Let’s put off the Trump bickering. They interfere with children’s progress in reading.

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University of Virginia Professor Emeritus ED Hirsch Jr. is one of our nation’s most respected education experts. At 94, he grows impatient with us for neglecting the problems in our elementary and middle schools.

American students, he says, need to learn more about the world to be good readers and halt a decline in literacy made worse by a misguided emphasis on students choosing their courses. He believes that all children should have a set curriculum with wonderful details about history, geography, culture, and literature that emphasize our similarities, not our differences.

Racism? Fire arms ? Immigration? These arguments are fine for adults, but our youngest must first absorb the same intriguing facts about our country and the world. Hirsch recommends developing a national ethnicity – the kind of shared formation found in other countries with higher literacy.

Reading Hirsch’s new book, “American Ethnicity,” is like being told by your grandfather to turn off the cable news, admit we’re all part of the same American tribe, and make sure that all our children learn the essential facts and concepts. Hirsch does not mention former President Donald Trump, who criticized what he called “leftist indoctrination in our schools.” But Hirsch seems to be saying that whether we’re for Trump or against, our kids need help.

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Hirsch attacks a key premise of progressive education, the notion that every teacher should free young minds to explore whatever interests them and be “a side guide, not a sage on stage.”

“This brilliant slogan is based on a false analogy between the natural development of the human body and the formation and socialization of the human mind,” he says. “The young mind needs a wise man on stage. The neocortex of the child is a blank page. It doesn’t “grow”. He receives instructions from outside – if not from the sage on stage, then from influencers outside the classroom. The child’s neocortex awaits intelligent instructions from the elders of the tribe.

Hirsch has made this argument before, although his call for a united ethnicity is new. I’m among those who think agreeing on a national curriculum is impossible, but we can make progress by supporting local schools that take something like the Core Knowledge approach that Hirsch developed a long time ago. Hirsch told me it might be better done under the radar, because the notion of national ethnicity can only inspire more arguments.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the best federal measure of our schools, shows some long-term improvement in reading, but lagging in recent years. The average score of fourth graders improved by 12 points from 1971 to 2020, but showed no significant gain since 2012. Eighth graders in 2020 were only five points higher than in 1971 , and they dropped three points after 2012. It will likely be even worse when we see the post-pandemic reading data. Hirsch also notes little progress since 1990 in closing the gap between math and reading scores for white and black students.

Our current approach is to avoid set curricula and specificity. “Disadvantaged children are unable to catch up when our schools do not provide the specific knowledge for the specific tasks at hand,” writes Hirsch.

Hirsch cites preliminary data from a study by University of Virginia researcher David W. Grissmer showing significantly higher outcomes among low-income children in Denver-area Core Knowledge schools, compared to lower-income children. similar children who did not win the lottery to enter these schools.

Israeli researchers Aviva Svedlov and Dorit Aram found a significant difference between American teachers and parents on the primary purpose of kindergarten. Teachers wanted positive self-esteem. Parents wanted literacy and math skills, which were last on the teachers’ list.

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Hirsch interviewed teachers who had worked in child-centered and knowledge-based schools. “Child-centered schools tend to be more compartmentalized,” one said. “We take our students on day one and go as far as we can with them until day 180. But it’s all sort of disconnected and self-contained.”

Still, Natalie Wexler — one of our top elementary school writers — finds it encouraging that some states, blue and red, are pushing districts to adopt literacy programs that focus on building knowledge. New York has made these programs available free of charge. Wexler said on the online platform Substack that Louisiana, in addition to creating its own open-source literacy program, “established a rating system for other programs and made it easier for districts to purchase those that build knowledge Tennessee has a grading system and has done a lot of district outreach…. Like New York, Texas makes programs freely available online.

Stanford researcher Sam Wineburg asked high school students to name the 10 most famous Americans in history they could think of who weren’t presidents or first ladies. Three people – Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman – were the only ones listed by more than 40% of students. Seventy percent of respondents were white and 13% were black. The survey results suggest that lessons about slavery and the civil rights movement are reaching students, just as Hirsch intended.

In his book “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone),” Wineburg says, “It would be simplistic to say that the curriculum alone caused these changes.” Sure, but it’s interesting.

Are our children quietly constructing Hirsch’s national ethnicity while we ignorant adults bicker on Twitter? There may be a few. More and more teachers are coming to the idea that giving all children the same rich lessons in our history and culture, the stories of Crispus Attucks and Paul Revere, the poems of Langston Hughes and Stephen Vincent Benét, would intrigue them and be good for them. the country.

Maybe. But they’ll have to make sure no one alerts cable news.

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