This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, March 4, 1992

March 4, 1992 - What every child needs to know

First published in 1987, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," was an immediate bestseller.

Citing an impressive new body of data about how people learn and remember, author E. D. Hirsch argued that Americans -- indeed, people from any culture -- require a core body of common knowledge to communicate effectively, and that public schools in the United States haven't been providing that.

He also went into some carefully reasoned and elegantly written explanations of the philosophical underpinnings of modern education. What had been left out, he said, was the whole idea of CONTENT in curriculum, and America was beginning to pay the price.

If that had been all he said, probably no one would have taken much notice. But Hirsch also included a list of some 5,000 "essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts" that made a stab at providing "a fairly reliable index to the middle-level information that is shared by most literate people but remains unfamiliar to most illiterate people."

Hirsch emphasized repeatedly that the list was preliminary, not definitive, and somewhat arbitrary by necessity. But the quick adoption of his ideas by then-Secretary of Education William Bennett, a man we may safely describe as "conservative," resulted in a kind of liberal media backlash. Just who did this Hirsch think he was, telling all Americans what they ought to know?

At the same time, people secretly enjoyed looking over the list to see how "culturally literate" THEY were, for much the same reason as they take the little quizzes at the back of newspaper supplements.

But Hirsch, a Professor at the University of Virginia, was more than a pop quiz artist. After forming the Core Knowledge Foundation, he proceeded to conduct research on successful schools in the United States and around the world. He consulted hundreds of teachers, parents, and professional organizations in an attempt to draft some kind of preliminary curriculum.

In March, 1990, a consolidated grade-by-grade sequence of instruction was presented to a national conference.

As of today, dozens of schools are working to incorporate the Core Knowledge materials into their curricula. Two books on the subject are available now: "What Your First Grader Needs to Know," and "What Your Second Grader Needs to Know." Books covering third and fourth grade will be out by this July. Books covering the fifth and sixth grade will be published in 1993.

According to John Holdren, Director of the Core Knowledge Foundation, no books are currently planned for higher grade levels. The Foundation has an exclusive focus on the age when children are best able to effortlessly absorb factual knowledge.

In a telephone interview, Holdren told me that there are a number of "usual objections" to the Core Knowledge philosophy. Most frequent is the belief that children are required to simply memorize a long list of facts.

But Core Knowledge can be easily adapted to any teaching style or approach. It just requires that at the end of instruction, the children should actually know something. And based on the experiences of those schools that have tried it, the program appears to be successful.

This evening, Hank Cotton, Director of Program for Core Knowledge Foundation, and the former principal of Cherry Creek High School, will be speaking on the subject of cultural literacy and core knowledge at the Philip S. Miller Library. The talk begins at 7:30 pm.

In a county where our school system is actively seeking a "road to world class," any well-researched approach to educational reform deserves serious consideration. To hear more about the Core Knowledge Curriculum, stop by March 4 and see what you think.

You may also want to give Core Knowledge a call. Their number is 1-800-238-3233.

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