When I'm asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) I give an emphatic "yes." They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K-5. They break the fearful silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state: "By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades." That principle of building coherent, cumulative content characterizes the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability -- which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.
The words in the CCSS which I've italicized, don't get down to defining the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did so no state would have adopted the standards, because specific content is a local prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity. Little can come from the current incorrect assumption that critical thinking skills or reading comprehension can be gained without a specific systematic build up of knowledge.
Not even most prescient among us can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy. That will depend on what the states actually do about developing rich content knowledge "within and across grades." To do so will take the courage to withstand the gripe-patrols that will complain about the inclusion of say Egypt, in the second grade. But who can be sure that the required political courage to withstand such gripes won't be forthcoming once the absolute need for specific, cumulative content is understood. As Niels Bohr said: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." If just one state or district shows the way, with big, unmistakable gains resulting, those results will influence many others.
The Bohr principle ought to be the watchword in this debate over the Common Core. Those who confidently predict failure haven't any more knowledge about what will really happen than I do. (Of course critics of CCSS are reasonably concerned about the tests that might go with the Common Core, which I'll quickly discuss in another blog.) But unless the actual curricular plans of the critics (where are they?) also required coherent "content knowledge within and across grades," their alternatives are not likely to be as effective as CCSS. And if critics do support the key principles of specificity and coherence - well then -- why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states rather than get lost in details of who was or was not consulted?
For many years my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K - 12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. It ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation's top-performing state. Needless to say, his school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that Common Core will represent a watering down. But Ted's school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge-based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It's because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don't specify content for each grade level. Hence in actual implementation, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted's school so effectively does.
This fall, Ted's daughter Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: "Oh my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?" Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. In them each topic is explained and instructional suggestions are provided. In addition, the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would be useful for the teacher to have by way of background are also laid out. The best sources for further relevant materials wrap up each section. Cleo was greatly relieved.
But what about all the other Cleo's out there who are being thrown into these sink-or-swim situations in our public schools, sent into classrooms where it's impossible to know what their students already know, and where teachers are given scant guidance about what they should be teaching -- or worse -- are asked to teach literacy classes based on the trivial and fragmented fictions found in the standard literacy textbooks?
Teachers in a typical American classroom cannot rely on their students having acquired any specific item of knowledge. But effective classroom teaching depends on key prior knowledge being shared by all the members of the class. Without such shared knowledge, truly effective whole-class teaching cannot occur -- no matter how potentially effective the teacher is. In today's schools, teachers are compelled to overuse all sorts of individualizing strategies -- at huge opportunity cost to the progress of the class as a whole. Individualized instruction is always important. But it is far more effective when students' share prior academic knowledge, which alone enables the teacher to engage in varied instructional approaches.
That's why I have become so impatient with the teacher bashing that has overtaken the education reform movement. The favored structural reforms haven't worked very well. The new emphasis on "teacher quality" implies that the reforms haven't worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven't worked because on average they have done little to develop "rich content knowledge within and across grades."
The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught. The Common Core State Standards offer a framework for any state or locality to create the curricular coherence that could lead to massive gains in student learning. It would improve teacher effectiveness on a large-scale if we created a more coherent school environment in which a teacher's work in one year reliably builds on what has been taught in prior years. A conscientious and intelligent realization of the new Common Core Standards could achieve that essential element that has been missing in our schools for too many tragic decades.
Follow E. D. Hirsch, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edhk9