Proponents of the Common Core standards are hailing educational theorist E.D. “Don” Hirsch as a founding father of the education initiative and one who laid the intellectual groundwork for the controversial reform.
The problem is that Hirsch himself says, “I hate to be godfather of something that is not going to work.”
Peg Tyre, writing at Politico Magazine, presents a retrospective of the 86 year-old retired English professor who, ironically, is being praised by the developers and supporters of the Common Core as an inspiration for the standards, just as support for the initiative is plummeting across the nation and has abruptly grown into a “radioactive” political issue.
In 1987, Hirsch published Cultural Literacy, a book that recommended all public school students should receive instruction that includes literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music, in order to have background knowledge in a variety of areas that would allow them to become successful learners and readers.
Hirsch’s book ultimately became famous for “The List,” – a 63-page index of 5,000 essential concepts that he believed should be taught in schools.
Though Hirsch told Tyre, “I’m practically a socialist,” she observes conservatives took hold of his message:
Immediately prominent conservatives such as Education Secretary William Bennett embraced the author as an antidote to what they saw as the multi-culti fad sweeping American schools. Cultural Literacy was compared to – and frequently reviewed with – The Closing of the American Mind, an attack on higher education by the late conservative darling Allan Bloom, which was published around the same time. “That was just bad luck,” Hirsch says. “Allan Bloom really was an elitist.”
The left, much to Hirsch’s chagrin, cast his work as a “manifesto for what one called ‘a new cultural offensive’ aimed at writing the common man out of history.” Liberal education elitists said Hirsch was a traditionalist who would “replace higher-order thinking in the classroom” with a set of irrelevant facts.
Hirsch told Tyre he was especially irked to find himself described by a Harvard education professor as “a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education.”
Tyre, however, now believes the left has decided to give Hirsch another look, by using what Common Core supporters claim are his ideas for “a set of grade-specific guidelines developed by the National Governor’s Association in 2009 known as the Common Core State Standards.”
“Hirsch didn’t write the Common Core, but the guidelines match the expectations set forth in the rigorous public school curricula Hirsch developed with his Core Knowledge Foundation,” she writes, “and he is credited with laying the intellectual groundwork.”
“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” said David Coleman, considered to be the “architect” of the Common Core, and who refers to Hirsch’s research as “absolutely foundational.”
Similarly, Common Core supporter and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said, “The foundational concepts of the Common Core are things Don Hirsch has been advocating for decades. I think we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the key role he has played in this movement.”
“Hirsch’s ideas have not only survived the test of time, but people are coming back to his ideas from all sides of the political spectrum,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Hirsch, however, seems reluctant to have his name associated with the Common Core standards.
“I wish the designers had recommended a curriculum – mine, sure, but others too,” he said. “Absent that, the [Common Core] leaves the door open for schools to do what they’ve always done.”
And what “they’ve always done,” he says, is forget about content knowledge that helps students to learn critical thinking skills.
“Don Hirsch has been a proponent of substantive knowledge-based curriculum for many decades,” Ze’ev Wurman, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution and a former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education, told Breitbart News.
The author of “Common Core English and Math Standards Not Properly Validated,” published by Pioneer Institute, Wurman said that Hirsch served as a commissioner on the California Academic Content Standards Commission that evaluated Common Core’s suitability for adoption in that state in 2010.
“I personally agree with him that content knowledge is critical to both successful functioning within a society, as well as successful functioning within any serious discipline,” Wurman added, and takes issue with the developers and proponents of Common Core using Hirsch to prop up standards that are anything but rigorous and content-rich.
I find harnessing Hirsch to prop the Common Core rather sickening. Hirsch argues the importance of content-rich curriculum, yet anyone with eyes in his head can quickly convince himself that Common Core is anything but. It has no recommended list of cultural works. It’s English Language Arts (ELA) Appendix B suggests –but doesn’t even insist on — a strange mix of reading material from short snippets of Kipling or Twain, through soft porn by Toni Morrison, to not-so-cultural EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and the Federal Reserve’s newsletter. Whatever else, it is not a basis for shared cultural literacy of any kind. As Sandra Stotsky often points out, the Common Core ELA standards are promoting a set of context-less skills rather than a path for developing shared cultural literacy. Similarly in math, Common Core focuses on pedagogy while offering a diluted content for students.
“Peg Tyre uses Don Hirsch’s name in vain,” Wurman asserts. “And, indeed, after singing glorious songs to Hirsch and the importance of content throughout the piece, Hirsch himself admits he will be ‘the godfather of something that is not going to work.'”
“Hirsch says the Common Core developers will ‘forget the content that students are supposed to think critically about,'” Wurman concludes. “Which is precisely what Common Core proponents already do.”