I began writing about education 20 years ago, in part because of the disturbing instructional practices I was seeing at my children’s New York City elementary school. When my oldest son was accepted for the kindergarten class at P.S. 87 (despite living outside the catchment area) my wife and I celebrated our good luck. Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, P.S. 87 was considered the crown jewel of Manhattan’s Upper West Side by the neighborhood’s liberal parents. It had just been named by Parents magazine as one of the ten best elementary schools — public or private — in the United States.
P.S. 87 proudly affirmed its progressive educational traditions, but I had no idea what that would mean for my kids’ education. The first thing I learned was that the school followed no common curriculum. Many of the teachers had been trained at Columbia University’s Teachers College or the Bank Street College of Education, where they were taught that they should “teach the child, not the text” and that all children were “natural learners.” Another pedagogical insight disseminated at these progressive ed schools was that the classroom teacher must be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage.”
Thus my son’s third-grade teacher devoted months of classroom time to a unit on Japanese culture, with the children building a Japanese garden. When I asked my son what he had learned in math each day, he cheerfully answered, “We’re still building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the apparent lack of math content. He told us not to worry; in building the garden with his classmates, my son was acquiring “real-life math skills.”
Nevertheless, we continued to worry, even more so when our son’s fourth-grade teacher assigned “real life” math-homework problems, including one in which he was asked to calculate how many Arawak Indians Christopher Columbus killed during his conquest of the island of Hispaniola.
As for history, P.S. 87’s children were taught almost nothing about the American Revolution or the Founding Fathers. I once asked my son and several of his friends whether they could tell me anything about the heroic Union commander their school was named after. They gave me blank stares. I realized that not only had the children not been taught anything about the historic figure who delivered the final blow against the slaveholders’ empire, but they knew almost nothing about any aspect of the Civil War. When I reported this to P.S. 87’s principal, he told me not to worry. Though he granted that it was important for children to learn about the Civil War, it was “more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War.”
I was now even more worried about my kids’ school. This led me to read E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s first two education books, Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Without ever having stepped into P.S. 87, Hirsch critiqued the instructional approach that it and many other schools across the country were using. His books convinced me that the adults who worked in my kids’ school had abandoned common sense in favor of unproven progressive education fads that were causing harm, and not only to comparatively fortunate students but also, and especially, to poor minority children.
On the first page of Cultural Literacy, Hirsch summed up the appalling situation in the nation’s schools: The “unacceptable failure of our schools has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty education theories.” The problem was not that progressive educators (like P.S. 87’s principal) favored the wrong curriculum, but that they stood for no curriculum at all, rejecting the idea that there might be a set body of knowledge that all students should be expected to master. Citing romantic theories of child development going all the way back to Rousseau, the progressives assumed that with just a little help from teachers, children could acquire their own knowledge.
The most devastating consequence of this “anti-curriculum” doctrine was that it tended to widen rather than narrow the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” Hirsch wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge, which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Hirsch believed that the struggle he was leading to create a content-rich curriculum for all children was the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before education reformers of the Left and the Right began using the civil-rights analogy.
During the two decades since my children left P.S. 87, I have written about many of the attempts that have been made to transform the system by making schools more competitive and accountable — including vouchers, charter schools, and curbing the power of teachers’ unions. I ultimately concluded that although such “market” reforms were sometimes useful, they were insufficient by themselves to bring about significant overall improvement in student achievement or to significantly narrow the racial achievement gap. The market reforms did not affect the classroom. Hirsch argued that any reform scheme must ultimately be judged by whether it produces better classroom instruction and a coherent curriculum: “The effort to develop a standard sequence of core knowledge is, to put it bluntly, absolutely essential to effective educational reform in the United States.”
Hirsch’s warnings about the absence of a curriculum based on a defined body of knowledge have been prophetic. While there have been some gains in American students’ math scores in the early grades in recent decades, reading performance has lagged far behind. Moreover, according to a recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year .” Improvements in the lower grades aren’t significant if they disappear in high school, or if students entering college or the work force — the end product of the public-school system — need remediation in reading and writing, as many now do. Meanwhile, the ed schools continue to miseducate future teachers into believing that reading can be taught as a set of skills, including phonics, while ignoring the broad content knowledge that all good readers must acquire.
It’s tempting to speculate about how different this alarming picture of American student achievement might have looked if more attention had been paid to Hirsch’s plea for a content-based curriculum. Until the unveiling of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, Hirsch and his supporters had encountered little success in convincing school districts that the key to improving student achievement was a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Now, with the adoption of the standards, there is at least an opening to do just that.
There has been much legitimate criticism of the Common Core national-standards document that 43 states have now pledged to implement. But with the exception of Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act (which was also heavily influenced by E. D. Hirsch’s ideas), no state’s standards have ever explicitly called for a content-based curriculum. On that point, the Common Core is a major improvement.
You wouldn’t know it from the incessant complaints about the standards by conservatives, but the Common Core document includes a breakthrough declaration about revolutionizing classroom instruction that is perfectly consistent with traditional education principles:
While the Standards make reference to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they 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 consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.
Many of the grade-specific standards in the Common Core also require students to engage with specific content and broaden their historical and cultural literacy. For example, students in ninth and tenth grades are asked to “analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’), including how they address related themes and concepts.”
These and other passages about content knowledge in the standards are an acknowledgment by the Common Core writers that the evidence has vindicated E. D. Hirsch’s critique of progressive education, along with his call for restoration of a content-based, grade-by-grade curriculum.
After a quarter century of neglect by the education establishment, this is a redemptive moment for Hirsch. It’s also an opportunity for my son’s old elementary school, P.S. 87, to begin teaching a coherent curriculum, including the Civil War.
– Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.