What we can learn from Core Knowledge and E.D. Hirsch?

The Matthew Effect (25:29)
Learning core factual knowledge holds cumulative advantages
for reading and critical thinking skills.

The haunting parable from the Gospel of Matthew was applied to the educational achievement gap between wealthier and poorer pupils by one of the greatest living education reformers: E.D. Hirsch. The story starts in the U.S, and is becoming increasingly influential in the U.K.

The ‘Massachusetts Miracle’ is that its educational achievement outcompetes every other US state and most other jurisdictions in the world. For instance, the state leads the USA in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It routinely excels even when you control for income and parental income level. Numerous studies from think tanks across the ideological spectrum confirm that gaps in achievement between rich and poor are far smaller in Massachusetts. On the 2005 NAEP tests, Massachusetts ranked first in the US in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math. It then repeated the feat in 2007. No state had ever scored first in both grades and both subjects in a single year—let alone for two consecutive test cycles.  How has Massachusetts done it?
MassachussettsIts success is due to the ideas of E.D. Hirsch, America’s most important education reformer of the last century. Hirsch discovered that knowledge builds on knowledge: the more you know, the more you are able to learn (1988 p111). This simple insight has profound implications. Massachusetts achieves so highly because 20 years ago they implemented Hirsh’s Core Knowledge curriculum state-wide in 1993, a curriculum that now runs in over 1,000 US schools. Here are his two main insights:

1. Coherent, cumulative factual knowledge is vital for reading comprehension, literacy and critical higher-order thinking skills.
These three quotations from Hirsch’s works summarise his main idea:
‘Reading, writing and all communication depend on taken-for-granted background knowledge that is not directly expressed in what is written. Therefore, in order to teach children how to understand what is written, we must teach them that taken-for-granted background knowledge’. (2006 p122)

‘[Due to] the connection between specific background knowledge and literacy…
We cannot treat reading and writing as empty skills, independent of specific knowledge. The reading skill of a person may vary from task to task. The level of literacy exhibited in each task depends on the relevant background information that the person possesses’ (1988 p8).

‘Higher-order thinking is knowledge-based: The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject’.  (1996 p152)

There is a vast array of empirical evidence and scientific research to support these claims. There are three main forms of empirical evidence: direct from schools using a core knowledge curriculum, indirect studies of the relationship between academic success and cultural literacy, and international transnational analysis.

A). Core Knowledge Schools have raised the bar for all and closed the gap between more and less disadvantaged students.
In an extensive study in 2000, for example, Core Knowledge students were found to have outperformed their peers in almost all categories (reading, vocabulary, history, geography and maths). During the late 1990s researchers in Maryland found that the degree to which Core Knowledge was implemented in schools was a significant predictor of student achievement gain. Another study concluded that the carefully sequenced Core Knowledge curriculum also has the potential to help disadvantaged students overcome their disadvantages and achieve academic proficiency.

B). Cultural literacy is strongly correlated with academic achievement (1996 p12)

A growing number of studies show the strong effects of a rich core curriculum on student achievement (1996 xviii): ‘Breadth of knowledge is the single factor within human control that contributes most to academic achievement and general cognitive competence. Breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status. The positive correlation between academic ability and socioeconomic status is only half the correlation between academic ability and the possession of general information. That is to say, being ‘smart’ is more dependent on possessing general knowledge than on family background. Imparting broad knowledge to all children is the single most effective way to narrow the gap between demographic groups through schooling’. (2006 p106) Hirsch’s recommended core content is reliable, valuable, useful knowledge: ‘Researchers found on examining The Times over a period of 101 months that “any given day’s issue contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of the unexplained terms that play a part in the daily commerce of published language’. (2006 p76)

C). Nations with core curricula tend to outperform nations without on international tests.
Numerous studies have found that nations with rigorous national curricula, for example, Finland, Sweden and Japan, tend to post better achievement scores and better results on international tests than those without, such as the US & UK.
2. Children from poor, illiterate homes remain poor and illiterate because they lack the accumulative advantage of cultural capital and core background knowledge.

