Monday, November 27, 2006

Hirsch book

I recently read E. D. Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Its main theme is one that I heartily agree with: the whole concept of “reading comprehension” inherently involves a lot of purely factual knowledge from a wide range of sources. For example, if you (i.e., the average student) see a “reading comprehension” passage on a test, and the passage happens to involve the Civil War, you’re going to comprehend the passage much more quickly if you know what the Civil War was, who was fighting who, what slavery was, who Lincoln was, and so forth. If you’ve never heard of the Civil War before, it will take you longer to figure out what the passage even means. Thus, in order for us to improve students’ ability to engage in “reading comprehension,” we have to get them to learn lots of background knowledge.

Some observations that I liked:

1. Hirsch points out that on international comparisons of reading achievement, U.S. third and fourth graders do as well as other developed nations, but then they fall substantially behind by grade 10. Hirsch’s claim is that this is because we don’t teach the kids enough facts in the meantime:
It’s possible, of course, that the reason for our relative decline with each successive grade lies in factors other than our unproductive use of school time – for instance, our distracting culture, our diversity, our racism, our unequal income distribution. But other developed nations have distracting cultures, ethnic diversity, racism, and unequal income distributions and nonetheless have higher-performing students. Sociological explanations are not very plausible when our school curricula and teaching methods are inherently unproductive. It is unnecessary to seek remote causes for our low educational productivity when more immediate ones are available.
2. Hirsch argues that the U.S. should have a nationwide curriculum for the early grades, at least as to the basics. He makes the excellent point that without some standardization, the inevitable effect is a lot of wasted time, particularly for those students who move from one school to another.
In the face of extensive student mobility, we need to reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the Mayflower, then we have an obligation to decide when the Mayflower will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for the Mayflower. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age.

But Bruner’s insight emphatically does not argue for laissez-faire regarding the sequencing of topics. On the contrary, using an automotive analogy, either side of the road, appropriately demarcated, is suitable for driving in either direction – which is precisely why it is necessary to create a convention for determining whether the right side or the left side will be used. Whatever side of the road a state decides on, that same convention needs to hold for all roads in all the states, because cars cross state lines every day – just as disadvantaged students move every day across schools. The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some disadvantaged students will never hear about the Mayflower while others will hear about the Mayflower ad nauseam, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.


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