Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Knowledge Deficit

    Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children

    By E.D. Hirsch Jr.

    Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 169 pp. $13.95.

    In 1987, E. D. Hirsch Jr. created a stir with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, in which he argued that effective reading comprehension depends on mastering a core body of academic knowledge. Although his recommendation that schools should explicitly impart that body of knowledge led some educators to write him off as a conservative champion of Western civilization and the “Dead White Males,” Hirsch went on to create the Core Knowledge Foundation and to develop a carefully sequenced curriculum that has since been taken up by several hundred schools throughout the country. His most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, extends his previous argument by identifying the problem with U.S. education and exploring the three kinds of knowledge students need to read effectively — knowledge of language conventions, vocabulary knowledge, and domain-specific background knowledge. It also offers recommendations about the efficient allocation of instructional time, the kinds of tests needed to ensure content mastery, and the content standards we need as a nation.

    Striking a diplomatic tone, The Knowledge Deficit asserts that the problem with U.S. education is not inadequate teachers; rather, it is a set of misguided ideas in which teachers have been taught to believe. The first of these ideas is naturalism, or the notion that learning should proceed from experience rather than formal education, which Hirsch traces back to the Romantic notion of civilization as a corrupting influence. The second is formalism, or the notion that schools should attempt to inculcate generalizable skills, such as inferring and information-gathering, rather than bodies of content knowledge. The third is demographic determinism, or the idea that teaching alone cannot overcome the achievement differences that result from socioeconomic inequality. Hirsch also critiques localism — the long-standing practice of local control over educational curricula in the U.S.

    The Knowledge Deficit laments schools’ tendency to react to No Child Left Behind by increasing the time spent teaching children general-purpose comprehension strategies such as summarizing, predicting, and questioning the author as they read. Hirsch cites research on expert performance to argue that closely monitoring one’s own comprehension may unwittingly limit the “mental bandwidth” available for fluent comprehension. He also cites research showing that many comprehension strategies, such as inferring, are intrinsic to oral language comprehension. He argues that it is therefore a lack of language knowledge and domain-specific background knowledge, rather than a lack of comprehension strategies, that causes students fluent in decoding to struggle with texts. Hirsch further argues that teaching comprehension strategies rather than academic content only exacerbates social inequality, as students with less exposure to academic content at home are also those who have the most to lose from a lack of content-rich instruction at school. In addition, he highlights the importance of teaching formal grammar but focuses more on justifying the teaching of Standard English than on examining how an understanding of complex grammatical structures can bolster reading comprehension.

    Hirsch’s arguments are lucid and compelling, but even those sympathetic to his conclusions may wonder whether he at times overstates the domain-specific nature of reading comprehension. His assertion, for instance, that “the background knowledge a person needs for good reading comprehension tends to be largely (but by no means entirely) national in character,” seems intended to justify his call for a national curriculum more than to convince us that effective reading skills do not transfer easily across cultures that share a language. His example of the particularities of American knowledge —“Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run”— hinges on very specialized baseball jargon that even many literate Americans who are not sports enthusiasts may not understand. His subsequent example of reading a seafaring narrative to a four-year-old who does not understand sailing terms such as “rigging,” “gunnels,” and “planking” depends similarly on jargon. Thus, when Hirsch writes that “many older children and grownups, even if they are not experienced sailors, can understand and delight in [the] book,” he is correct for several reasons that actually suggest the generalizability of effective reading skills. First, as Hirsch notes, effective readers know how to infer vocabulary meaning from context. Second, as he does not specifically note, skilled readers know how to ignore unfamiliar details that add nuance but are peripheral to a text’s central ideas. And third, they know how to look up unfamiliar details that are essential and how, depending on their reading goals, to distinguish the peripheral from the essential.

    In keeping with his thesis that schools need to spend more time on academic content and less on formal skills, Hirsch might have used the baseball and seafaring examples to emphasize that the job of a good teacher is to impart the background knowledge students need to grasp and appreciate the nuances of a text. In schools that have recast reading instruction not as a whole-class activity around shared texts, but as a chance for students to choose and read books independently, the opportunity for the teacher to build students’ background knowledge about shared texts is shortchanged. In other words, by using overly specialized jargon to assert that reading comprehension is highly domain- (and even nation-) specific, Hirsch misses a golden opportunity to explore how whole-class examination of difficult texts not only builds students’ specialized knowledge, but also helps them grasp textual nuances they would not understand on their own.

    Despite such minor limitations, The Knowledge Deficit should be required reading for public school reformers. Hirsch’s call for a greater emphasis on history, science, and the arts offers a long-overdue antidote to these subjects’ increasing marginalization in public education. By advocating a content-rich national curriculum, he calls boldly for the kind of sweeping reform that might genuinely promote equity in our nation’s schools.

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    Book Notes

    The Knowledge Deficit
    By E.D. Hirsch Jr.

    Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education
    By Beth Harry, Janette K. Klingner, Elizabeth P. Cramer, with Keith M. Sturges and Robert F. Moore.

    Qualities of Effective Teachers, Second Edition
    By James H. Stronge