Book Reviews - Autumn 2009

The Common Good

The case for a standardized curriculum for all American children

By Richard D. Kahlenberg | September 1, 2009


The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, by E.D. Hirsch Jr., Yale University Press, 273 pp., $25

In the 1970s, English professor E. D. Hirsch Jr. conducted an experiment that would catapult him into the tumultuous world of education reform. He found that African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as elite University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but that an enormous gap developed when the topic was Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.

Reading comprehension, Hirsch concluded, was not just a transferable technical skill but one that required background knowledge of specific content. This shared knowledge was no longer explicitly taught in elementary schools, as generations of educators had been trained to teach skills rather than content, “critical thinking” rather than “mere facts.” The irony, Hirsch believed, was that “progressive” education theories focusing on “child-centered” learning were in fact disproportionately hurting low-income students, who were less likely than their affluent peers to acquire generally assumed knowledge of mainstream American culture at home. Hirsch believed, like the great teacher-unionist Albert Shanker, to whom Hirsch’s new book is dedicated, that to be a political liberal, concerned for the life chances of low-income and minority students, one must be an educational conservative. Hirsch outlined this argument in his best-selling 1987 volume, Cultural Literacy. To put his theory into practice, he established the Core Knowledge Foundation, which today supports more than 1,000 schools in 47 states. These schools, Hirsch says, perform significantly better than schools using the standard progressive education approach.

In The Making of Americans, Hirsch builds on this earlier work and widens the lens to connect his ideas on education reform to the fundamental rationales for our system of public schools in the United States. Citing the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Horace Mann, Hirsch identifies two central reasons for the American “common school”: to create social mobility, allowing bright, hard-working students of all origins to enjoy the American dream; and to create social cohesion, binding children of diverse economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds into citizens of a single nation.

Hirsch makes a highly cogent case to support the concept that a common curriculum is necessary in elementary schools to further both goals. The American focus on skills, rather than on content, has left low-income students bereft of “unspoken background knowledge” that is explicitly taught in countries like France and Finland, where levels of academic inequality are much lower. “It does not seem to occur to the intellectual descendants of Rousseau,” Hirsch writes, “that the four-year-old children of rich, highly educated parents might be gaining academic knowledge at home that is unfairly being withheld (albeit with noble intentions) from the children of the poor.” The comparatively high rate of mobility among the disadvantaged in the United States accentuates the importance of a common curriculum, Hirsch argues, noting that 24 percent of all third graders, but more than 70 percent of low-income third graders, have attended at least two schools since the first grade.

Likewise, Hirsch contends, our nation’s rich diversity requires that a common public-school curriculum provide the the glue necessary to keep us from splintering apart. The founders were deeply concerned about the “mortal danger” posed by “internal conflicts” (Germans against English, the poor against the rich) and saw the teaching of “common knowledge, virtues, ideals, language, and commitments” as essential to creating a citizenry of “loyal Americans.” It was important not only to assimilate immigrants, Hirsch notes, “but also to assimilate native-born Americans who came from different regions and social strata into the common American idea.” While assimilation is today seen as unfashionable—the “salad bowl” having replaced the “melting pot” as America’s reigning metaphor—Hirsch notes, we still need “a bowl to hold the salad.”

I part with Hirsch in his restrictive interpretation of the “common school” ideal. In chapter one, he notes, correctly, that common schools were supposed to provide an opportunity for all children “to attend the same school, with rich and poor studying in the same classroom.” Yet Hirsch is so insistent on the centrality of a common curriculum that he actually dismisses the importance of schools that bring together children from all walks of life. He points to the success of high-poverty Core Knowledge schools and cites African-American friends who say their own racially segregated schools were stronger than the integrated schools their grandchildren attend.

Of course, individual high-poverty schools can beat the odds, but Horace Mann understood that the twin goals of social mobility and social cohesion were undermined by economically segregated schools. Today, middle-class schools are 22 times as likely to be high performing as high-poverty schools, according to University of Wisconsin researcher Douglas Harris, in part because low-income students in mixed-income schools are exposed to peers who have larger vocabularies and intend to go on to college, a community of parents who actively volunteer in the classroom and hold officials accountable, and high-quality teachers with high expectations. Moreover, if one’s goal is to foster American solidarity—“a sense of belonging to a wider community”—one of the worst ways to do that is by assigning students to schools based on what neighborhoods their parents can afford to live in, neighborhoods that are also likely to be racially and ethnically segregated.

Today, about 65 school districts across the country are using magnet schools to create economically integrated educational environments through choice. In Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the school board adopted a goal stating that no more than 40 percent of the students at any school should be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. This policy has worked well to raise the achievement of low-income and minority students without harming middle-class achievement.

American education would be far better off if leaders heeded Hirsch’s sound advice to restore a common-core curriculum. Our system would do even better still if leaders went one step further and reinvented Horace Mann’s economically integrated common school for the 21st century.

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