Knowledge matters

E. D. Hirsch’s knowledge-based curricula is the key to “Massachusetts’s miraculous educational reforms,” writes Sol Stern in City Journal.  After the 1993 education reform bill, Massachusetts wrote content-rich grade-by-grade standards backed by testing, Stern writes.

The history and social-science curriculum, for instance, makes clear that students should be taught explicitly about their rich heritage, rather than taught how to learn about that heritage. The curriculum calls for schools to “impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society.” This learning includes “the vision of a common life in liberty, justice, and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution two centuries ago.”

While other states have seen little progress in reading and math, Massachusetts students have moved to the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and do much better than the U.S. as a whole on Trends in International Math and Science Studies (TIMSS).

Stern’s children were students at a sought-after Manhattan public school, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose teachers and principals had trained at Columbia University’s progressive Teachers College.

I once asked my younger son and some of his classmates, all top fifth-grade students, whether they knew anything about the historical figure after whom their school was named. Not only were they clueless about the military leader who delivered the final blow that brought down America’s slave empire; they hardly knew anything about the Civil War, either. When I complained to the school’s principal, he reassured me: “Our kids don’t need to learn about the Civil War. What they are learning at P.S. 87 is how to learn about the Civil War.”

After reading Hirsch, the Sterns “accelerated our children’s supplementary home schooling” to ensure that they developed a base of knowledge.

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  1. So, when they get to high school, I have to spend precious time teaching them CONCEPTS that prior generations learned before that point.

    And, before I can hit the concepts in the standards I need to teach.

  2. I love ED Hirsch, and sometimes Sol Stern, but as an MA educator, this is TOTALLY BOGUS.

    Stern claims: “(MA’s) standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch’s legacy.”

    Who says that? Which MA reformers?

    MA’s math and English standards are NOT Core Knowledge.

    Few MA schools USE Core Knowledge curriculum (again, it’s good stuff).

    Stern cites the social studies standards in MA in his article, but they are widely IGNORED. Most MA schools use the same social studies texts everyone else does.

    Most of all kids do TERRIBLE in social studies MCAS and their science tests, they have VERY low knowledge.

    So if you’re keeping score at home:

    a. Hirsch = wise. True.
    b. MA proves Hirsch’s point. False.

    It’s just as true as those who claim that MA’s high scores prove strong unions controlling state and local gov’t are a good thing!

  3. Sol Stern says:

    Who says that? Which MA reformers? Tom Birmingham, President of the Senate, who wrote the 1993 legislation and Sandra Stotsky, who wrote the curriculum standards. That’s who. Ask them yourself. That many schools don’t even follow the state curriculum guidelines I don’t doubt. Nor did I say that MA schools use the official Core Knowledge curriculum. (Only 1000 schools around the country are part of the CK network.) But just imagine how far ahead of the rest of the country Massachussets would be if the state could mandate Hirsch’s official Core Knowledge curriculum for all the schools.

  4. Andrew Bell says:

    If what is being said is that classes that aren’t using CK are “learning how to learn” instead of learning specific content, then perhaps there is a point here. But if what is being said is that the CK-prescribed content is better than another set of knowledge, I think one is standing on thin ice. There are lots of worthy things to learn and too little time in which they can be learned. ED Hirsch hasn’t been put in charge of deciding what the worthy things are, I hope.

  5. ponderosa says:


    If were possible to distinguish which is “root and trunk” knowledge and which is “branch and leaf” knowledge, don’t you think we ought to concentrate on conveying the former to our youth?

  6. Andrew Bell – firstly, I think that Ed Hirsch is indeed arguing that CK-prescribed content is, for American students, better than other sorts of content. Hirsch’s argument is that a core group of knowledge is necessary for reading comprehension, I have never seen any decent refutation of the evidence that core knowledge is necessary for reading comprehension, so I would say that the people who still argue that we don’t need to specify what knowledge students should learn are the ones standing on thin ice – they need to be explaining why background knowledge isn’t necessary for reading comprehension, or why we shouldn’t care about reading comprehension.

    I am not sure what you mean by “ED Hirsch hasn’t been put in charge of deciding what the worthy things are, I hope.” Ed Hirsh clearly isn’t in charge of curriculum decisions for the whole of the USA. He has taken it on himself to propose and advocate for a list of what the worthy things to learn are, but he says in developing this list he relied on many groups, including teachers, and the final core knowledge curriculum was reviewed by almost 100 people. And of course this proposed list is up for public debate. Isn’t this a good thing, that he’s seen a problem and tried to fix it, instead of sitting back and saying “Not my problem, mate.”?

  7. Andrew Bell says:

    Reviewed by almost 100 people! Wow, that is a lot!

    Teasing aside, I think the idea of teaching content is important (as I said originally), but to think that we can cover everything that is important is simply kidding ourselves. Certainly if we all study the same things, we will have a shared knowledge base which can foster a common understanding. But we also will have acquired a shared set of deficits in our background.

    I don’t have any problem with the CK curriculum — I’m sure that it’s better than many others that people might use. What I have a problem with is the idea that the CK curriculum is the ONLY curriculum that can provide a basic frame of reference for understanding our world, which seems to be an attitude held by many CK followers.

    It also bothers me that the detailed curriculum isn’t freely available. If the CK people are really trying to get America to adopt their curriculum, why not let everyone know what the curriculum is without spending a couple hundred dollars on materials? The cynic in me laments that someone might be trying to make some money off of the home-schooling boom.

  8. Andrew Bell – 100 people is a lot of reviewers. Look at the number of people thanked in non-fiction books’ prefaces and dedications for the normal scale of consultation.

    I agree that if we all study the same things we will have acquired a shared set of deficits. But one of the motivations behind the common knowledge curriculum is to make it easier for more people to study by themselves, as they will have more of the background knowledge that is useful for comprehension of new material – writers who introduce new ideas often do so by using analogies and metaphors, so if you know what is being analogised to or metaphored to you are better placed to understand the new idea the writer is introducing. A core curriculum is a starting point, not the end of an education. And the core knowledge people say that the curriculum is designed to take a bit over half the school’s curriculum, leaving time for some variation in teaching.

    I’m not in a position to comment on the Core Knowledge’s strategy in terms of advocacy vs funding, they don’t answer that question on their website.

    I can see your point that the view of some advocates can be very annoying. Do you know of any other curriculae that have been developed on the basis of establishing what students could do with knowing to gather further information?

  9. Considering the typical “curriculum” in today’s schools, I think Core Knowledge is a huge step forward. To say that we have to wait until everyone in the country agrees on what should be covered is to make the good the enemy of the perfect. The fact is that millions of kids – and not just those in urban/poor/minority schools – are being deprived of a real education, even though there is an available curriculum that would be a big improvement over the current,process-oriented, content-minimizing, non-sequential mess we now have.


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