Saturday, October 31, 2009

Readings from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s "The Knowledge Deficit"


"One of the major contributions of psychology is the recognition [that]...much of the information needed to understand a text is not provided by the information in the text itself but must be drawn from the language user's knowledge of the person, objects, states of affairs, or events the discourse is about."

T.A. Van Dijk and W. Kintsch
--Strategies of Discourse Comprehension (quoted in E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Knowledge Deficit.)

We can greatly accelerate the achievements of all students if we adopt knowledge-oriented modes of schooling that use school time effectively, and if we abandon process-oriented notions like "reading comprehension strategies" that waste precious school time.
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If we had a choice between offering each child a computer and imparting to each the broad knowledge that enables a person to use a computer intelligently, we should unhesitatingly choose knowledge.
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Reading ability correlates with almost everything that a democratic education aims to provide, including the ability to be an informed citizen who can actively participate in the self-government of a democracy. What gives the reading gap between demographic groups a special poignancy is the dramatic failure of our schools to live up to the basic ideal of a democratic education, which, as Thomas Jefferson conceived it, is the ideal of offering all children the opportunity to succeed, regardless of who their parents happen to be. Reading proficiency is at the very heart of the democratic educational enterprise, and is rightly called the "new civil rights frontier."
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Being trained in the history of ideas, I had become familiar with the way in which unnoticed metaphors like "growth" and "development" unconsciously govern our thought - and continue to do so, even when scientific evidence clearly shows that reading and doing math are not natural developments at all.
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Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson. Henry Ford's famous "History is bunk" is a succinct example. Since the nineteenth century, such anti-intellectualism has been as American as apple pie, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, and it came straight out of the Romantic movement into our schools.

