The Knowledge Deficit
BOOK FORUM
About This Event

Standardized tests in the United States have made apparent that, despite spending more hours in the classroom, American students score lower than their international counterparts in science, math, and reading. These gaps exist across ethnic, racial, and economic classes. In his book The Knowledge Deficit (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), author E. Listen to Audio


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D. Hirsch argues that while schools excel at teaching the mechanics of reading, they fail at teaching children to truly understand what they read. Mr. Hirsch maintains that in a democratic society reliant on fluid communication between its members, a child’s ability to read and comprehend is a key issue that must be addressed to insure an adequate generation of future leaders.

What reading skills should be taught in American classrooms? How can teachers make the necessary changes to reshape curricula? What can parents and teachers do to prepare students for the future? Mr. Hirsch addresses these and other questions by examining classroom scenarios and their impact on students’ intellectual growth. Please join us as Mr. Hirsch and a panel of education experts discuss the reshaping of American education.

Agenda
3:15 p.m.
Registration
3:30
Presentation:
E. D. Hirsch, author of The Knowledge Deficit
Discussants:
Lynne V. Cheney, AEI
Abigail Thernstrom, Manhattan Institute
Moderator:
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
5:00
Adjournment
Event Summary

October 2006

The Knowledge Deficit

 

Standardized tests in the United States have made apparent that, despite spending more hours in the classroom, American students score lower than their international counterparts in science, math, and reading. These gaps exist across ethnic, racial, and economic classes. In his book The Knowledge Deficit (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), author E. D. Hirsch argues that while schools excel at teaching the mechanics of reading, they fail at teaching children to truly understand what they read. Hirsch maintains that in a democratic society reliant on fluid communication between its members, a child’s ability to read and comprehend is a key issue that must be addressed to ensure an adequate generation of future leaders.

What reading skills should be taught in American classrooms? How can teachers make the necessary changes to reshape curricula? What can parents and teachers do to prepare students for the future? Hirsch addresses these and other questions by examining classroom scenarios and their impact on students’ intellectual growth. On October 16, Hirsch and a panel of education experts met to discuss the reshaping of American education.


E. D. Hirsch
University of Virginia
Author of The Knowledge Deficit

Since the 1960s there has been a drastic decline in the SAT scores of American students. When it comes to verbal abilities and reading skills, U.S. students lag behind those in sixteen other countries. There is also a disparity between demographic groups within the United States; fortunately, both of these gaps can be narrowed.

It is important to first know why these gaps might occur. In the 1950s there was a move away from subject-based curriculum and toward holistic or outcome-based education. Teachers no longer taught subjects; rather, they facilitated student development. However, a grade-by-grade standardized curriculum based on subject matter is what is needed to improve reading levels. After all, reading is not a subject. A how-to approach to teach reading will not work, nor will it engage a student in the rich literature which will stimulate a love of lifelong reading. What is needed is a coherent, year-by-year curriculum that actually allows students to read, rather than simply “teaching” them through simple instruction. Subject matter is important, and the teachers should play a major role by knowing exactly what they are teaching and understanding why they teach it.

Abigail Thernstrom
Manhattan Institute

Hirsch’s book makes a point so obvious that it is often overlooked: most students are poor readers. However, he underestimates the difficulty of education reform, blurring distinctions between racial identity and economic class. Hirsch concedes that parenting styles, culture, and exposure to a large vocabulary in the home have a significant impact on reading skills. However, recently immigrated Asian students who have very little English experience do better in school than their peers who have had much more exposure to English. Bill Cosby made a strong argument for cultural change in 2004 when he argued that African Americans are fighting hard to be ignorant and that parents need to do much more to help in their children’s education.

While students need disciplined and well-structured schools, at the end of the day it is still their responsibility (and their parents’) to make the best use of those schools. Even if students are taught core knowledge, they must realize that their education is in their own hands. Unfortunately, there are very few good schools and even fewer good teachers. Hirsch is on the right track, however, in arguing for a curriculum that needs to approach culture.

Lynne V. Cheney
AEI

Fifty years ago, diagramming sentences and reading stories were customary. These core skills were imperative in learning to read and write well. Today, the best way to change American education is through teacher preparation. Teachers are seen as facilitators; a teacher is no longer a “sage on the stage,” but rather a “guide from the side.” Students should have experiences from which they can learn. It is unfortunate that factual knowledge is no longer seen as that which is most worth teaching. The first priority should be intellectual development, and while the goal of social justice is important, such intellectual development should not be abandoned for its sake.

The Knowledge Deficit makes a plea for a national consensus about what students should know. This is dangerously similar to national standards, which are easily corrupted. A better approach would be to establish reform on a state-by-state basis in order to try different programs that might work best in a specific demographic or geographic area.

AEI intern Andrew Roozeboom  prepared this summary.

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