The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them
By E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
It is a bitter irony that the egalitarian rhetoric of American educational orthodoxy has fostered inequality. All recent social observers in the United States have condemned the widening economic gap between rich and poor, and have noted its correlation with a gap in educational achievement. In the period from 1942 to 1966-that is, in the period before the anti-subject-matter theories of the 1920s and '30s metastasized throughout the schools-public education had begun to close the economic gap between races and social classes. But after that period, among students graduating from high school in the mid-1960s-that is, among students who had been taught for all twelve grades of schooling under anti-subject-matter theories-verbal SAT scores began a steep decline. At the same time, the black-white wage gap, which had continually narrowed between 1942 and 1966, suddenly stabilized. This abrupt halt in progress toward wage equity was first detected in the midst of the SAT decline.
Social scientists have been puzzled by this recent halt in progress toward black-white wage equality, despite the advent of new laws and new public attitudes toward employing qualified blacks and other members of minority groups. Until very recently, analyses of black-white wage equality were computed on the basis of educational achievement as determined by the highest grade level completed. And until the late 1960s, grade level had been a roughly adequate measure of educational level, because schools had been performing well enough on average to make a diploma meaningful. The current practice of social promotion had not become endemic. But starting with the sharp educational decline of the late 1960s, and the widespread practice of social promotion, the highest grade that one had nominally completed was no longer an adequate indication of academic achievement, as James Coleman and his colleagues found in their 1966 study of equality of educational opportunity. In the new educational context, despite a slight recent closing of black-white scores on some tests, disadvantaged children, including a disproportionate percentage of blacks, began falling ever further behind their more advantaged peers in actual educational achievement.
Only in very recent years have social scientists begun to refine their analyses of the puzzling halt in black-white wage equality after three decades of progress. It turns out that the disparity (at least 16 percent lower wages for blacks of the same grade level completed) is owing to the fact that blacks have been on average less well educated by the schools. Most of the existing wage disparity, that is, some 12 out of 16 percent, can be explained by a disparity in actual educational attainment. After matching black and white earners by their actual educational level rather than by nominal grade level, the black-white wage disparity drops to less than 5 percent, and some of this small remainder can be explained by factors other than direct racial discrimination. This result is simultaneously hopeful and disheartening. It shows that economic class more than race currently determines educational and economic attainment in the United States-a hopeful sign. Yet the lack of true educational and economic mobility in the country must be disheartening to those who believe in equal opportunity and the American Dream.
From Cultural Literacy to Core Knowledge
In this Introduction, I should make a few remarks about the connection between this book and an earlier one of mine, Cultural Literacy (1987). Some readers might infer a connection in any case. The 1987 book became the subject of intense controversy. If I simply ignored that history, it might be thought that my silence carried hidden significance. So I shall trace in a few words the process that led from Cultural Literacy to The Schools We Need.
Much as I might relish commenting on the host of pros and cons set down in dozens of reviews of Cultural Literacy and in scores of articles, such an exercise would greatly distract from my main purposes. It might also constitute an outdated exercise, since much of the commentary published in the heat of what seemed an important ideological battle would no longer be written or believed today. To take just one example, Cultural Literacy was almost invariably identified with Allan Bloom's bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, which happened to be published a month before mine. As a result of this chronological contiguity, the two books were inseparably linked as symptomatic of a general cultural phenomenon. But such linkage has now become very rare. Most writers who mention either Bloom's book or my own implicitly agree with a few early reviewers that the two books are not only different but fundamentally opposed. On such matters it is not permissible to judge in one's own case; my more appropriate task is to describe the chain of thought that has led from my earlier book to this one.
This book takes the earlier one as its foundation. The empirical basis of Cultural Literacy was widely accepted research in psychology. In recent years, further empirical evidence has supported the basic correctness of the book's inferences, and several researchers have published findings that show the predicted high correlation between general academic and economic proficiency and the knowledge that Cultural Literacy identified and indexed No one would claim that possession of mainstream cultural knowledge is a sufficient condition for intellectual ability and financial prosperity, but it may often be a necessary condition for them. Keith Stanovich and his colleagues have shown that, after controlling for IQ, those who score well on cultural literacy tests have more fully developed cognitive abilities than the control group; similarly, Joseph Pentony and others have shown that cultural literacy is highly correlated with academic achievement. Thomas Sticht and his associates have shown that the level of cultural literacy is highly correlated with annual income. These results have led some researchers to conclude that, on present evidence, Cultural Literacy's general argument is confirmed. But in addition to the confidence lent by these findings, the present book is based on much broader firsthand knowledge of the ideas and practices that exist in American schools.