In our pre-romantic days, books were seen as the key to education. In a 1785 letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Anabasis, Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin. On morality, Jefferson recommended books by Epictetus, Plato, Cicero, Antonius, Seneca, and Xenophon's Memorabilia, and in Poetry Virgil, Terence, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Milton, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope, and Swift. Jefferson's plan of book learning was modest compared to the proper Puritan education of the seventeenth century as advocated by John Milton.
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Today our schools and colleges of education...are still the nerve centers of an anti-intellectual tradition. One of their most effective rhetorical tics is to identify the acquisition of broad knowledge with "rote learning" of "mere facts" - in subtle disparagement of "merely verbal" presentation in books and through the coherent explanations of teachers. Just like Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Dewey, our schools of education hold that unless school knowledge is connected to "real life" in a "hands-on" way, it is unnatural and dead; it is "rote" and "meaningless." It consists of "mere facts." But nobody advocates rote learning of disconnected facts. Neither Milton nor Thomas Jefferson nor any of their more thoughtful contemporaries who championed book learning advocated rote learning. What they did advocate was the systematic acquisition of broad knowledge. And such knowledge is precisely what it takes to become a good reader.
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American ed school ideas march under the banner of continual reform, but the reform, given different names in different eras, is always the same one, being carried out against the same enemy. The enemy is dull, soulless drill and the stuffing of children's minds with dead, inert information. These are to be replaced by natural, engaging activities (naturalism). A lot of dead information is to be replaced by all-purpose, how-to knowledge (formalism). These are the two perennial ideas of the American educational world. These two principles together constitute a kind of theology that is drilled into prospective teachers like a catechism.
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Many specialists indicate that a child or an adult needs to understand around 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to learn to understand the other 10 percent of the words. Moreover, it's not just the words that the student has to grasp the meaning of; it's also the kind of reality that the words are referring to. When a child doesn't understand those word meanings and those referred-to realities, being good at sounding out words is a dead end.
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If we do not spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging material with children - material that is well beyond their ability to decode with understanding - we miss a critical opportunity to increase their knowledge of language and of the world - the kind of knowledge that will prove decisive for reading in later years.
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[In a section entitled "Reading Strategies: A Path to Boredom:] I have observed that American educational theory has been transfixed by the idea of all-purpose how-to strategies, such as "critical thinking" and "inferencing," using as an example Linda Perlstein's account of a school where young students were being subjected to formal reading strategies in an unsuccessful attempt to make them proficient readers when the time would be better spent teaching useful background knowledge. Kate Walsh, in an analysis of existing reading programs, has found that they continually emphasize teaching these conscious formal processes to children from kindergarten through eighth grade, year after year for nine years, classifying, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and predicting outcomes. So much time is being wasted on these misguided activities throughout the nation that if this book manages to persuade even a few teachers and administrators, it will have justified its existence.
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There is little scientific reason to expect that expertise in reading can be more quickly and effectively learned through the explicit methods employed in these reading programs, or that the "metacognitive strategies" used by experts are abstract, transferable abilities that can be detached from substantive knowledge of the subject matter of the text.
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It is not mainly comprehension strategies that young children lack in comprehending texts but knowledge - knowledge of formal language conventions and knowledge of the world.
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We learn words up to four times faster in a familiar than in an unfamiliar context. ...An optimal early reading program will exploit this characteristic of word learning by ensuring that the topics of reading and discussion are consistent over several class periods, so that the topic becomes familiar to the students and thus accelerates word learning.
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Other things being equal, the earlier children acquire a large vocabulary, the greater their reading comprehension will be in later grades. ...The biggest contribution to the size of any person's vocabulary must come from the printed page (whether it is heard or read), because print uses a greater number of different words than everyday oral speech.
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Even when teachers spend up to thirty minutes a day in explicit word study, the maximum number of new words they can teach this way during a school year is about four hundred. Compare that to the average of two thousand to five thousand words per year that an advantage child will have learned from age two to age seventeen. It is clear from these ballpark figures that most of our word learning occurs indirectly, through hearing, reading, and understanding a lot of text and talk. The consensus of all researchers is that indirect, implicit learning is by far the main mode of increasing one's vocabulary. ..It appears that we have a remarkable innate faculty for learning word meanings in context.
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Only a person with broad general knowledge is capable of reading the New York Times and other newspapers. This fact has momentous implications for education, and for democracy as well. A universal ability of citzens to read newspapers or their equivalent with understanding is the essence of democracy. Jefferson put the issue unforgettably: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newespapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
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The second- and third-rate fictions that are too often presented to children in the early grades are far less stimulating to their imaginations than classical stories and well-presented narratives about the real world.
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Those who develop language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses must understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted.
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When James Coleman, the great sociologist of education, analyzed the school characteristics that had the greatest impact on educational achievement and equity, he found that effective use of time was a chief factor. Most important was "intensity," a persistent, goal-directed focus on academics that caused classroom time to be used productively. Schools with greater academic intensity produced not only greater learning but also greater equity.
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Tests of academic progress are the only practical way to hold schools accountable for educating all children and are therefore essential to the twin aims of equality and fairness.
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A student's actual ability to find the main idea of a passage is not a formal ability to follow procedures that will elicit the main idea but the ability to understand what the text says.
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It takes the mind much longer to process meanings of a text on an unfamiliar topic.
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Some have argued that these supposedly neutral (reading) texts are culturally biased, which is certainly true. While the test-makers attempt to be fair by making the tests knowledge-neutral, they do not succeed in this aim. Language can never be knowledge-neutral. A more accurate way of perceiving the inherent unfairness of those tests is to concede that although they cannot possibly be knowledge-netural and therefore fair to students who don't have the needed knowledge, they are perfectly appropriate as tests of reading ability. That is, their unfairness resides in the pretense that formal reading skills are being tested when in fact relevant background knowledge is being tested. Ultimately, the unfairness resides in the failure of schools to impart to all chldren the background knowledge they need to understand the passages on the test and similar passages in real life.
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The state standards for reading comprehension describe empty processes. These abstract, knowledge-evasive criteria do not reflect the knowledge-based character of reading comprehension.
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If schoools wish to meet the adequate-yearly-progress requirement, they should systematically teach and then test for the general knowledge that leads to proficient reading comprehension.
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Breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status.
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The percentage of economically disadvantaged students who migrate during the school year is appallingly high, and the effects are dishearteningly severe. ...Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.
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According to the most recent census, every year 45 percent of Americans change their residence. Among these domestic migrants are over 20 million schoolchildren between the ages of five and fourteen. Those in the lowest income brackets move most frequently. Few caregivers are able to time their moves to coincide with the beginning and end of the school year.
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The tacit, taken-for-granted knowledge needed for general reading and writing in a speech community is by definition traditional knowledge.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
--The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children

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