The content of K–12 education is a minefield for conservatives. Over the past thirty years, education reformers who wanted parents to have choices for their children have tended to focus more on the creation of new public charter schools, or on private school scholarships, than on curriculum and classroom content. They have placed their faith in school choice and the market to create demand for a rich, well-rounded education: Let parents choose and the market provide, and may the best curriculum win.
That faith is largely misplaced. Nearly all—90 percent—of K–12 students in the U.S. attend the public schools to which they are assigned based on their ZIP code. Parents and policymakers should also not assume that schools of choice are automatically more sophisticated about curricular content (some are; many are not). There is a foreseeable price to be paid for the reluctance to engage on the foundational question of what the 45 million public school children across the country should know, and leaving it to chance or whim. Doing so risks abandoning the next generation to semi-literacy and, therefore, less than full citizenship. The content delivered in classrooms across the country is a matter that conservatives should not abandon to the Left.
Education should ensure that children grow up to be fully literate, and it should equip students with the necessary tools for becoming responsible citizens. This is a point that E. D. Hirsch Jr., has stressed throughout his career. But, as Hirsch explained in his landmark 1987 book Cultural Literacy, America’s elementary schools have come to be “dominated by the content-neutral ideas of Rousseau and Dewey.” At the time, 16,000 independent school districts represented “an insurmountable obstacle” to renewal. “We have permitted school policies that have shrunk the body of information that Americans share, and these policies have caused our national literacy to decline,” Hirsch wrote.
What options do conservatives have for addressing inadequate academic content? An incoherent skills-driven vision of curricula, vacuous and ineffective, has dominated American education for a half-century or more. Textbook battles have tended to end badly for conservatives, as opponents claim that instruction based on classic texts whitewash American history.
Parental choice in education should remain at the heart of conservative public policy. Still, attention must be paid to the content taught in public schools. As William J. Bennett observed, “[I]t would be intellectually dishonest to not recognize the limitations of choice, given that more than four in five students attend a traditional neighborhood public school and the exercise of choice requires parents who will participate and teachers and schools that teach well.” In sum, what children learn in school matters. Instructional content is a critical component of basic literacy, and advances (or fails to advance) the fundamental civic mission of schools in fostering thoughtful and engaged citizenship.
Education choice leads to different governance models and has created curricular diversity in some, but not all, cases. The traditional district-based school system has been slower to adjust. The high-quality content that has blossomed in some choice networks has not propagated across district schools due in large part to schools of education, school board associations, and other interest groups that vie for power and to influence or control what children learn.
The path leading to this conservative conundrum on curriculum is instructive. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy made the unimpeachable case that schools were systematically denying American children the knowledge they needed to function as fully literate members of civil society. “We Americans have long accepted literacy as a paramount aim of schooling, but only recently have some of us who have done research in the field begun to realize that literacy is far more than a skill and that it requires large amounts of specific information,” he wrote. Hirsch subsequently described how he was “shocked into school reform” while conducting research on reading ability at a Richmond, Virginia, community college. He discovered that the community college students could read just as well as the undergraduates at Hirsch’s own University of Virginia when texts were about everyday topics, such as car traffic or roommates, but when required to read, for example, about the U.S. Civil War, their reading comprehension fell apart. “They had not been taught the things they needed to know to understand texts addressed to a general audience. What had the schools been doing?” he wondered.
Hirsch’s basic insight, consistently validated by cognitive science, is that a student’s ability to comprehend a text is largely determined by the student’s background knowledge. Speakers and writers make assumptions about what readers and listeners know, and rely on them to understand references and allusions, and to make correct assumptions about word meanings and context. For example, even the simple word “shot” means different things in a bar, a rifle range, a basketball court, or when the repairman uses it to describe one’s refrigerator. If readers cannot supply the missing information or make correct assumptions about context, comprehension suffers. A piece of text is like a child’s game of Jenga, where every block is a piece of background knowledge or vocabulary. When just a few are missing, the tower of blocks still stands. Pull out one too many, and it collapses.
Hirsch attempted to catalogue much of this assumed knowledge with a list of 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts,” ranging from Biblical references and Greek myths to basic scientific concepts and key figures in history, which drove Cultural Literacy to the top of bestseller lists. Most Americans likely assume that their children are getting what Hirsch is prescribing: a well-rounded elementary and middle-school curriculum, rich in literature, history, geography, science, and the arts, that would endow them with the basic assortment of mental furniture—general knowledge, allusions, and idioms—that educated Americans take for granted.
A man of the Left who has described himself “practically a socialist,” Hirsch was widely criticized, even reviled in some quarters, for what many perceived as an effort to enshrine a dead, white male canon, and to impose conservative views of “What Every American Needs to Know” (as the subtitle of Cultural Literacy puts it) on U.S. education. But Hirsch’s project was and remains a curatorial effort aimed at explaining—and rescuing—reading comprehension. This fundamental disconnect led University of Virginia professor of psychology Daniel Willingham to describe Cultural Literacy as “possibly the most misunderstood education book of the last fifty years.”
