E.D. Hirsch’s ‘Core Knowledge’ Method: Can It Help City Schools?


Today, officials from a Virginia-based education non-profit, E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation, are making a pretty big announcement.

They claim that the group’s pedological approach has helped kids at 10 city schools “outperform” their peers in reading tests, the Foundation reports (via New York Times.)

While the 3-year pilot plan sounds promising, it might have you asking: “WTF is ‘core knowledge,’ anyway?”

Well, Runnin’ Scared has a few answers for you.

Who is E.D. Hirsch?

Hirsch is a retired professor of education and humanities who most recently worked at the University of Virginia. In popular parlance, he might be best known outside of teaching circles for his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, in which he makes the very controversial argument that there’s a certain canon of facts that all U.S. citizens should be familiar with — some 5,000 names, dates, and concepts, to be exact. His schtick has angered multiculturalists from the get-go: They say his notions of core knowledge favor white, privileged males.

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, for example, said in 1997: “[Hirsch] has swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education. If this kind of angry, stereotypical thinking is what results from a ‘core knowledge’ orientation, then I want no part of it,” Education Sector reports.

How does the Core Knowledge Method work?

The basic idea behind the program is that kids learn based upon what they already know. While this seems pretty straightforward, the curriculum generates controversy because it’s rooted in the idea that certain things must be taught to facilitate learning.

But with language arts specifically (and keep in mind, this is a very general overview), the setup uses “synthetic phonics” to teach reading. This approach, popular in the U.K., differs from American phonics by beginning with sounds as opposed to letters. Pupils hear and speak the sound, both in isolation and in “letter teams” like “s-h.” Also key is that kids don’t read stuff they don’t get — Hirsch believes reading and writing should be taught at the same time, but that students learn more if the material is understood, according to the Foundation.

How does this relate to New York?

Interest in Hirsch’s methods stems from several years ago, with former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein advocated “balanced literacy,” the Times reports. Promotion of the program, in fact, began as early as 2003.

In this particular trial run, reports found that: “for each of the three years, students in the Core Knowledge program had greater one-year gains on a brief reading test than their peers in the comparison schools. The difference was most pronounced in kindergarten, when the scores of children following Dr. Hirsch’s method showed increases that were five times those of their peers.”

By year three, students “were still posting higher scores, but the differences were not as wide. Between the fall and spring of last year, their scores rose 2.5 scale score points, compared with an average gain of 0.9 points in the comparison group. ”

This experiment involved 1,000 kids from 20 city schools.


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