E.D. Hirsch: To Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores, Teach Content, Facts, Actual Knowledge

As we have noted here many times before, E.D. Hirsch explains how educating kids is really about teaching them content – facts, knowledge, context – especially in the early years, like K-5, so that later they can process information and better comprehend what they read.

It has to be done in the early years because of the Matthew Effect:

The name comes from a passage in the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

In other words, the effect in later years is exponential, not cumulative. Missed opportunities in the early years are gone forever. So while people focus obsessively on the quality of a college education, then on high school, and not much before that, it turns out that a solid foundation in the K-5 years prepares one to succeed in just about any educational setting later, while missing out on that solid foundation dooms one to an inferior education level regardless of what you do later. I’m overgeneralizing, of course, and maybe overstating it a bit, but this seems to be one of the primary points here.

More details from the above link at the Core Knowledge blog:

Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on every student is brought along from the first days of preschool to understand the gist of what is heard or read. And that means children need to be offered coherent knowledge about the world around them from the first days of school. This is no mere theoretical notion: a recent article in Science by Professor David Dickenson showed that when children in preschool and kindergarten are taught substantial and coherent content concerning the human and natural worlds, the results show up five or six years later in significantly improved verbal scores. (Five years is the time span by which this kind of educational intervention needs to be judged.) By systematically staying on a subject long enough to make all pre-school children familiar with it, the gist becomes understood by all and the rate of word learning increases. This is particularly important for low-income children who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base that affluent children take for granted. Research conducted in France showed that if disadvantaged children receive coherent and cumulative content from a very early age, and if that practice is sustained through the early grades, verbal scores are higher for all by the time they reach later grades, and the demographic achievement gap is greatly reduced.

The pithy version:

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia puts it simply: Teaching content is teaching reading.

So how did we get here?

Our national verbal decline transcends this “achievement gap” between demographic groups. The language competence of our high school graduates fell precipitously in the seventies, and has never recovered. What changed—and what remains largely un-discussed in education reform—is that in the decades prior to the Great Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-based approach that dominates in our schools today. On the surface, this is a paradox. De-emphasizing history, science, art and music in favor of spending time learning to read, and take reading tests should raise scores on those tests. The Matthew Effect explains why it doesn’t work.

Note the heavy irony here. By explicitly removing content deemed ‘expendable’, and focusing on what education experts claimed was the best way to improve reading and verbal test scores, we instead made them worse, because the experts didn’t understand how education really works, how brains actually grow and process information.

It wasn’t broken before, apparently, so we should “un-fix” it by re-emphasizing history, science, art and music, and de-emphasizing the concept of reading as a “skill” and the inevitable teaching to the test that results from it.

Because reading is not a skill, it is a high-level aggregate measure of your background knowledge. Teaching content is teaching reading. Research proves it.

You’d think education experts, of all people, would get that.

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1 comment
  1. Brilliant! Enough with the flavor-of-the-day fix which only serves to make those in the professional development industry wealthy as it robs a proper education from our children. Just like chicken soup’s proven benefit for the common cold, we must return to the sensible, time-proven practice of teaching content, not just to the test. Thank you.