I’m not one to do New Year’s resolutions—why set myself up for failure? But I do like to take a little time over the holidays to reflect on the year.

For me, the highlight of 2014 was attending the Politico 50 reception with E. D. Hirsch, who shared the No. 8 spot on Politico’s list of “thinkers, doers, and dreamers” with David Coleman. Most striking as we mingled was the depth and ease of the conversation. For Prof. Hirsch and me, at least, this was a room full of strangers. No matter. The topic could be the Iranian revolution or United States v. Windsor or technology’s potential impact on opportunity to learn; we all possessed enough common knowledge to converse seriously.

Whether at home, at school, at the library, or online, somehow we all acquired a definite core of knowledge. As a result, it did not matter that we had just met, were from all over the US, and specialized in different fields—we understood each other.  The evening was a microcosm of how a democracy ought to be. Each of us had our personal interests and individual expertise; and each of us had enough knowledge in common to be able to discuss important topics. That’s not to say we agreed on those topics. Differing views were expressed and, in a couple of instances, vigorously debated.

The heart of a democracy is the ability to communicate with fellow citizens across space, time, and individual differences. Especially in a country as large and diverse as ours, that ability to communicate depends on all of us sharing a core of knowledge. That core does not mean we will agree, but it gives us a platform for being able to understand each other.

 

Communicating across time and place requires shared knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).
Communicating across time and place requires shared knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

No one kernel of knowledge may matter; but collectively, this core of knowledge divides the citizens with full access to civil society from the disenfranchised. It is essential for literacy, grasping analogies, critical thinking, and learning yet more (and more easily). Recent research shows that such knowledge is a powerful factor in social mobility, more powerful than parents’ education or school selectivity by one’s early 40s.

Most of us lucky enough to have learned this core of knowledge seem not to appreciate just how often we rely on it. At work, at the coffee shop, catching up on the news, we draw on and add to our vast stores of knowledge constantly. Neither news anchors nor neighbors provide all the details; they give you what’s new, and your store of knowledge plugs the holes. Even better, our shared knowledge is a source of strength. From the celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner that took place in Baltimore in September (another highlight of 2014 for me) to “one giant leap for mankind” 45 years ago, there are certain events, concepts, and people that cause a flood of images and ideas among the education haves. That flood is instantaneous. It offers both an anchor to steady us and a foundation on which to build. The simple words “I have a dream” can be overwhelming. Joyous. Sorrowful. Hopeful.

Well, I too have a dream. It is for everyone to have the core of shared knowledge that facilitates communication and invites all to be full participants in civil society. Yes, we have a long way to go. But at least people are starting to recognize that E. D. Hirsch’s great idea—that we could identify essential knowledge and create a curriculum to teach it to all children—is essential for equal opportunity. It’s egalitarian, not elitist, and it guarantees that everyone gets to study the arts, sciences, and humanities. Nor does it interfere with unique pursuits: If we spread that core of shared knowledge over several grades, there’s plenty of time left each year for students to learn content of local import and pursue their individual interests.

If you know of a district that shares my dream, please let me know: [email protected]. The Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a district with the courage to close the achievement gap by implementing a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that too often are neglected these days) in all of its elementary schools. While Core Knowledge would like to work with the district in creating the curriculum, it need not follow the Core Knowledge Sequence. The curriculum would have to be rigorous, coherent, and cumulatively build knowledge and skills. School entry is when the achievement gap is the smallest. By addressing vocabulary and knowledge disparities from the very beginning of schooling (mainly through engaging read-alouds, discussions, and projects), we can close the gap by the end of elementary school.

In the Core Knowledge community, we have individual schools that achieve terrific results with all of their students. We believe the results would be even better if the effort were districtwide. Teachers would be able to collaborate across schools; after a few years of shared problem solving and visiting each other’s classes, they would have world-class curriculum and pedagogy. They could even engage in their own form of Japanese lesson study. In addition, student mobility would be less of a problem, because children would not be completely lost academically when they changed schools within the district.

My words are neither eloquent nor enduring, but they are sincere. Let’s work together to give all children the broad, rich knowledge they need to become productive, responsible, engaged citizens.

7 comments on “Wanted: A District with the Courage to Close the Gap”

  1. 1
    Ponderosa on January 12, 2015

    I like this idea but one thing I’m learning is that it’s extremely hard to change entrenched ideas. Education schools are really insidious: they’ve permanently shaped the minds of America’s teachers with a bad mold. One can change a few free-thinking individual teachers’ ideas. Trying to change a whole district’s worth of brainwashed brains is harder than cleaning the Augean stables.

  2. 2
    Erica Yanner on January 21, 2015

    Over the last two years I have witnessed my district having more success in the area of closing the gap. In my opinion, it has been largely due to the implementation of teacher leaders. Each school was allotted a 1-2 teacher leaders depending on their size. These teacher leaders are still working in the classroom, yet we were give more voluntary options in decision making like curriculum, mapping, in-services, and creating curriculum policies. I believe these actions have given teachers across our district more ownership and buy in to educate our students. While we may not be able to decide all things we voice our opinion on, our voice is being heard and since this implementation our high stakes test scores have seen improvement.

  3. 3
    Jason Alston on January 21, 2015

    In the last decade my school system has used a variety of tactic s to combat the achievement barriers. Each attempt to be nullified with the next great idea. I totally agree with the notion that the school district must attempt to rectify this dilemma, but what are the proper step needed?
    Jason Alston

  4. 4
    Lisa Hansel on January 21, 2015

    Hi Jason,

    Sustaining improvement is definitely a huge challenge. Curricular improvements are not a silver bullet (I’m hoping people will stop looking for those), but they are an essential foundation for a strong school system. Ideally, progress ought to be sustained by the community seeing that children are getting a well-rounded education, and then electing school board members and hiring superintendents who want to build on strengths–not start from scratch. It reminds me of the tortoise and the hare; slow, steady improvement will eventually win the race.

    Best,
    Lisa

  5. 5
    Erica Yanner on January 21, 2015

    Lisa,
    I agree; it is a slow process. I does take the community along the schools and school board to work united for a common goal. The tough thing is that many times what we “need” to do to raise student achievement is not easy. We have to get everyone to realize that the hard work will produce big gains over time!

  6. 6
    Pete on January 22, 2015

    Closing the achievement gap can be done by “engaging read-alouds, discussions, and projects”? Doesn’t it take extra time with the students who are behind? Without the extra time put in, it reminds me of a classic Simpson’s episode (aren’t they all?) where Bart is put in a “special” class and makes a comment along the lines of “let me get this straight, we are going to catch up by going slower”. I believe the battle has to be at the elementary level but it is going to take a lot more than some projects. Has anyone stepped up and taken on the challenge presented?

  7. 7
    Erica Yanner on January 22, 2015

    It was announced yesterday that my school was 1 in 6 in Louisiana that is being nominated for the Blue Ribbon Award for Closing the Achievement Gap. Over the last 3 years we have made continuous growth, and we are a school with an extremely high poverty rate. I truly feel that our growth has been the effect of working with students individually one each child’s specific weaknesses. In my class each student has their own folder with skills they need interventions in; everyone in my school is asked to come in at anytime they have free time to randomly pull a child with their folder. It is working for us!

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