Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cultural Literacy

Sol Stern at City Journal has written an excellent article that's a must-read for everyone concerned about education in this country. Stern writes about the career of E.D. Hirsch whom those of a certain age will remember for his best-selling Cultural Literacy, written back in the late 80s. Hirsch pointed out to a nation in thrall to the ideas of progressive education "experts" that the approach we were following in educating children was all wrong. We had bought the progressives' idea that what was important was that students be taught not facts, but rather how to learn. Teaching the process of learning was believed to be more important than teaching any particular content. Subsequently, achievement scores plummeted.

Here are the first few paragraphs from Stern's essay:

At his Senate confirmation hearing in February, Arne Duncan succinctly summarized the Obama administration's approach to education reform: "We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn't work." Since becoming education secretary, Duncan has launched a $4.3 billion federal "Race to the Top" initiative that encourages states to experiment with various accountability reforms. Yet he has ignored one state reform that has proven to work, as well as the education thinker whose ideas inspired it. The state is Massachusetts, and the education thinker is E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

The "Massachusetts miracle," in which Bay State students' soaring test scores broke records, was the direct consequence of the state legislature's passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. And those standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch's legacy. If the Obama administration truly wants to have a positive impact on American education, it should embrace Hirsch's ideas and urge other states to do the same.

Hirsch draws his insights from well outside traditional education scholarship. He started out studying chemistry at Cornell University but, mesmerized by Nabokov's lectures on Russian literature, switched his major to English. Hirsch did his graduate studies at Yale, one of the citadels in the 1950s of the New Criticism, which argued that the intent of an author, the reader's subjective response, and the text's historical background were largely irrelevant to a critical analysis of the text itself. But by the time Hirsch wrote his doctoral dissertation-on Wordsworth-he was already breaking with the New Critics. "I came to see that the text alone is not enough," Hirsch said to me recently at his Charlottesville, Virginia, home. "The unspoken-that is, relevant background knowledge-is absolutely crucial in reading a text." Hirsch's big work of literary theory in his early academic career, Validity in Interpretation, reflected this shift in thinking. After publishing several more well-received scholarly books and articles, he received an endowed professorship and became chairman of the English department at the University of Virginia.

Hirsch was at the pinnacle of the academic world, in his mid-fifties, when he was struck by an insight into how reading is taught that, he says, "changed my life." He was "feeling guilty" about the department's inadequate freshman writing course, he recalls. Though UVA's admissions standards were as competitive as the Ivies', the reading and writing skills of many incoming students were poor, sure to handicap them in their future academic work. In trying to figure out how to close this "literacy gap," Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered "a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences."

Stern's account of what followed makes fascinating reading, especially if you're in education, planning to enter the profession, or have young children or grandchildren in school. It would also be a great article to share with any teachers you might know. Here's one more graph to give you sense of where he's going with the piece:

More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be "critical thinkers" and teach them to "learn how to learn," defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. Hirsch had spent the better part of the decade since Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics on which teaching methods best promote student learning. The scientific consensus showed that schools could not raise student achievement by letting students construct their own knowledge. The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students-the very opposite of what the progressives promoted.

The tragedy is that at least two generations of students have been "educated" to think that learning facts is unimportant. Perhaps future generations will not be so badly cheated.