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E.D. Hirsch: Content knowledge “terribly important for social justice”

A week after Sol Stern argued in City Journal that New York City should create an office of reading improvement and provide low class sizes and scientifically-based reading instruction in high-poverty, low-scoring schools, the DOE announced a new reading initiative: teachers at 10 pilot schools will implement the new Core Knowledge Reading Program (CKRP) in grades K-2.

Education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in favor of the program in the Post on Monday, saying it’s a smarter choice than the “unproven” Balanced Literacy curriculum that Klein introduced in 2003. “Balanced Literacy doesn’t stress content knowledge, vocabulary or phonics. And we now know that it didn’t work,” she says, citing flat reading scores on the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

What will the new reading program look like? The kindergarten curriculum includes two strands, Skills — which teaches phonological (sounds within words) awareness — and Listening and Learning — which builds vocabulary and content knowledge through teacher read-alouds and discussion. The Listening and Learning strand includes twelve topics, ranging from Nursery Rhymes and Fables to Seasons and Weather, designed to help young students build knowledge which will improve comprehension as they learn to read. The CKRP website includes samples of program materials and video from pilot schools in other regions, along with links to the research underlying their program.

In an interview at Public School Insights, E.D. Hirsch, founder of Core Knowledge, says they created the program in response to the fact that with the pressure on reading and mathematics from No Child Left Behind, many schools were shortchanging science, history, and the arts.

“If you push out subject matter, you’re also pushing out reading comprehension,” Hirsch says, pointing to rising reading scores in the lower grades due to increased emphasis on decoding, but flat or falling reading scores in middle and high school, where comprehension becomes crucial. Hence the dual strands of his reading program, emphasizing both phonics and development of content knowledge through oral language.

Hirsch cautions that dramatic results are unlikely in year one: “In the first year of implementation, you don’t see much,” he says of studies of the basic Core Knowledge Program. “But it’s cumulative and it’s geometrical and the difference by the end of sixth grade is enormous.”

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