E.D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., submitted the following essay to the blog. He is the founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum and has written several books explains the ideas behind it, beginning with “Cultural Literacy,” and including “The Schools We Need,” and “The Knowledge Deficit.”

He writes:

Diane kindly offered me a blog slot on her site – a great opportunity to explain what I’m about. I intend to exploit her generosity only this once.

I’m inspired to do so, because just now I had an exchange on Diane’s site with a teacher (TB) who observed that my granddaughter Cleo – a new teacher in the Bronx – didn’t need the Core Knowledge materials on the American Revolution – there were plenty of good New York State materials up for free on the web.

This sort of exchange with an undertone about the money nexus, and the underlying sense that someone was going to be making money by selling Core Knowledge materials, also characterized the prior discussion about the Core Knowledge literacy program – until it was revealed that the only completed grades – of the Core Knowledge program — pre-k through 3 are up for free both on the Core Knowledge website and elsewhere. The suspicion is very understandable. I’m quite familiar with the money nexus in schooling and its corrupting influence. But let’s be clear regarding the context for this post. I don’t make any money from any of this, and I’m far too old to go out garnering dollars for speaking engagements.

So let’s get back to Cleo and her 7th-grade students who have to learn the Revolutionary period. It was said by T B, (the experienced NY social studies teacher) that Cleo could find out what background knowledge about American history the students already possessed by consulting the social studies standards for prior grades. I looked. Since grade six did not cover American history, Cleo’s students most recent exposure would have been in grade 5, where one finds content guides for “History of the United States, Canada, and Latin America”: They aren’t long, and I quote them in full:

Different ethnic, national, and religious groups, including Native American Indians, have contributed to the cultural diversity of these nations and regions by sharing their customs, traditions, beliefs, ideas, and languages. # Different people living in the Western Hemisphere may view the same event or issue from different perspectives. # The migration of groups of people in the United States, Canada, and Latin America has led to cultural diffusion because people carry their ideas and ways of life with them when they move from place to place. # Connections and exchanges exist between and among the peoples of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. These connections and exchanges include social/cultural, migration/immigration, and scientific/technological. Key turning points and events in the histories of Canada, Latin America, and the United States can be organized into different historical time periods. For example, key turning points might include: 18th-century exploration and encounter; 19th-century westward migration and expansion, 20th-century population movement from rural to suburban areas. Important historic figures and groups have made significant contributions to the development of Canada, Latin America, and the United States. Industrial growth and development and urbanization have had important impacts on Canada, Latin America, and the United States.

That’s the complete “content guide.” The general themes are admirable but the section is mis-titled. They are thematic guides, not content guides. It’s not even clear where emphasis should fall or time spent as between Canada, Latin America, or the United States. To know what my 7th graders already knew, I’d need to have more specific guidance. So after inspecting this, I’d have to disagree with “TB.” Looking at this document is not going to help Cleo know what her students already know.

I’ll not waste time on more and more examples. This document is fairly typical of the DOE guides found throughout the USA.

The fat Core Knowledge Teachers Guide for grade 4 that I sent to Cleo was different. It summarized the relevant knowledge that Core Knowledge students had already learned about American history in grades K-3. It laid out what sequence of unifying and organizing topics would be useful for units in teaching the Revolution, and it also laid out some detailed historical knowledge and sources that it would be useful for teachers to have above and beyond what they would be teaching their students, along with suggested books for students who might want to take some topics further. The guiding organization for this material was the list of topics in the Core Knowledge Sequence for grade 4, which follows:

Teachers: In fourth grade students should undertake a detailed study of the causes, major figures, and consequences of the American revolution, with a focus on main events and figures, as well as these questions: What caused the colonists to break away and become an independent nation? What significant ideas and values are at the heart of the American revolution?

