Hirsch: All kids need ‘enabling knowledge’

E.D. Hirsch’s new book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is “as clear and trenchant as Cultural Literacy was in 1987,” writes Fordham’s Checker Finn.

Hirsch takes on “the tyranny” of three mistaken ideas, writes Finn.

— Early education should be age-appropriate and seen as part of a “natural development process.” (“Early education” in Hirsch’s world isn’t preschool; it’s kindergarten and the first several grades of school.)
— Early education should be individualized as far as possible.
— The main aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other “general skills.”

In the early grades, children need a common, knowledge-centric curriculum, Hirsch argues. Poor kids need to know what the children of educated parents know.

In the book’s preface, Hirsch writes about the radical shift in France’s education system. In 1989, France told elementary schools to abandon the national curriculum. Each school was to develop its own curriculum and special emphasis.

. . . more attention was to be paid to the individuality of each student, to his or her native abilities, interests, and home culture. To compensate for all this novel heterogeneity, the unifying emphasis was to be on general skills such as “critical thinking” and “learning to learn.”

After 20 years, researchers found “an astonishingly steep decline in achievement” for students from all demographic groups, writes Hirsch. Children of North African immigrants suffered the most — “inequality increased dramatically” — but children of professionals also did much worse.

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U.S. educators believe in “different strokes for different folks,” “multiple learning styles,” “multiple intelligences” and so forth, writes Hirsch.

In practice, individualizing leads to a fragmented curriculum and the idea “that the goal of education is the imparting of general skills like critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and cooperative thinking,” writes Hirsch. “But reality has not accepted this hopeful idea about skills, and recent cognitive science has been fatal to it.”

Hirsch “sees potential in the commonness’ of the Common Core,” but thinks it will help only if it leads to knowledge-rich curricula, writes Finn. He also warns that “close reading” of texts — a Common Core obsession — is a waste of time unless those texts are integrated with a knowledge-rich curriculum.

What colleges do the most for students?

Washington Monthly has released its annual College Guide, which includes how schools are improving social mobility and graduates’ ability to repay student loans.

Most of the top-rated schools are public institutions such as University of California at San Diego , Teas A&M and Utah state.


The Monthly also ranks “Best Bang for the Buck” colleges and includes a first-ever list of Best Colleges for Adult Learners, including both four-year and two-year colleges that meet the needs of working adults.

Best-bang schools include the University of Mount Olive (NC), Cal State-Bakersfield, and College of the Ozarks (MO).

The issue also includes in-depth feature stories on: The False Promise of “Free” College and How the Internet Wrecked College Admissions.

Low-income parents are doing more

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The kindergarten readiness gap seems to be narrowing, according to new research. Children starting kindergarten are better prepared than in the past — and students from low-income families and Hispanics are catching up, reports Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

Poor students kept their gains at least through 4th grade, according to reading and math results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but the gaps did not continue to close after children entered school, (researcher Sean) Reardon noted.

Lower-income, less-educated parents are doing more to prepare their children for school, researchers concluded.

“Parents are more likely to report reading to their kids, playing with their kids, taking them on outings to the library or the zoo,” said Daphna Bassok, a University of Virginia education professor.

Study: Head Start boosts grad rates

Head Start has long-term benefits , according to an analysis by Brookings’ Hamilton Project.

Head Start participants are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and receive a post-secondary degree or certification, the study found.

As adults, they’re more likely to use “positive parenting” practices with their children.

Especially for black children, “Head Start also causes social, emotional, and behavioral development in participants that are evident in adulthood measures of self-control, self-esteem and positive parenting.”

Head Start participants were compared with siblings who attended other preschool  programs or none at all.

The analysis suggests that the alternative to Head Start is a very bad preschool, writes Kevin Drum in Mother Jones. “Those green bars . . . show Head Start having a bigger effect compared to other preschools than it does compared to no preschool at all. That can only happen if the other preschools were collectively worse than doing nothing.”

Of course, “doing nothing” means spending time with Mom or Grandma. It’s not surprising that low-income mothers often have to settle for low-quality preschools.

Head Start students in Tulsa. Photo: John W. Poole/NPR

Head Start students in Tulsa. Photo: John W. Poole/NPR

Tulsa’s high-quality Head Start program is producing academic gains in middle school, another study concludes.

“Children who attended Head Start had higher test scores on state math tests” in eighth grade, says Deborah Phillips, a Georgetown psychology professor.  “They were less likely to be retained and less likely to display chronic absenteeism.”

