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His name is E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and he is a University Professor of Education and English emeritus at the University of Virginia. He has written three books since 1987 expounding his views. The first book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, tells us that there is an alarming deficit of knowledge among Americans, particularly young people, of basic facts about history and literature. This problem appears to be worsening with time. His new book, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, brings his earlier works up to date.
Hirsch is an advocate of teaching facts in schools, rather than teaching children how to learn, which is the modern goal. He is an unabashed critic of so-called progressive education, which he blames for the alarming lack of knowledge that young people exhibit today. He believes in a core of learning, which should be taught from elementary schools onward. Hirsch's views can be found in more detail on the website of the Core Knowledge Foundation http://www.coreknowledge.org/CK/index.htm, an independent, not-for-profit organization he founded in 1986.
He points to the fact that, after intense attention to the problem, reading scores at the fourth grade level have improved, in New York City and in other large cities. At the same time, reading scores at the eighth grade level have declined. His explanation for this phenomenon is that, in the fourth grade, reading is primarily about recognizing letters and putting them together, while in the eighth grade what is really being tested is comprehension, and that requires an understanding of what the student is reading about.
Hirsch analogized reading to typing, saying that if one studied typing for eight years, one would presumably be able to type quite well, as a result of punching the right letters in the right order. In typing, it is not necessary to know precisely what the manuscript means, or what is its significance. On the other hand, if one studies simply reading, one will know the letters that make up the words and hopefully be able to pronounce them correctly.
Without additional knowledge, however, one would have no idea of the meaning of what one had read. What is really being tested here is comprehension, and in order to comprehend what one has read, one would need to know something about the subject matter that is being discussed in the passage.
That is the reason, Dr. Hirsch believes, that eighth grade reading scores are falling nationally. The children are being taught reading for two hours a day in the early grades. That is desirable. However because of lack of attention to other subjects during the 120 minutes per day that schools must spend on "literacy," and are now being spent in practicing "comprehension skills" on stories like "Jenna Goes to the Supermarket," students have by grade 8 very little idea of what they are reading about or what is going on in the world.
What is particularly interesting to us is that Dr. Hirsch's theories, which hardly seem revolutionary and in fact appear to be downright sensible, are almost universally rejected by schools of education, which are long on pedagogy, doctrinaire in their approach to educational issues, and probably the least respected division of many colleges and universities.
The old saw is that those who can, do, those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers.
Although stereotypes do not prove anything, there is often some truth in them, that is why they became stereotypes (Rule 2). Certainly the relatively low salaries and status that teachers enjoy today, and the harassment to which they are subjected to by supervisors, students and parents, make the job less attractive than it was years ago. The growth of the economy has provided many other opportunities and the emancipation of women means that they are no longer limited to careers as teachers or nurses. These are fortunate events to have taken place, but they do not work to improve, or even maintain, the quality of the teaching profession.
Another problem is that what is important to universities are research, grants and discoveries. Education either has already been discovered, or is a sort of dark ages where nothing much is being discovered. It is not easy to teach a discipline in which people did a better job two generations ago (when I was a youngster) than they do today. That is, in part, because the teachers of today are victimized by their own inadequate educations at teachers colleges. They are not in a great position to teach children subjects that they themselves may have not thoroughly mastered.
Mr. Stern is a former New York City Parks commissioner and the founder of New York Civic.
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Find lesson plans created by educators for use in their own classrooms.
From decorating notebooks with gel pens to making their own backpacks, get kids will get excited about going back to school if they have crafted and decorated their own school supplies!
Arts and crafts
The value of arts and crafts in education should not be underestimated.
A child in kindergarten will never forget that introductory year to the, until then, mysterious world of school.