acknowledges there is likely no collective will to do so. However, individual schools and districts can and should take the first step, especially in elementary grades, toward the renewal of a rich curriculum, a move that sets up the possibility for more instructionally valid tests. As Hirsch writes, "Will any large American locality be willing to institute a good, content-specific curriculum grade-by-grade throughout all the elementary schools in the district? If one single big district does so, it will be a watershed event in our educational history."
I am not a curriculum expert myself, but Hirsch's argument makes great sense to me and conforms to what I've observed about the dearth of subject matter and the over-emphasis of generic skills in the early grades. Schools all around me are paring back time devoted to social studies, science, the arts, and other areas, making it virtually impossible for teachers who want to expose their students to rich content to actually do so. I would encourage elementary teachers especially to read Why Knowledge Matters, reflect on these issues, and contribute to a wider discussion on our current curricular practices and how we can make improvements that will benefit students, especially those who come from impoverished backgrounds.
Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).
- Why Knowledge Matters: The Most Important Education Book of 2016
- If caring is king, content is queen
- Yes, kids need to know about the American Revolution
- Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning