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E.D. Hirsch Jr.: Common Core Standards could revolutionize reading instruction

Valerie Strauss: My guest is E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues, including the best-seller Cultural Literacy.

Reader Comment: Why won't this cranky old bastard really retire, already? I looked forward to something new in his latest book, and found all of that was in what he learned about reading and explicated from his former faculty colleague at U VA, D. Willingham. . . .

Reader Comment:

"By the end of the year she could decode sentences like "Nan and her pig hid in the den" but she scored very poorly on the reading comprehension section of the benchmark test."

I was a good reader, but if I'd been asked to decode the sentence above, I'd be confused too. I'm confused right now, actually, not understanding what a pig would be doing hiding in a den, with or without Nan.

"See Dick run" makes a lot more sense.

By E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

The results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress recently released were as predictable as they were dispiriting. Reading scores for the nationâs 4th graders are unchanged since 2007. Eighth graders showed a one point uptick, but scores remained essentially flat.

Facts must be faced. We are making no progress at all in teaching children to read in the United States. Our massive and well-intentioned national effort to focus the work of our schools on improving reading instruction has failed. But our failure is less one of education policy, than the simple fact that we are wedded to a demonstrably flawed model of how to teach children to read.

There is a way we can sail out of the reading doldrums.

The recently released English Language Arts Standards drafted by the National Governors Association Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers may provide desperately needed wind we need to move forward. Released for comment several weeks ago, the document has been criticized by many observers as offering little improvement over the broad and insubstantial individual state standards they would replace. Indeed, stating that children should be able to âdetermine central ideas or themes of a text,â for example, would seem to offer little guidance on what teachers should teach, or how to reach this laudable, if obvious goal.

But look closely. Note the unusual title it carries: âCommon Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science.â The title shouts that language mastery requires knowledge of history, and science, (music and fine arts I hope will be included in due course) not just fiction and poetry. It states explicitly that these non-literary subjects should be generously represented in the long classroom hours devoted to literacy.

This emphasis on non-literary content is defended on the grounds that building âa foundation of knowledge in these fields will give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.â

That is an especially important consideration for the early grades, which now spend up to half the school day on literacy. Here is something new under the sun. It resists the infamous narrowing of the curriculum. And it is an important reform also for helping to overcome the test-score gap, which is essentially a knowledge gap, between racial and ethnic groups.

A second advance this document makes over existing ones is to recognize its own limitations. A whole section is devoted to âWhat is not covered by the Standards.â This turns out to be a lot, including teaching methods and the curriculum. But the concession is critical.

The word âstandardsâ has misled the public into thinking that these documents represent curriculum guides. Yet not even the best of the current state standards defines a curriculum.

This document is, I believe, unique in stating that it is neither a curriculum nor a curriculum guide. Rather, it concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is âcoherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.â

This is a welcome acknowledgement that only a cumulative, grade-by-grade curriculum, focused on coherent content, can lead to the high level of literacy which the nation needs.

In short, the Common Core Standards represent a fundamental and long overdue rethinking of the dominant process-approach to U.S. literacy instruction. To appreciate what a radical transformation it represents, one needs to understand how children are now schooled in literacy.

Reading is taught as if itâs a transferable skill. Itâs assumed that once children learn how to convert printed symbols into sounds and words, or âdecode,â they can be taught to read anything by practicing strategies such as âfind the main ideaâ and âquestion the author.â

But cognitive science has shown that comprehension is âdomain specific.â If you can comprehend this op-ed, it doesnât mean you can also comprehend Kantâs Critique of Pure Reason. Several studies show that âpoorâ readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and âstrongâ readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions as though these strategies will somehow replace the subject-matter knowledge needed to become broadly literate.

Transforming the elementary school âliteracy blockâ into a rich, meaningful and sustained engagement with subject matter would be the single greatest transformation of instructional time in decades. If there is one Big Idea that can help arrest the decline of reading achievement in American schools, this is the one. To their credit, the authors of the Common Core standards have taken pains to get this right, and it is a master stroke.

Of course, plenty can go wrong. If textbook publishers hear the message âmore nonfictionâ instead of âcoherent curriculumâ then the effort will have come to little. Slapping random nonfiction (duly tested for complexity) into existing textbooks will be no more effective than the reading of random fiction has been.

The draft standards of course leave curriculum decisions to the states, but the message is clear: there must be a curriculum. And it must be coherent, specific and content-rich. Truly to adopt these standards means to adopt a curriculum having greater specificity and coherence than any currently followed by a state.

To my mind, the critical factor in a stateâs decision to adopt the Common Core Standards would come down to a single question: Will my state be more or less likely to raise student achievement by adopting the standards and implementing them as recommended?

Cognitive science says unambiguously that the answer is âyes.â The authors have charted a way out of the incoherence that reading instruction has become. Whatever further improvements we might decide to suggest we would do well to follow their lead.

— E. D. Hirsch
Washington Post Class Struggle


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