Ready to Learn What? Is the Key to Education Reform

Published December 1, 1997

In his 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, educator E.D. Hirsch demonstrated that literacy has two key components: the ability to read, and an assumed base of shared factual knowledge conveyed by the words being read. Without shared background knowledge, confusion arises over unfamiliar words and concepts, the same way that someone entering a new field of expertise is confused by “jargon”–unfamiliar words and concepts that are common currency in the field.

In his latest book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Professor Hirsch brings the same approach to the classroom. He notes, for example, that if a third-grader has not mastered the knowledge that his or her teacher expects each child already to have learned, that child cannot participate effectively in third-grade learning. Unfortunately, there is growing disdain in our public school systems for content-based curricula, leaving students, teachers, and parents alike increasingly frustrated with the lack of real learning that takes place in the schools.

School Reform News managing editor George Clowes recently spoke with Professor Hirsch about these and other issues.

Clowes: Some observers of education say the public schools are performing poorly; others say that’s a “manufactured” crisis. What’s your assessment of the situation?

Hirsch: For a long time, American schools have not been performing well. The performance decline began in the fifties. The results showed up twelve years later or so in the steep decline in SAT and ACT scores in the sixties. But the rot started in the fifties, at least on a big scale. It’s said, falsely, that the decline was caused by a change in demographics, but that’s not the complete explanation at all, because the very best students also declined in their scores.

Clowes: So the decline is real?

Hirsch: The decline is measurably real. But it dates back long enough so that people who say the crisis is manufactured also have data on their side, because they can say, “Look, it’s been flat for the last twenty years.” Of course, it has been flat for the last twenty years.

A second point is that while other systems have been getting better, internationally, in both excellence and equity, and in average results, we’ve been getting worse. Basically, our relative standing has declined.

There’s also a third point: There’s been a decline in competence compared with the competence that is needed in the new information age. That’s a point about unsatisfactory performance, not in relation to some historical past, but in relation to the needs of the present.

Clowes: What is it that makes our public schools perform so poorly, or prevents them from performing well?

Hirsch: There are two basic reasons. One of them is inadequate preparation of teachers in the content areas. And the second is a set of ideas that is actually deleterious to good education. These are ideas that are taught to teachers in education schools–ideas that are actually wrong and harmful.

Clowes: Could you offer an example?

Hirsch: The idea that each child is individual and has to be treated differently, so that each child goes at his or her own pace. That’s a very misleading idea. If a child isn’t making the grade, you don’t relax and say, “Well, that’s his or her pace.” You say “The child needs to make the grade,” and we need to define what the grade is and see that that happens. That’s what the best systems do. That’s the rubber meeting the road. We need every child meeting a certain defined standard instead of these vague things about how different all the kids are.

Clowes: What are the best practices in teaching methods and how do those differ from what is being taught to teachers in education courses?

Hirsch: Teaching methods are not the answer one way or the other. There are so many good ways you can teach. You can teach well in a kind of guided-discovery way, and you can teach badly in that manner. It isn’t the overall methods that are so critical, it’s the incoherence of the curriculum in the United States–what is expected, what goals should be attained, and seeing to it that they do get attained irrespective of which methods are preferred by the teacher. There aren’t clear goals for all kids, and this is an illustration of the way in which ideas are harmful.

Clowes: Is that a function of local control and curricula that become very diverse?

Hirsch: No, I don’t think so. It’s possible to have local control and still have very specific standards that all children are expected to meet. That only becomes a difficulty when you have high mobility rates. Of course, we do have high mobility rates, so the local control issue is complicated, but it isn’t specifically a problem of local control. To have a local curriculum would be a tremendous advance over what we now have. There’s a myth that we have a local curriculum, and in most places we do not.

They may have some kind of curriculum document, but the real test is: Do the kids get Charlotte’s Web three years in a row? Is what’s happening in one second grade class the same thing as what’s happening in another second grade class? That’s the way to test it out: You find out if a principal can tell you: what is it that every second-grader will know for sure, what specific content? Then you find a lot of hemming and hawing.

Clowes: You mentioned the mobility issue. Can that be addressed without having the federal government impose a national curriculum?

Hirsch: Yes, I think it can. Most mobility is within the district. So, if a district had something comparable to the core knowledge curriculum–something that’s rich, well-tested, and specific grade by grade–that would be a tremendous improvement. There are a lot of people, including me, who don’t want Washington telling us what to do. But it’s a red herring because if each district had something comparable, most of the mobility problems would be taken care of. Because most mobility is within the district.

Clowes: In your book, you say that school choice alone isn’t sufficient to correct the problem.

Hirsch: I did say that. Until you have a terrifically informed citizenry, parents will be just as dazzled by these teaching fads as the teachers, and the educators, and the business people have been. The only way you can really find out whether the school is any good is to judge over time. Learning is very cumulative. It takes at least a year to find out if scores have gone up, and usually a couple of years. That is a measure, but you can’t just take it and say “Oh, this is great.” It might be great, but you can’t tell just by looking at the school.

Clowes: A number of organizations are beginning to issue school information cards to provide that information to parents.

Hirsch: I like that. That’s like nutritional labeling on foods. If choice were accompanied with hard data–excellent! And also, “Can I be sure that my child will learn certain things in a particular grade?” That’s my theme song, as you know. There are so many things conspiring against that. That’s the reason it’s my theme song.

Clowes: European countries seem better able to get all of their children, rich or poor, ready to learn when they start school. How do they do that?

Hirsch: There are two kinds of countries in Europe. If you take Scandinavia, by and large, those are homogeneous countries, and the home is a school within that culture. So the kids come out of the home and go to preschool or kindergarten, and they are prepared because each of those homes, each of those sets of parents, on average, has given the child what the child needs.

But a country like France is much more heterogeneous, with 23 percent immigrant population around Paris, and even higher around Marseilles.

How can you be “ready-to-learn” unless you answer the question, “ready to learn what?” Without an object, “ready to learn” is not very useful. But as soon as you ask “ready to learn what?” you should ask it for each grade.

Clowes: Shouldn’t we be able to measure the effects of reforms in the early grades relatively quickly, since these are the keystone years of learning?

Hirsch: I think you can measure readiness to learn, which is the mark of progress because learning is cumulative. Obviously, it’s a better preschool if they’re ready to learn first grade better than another preschool was able to achieve.

This “what,” as in “ready to learn what,” includes both conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge, or skills. It’s very important to use the word “knowledge,” I think, because procedural and conceptual are both kinds of knowledge. I’m very much concerned by the phrase “What a child knows and is able to do.” This idea of “doing” goes back to the progressive movement and that movement’s notion that doing is implicitly better than knowing. It’s all a kind of knowing and it’s all a kind of doing. I think knowledge is the critical word.

Clowes: Given that any reform will take time to implement, what advice do you have for parents with children in the early grades?

Hirsch: Is the child being taught how to read? Is the child making very good progress and reading at grade level? And then, is my child able to read and understand based on a breadth of knowledge and experience? That’s where core curriculum comes in. Essentially, you could think of a broad core curriculum as a vocabulary-building device.

Clowes: Parents, then, really do need to have an idea of what it is that their children are supposed to know?

Hirsch: Absolutely. And that’s all evaded by the idea that everybody goes at his own pace. It’s a very seductive, but wrong, idea, and it also allows a total lack of accountability on the part of the schools.