Learning First Alliance

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Reading and Knowledge: An Interview with E.D. Hirsch

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Hirsch Photo WEB.jpgA week ago, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced that the district would pilot a new reading program in 10 elementary schools. Created by the Core Knowledge Foundation for grades K-2, the reading program will focus on both phonics and content knowledge.

Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch recently spoke with Public School Insights about the program, which marks a strong departure from current practice in New York City elementary schools. He describes his dismay that so many schools have narrowed their curricula in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Such tactics are inevitably self-defeating, he tells us, because children cannot develop strong reading skills when they lack content knowledge. Too many poor students with strong decoding skills fall far behind after 4th grade because they cannot thrive on the academic starvation diet of a narrow, skills-focused curriculum.

Hirsch also responds to criticisms that the Core Knowledge curriculum focuses too exclusively on white men, and that it privileges knowledge over understanding. (You cannot understand what you don't know, he reminds us.)

Listen to about six minutes of highlights from our conversation (or read the transcript below):

Or you can listen to any of the following excerpts from the entire interview (approximately 15 minutes):

Why Core Knowledge? Because "Reading is a Content-Based Skill" (3:43)

The Design of the Core Knowledge Early Literacy Project (4:41)

"You Can't Get More Multicultural" than Core Knowledge (2:16)

"You Can't Understand What You Don't Know" (1:07)

The Payoff: Core Knowledge Closes Achievement Gaps (1:15)

Giving Teachers the Professional Development They Need (2:08)

Transcript of Interview Highlights:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Could you describe, in general terms, the Core Knowledge Early Literacy Project in New York City.

HIRSCH: I'm chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and we have put out a highly explicit, grade-by-grade, core curriculum for [grades] pre-K through 8. It's in use in several hundred schools across the country. The rate of adoption was very high until No Child Left Behind came along.

And it was disconcerting because I really support the aims of No Child Left Behind, but I thought the schools were reacting to the law in a sort of self-defeating way. Because what happened was, of course, since the emphasis [of the law] was on math and reading, a great deal of time was being spent on the so-called "language arts block" - the literacy block. And in many places, it's three hours a day in the early grades. And people have been complaining that that aspect of the law has pushed out subject matter - the study of science, [the] study of history and the arts. If you push out subject matter, you're also pushing out reading comprehension.

And consequently, the schools began to use those three hours with a great many "how-to" exercises-strategies, trivial stories-as though the content itself didn't matter. And [standardized test] scores went up in decoding in the early grades--the reading tests that are given in those very early grades [are mainly decoding]--and scores stayed flat or even declined in 8th grade and 12th grade.

And so I thought, "Well, look, the only way to remedy both those problems-- how to get the reading scores to go up in grades 8 and 12--is for the students to know more." Because it turns out that reading is a very content-based skill.

We got into this [area] for the double reasons of wanting a more solid education in the early grades--much needed--and a recognition that reading comprehension itself depended on this solid general knowledge, which is terribly, terribly important for social justice.... The longer you delay the build-up of general knowledge, the greater becomes the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids.

We're starting to make a [reading] program which in the early years is the decoding part - is focusing only on decoding. But the rest of the Core Knowledge reading program in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade is focused on oral learning--production of oral speech, reception of oral speech, read-alouds--with a very organized approach to the cumulative building-up of general knowledge. Because it's general knowledge which is the high correlate of reading comprehension.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you are focusing on the read-alouds that begin to give children more content knowledge, is it a challenge at all to synchronize that with instruction in areas like phonics that allow children to decode language?

HIRSCH: It would be a tremendous challenge if you tried to put the two things together and tried to do both things at once. But you have to remember, in the early years, procedural knowledge--phonics, decoding--is itself a content. It's a subject matter that these children have to learn. The symbol-sound correspondences are highly complex, and nothing should detract from the engaging and effective way of teaching decoding. In that strand [of our program], the children never encounter a written word that is pronounced differently from the correspondences that they've already been taught, so they begin to get a great sense of mastery. It's proved to be a very effective aspect of the reading program. But that's a separate strand.

The other strand of Core Knowledge reading is what we call listening and learning. Notice it's "listening." It's not reading. There are plenty of pictures and there are plenty of books, and the words are there, but it's mainly oral.

One thing that was very striking to me in the research, years and years ago Tom Sticht showed that reading doesn't catch up to listening until about 7th grade, on average. So you really are handicapping yourself in the teaching of the general knowledge that's needed for reading if you insist on doing it through the decoding process. So, particularly in the early grades, we've separated these two elements.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Others, as I know you know well, have criticized Core Knowledge for not necessarily reflecting or honoring the diversity in those schools [that have adopted its curriculum].

HIRSCH: I think people who say that probably have not actually studied the Core Knowledge sequence. Well, you couldn't get much more multi-cultural, really--and still have an American curriculum--than ours is. [This] objection was really a way of avoiding the whole challenge of a specific curriculum. I should say a specific "core" curriculum, because it's not meant to be the whole story.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you believe that the Core Knowledge focus in the early grades has paid off in other U.S. schools? Because you've mentioned these almost thousand schools that have adopted the curriculum.

HIRSCH: Oh, yes, it's very good at narrowing the achievement gap. It's going to do it even better by using this literacy block effectively. But it doesn't do it overnight. The pattern from the research is that in the first year of implementation you don't see much. But it's cumulative and it's geometrical. And the difference [between a Core Knowledge School and a control school] by the end of sixth grade is enormous.

Photo from Hirsch's biography at the Hoover Institution