January 20, 2010
Should computer algorithms determine our national English curriculum?
That’s what E.D. Hirsch wants to know when he raises this shockingly
relevant--if absurd--question in his evaluation of the draft “Common
Core” college-ready standards. The standards, in his view, have several
pluses. They explicitly associate literacy with having a broad base of
knowledge, and they correctly divide the amorphous “language arts” into
its core skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. But
reminiscent of our own evaluation of the same standards,
Hirsch cautions that schools can’t teach these skills directly without a
knowledge-rich curriculum. The primary error, explains Hirsch, is that
the standards-drafters treat language proficiency as a how-to skill.
Similar to many state ELA standards, they use a technical definition
that is based on finding the main idea and “inferencing.” In reality,
inference cannot be taught in the abstract. Studies have shown that a
poor reader with extensive baseball knowledge will score higher on a
passage about baseball than a good reader with little knowledge of the
sport. Thus, to impart the necessary language competencies, we must
focus on increasing a student’s knowledge of content, not attempt to
teach them “reading skills” as such. This is an important distinction
that the standards fail to point out.
“First, do no harm,” E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Education Week, January 14, 2010 (subscription required)