We’re grateful for Professor Hirsch’s response to our critique of the K-3 Common Core Standards because it confirms our main point: that people without experience in child development or early education (like Hirsch, an English professor) are the ones prescribing what is best for young children and their teachers. Meanwhile, those teachers and others who study children’s development and learning were left out when the standards were written.
Many Common Core advocates favor the corporate education agenda: privatizing public schools through charters, vouchers, and online learning, and judging teachers and schools by standardized test scores. Hirsch believes, along with these “reformers,” that children’s heads need to be filled up with facts.
But teachers of young children know better. Most of them agree with Plutarch, who said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” They know that, especially in the early years, children learn through active engagement with each other and the world around them. And they learn at widely different rates.
Most early childhood educators are of the same mind as Lilian Katz, past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, who writes that a curriculum “focused on academic goals emphasizes the acquisition of bits of knowledge and overlooks the centrality of understanding as an education goal.”
A critical review of the research shows that direct instruction of the kind Hirsch favors might raise children’s test scores in the short term—but actually interferes with their long-term learning and academic success.
Professor Hirsch says the biggest problem with our criticism is that we don’t offer an alternative to the Core Standards. But that wasn’t what we set out to do. We wanted to give voice to the early childhood professionals left out of the standards writing process. Many of them are eager to contribute to a rethinking of early childhood standards that is more in line with the knowledge base of the field.
At Defending the Early Years, we hear continually from teachers struggling with unrealistic standards, distraught over having to teach young children things they are not ready to learn. One teacher wrote, “I see kids with their heads in their hands, in tears, confused.”
Another wrote: “We used to know about child development. Children constructed their understanding of concepts in many and varied ways. Now, the children mostly learn through the use of blackline masters [i.e., worksheets]. They are all literacy and math. There are no kitchen, art, math, writing, or block areas. The materials for these were thrown out during summers without the teachers’ knowledge. If children do not meet the standards they flunk. They get more and more flash cards, and when they don’t learn they get more of the same. It is heartbreaking—and I am retiring.”
Professor Hirsch offers his own curriculum, the Core Knowledge Sequence Starter Kits, as the answer to the profoundly flawed K-3 Core Standards. We call for an entire rewriting of them. This time they must be written by early childhood educators—who will use their professional knowledge and experience to design standards that will nurture and support learning and growth, not undermine them.