Earlier this week I published a tough critique on the Common Core State Standards in regards to early childhood education by educators Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Ed Miller, who said the standards are “a threat” to young students. Here is a response to that piece, by E.D. Hirsch, founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues, including the best-seller “Cultural Literacy.” 

By E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Earlier this week Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige raised some thought-provoking critiques of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While I don’t know whether early childhood educators were involved in the standards writing process, I do know that many early educators are pleased with the result. As someone who has studied how to best use the early years to close achievement gaps and give all children an opportunity to live happy, productive, engaged lives, I am also a supporter of the CCSS.

I don’t argue that the CCSS are perfect  (I would not even argue that about the Core Knowledge Sequence). And I agree with Miller and Carlsson-Paige that we should all be open to improving the Common Core standards once we have done our best to implement them well. I’ve seen more than a few sets of standards come and go; I will safely bet that the interpretation, the implementation, and most especially the assessments of the CCSS matter far more than the standards themselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the critiques Miller and Carlsson-Paige put forth.

The biggest problem with their criticism of CCSS is that they don’t offer anything different or better than what we have now. They call for a rejection of the CCSS because of various perceived faults. But then they call for what, exactly? As far as I can see, they want more of the pre-CCSS status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t working.  The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.

Of course, much more goes into reading at age 17 than early childhood education, and there has been some recent improvement among 9-year-olds in reading, especially among our lowest-performing students. Why hasn’t this improvement carried into later grades? As I have argued many, many, many times, the fundamental problem is that American schools, including preschools, typically delay systematic efforts to build students’ vocabulary and knowledge until far too late (usually the end of elementary school or even later).

Building word and world knowledge must begin in preschool if we are to have any hope of closing the enormous language gaps identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, or of enabling children to listen and read with comprehension. That’s why the Core Knowledge Foundation has spent the past several years developing a new preschool–5th grade language arts program (grades pre-K–3 will be online, for free download, by summer 2013). Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is radically different from the most widely used elementary-grades reading programs. Through high-quality fiction and nonfiction, CKLA systematically provides students the broad background knowledge they need to do well in middle and high school. It was developed by researchers and teachers working together. In short, it takes the best of current practice and updates it with solid research: it is nothing like the status quo (and has the results to prove it).

With the troubling results of the status quo in mind, let’s consider the end of Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s critique. They close with this: “Our first task as a society is to protect our children. The imposition of these standards endangers them. To learn more about how early childhood educators are working to defend young children, see Defending the Early Years.”Following that link, I arrived at a website with an open letter to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  The central point of the open letter is that NAEYC is no longer a strong supporter of it’s mid-1980’s statement on developmentally appropriate practice. The open letter states:

NAEYC has long played a valuable role in identifying and supporting best practices in early childhood education. The strong position NAEYC took with its 1986 publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, focused attention on respectful, child centered ways of working with young children…. NAEYC appears to have gradually retreated from its strong defense of DAP. The voices of its leadership have not been heard vigorously protesting the proliferation of standards and assessments or offering meaningful alternatives to them.

To NAEYC’s current leadership, I say “Bravo!” NAEYC has recognized that research does not stand still, and the best practices from almost 30 years ago are not considered best practices today. NAEYC has consistently been dedicated to updating its advice on DAP; it issued major revisions in 1996 and 2008. I had the good fortune in the mid-nineties to meet and talk with the authors of NAEYC’s guides on DAP, Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple (Bredekamp has worked on each of NAEYC’s DAP papers; Copple joined her in the 1990s). At the time, the Core Knowledge Foundation was creating a preschool program. I found them well versed in recent cognitive science, with a deep understanding of how preschool could enhance children’s oral language development, which is critically important for all future learning.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, has explained that many long-held, widely shared beliefs about children’s cognitive development—such as Jean Piaget’s notion that it proceeds in discrete stages—have not been supported by newer, more sophisticated studies. Cognitive development is continuous, and a child’s performance will vary day to day and task to task. (Even very young children can engage in critical thinking if they have been taught the necessary background knowledge.) In an article for teachers on DAP, Willingham asks them to “recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.” He then explains as follows:

Without trivializing them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.


Of course, as teachers, you must also consider the cost if students do not fully understand a concept the way you had intended. The cost may be minimal, and the content may be worth knowing—even if in an incomplete way. For example, suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it’s hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you’re probably presenting content that they’ve already learned elsewhere.

I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary.

In addition to their out-of-date concept of what is developmentally appropriate, Miller and Carlsson-Paige have an unfounded fear that under the CCSS, the early grades will be dominated by direct instruction. I would also be upset to see a classroom in any grade that never departs from direct instruction—as I would be sad to see a classroom entirely devoted to discovery learning, project-based instruction, or free play. Decades ago, Project Follow Through clearly demonstrated that direct instruction works well with young children.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing. There is nothing inherent in the CCSS that discourages early childhood educators from offering rich educational experiences using a variety of pedagogies.

As NAEYC has noted, the CCSS indicate what should be taught in ELA/literacy and mathematics. They do not dictate pedagogy or prevent teachers from offering a well-rounded curriculum, including the arts and social-emotional learning. In it’s recent paper on the CCSS, which highlighted benefits of and support for the CCSS while also pointing out potential problems with implementation, NAEYC wrote:

Learning standards, or content standards, provide the “what” of education, but they do not describe the “how” of education. The content standards set the goal toward which teaching and learning opportunities are directed for young children.  The “how” of learning should be aligned to the content standard through our understanding of best practices to increase the chances of attaining the goal, even as the goal itself needs to be aligned with our knowledge of children’s learning processes…. Especially critical is maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches—including the use of play as well as both small- and large-group instruction—that are considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children.

While Miller and Carlsson-Paige seem to think that academic content—gap-closing word and world knowledge—can’t be delivered in a developmentally appropriate way, solid research shows us that it can. For example, the distinguished psychologist Robert Siegler has found that numerical board games (like Chutes and Ladders) can help preschoolers from low-income families increase their numerical skills and concepts. Would a classroom that spends 20 minutes playing Chutes and Ladders and another 10 minutes in a direct math lesson really be such a terrible “drill and grill” place (as Miller and Carlsson-Paige wrote)?

The CCSS do leave room for great teaching, but that does not mean that all interpretations of the CCSS have been either accurate or helpful. A New York Post article stated that “the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write ‘informative/explanatory reports’ and demonstrate ‘algebraic thinking.’ Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.” This is a misinterpretation of the CCSS. I am grateful to everyone who is trying to correct such errors. For young children, the focus of the CCSS is—appropriately—oral language.

Such misunderstanding of the CCSS brings me to a final point. All standards, even the CCSS, are goal statements that can be interpreted many ways. If the idea of all children sharing some core content is to come to fruition, somebody needs to come up with a model curriculum along with validated, curriculum-based tests. That curriculum need not say how to teach, but it does need to say what limited core to teach, grade by grade. (That core is  all the more important, since teachers will still need time to address students’ weaknesses and encourage them to pursue their interests.) Without a specific curriculum, and without tests that are drawn exclusively from that curriculum, word and world knowledge will continue to be taught haphazardly and incoherently, and our achievement gaps will not be closed.

I believe Core Knowledge Language Arts is an important step toward such a curriculum, and I would warmly welcome any funder interested in developing a curriculum-based test for CKLA. If we as a nation developed something of equally high quality for the middle grades, then dramatically more students would be able to take AP’s and IB’s curriculum-based courses and exams in high school.

The future of American education hinges on whether CCSS can be made to work. The alternative, despite the protestations of the critics, is more of the same ineffective and unjust practices that have placed the nation and its middle class at risk.