Successful and influenced by Hirsch

Hence Gove referencing Massachusetts


At his recent speech at the SMF, the Education Secretary ,Micheal Gove, praised the Massachusetts curriculum in which their “history curriculum requires students to be taught in rich factual detail about their heritage”. ED Hirsch the American academic who articulates the need for a core curriculum of knowledge and the importance of memorisation had a significant influence on Goves thinking behind the new curriculum. But Gove has been criticised for rushing through the proposals, of not properly consulting the experts or listening to them. Historians, for example, have written to the Observer this week complaining about the content of the new history curriculum and the need to identify consensus, through proper consultation.

Massachusetts prides itself on the amount of meaningful consultation it undertook before it settled on its curriculum frameworks:

The opening page to the MA Curriculum Frameworks website contains the following statement:

‘Since the enactment of the Education Reform Act of 1993, a great deal of work has gone into developing the Curriculum Frameworks.  What has made the process so effective is the grassroots involvement of thousands of people statewide. The task could not have been accomplished without the commitment, energy, and dedication of teachers, administrators, associations, parents, business, students, higher education faculty, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff, the Board of Education, and the public.’

Of course there is a consultation now underway (see link below) but the charge is that Governments generally   tend to have made up their mind before public consultations   take place and that the subsequent  process is little more than  an exercise in window dressing and / or cherry picking . We shall see.(I would suggest that it is worth looking in detail at the proposals and contributing to the consultation because the Secretary of State and DFE  will be less willing to ignore such contributions now  than they were a week ago, before the U turn on the EBC )

But why is Gove referencing Massachussetts?

Because its educational achievement outcompetes every other US state .For instance, the state leads the USA in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It routinely excels even when you control for income and parental income level. On the 2005 NAEP tests, Massachusetts ranked first in the US in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math. It then repeated the feat in 2007. No state had ever scored first in both grades and both subjects in a single year—let alone for two consecutive test cycles.  How has Massachusetts done it?

The short answer that educators in Massachusetts give is that it  achieves so highly because 20 years ago they implemented Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum state-wide in 1993, a curriculum that now runs in over 1,000 US schools.

Its not ,of course, just about the curriculum. Leadership, high quality teaching, collaboration, dissemination of best practice  and  other elements are also essential for success, but Hirsch and his core knowledge win most of the plaudits

We have covered his thinking and influence before. Here is a quote from Hirsch to give a flavour:

‘Higher-order thinking is knowledge-based: The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject’.  (1996)

But there is another significant claim made that is particularly interesting.

The claim is that Core Knowledge Schools have raised the bar for all and closed the gap between more and less disadvantaged students.

In an extensive study in 2000, for example, Core Knowledge students were found to have outperformed their peers in almost all categories (reading, vocabulary, history, geography and maths). During the late 1990s researchers in Maryland found that the degree to which Core Knowledge was implemented in schools was a significant predictor of student achievement gain. Another study concluded that the carefully sequenced Core Knowledge curriculum also has the potential to help disadvantaged students overcome their disadvantages and achieve academic proficiency.

Then there is the so-called Matthew effect – ‘to those who have, more shall be given, but from those who have not, even what they have shall be taken away’. This is about    the effects of accumulative advantage referred to by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and in Daniel Rigney’s book  ‘The Matthew Effect’.

Hirsch points out that ‘unless an early knowledge deficit is quickly overcome, the deficit grows ever larger’; for him, ‘the cumulative principle explains the phenomenon of the widening gap’ in achievement across and within countries. Therefore, Hirsch concluded, ‘we can greatly accelerate the achievements of all students if we adopt knowledge-oriented modes of schooling.’ (2006 xii)

Massachusetts uses Hirschs ideas   and is successful. Hence, Goves enthusiasm for his ideas.

In summary, Hirsch’s ideas can be distilled as follows: at the core of academic achievement lies a  body  of essential knowledge and the more you accumulate this knowledge the more you will accelerate your academic achievement .

But ,as Gove is finding out,what constitutes core knowledge  is  very much open to debate.


The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, which is an exam administered to a sample of fourth, eighth and twelfth grade students every two years in reading and math. All states and DC have been included since 2003.The NAEP is called “the nation’s report card,” and Massachusetts students have long been dominant.

Hirsch has studied Massachusetts. He found that Massachusetts was one of three states that made the most progress at reducing achievement gaps between 1998 and 2005. Between 2002 and 2009, the scores of African-Americans and Hispanics on both fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests improved more rapidly than those of white students. Low-income students made gains as well. “If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child,” Hirsch said in 2008, “Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to.”



  1. This is all very interesting, until one enquires further into what NAEP data purports to measure, and the extent to which the statistical methodology enables state by state comparisons. Further research suggests that this whole area is controversial in the US. Important questions also apparently arise in relation to the predictive validity of this kind of standardised test, particularly in relation to college entry and career readiness where other tests come up with different results.

    Even at first glance to suggest that results in standardised reading and maths tests necessarily correlate with acquisition of knowledge and memorisation of facts stretches credibility too far in my view. I have always viewed aptitude in reading and maths as more representative of skills/proficiencies than core knowledge……Has Mr Gove undertaken any kind of critical analysis in this complex area, I wonder – or are we looking at cherry-picking for political expediency??

    • I have often wondered why our children are being taught to be junior historians instead of being taught history.I believe that core facts and concepts do have to be taught and memorised. Professor Dan Willingham articulates this better than I, As far as Massachusetts is concerned ,however you choose to measure states performance few in the US would challenge the view that MA is one of the top performing states.To disaggregate the elements that make this so is not straightforward- I would agree But the system is clearly influenced by Hirschs thinking rather than progressive child centred thinking that places discovery ahead of knowledge.. I agree that performance measures are inadequate SAT tests have their limitations , also with respect to judging teachers performance.I also think that our government is in danger of alienating stakeholders by rushing this process and by not listening closely enough to the experts. The Observer letter from historians was important in this respect.. The idea of Big History rather appeals to me-which is a cross cutting,holistic global approach to how our civilisations have developed and relate to each other and makes reference to other disciplines like sociology. ecology, biology, geography the sciences etc. Certainly we should be debating such issues. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get it right but there are warning signs that it might be steamrollered through in a telescoped time frame.

  2. What is illustrated here is the need for debate and consultation before the government imposes its ill-thought out proposals. Montrose42 sees the education debate through the lens of a historian, Professor Willingham throughout the lens of a cognitive psychologist (his words ) Myself through the lens of science in its broadest interpretation. I have also read some of Hirsch’s material. What is stunning is that in spite of important differences, there are nonetheless broad measures of agreement within these perspectives – and often it’s about negotiating the balance which will arguably produce the best outcomes.

    For example, I think that the notion of studying Big History is an excellent one given that it would aim to be holistic and global and encompass other major disciplines. But what a challenge for the teachers involved. How splendid that students will have access to IT facilities, so that they will not have to memorise EVERY factual detail (and nor will the teachers) before they begin to operate creatively and critically on the data………..! what a voyage of discovery in the highest meaning of the term…….And what about outcomes? My hope would be that students would take away with them the ability to discover and integrate knowledge (much, though not all, they would remember) However to my mind,more importantly, they would have learnt problem solving coupled with critical reflection and analytical skills…….but that is simply my perspective and I freely acknowledge it’s not universal by any means!!

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