Its Knowledge based curriculum -an inspiration for Goveian reforms


Massachusetts’ education system, and in particular its curriculum, which is heavily influenced by the thinking of ED Hirsch, was referenced in this week’s curriculum announcements.

Massachusetts prides itself on the amount of meaningful consultation it undertook before it settled on its new 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.’

Ironically, of course, the main charge levelled against the education secretary Michael  Gove over his curriculum reforms is that he has  done too little of the above, before making this weeks announcement on the new curriculum..

In Massachusetts teenagers in the state have performed strongly in the most recent global rankings for maths and science, published in December in the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and ­Science Study) report.

The performance of Massachusetts was much more successful than the US average – and was at a level that would put it among top performing science and maths countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.

The influential Pisa test rankings, published by the OECD, put Massachusetts as the highest performing US state – though this is against the backdrop of the US as an educational underachiever. (with the strongest economy, and a reputation for innovation the US might be expected to top international  education league tables-its not even close). According to the OECD, the US has the unwanted distinction of being the only industrialised country where the next generation is not going to be better educated than the previous – in a form of educational downward mobility.

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, 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, competition  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. This is particularly interesting for Gove and his advisers as they are only too well  aware that the success of this governments education  reforms will be judged on the degree to which this  achievement gap is  seen to have narrowed in England. The stakes are high.

In an extensive study in 2000 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 –’For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. ’. (Matthew 25;26) This is about    the effects of accumulative advantage referred to by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and in Daniel Rigney’s book ‘The Matthew Effect’.(see also Professor Stanovich below)

Hirsch, of course, 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. Hirsch concluded in 2008  “If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child, Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to.”


 Professor Keith Stanovich, of the  Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto used the term Mathew Effect to describe a phenomenon that has been observed in research on how new readers acquire the skills to read. Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular word or passage.  These consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature. Accumulated over time—spiralling either upward or downward—they carry profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities. Early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of lifelong problems in learning new skills. This is because children who fall behind in reading would read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement overall  in reading-related activities. Later, when students need to “read to learn” (where before they were learning to read), their reading difficulty creates difficulties that are spread  over most other subjects. In this way they fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.“Matthew effects” in academic achievement (Stanovich, 1986; Walberg & Tsai, 1983).


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