Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Learning how

CITY JOURNAL is a thoughtful magazine that covers issues of concern. Sol Stern has a worthy article, titled "E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy". So, who is E. D. Hirsch, and why should you care?

E. D. Hirsch is an American educator who is concerned about the decline in acadenic performance of most American students. Simply, he believes that a content-rich pedagogy makes better citizens and smarter kids.

This has what might be called the politically-correct pedagogical elite rather upset. But, testing scores seem to indicate that Hirsch is right, and they are wrong, If you have kids in school, this article is worth the read.

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.

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.”

“Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

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