E.D. Hirsch's 'Core Knowledge' Method: Can It Help City Schools?

Categories: Education

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Today, officials from a Virginia-based education non-profit, E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Knowledge Foundation, are making a pretty big announcement.

They claim that the group's pedological approach has helped kids at 10 city schools "outperform" their peers in reading tests, the Foundation reports (via New York Times.)

While the 3-year pilot plan sounds promising, it might have you asking: "WTF is 'core knowledge,' anyway?"

Well, Runnin' Scared has a few answers for you.

Who is E.D. Hirsch?

Hirsch is a retired professor of education and humanities who most recently worked at the University of Virginia. In popular parlance, he might be best known outside of teaching circles for his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, in which he makes the very controversial argument that there's a certain canon of facts that all U.S. citizens should be familiar with -- some 5,000 names, dates, and concepts, to be exact. His schtick has angered multiculturalists from the get-go: They say his notions of core knowledge favor white, privileged males.

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, for example, said in 1997: "[Hirsch] has swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education. If this kind of angry, stereotypical thinking is what results from a 'core knowledge' orientation, then I want no part of it," Education Sector reports.

How does the Core Knowledge Method work?

The basic idea behind the program is that kids learn based upon what they already know. While this seems pretty straightforward, the curriculum generates controversy because it's rooted in the idea that certain things must be taught to facilitate learning.

But with language arts specifically (and keep in mind, this is a very general overview), the setup uses "synthetic phonics" to teach reading. This approach, popular in the U.K., differs from American phonics by beginning with sounds as opposed to letters. Pupils hear and speak the sound, both in isolation and in "letter teams" like "s-h." Also key is that kids don't read stuff they don't get -- Hirsch believes reading and writing should be taught at the same time, but that students learn more if the material is understood, according to the Foundation.

How does this relate to New York?

Interest in Hirsch's methods stems from several years ago, with former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein advocated "balanced literacy," the Times reports. Promotion of the program, in fact, began as early as 2003.

In this particular trial run, reports found that: "for each of the three years, students in the Core Knowledge program had greater one-year gains on a brief reading test than their peers in the comparison schools. The difference was most pronounced in kindergarten, when the scores of children following Dr. Hirsch's method showed increases that were five times those of their peers."

By year three, students "were still posting higher scores, but the differences were not as wide. Between the fall and spring of last year, their scores rose 2.5 scale score points, compared with an average gain of 0.9 points in the comparison group. "

This experiment involved 1,000 kids from 20 city schools.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.


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4 comments
George Schifini
George Schifini

I have gone to the CKF site and read some of the other research on Core Knowledge done in other states. The results are similar to these most recent ones in NYC.As the parent of a three year old, I hope that the Core Knowledge curriculum is expanded to more elementary schools in NYC, particularly in District 3. Are there are any like minded parents willing to join me in a lobbying effort?

Jessica Lahey
Jessica Lahey

Having taught in both non-Core Knowledge Curriculum-affiliated schools and Core Knowledge-affiliated schools, I can report that the major difference lies in the students' knowledge base. I teach middle school students in a CK-affiliated school who are able to read books of more complexity and higher difficulty than my high school students who did not have the benefit of a Core Knowledge curriculum. They understand the literature because they understand the references. That's what a content-rich curriculum does for a kid.

Jessica Lahey
Jessica Lahey

Having taught in both non-Core Knowledge Curriculum-affiliated schools and Core Knowledge-affiliated schools, I can report that the major difference lies in the students' knowledge base. I teach middle school students in a CK-affiliated school who are able to read books of more complexity and higher difficulty than my high school students who did not have the benefit of a Core Knowledge curriculum. They understand the literature because they understand the references. That's what a content-rich curriculum does for a kid.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio

Here's a not so dirty little secret about Hirsch.  He's a liberal democrat who drives a Subaru with (last time I saw it) an Obama bumper sticker on it (http://www.dfer.org/2007/12/df....  The big misconception, pretty much repeated above is that Core Knowledge is an attempt to impose a canon on American kids.  Not quite right.  The big idea is technical, but critical: sharing a common body of background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension. Basically, you're not teaching reading unless you're teaching background knowledge. Lots of it. Here's a simple YouTube video from UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham that lays out the reasons for this in layman's terms: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...  

Long story short:  Most methods of teaching reading simply assume that all children come to school with the same body of knowledge (they don't) or that it doesn't matter (it does. A lot).  Hirsch's work and this curriculum call for deliberately arming kids, especially low-income kids with the same body of knowledge that their more privileged peers usually have.  Far from a "neoconservative vision" it's a deeply democratic vision of equity in education driven by concern for social justice.

I spent years as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx trying and failing to raise my kids' reading achievement before realizing the way I was taught to teach reading wasn't working.   The only guy who perfectly described what I was seeing in my classroom every day--and the only guy who seemed to have any idea how to address it--was E.D. Hirsch.

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