Crucially, the America in which Cultural Literacy was first published was one in which charter schools did not yet exist, and where private school choice existed mostly in Milton Friedman’s head. Thus leading conservatives in education, such as President Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary William Bennett, Chester Finn, and (erstwhile conservative) Diane Ravitch (authors of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? also published in 1987), were more apt and eager to battle it out over the curricular content of children’s education. Those three were among Hirsch’s earliest and most vocal champions, eagerly taking up his call to transform the content of the curriculum in public schools since few, if any, alternatives existed.
There is far less appetite among conservatives today for battles over curricula, whether because of evolving theories of educational change (read: increased choice), practical politics, or concern about encroachment into local school autonomy. The past decade’s battles over Common Core suggest that conservatives have little appetite for large-scale standards-based initiatives with federal financial backing. Hirsch, meanwhile, has enjoyed at least something of a reappraisal (if for no other reason than the general absence of improved reading scores in the decades since choice began to flower), and a muscular test-driven accountability regime has come to dominate American education. His broad general thesis—knowledge matters—if not his precise prescription, was embedded (and almost entirely overlooked) in the Common Core standards for English language arts, which advised:
By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.
This recommendation might have been expected to resonate with conservatives and ought to have been taken up vigorously. But Common Core or no Common Core, the wisdom of the passage above remains. It can be summarized with just three words: Hirsch was right.
More than thirty years after Cultural Literacy appeared, the opportunity for conservatives to use Common Core to re-engage on curricular content has largely been lost. The failure of schools to “fulfill their acculturative responsibility” that Hirsch observed remains the default condition in American education, reflected in the experience of the vast majority of American children. And where conservatives have grown wary and suspicious of meddling in curricula, activists and advocates on the Left have demonstrated far less reticence about imposing their views, moving further from the unifying impulse undergirding the entire purpose of public education. It is only a mild overstatement to say that the vast majority of current thought in education practice and policy—from personalized learning to “culturally relevant pedagogy”—reflects an assumption that curricular content should not just reflect, but be grounded in, children’s personal interests and experience. This notion drifts ever further from the common school ideal of American public education, and does violence to basic literacy. There remains a profound risk that abandoning efforts within the public system to ensure equal access to common knowledge, even in the laudable service of honoring educational pluralism, will further estrange Americans from one another, deepening social, cultural, and political divisions. What is taught in the nearly 100,000 public schools across the country should be a matter of grave concern to conservatives.
The conservative project for school curriculum extends from the founding (and largely forgotten) purpose of public education: preparing each generation of children for engaged and responsible citizenship. Civic education—once the founding purpose of American education—has been marginalized, particularly in the education-reform era. The thrust of school improvement efforts has been raising reading and math scores, inevitably marginalizing other content areas, and none more so than civics. Indeed, compared to student achievement in civics and history measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading performance in U.S. schools, generally viewed with alarm, is downright robust. Here again, Hirsch is the indispensable theorist. His 2009 book The Making of Americans traced the history and purpose of the American common school: “The center of its emphasis was to be common knowledge, virtue, skill, and an allegiance to the larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin.”
To state the matter mildly, the goal of fostering “allegiance to the larger community” is no longer anywhere near the heart of American education. This allegiance is in danger of being abandoned altogether, even as an aspiration. The same dynamic that has fatally damaged literacy for untold numbers of American children is playing out again in civic education, and the same mistake—valorizing vague skills over educational content, and blithely dismissing what should be common knowledge as “mere facts”—is readily observable.
A quiet revolution in civics education has been gaining ground in recent years, emphasizing student “voice” and “agency,” as well as direct participation in public affairs, politics, and protest. Where civics education has historically concerned itself with ensuring that students know how a bill becomes law, “action civics” seeks to close a “civic empowerment gap” and to reverse the “marginalization of youth voice.” Students routinely participate in rallies and demonstrations on controversial issues, such as climate change and gun control. Schools and districts seem less likely to be concerned with presenting a balanced view of contemporary controversies than whether students should be held accountable for skipping class to participate. The common impulse, well-intended if misguided, is to “support” and celebrate student activism.
Yuval Levin has observed that “conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” A critical function of American K–12 education is citizen-making and fostering the ability to contribute productively in the public sphere. It cannot be sensibly denied that “action civics” by definition focuses students’ attention on the bad and the broken, not on gratitude for what is good and what works. The omission is as harmful to citizen-making as the lack of common content is to basic literacy.
In a recent paper for the Hoover Institution, William Bennett, one of Hirsch’s earliest champions, observed how “the lack of conservative consensus on content has very real and very negative consequences.” More ominously, Bennett concluded, “the vacuum cedes the field to the other side, who knows very well what it intends to do.” Conservatives can no longer stand on the sidelines of debates about the foundational question of what children in public schools across the country should learn. They risk leaving the next generation semiliterate and ill equipped for participating in—and simply maintaining—a civil society. For that reason, school choice must be pursued in conjunction with reforms to improve content and curricula in public schools across the country.
This essay is excerpted from the newly released edited volume The Not-So-Great Society, edited by Lindsey M. Burke and Jonathan Butcher and published by The Heritage Foundation. Click here to request a full copy of the book.