The False Promise of Core Knowledge

When I was in second grade, my friend Rebecca and I used to read books together. We would peruse classics such as C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, Charles Dickens's novels, and Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, a history of the scientists who discovered vaccines. Rebecca and I were both public school students who would go on to earn doctorates and lead satisfying professional lives.

Thus I am somewhat sympathetic to E.D. Hirsch's argument, made in books such as Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Making of Americans (2009), that cultural literacy exists, is a good thing, and should be cultivated by public schools. According to Hirsch, young people need to learn basic subjects, facts, and ideas in order to master the English language, navigate the modern economy, and participate in democratic politics.

I also tend to agree with much of what Hirsch says young people should know. In The Making of Americans, for instance, Hirsch writes that the goal of second grade is "to foster curiosity and the beginnings of understandings about the larger world outside the children's locality, and about varied civilizations and ways of life." That seems like an appropriate standard for second graders.

For the past few years, though, I have been puzzled about E.D. Hirsch's connection to the Common Core. In 2014, Politico published an article on the affinities between Hirsch and David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core. The article suggests that Coleman took to heart Hirsch's insight about the connection between knowledge and literacy and that the Common Core is "a step" in the direction of Hirsch's vision.

That does not seem right. The Common Core famously emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing. For Common Core assignments and exams, students only get full credit if they answer questions using evidence from the passage under consideration. Why? In a New York Times article on the SAT overhaul, Coleman explains that the new test will not favor children from affluent backgrounds and will be free of ethnic, racial and religious bias. Instead, the Common Core-aligned SAT measures analytical and evidentiary skills rather than, say, knowledge of obscure vocabulary words. In other words, Coleman wants the Common Core to negate the advantages possessed by the culturally literate.

To see the challenge of reconciling skills and content, Coleman's vision and Hirsch's, look at the Core Knowledge curriculum.

The Core Knowledge Foundation claims to provide "a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum" to teach children the fundamentals of science, government, world history, mathematics, and masterpieces of art and music. In 2013-2014, over a thousand schools used all or part of the Core Knowledge Sequence. In New York, the State Education Department recommends Core Knowledge materials, a pattern that is happening around the country as states and school districts look to offer a Common Core-aligned curriculum.

Although E.D. Hirsch is the Chair of the Core Knowledge Foundation, the materials do not match up with his recommendations in his books. Instead, they reflect the Common Core's emphasis on skills.

Take, for example, Grade 2, Unit 1 on "The Cat Bandit." In this Unit, students learn the Core Knowledge Language Arts daily routines and exercises, including decoding and phonetics.

Here is the opening of the story about the Cat Bandit:

Mom had a hot dog.
She left the hot dog on a shelf in the den.
The hot dog sent up a smell.
The smell drifted and drifted.
The cat bandit sat on the deck, wishing he had a snack.
Then the hot dog smell hit him.
Such a smell!
Sniff, sniff, sniff!

The Cat Bandit story does not have an author. It is not a classic. One does not become culturally literate from reading it. It is a story about a cat without an ethnicity, a history, or anything else that can cause a controversy. As a second grader, I believe, this story would have bored me to tears.

To be clear, this type of literature predates the Common Core. As Diane Ravitch documents in her book The Language Police, groups have long pressured textbook publishers and state education agencies to remove materials that could be viewed as racist, sexist, or elitist. As a result, however, children read banal stories about animals, including, in the case of Core Knowledge, one about a cat who eats hot dogs.

E.D. Hirsch was an early and vocal supporter of the Common Core. And yet even his foundation produces curricular materials that he elsewhere decries as "strategy drills on whimsical fictions." When Rebecca and I were in second grade, our teacher had sufficient autonomy to choose intense books that would satisfy our intellectual curiosity. Today, many teachers must use all-encompassing Common Core curricula produced by vendors such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Student Achievement Partners, or, yes, Core Knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute observes that many parents complain about the quality of Common Core-aligned materials. His advice for them is to march to their school and demand adoption of the Core Knowledge sequence. I disagree. The Core Knowledge curriculum does not inspire intellectual passion or introduce students to the riches of our culture. Our kids deserve better, not only for themselves, but for the future of our democracy that requires broadminded, creative citizens.