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4th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 4, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

It is widely acknowledged that America’s schools are troubled and our children not given the education they need and deserve. This is not a problem unique to New York, but rather one that is shared by many American communities, rich and poor.

We debate about the best ways to teach reading, a matter of crucial concern to the children most at risk, a conversation that must continue and expand. But most American students do, eventually, learn to read.
Rarely discussed is what happens next.

If you accept the premise that a child learns to read so that he or she can read to learn, we need to begin to focus on what our children are actually learning in the classroom.

There is a flood of evidence that American children lag behind their contemporaries in other countries in many areas of academic achievement.We know that there has been a long, slow, and steady decline in SAT scores. We know that nationally there is a precipitous decline in reading scores between the fourth and eighth grades.

This is what is really behind the national crisis we face in our high schools. Concern about the future of American secondary school education is shared by President Bush, the National Governors’ Association, Mayor Bloomberg, and even William Gates of the Microsoft Corporation, the world’s richest man.

I have come to the conclusion that this focus on the high school is misplaced. Unless we change the nature of kindergarten-througheighth-grade education, all of our high-school reform efforts are for naught. When students arrive in ninth grade with an inadequate knowledge base and vocabulary, they are doomed to boredom and failure. It doesn’t matter whether a school is big or small, old or new, the current manner in which we are preparing young people for high school predisposes too many of them to failure. A different direction must be found.

There is a big idea out there that has the potential to turn this culture of failure around.I am mystified why it hasn’t caught on to a far greater extent. That idea is Core Knowledge, the brainchild of E.D. Hirsch Jr., professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Hirsch believes that there is a certain body of knowledge that educated persons must possess, and knowing these things provides the context for the acquisition of more knowledge. “Children learn new knowledge by building on what they already know. … Such solid knowledge includes, for example, the basic principles of constitutional government, important events of world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.”

That we are lagging in providing this kind of instruction on a national basis has particularly serious implications for us in New York. Our cultural institutions are important engines that feed the important tourism industry. Will high culture totally give way to popular culture? Symphony orchestras throughout the country are facing that crisis today.The future of our cultural institutions — and indeed our culture — depends on the education we give our children today.

Mr. Hirsch is a well-known and influential figure in the world of American education. He has written many books, and established a foundation financed by his popular series of books “What Your First Grader Needs to Know,” seven volumes that outlines this body of core knowledge from kindergarten through sixth grade. Next month, thousands will gather in Philadelphia to attend the annual Core Knowledge Conference.While many conservatives have reacted in a positive manner to Mr. Hirsch’s traditional, back-to-basics ideas, the liberal American Federation of Teachers has been among his strongest supporters.

A comprehensive Core Knowledge curriculum that covers pre-school through eighth grade has been developed by Mr. Hirsch’s foundation. In addition, a course of study for the training of teachers has been developed, one that focuses on building the knowledge base of educators, rather than focusing on questionable pedagogical theories. In short, a roadmap is available for the creation of a unique kind of school that offers the potential of developing literate and informed citizens.

This is precisely the kind of school that I wish was available to my own children, and I suspect that if real Core Knowledge schools were started here in New York, the line for admission would stretch from Co-op City to Tottenville.

Yet there is no foundation bankrolling this powerful idea. The city’s Department of Education is forming all sorts of new schools, mostly at the high school level, but also for the lower grades and even backing the creation of new charter schools. None is a Core Knowledge school.

Some of the schools are so ludicrous in name and concept that they lend themselves to parody, as Diane Ravitch did on these pages recently.Why is there no room among these new endeavors for the Core Knowledge concept? Implicit in the concept of choice is actually having alternatives among which to choose. One would think that among the hundreds of well-heeled and generous New Yorkers, already pouring tens of millions in contributions to Gotham’s schools, there would be some willing to invest in creating schools that follow the Core Knowledge concept. Where is the Bill Gates who will put the great traditions of our civilization and culture back in our public schools?

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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