Hirsch is motivated by ‘social justice, [which] requires all citizens to share an extensive body of school-based background knowledge as a necessary foundation for communication and participation in society’. (1996 p14) In his words, ‘Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children and combating educational inequality.’ He has a burning sense of injustice: ‘that children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools’ (1988 xii).

What Hirsch had discovered was the ‘Matthew Effect’ – ‘to those who have, more shall be given, but from those who have not, even what they have shall be taken away’ – of accumulative advantage also publicised by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and in Daniel Rigney’s book The Matthew Effect. Hirsch points out that ‘unless an early knowledge deficit is quickly overcome, the deficit grows ever larger’; for him, ‘the cumulative principle explains the phenomenon of the widening gap’ in achievement across and within countries. Therefore, Hirsch concluded, ‘we can greatly accelerate the achievements of all students if we adopt knowledge-oriented modes of schooling.’ (2006 xii) His ideas work, as Massachusetts shows.

In summary, Hirsch’s ideas can be distilled as follows: a broad and deep foundation of knowledge is fundamental to future academic achievement, because a memory replete with facts learns better than one without.

To read more:


About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
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17 Responses to What we can learn from Core Knowledge and E.D. Hirsch?

  1. RedGreen says:

    Hirsch et al do seem to create such a loyal following by those who read them: I can certainly feel myself getting more and more passionate about this. What really convinced me on the background knowledge front was Willingham’s laundry example in “why don’t students like school” – page 27/28 (those who are interested can find it on google books).

    Every single day I despair at the lack of core knowledge of my students – and how little interest my school has in addressing that.

  2. krisboulton says:

    While Hirsch’s core knowledge at first seems less applicable to mathematics, I think there are at least two good lessons that we can take from his ideas:

    1) We frequently underestimate our knowledge, and overestimate theirs

    We often fail to recognise just how much pre-knowledge we as ‘experts’ are calling upon in quickly solving problems that we may set to those we teach. By failing to recognise this, and thus failing to teach them all of our knowledge, we in turn fail to develop their problem-solving ability.

    This leads fairly neatly into:

    2) ‘Problem-solving’ is not an infinitely abstract skill

    Very few problems demand entirely unique solutions. The vast majority of the solutions we create are in fact modifications to or adaptations of the solutions to similar problems we have previously encountered, and whose solutions we have learned.

    The consequence for the classroom of this: if we want to develop ‘mathematical thinking’ and ‘problem-solving’ skills in kids, rather than trying to teach them an abstract notion of ‘problem-solving’, we need to expose them to as many problem variants as we can, in as great a variety of contexts as possible, so that they, like us, can build a vast reservoir of potential solutions to draw upon when encountering something novel.

  3. I’ve been reading Hirsch’s book on cultural literacy and like redgreen can see the value more and more. My issue is : who decide which knowledge is of value? The recent proposals for the national curriculum seem to have been produced with a lack of transparency. Hirsch says it is important that the curriculum should be developed with openness otherwise there will be public revolt. See my recent blogpost on this point http://bit.ly/X5nCiQ

  4. Christine says:

    Somehow that quote from Matthew seems inappropriate and likewise the term “Matthew Effect”.
    But I love Hirsch & Core Knowledge as a former teacher. We had it in our school for a short period of time. Unfortunately, it was followed by the progressive program ‘du jour’, the AUSSIES, Teachers College and on and on. I couldn’t take the progressive social agenda washing the little minds in elementary schools and emotionally manipulating them. Once I had about four 3rd graders run up to me in tears. Their teacher just did a “read aloud” with a book about a kind Hiroshima zookeeper who mercy-killed his animal friends because of the bomb. It was outrageous! Another time my heart broke as I watched two 4th grade boys do a “turn and talk” (also know as “accountable talk”) in response to “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” !! (Most books, stories, passages have women heroes, whether they are astronauts or forest fire fighters,) The last year I was there our teacher trainer from TC used a picture book biography of Malcolm X for a lesson. I could go on and on. I’ll end by saying our reading scores never went up.

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  17. Rufus says:

    Reblogged this on No Easy Answers and commented:
    Excellent blog on Hirsch by Joe Kirby

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