The Curriculum Reformation: New National Standards Prod Schools to Return to Content-Based Education
The biggest new thing in American public education these days is a two-volume, 230-page, written-by-committee document called the Common Core State Standards. Forty-five states have pledged to the federal government that they will adopt the standards—which specify the math and English skills that students must attain in each grade from kindergarten to the end of high school—within the next several years. Some of these states genuinely believe that doing so will make more of their students ready for college and careers. Others are on board primarily because the Obama administration has enticed them with billions of dollars from its Race to the Top competition, part of the administration’s economic-stimulus program. Within the school-reform community, the standards have set off a virtual civil war. It pits those who believe that America desperately needs national standards to catch up to its international competitors against those who think that the administration, by imposing the standards on the states, is guilty of an unwise, or even illegal, power grab.
No matter how the debate over national standards plays out—and it may never be resolved—one undeniably positive development has resulted from all this. For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement. And that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.
During the past quarter-century, Hirsch has warned over and over that something is dangerously amiss in the nation’s classrooms. His diagnosis could be summed up with the admonition It’s the curriculum, stupid. For the first 150 years of the republic, according to Hirsch, most schools followed a shared curriculum emphasizing the explicit content knowledge that children had to acquire in order to grow into literate adults and good citizens. As Hirsch writes in his most recent book, The Making of Americans, the country had “no official national curriculum, but it had the equivalent: a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to ensure that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans.” America’s public schools were the envy of the world during this period.