Update, 1/22/17: A version of this review has been published in the Bowling Green Daily News.
E. D. Hirsch is well known in education circles as a long-time advocate for "cultural literacy," the notion that there is a body of knowledge all educated people should master to be effective and virtuous citizens. Despite the immense popularity of Hirsch's books (I use his What your First Grader [etc.] Needs to Know series with my own children) and the advent of the supposedly more rigorous Common Core State Standards, curriculum has continued to erode in American schools, especially in the early grades.
Hirsch's latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is a blistering indictment of this trend away from rigorous content and its effects on the most disadvantaged students. Hirsch vividly describes how the over-emphasis on skills to the exclusion of knowledge coupled with vapid state standards and problems with standardized reading tests have exacerbated achievement gaps. His call for a renewal of rich content in the early grades based on social justice concerns as well as research on student achievement and learning theory is extraordinarily timely and makes Why Knowledge Matters, in my estimation, the most important education book of the year. Parents, educators, and policymakers should read it closely.
The basic problem, as Hirsch describes it, is that elementary schools have shifted toward an overwhelming emphasis on reading as a skill. Students spend hours each day learning reading techniques like how to sound out words, how to find the main idea of a passage, or how to do "close reading" of a text. In turn, time spent on social studies, science, the arts - essentially everything except reading and math - has been drastically reduced in the early elementary grades. The effect on reading tests in the short-term is positive: general trends in student achievement show elementary reading skills have improved. But achievement levels are stagnant or even declining at the middle and high school level, and Hirsch argues that's because students have been denied access to the kinds of rich content knowledge they need to read widely across a variety of subject areas.
This effect has relatively little harm on students from affluent families who absorb knowledge by osmosis through their lives outside of school. But for students of poverty whose parents can't take them to museums or on vacations or expose them to the wider world through reading and cultural opportunities, the impact is to make them fall further behind and deny them the information they need for economic and academic success.
The system is unfair to children, but also to teachers, who are often given the blame for lackluster student achievement. Hirsch argues that reading tests are invariably tests of content knowledge. But because elementary schools lack a rich, carefully-designed content framework, reading tests aren't actually measuring the impact that teachers have made on students, but rather what students have learned (or have not learned) at home.
Hirsch cites a wealth of data from U.S. schools in his argument, but also devotes an entire chapter to education in France, which provides a helpful case study since that country has a single, unified education system. According to Hirsch, France has an excellent and well-organized preschool curriculum which helps narrow achievement gaps early, but like the U.S., France went through a shift toward skills-centrism in the early grades with well-documented negative effects on student learning. French educators are now calling for the return to a clear and common curriculum that will give all students the content knowledge they need for long-term academic success.
Why Knowledge Matters lays part of the blame for these trends on educators themselves who have become enamored with the idea that, in our age of instant information access, specific content learning is no longer necessary. Instead, students should learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills and can "look up" anything else they need to know. In some of the most compelling passages of the book Hirsch dismantles the idea that content knowledge can ever be separated from skills in this way. All skills are domain specific, including the ability to read (and thus, there is actually no discrete "main idea finding" skill; if students know what a passage is talking about, they automatically know the main idea):
Two texts that are rated at the same difficulty level are rarely of the same difficulty for an individual student... A student can be an excellent reader about dinosaurs and a terrible reader about mushrooms... No matter how widely-skilled people may be, as soon as they confront unfamiliar content their skill degenerates.
Hirsch is generally supportive of the Common Core Standards as an improvement over what preceded them in most states, but believes they reinforce this over-emphasis on skills to the exclusion of knowledge and must be supplemented accordingly (including with specific literary texts that all students should study). And he rejects as a false dichotomy the tension between informational and literary texts that characterizes some of the debate over Common Core: "Good works of fiction can be informative. And good informational texts can be literature."
Why Knowledge Matters acknowledges that rebuilding curriculum will not be easy given the enormous focus on testing and accountability that makes educators so risk averse. And Hirsch concedes the political difficulty of getting school stakeholders to agree on a common curricular canon that all students should master. But he believes such a transformation can happen at the local level, and he cites the efforts of many hundreds of schools that have adopted his Core Knowledge curriculum as examples, though emphasizing that Core Knowledge is but one approach to a well-crafted body of content knowledge that can guide instruction. Furthermore, Hirsch argues that reducing time on reading skills and bolstering time on domain specific knowledge will increase student achievement scores, so schools have everything to gain and little to lose by doing so.
In future posts I'll react to some of Hirsch's arguments in greater depth (including what should be included in such a curriculum), but his core thesis seems exactly right to me. I've long been a proponent of more personalized learning approaches. Learning tasks should meet students closer to their actual readiness levels and give them more opportunities to work through standards at their own pace. But I'm increasingly wary of the tendency to take this a step farther and individualize the content that students learn. There are certain things that students do actually need to know, and Why Knowledge Matters shows why you can't simply look things up when you don't know them: we need existing mental maps of knowledge for new information to make sense, or to even know what information is relevant to the questions we are posing.
I am discovering from my own experience as a parent that I can personally supplement a lot of what my children learn at school through learning experiences at home and in the community. But what about those children whose parents lack the knowledge, time, or resources to do this for them? As I've argued before, closing achievement gaps will require a much more comprehensive approach, involving more drastic changes in what students learn, and how, and where, than we are currently offering.
The learning Hirsch describes in Why Knowledge Matters, with its emphasis on more whole-class instruction, will strike some educators as very traditional. But, using many examples from Core Knowledge schools, Hirsch stresses that a rigorous curriculum does not have to mean boring learning experiences. I am hopeful about this, and have been greatly encouraged by schools that are attempting to blend a rich and detailed curriculum with various student-centered approaches to pedagogy. Libertas School of Memphis is one example. This charter school, now in its second year, serves extremely at-risk students and offers a Core Knowledge curriculum delivered through Montessori methods. I correspond regularly with the director at Libertas and hope to visit there soon and write about their experiences.
But I am eager for Why Knowledge Matters to be widely read and thoughtfully discussed in the education community for this same reason. I have enormous respect for pioneer educators who are successfully implementing project-based learning and other innovative strategies. I want them to read this book with an open mind and weigh in from the standpoint of logistics: how far can we go in delivering a rigorous and specific curriculum and still respect students' innate need to have a greater role in the learning process? I have been regularly arguing that good curriculum and good pedagogy are not mutually exclusive, but there may be a dynamic tension here - or we may need to have deeper discussion about what really constitutes "good pedagogy" in light of what we want students to really know and be able to do as a result of their schooling.
At any rate, Why Knowledge Matters, if read with the care it deserves, should have parents, educators, and policymakers engaged in a whole new level of discussion about the direction of our schools.
Usual disclaimer: 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).