• Also known as the Seven Years’ War, part of an ongoing struggle between Britain and France for control of colonies in various regions around the world (in this case, in North America)
• Alliances with Native Americans
• The Battle of Quebec
• British victory gains territory but leaves Britain financially weakened.
• British taxes, “No taxation without representation”
• Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks
• Boston Tea Party
• The Intolerable Acts close the port of Boston and require Americans to provide
quarters for British troops
• First Continental Congress protests to King George III
• Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
• Paul Revere’s ride, “One if by land, two if by sea”
• Lexington and Concord
The “shot heard ’round the world”
Redcoats and Minute Men
• Bunker Hill
• Second Continental Congress: George Washington appointed commander in chief of
Continental Army
• Declaration of Independence
Primarily written by Thomas Jefferson
Adopted July 4, 1776
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
• Women in the Revolution: Elizabeth Freeman, Deborah Sampson, Phillis Wheatley,
Molly Pitcher
• Loyalists (Tories)
• Victory at Saratoga, alliance with France
• European helpers (Lafayette, the French fleet, Bernardo de Galvez, Kosciusko,
von Steuben)
• Valley Forge
• Benedict Arnold

See also Language Arts 4:
stories by Washington Irving,
and speech by Patrick Henry,
“Give me liberty. . .”
John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight.”
• Nathan Hale: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
• Cornwallis: surrender at Yorktown

II. making a Constitutional Government
Teachers: Examine some of the basic values and principles of American democracy, in both theory and practice, as defined in the declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, both in historical context and in terms of present-day practice. In examining the significance of the U. S. Constitution, introduce students to the unique nature of the American experiment, the difficult task of establishing a democratic government, the compromises the framers of the Constitution were willing to make, and the persistent threats to success. In order to appreciate the boldness and fragility of the American attempt to establish a republican government based on a constitution, students should know that republican governments were rare at this time. discuss with students basic questions and issues about government, such as: Why do societies need government? Why does a society need laws? Who makes the laws in the United States? What might happen in the absence of government and laws?

• The proposition that “All men are created equal”
• The responsibility of government to protect the “unalienable rights” of the people
• Natural rights: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
• The “right of the people … to institute new government”

• Definition of “republican” government: republican = government by elected
representatives of the people
• Articles of Confederation: weak central government
• “Founding Fathers”: James Madison as “Father of the Constitution”
• Constitutional Convention
Arguments between small and large states
The divisive issue of slavery, “three-fifths” compromise

• Preamble to the Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a
more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the
common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United
States of America.”
• The separation and sharing of powers in American government: three branches
of government
Legislative branch: Congress = House of Representatives and Senate, makes laws
Executive branch: headed by the president, carries out laws
Judicial branch: a court system headed by the Supreme Court (itself headed by the
Chief Justice), deals with those who break laws and with disagreements about laws
• Checks and balances, limits on government power, veto
• The Bill of Rights: first ten amendments to the Constitution, including:
Freedom of religion, speech, and the press (First Amendment)
Protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures”
The right to “due process of law”
The right to trial by jury
Protection against “cruel and unusual punishments”

Note: The National Standards for Civics and Government recommend that students address the issue of power vs. authority: “Where do people in government get the authority to make, apply, and enforce rules and laws and manage disputes about them?” “Identify examples of authority, e.g., the authority of teachers and administrators to make rules for schools, the authority of a crossing guard
to direct traffic, the authority of the president to represent the United States in dealing with other nations.” “Identify examples of power without authority, e.g., a neighborhood bully forcing younger children to give up their lunch money, a robber holding up a bank, a gang leader ordering members to injure others.” Available from the Center for Civic Education, 5145 Douglas Fir Road, Calabasas, CA 91302;
tel. (818) 591-9321.

Let me define what I’m trying to sell in a single word: specificity. (It certainly doesn’t have to be the Core Knowledge version of specificity — any similar teacher-created sequence, as ours was, will do.) Specificity in turn leads to coherence, and cumulativeness in teaching from grade to grade.

Now specificity is an easy target. People (unfamiliar with cognitive science) will accuse you of wanting to teach a laundry list, not true understanding. Once you get specific you leave yourself open to a hundred caricatures and gripes. So I guess, along with the virtue of specificity, I’m arguing for the virtue of standing up to the inevitable attacks that will greet any group of teachers who decide to get specific.

The alternative to specificity is vagueness, which sounds virtuous, because it imposes nothing in particular. But vagueness in early grades really leads in later grades to hugely difficult teaching tasks, and a continued uncertainty about what students know and need to know. In Core Knowledge schools, specificity leads to a great deal of cooperation between teachers at different grade levels. Moreover, along with the idea of specificity, I’m also trying to sell its ethical corollary, the idea that vagueness is not a virtue.