Connecting the dots: E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Common Core

One of the arguments I’ve long made in support of Common Core is that properly understood and implemented, it’s a delivery mechanism for the ideas and work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge curriculum he created.

It’s gratifying—and, alas, too rare—when others connect the dots. But here is Politico, out with its list of fifty “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter.” Sharing number eight on the list is Hirsch and David Coleman, the principal author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.

Hirsch’s work and output span decades, but a principal thrust of his ideas can be summarized thusly: reading comprehension is not a “skill” we can teach directly, practice, or master. It is not like riding a bike, where if you learn on one you can ride another with ease. Once you learn to “decode” the words on a page, your ability to read with understanding is largely a reflection of how much knowledge and vocabulary you have and share with the writer.

If schools understood and embraced this well-grounded insight, American education—and elementary education specifically—would look very different. There would be a lot less “question the author” and “find the main idea.” Instead you’d see teachers (especially those who work with our poorest children) restored, in David Coleman’s lovely and apt phrase, “to their rightful place as guides to the universe.” You’d see big chunks of the K-5 school day handed over to science, history, geography, and the arts, rather than held hostage by massive “reading blocks” that are typically content-free zones.

The pairing of Hirsch and Coleman by Politico is significant. You will not find Hirsch’s name in the Standards, but his thumbprints are there if you care to look. As Coleman notes in the Politico piece, the research showing the fundamental connection between knowledge and literacy “is absolutely foundational.” Indeed, one of the best expressions of Hirsch’s thought and influence is found within the Common Core Standards itself in a brief passage that I have elsewhere described as the fifty-seven most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk.

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

One of the sorrows of supporting Common Core is that it has estranged many allies who have long championed Hirsch’s work, yet do not see the connection, or who—for political, pedagogical, or other reasons—have opted to fight implementation, rather than to insist that schools make good on those words and Hirsch’s deeply egalitarian vision of education.

One of the frustrations of supporting Common Core is seeing Hirsch’s simple, elegant, and irrefutable insight disappear into a miasma of sloppiness, opportunism, and obfuscation. Some of this is inevitable: change in education will always be like the child’s game of telephone. Good ideas and impulses lose their power and potential on the journey from insight to practice. Monitoring the progress of every child morphs into hours a day of mindless test prep and cheating scandals. The need for strong teachers turns into management by checklist and an unholy amount of attention to things like bulletin boards. Not a day goes by when some outrage—an inscrutable bit of math, a questionable reading assignment, or ill-considered writing prompt—is not paraded on social media and attributed to Common Core.

So I’m grateful for the connection Politico has made, the connective tissue, between Hirsch and Common Core. Perhaps the next time a strange or thoughtless homework assignment emerges from a child’s knapsack, a parent will be inspired not to take to Twitter or Facebook and shake a fist, but to march instead into their school or to take the floor at their local school board waive a copy of this Politico piece and demand, “Why aren’t we doing this?” 

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.