Latino students, including those from Spanish-speaking homes, showed gains. However, black boys did not benefit and there were no gains in reading.

Boston’s preschool success is “percolating up” to higher grades, writes Lillian Mongeau.

First day of school


Time‘s cover story on Super-Siblings — successful brothers and sisters who didn’t come from wealthy families — features the Wojcicki sisters: Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at University of California, San Francisco, and Anne is the CEO and co-founder of genetics company 23andMe.

Their mother, known as Woj, is a brilliant journalism teacher at Palo Alto High, where my daughter was one of her students.

Stanley and Esther Wojcicki with their daughters

Robo-baby moms become real moms

A weekend caring for a computerized baby doll — a popular sex ed technique — doesn’t discourage pregnancy, according to an Australian study published in Lancet. Girls who mothered Baby Think it Over dolls were more likely to become pregnant than sex-ed students who didn’t get the lifelike dolls.

Costing several hundred dollars, the “robo-babies” mimic “six-week-old infant behavior including crying when hungry or needing changing, or gurgling when rocked and burped,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

The simulators track teens’ parenting, “including whether they are left for long periods in a car seat or left without adequate care, or even whether they are handled violently or incorrectly.”

By the age of 20, 17 percent of Australian girls in the Virtual Infant Parenting program had become pregnant compared with 11 percent of the control group.

VIP graduates also were less likely to have abortions than those who hadn’t cared for a robo-baby.

Many girls said caring for the baby dolls was a positive experience, with family members pitching in to help, said Sally Brinkman, of the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia.

I was 13 when my “surprise” (more like shock) brother was born. Naturally, I helped care for him — and not just for a weekend. It sure didn’t make me want to run out and have a baby of my own.

From The Onion‘s American Voices:

  • “Don’t send a thousand-dollar robot to do a bag of flour’s job.”

  •  “Why don’t we just stick to the old-fashioned method of demonizing sexuality altogether?”
  •  “Well, let’s not blame the schools. They’re doing all they can to prevent unwanted pregnancies besides teaching students about contraception and fostering open discussions about safe sex.”

Iowa prof: Herky the Hawk spurs aggression

The University of Iowa’s Herky the Hawk mascot is too angry, “conveying an invitation to aggressivity and even violence,” complains a pediatrics professor.

“I believe incoming students should be met with welcoming, nurturing, calm, accepting and happy messages,” wrote Resmiye Oral in an email to UI athletic department officials and the Faculty Senate.

In a phone interview with the Press-Citizen, Oral said university symbols — Fighting Herky, the “Old School” Flying Herky and the Tigerhawk logo — should show a variety of facial expressions.

Aggression is OK for the football field, but not for posters welcoming new students, she argued.

Angry Herky images on posters “are totally against the nonviolent, all accepting, nondiscriminatory messages we are trying to convey through campus,” she told colleagues.

U-Chicago: No ‘safe spaces’ here

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Don’t expect “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” at the University of Chicago, wrote Dean of Students John Ellison in a letter to incoming freshmen. Expect some discomfort.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” wrote Ellison. “Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community.”

“Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments,” wrote University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

It’s inspired praise. “It is a sad commentary on higher education that this is considered a brave and bold move,” writes Mary Katharine Ham on The Federalist.

But there’s plenty of outrage, writes Reason‘s Robby Soave.

The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer called Ellison’s letter a “perverse document” that limits academic freedom by telling professors they can’t issue “trigger warnings,” if they choose.

“The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education confirmed with the university that its statement should not be read as a ban on trigger warnings,” responds Soave.

Professors are free to warn — or not warn.

Slate‘s L.V. Anderson branded (the letter) “very odd,” while suggesting that the university is further marginalizing students who already feel marginalized.

Activist students should want their universities to treat them as thinking adults — rather than Mommy’s Special Snowflake — Soave argues. If the administration has the power to limit unpopular speech, students lose power.

At University of Georgia, Dr. Naomi Graber defines “safe space” as a place where students can voice unpopular views without risking a lower grade — or ridicule. Her syllabus assures students “they will not be penalized for being ‘wrong’ in discussion sections” and asks them to “challenge ideas, not people.”

College hopes for all, but . . .

“As colleges push students to consider their options for higher education, more high-school students are taking the ACT exam,” reports the Wall Street Journal. But most aren’t ready to succeed in college courses.