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Decades ago, when E.D. Hirsch was a professor at the University of Virginia, he conducted research at a local community college. He found that when he gave the mostly African American students reading passages about relationships, they could read and comprehend the passages just fine. But when he gave them a passage about Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, they floundered.

Never having seriously studied the history of the Civil War, the students didn’t have the background knowledge to be able to read the passage fluently and understand it.

That connection between background knowledge and reading comprehension started Hirsch on a decades-long quest to ensure that students have access to rich, coherent curricula that include history, science, literature, and the arts. When he published the bestseller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know in 1978, he tried to encapsulate in a list the things necessary to know in order to read and understand newspapers, magazines, and books.

Initially his work was rejected by many educators and others as being too focused on facts, a phenomenon I talk about in this week’s Huffington Post.

Hirsch has enjoyed a bit of a comeback lately, in part because a great deal of cognitive science supports his central insight that reading comprehension depends in large part on the background knowledge readers bring to a text. But also, as educators attempt to help students meet Common Core State Standards — and other college- and career-ready standards — it has become clear that, as Natalie Wexler recently wrote in The New York Times, they will have to ensure that they teach a rich, knowledge-based curriculum that helps students get background knowledge in history, science, literature, and the arts.

In a long article in Politico last year, Peg Tyre allowed Hirsch to answer another criticism that was made of his work, which is that its focus on ensuring that students master a body of knowledge did not sufficiently challenge existing power structures.

“The point wasn’t to perpetuate the culture of power,” Hirsch told Tyre. “It was to open the door to kids who don’t have the keys to power.”

Or, as Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock was quoted in the piece, “It turns out that Hirsch is not a defender of the Dead White Guys but poor kids, all along.”

Photo credit: Core Knowledge Foundation

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