Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago when Sol Stern decided to attack parental choice for reasons that are still largely only known to him, City Journal posted an online debate concerning Sol’s article, which included a full-throated endorsement of Sol’s position by E.D. Hirsch.

I had a hard time making much sense of the Hirsch critique. It seemed to read much more as an indictment of bad state standards than of the parental choice movement.  The parental choice movement’s original sin seemed to be in being a “structural reform” that ignored the vital importance of imposing Core Knowlege on everyone.

Or something to that effect, near as I could tell. I was and still am confused with exactly how this is supposed to happen, but I’m sure someone has a fail-safe plan this time.

My own contribution to the debate attempted to make the point that of course the political constraints facing parental choice programs keep them from being some sort of miracle-drug cure-all, but that was hardly a reason to oppose it. I haven’t seen any other miracle cures either. Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that the parental choice movement and the standards movement need to necessarily be at odds.

In any case, above is a picture of the district middle school in my neighborhood-Shea Middle School in the Paradise Valley School District. Shea is proudly announcing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum will begin in August 2013 in a 9000 point font banner you see above. At least one of the elementary schools that feed in to Shea Middle School has also  adopted Core Knowledge.

Shea’s adoption of Core Knowledge might have something to do with the fact that two of the highest performing charter schools in country opened campuses in the area this fall. Arizona homegrown outfits BASIS and Great Hearts both opened new schools within a few miles of Shea Middle School in the Fall of 2012.  Both BASIS and Great Hearts have an impressive record of academic achievement. Some of the Great Hearts schools have generated 1,000 student waiting lists, and both operators have attracted the interest of out-of-state philanthropists.*

Of course it could be the case that these new schools opening in the neighborhood had nothing to do with the decision to adopt Core Knowledge, or to hang a giant banner advertising the adoption for that matter. Other Paradise Valley schools have used the Core Knowledge curriculum for years. It is within the realm of the plausible that Shea Middle School would have been adopting Core Knowledge in 2013 whether facing competition from BASIS and Great Hearts or not. If I were to have the opportunity to ask PV officials about this, they might very well make such a claim with conviction.

And if I hadn’t seen an email from a Parent-Teacher group from one of the feeder elementary schools full of steely determination not to lose students to the new charter schools, I might have even believed them. The email expressed (rational) concern about losing students and listed a number of possible strategies including the adoption of IB, foreign language immersion and (yes) Core Knowledge as reform strategies….and now the banner.

Smoking gun? No. Enough to convince a reasonable person? Certainly.

Parental choice mechanisms have done a great deal to satisfy parental demand for Core Knowledge and CK type schools. If we had more of it, we would also have a higher use of CK and similar curriculum both in district and non-district schools. Hopefully it will prove useful for Shea Middle School. Alternatively, we could dream of a master plan that transforms millions of public school teachers into Allan Bloom in one great non-incremental stroke, but I think we all know how that story ends.

Oh well, back to the old super-genius drawing board…

Personally I am a fan of traditional curriculum and want it to be available to those who desire it. I’m also leery of imposing it on those who don’t. I view American schools as having serious curriculum problems, but plenty of other problems as well. Dirigisme got us into this mess, and some of us are naturally skeptical that a new and improved version is going to get us out of it all by itself.

* Disclosure: I serve on the board of a BASIS school (not the one discussed here) and two of my children very happily attend a Great Hearts Academy (but not the school alluded to here).

Edited for Typos

11 Responses to Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

  1. allen says:

    Dirigisme? That sent me flying to Google.

    I don’t know what Stern’s deal is, perhaps he just wants to see what life’s like on the other side, but Hirsch is pretty clearly an authoritarian, at least insofar as education policy is concerned.

    His, and all education authoritarian’s, underlying problem is that their kingdom is built on a foundation of sand.

    It’s still a representative form of government in the United States, all complaints to the contrary not withstanding, which means while we can loan out our power we can take it back. The choice movement is a reclaiming of that power now that it’s become unignorably clear that those who were entrusted with the power have misused it.

    As pundits with some input to the process effort expended on arguing about curriculum reform is effort largely wasted. It’s like worrying about a knocked-over vase when the house is on fire.

    If Core Knowledge really is the educational holy grail then those with an urgent interest in seeing kids get the best education – parents – will see to it that Core Knowledge is selected to educate their child.

    Provided they have the option. Choice provides that option.

  2. MOMwithArain says:

    Private schools who accept $$ from the feds to cover lunch costs are now having to make adjustments per Michelle Obama’s lunch dictates. I think there is a fear that with any federal $$ via vouchers, etc. will mean that the schools will have to adjust to those dictates in the future.
    I love the IDEA of school choice but I know the nature of the beast. The LEGISLATORS. They cannot keep their hands of of education. They want to control every aspect and that can be seen with these latest food/lunch mandates.

  3. Peter Meyer says:

    Dear Matt,

    I know you mean well, but I suggest you read Hirsch — you might even be able to spell his name. And if you did read him (Cultural Literacy or The Schools We Need) — he is one of the most clear-headed writers in the business — you surely wouldn’t be so confused about what he means by “structural reforms” and why he might say they are not enough. They aren’t. Just because choice is the best mechanism (i.e. structural) for organizing our public schools does not mean that every charter school will succeed — any more than a free market guarantees that your corner grocery store won’t have rotten vegetables. Choice is a market mechanism that should be compared to (in an apples-to-apples comparison) the monopoly system that now predominates in public school organization. (It is the latter system that is incapable, many of us would/could argue, of getting our kids the best curriculum.) You don’t compare choice (a structural mechanism) to curriculum (content taught and learned in schools) any more than you would compare socialism to Singapore math. Even die-hard free-marketers should understand the difference between a structural reform and a pedagogical one. Neither Sol Stern nor E.D. Hirsch are saying that choice is inherently bad; they are only arguing that it doesn’t (magically) produce good schools. What true choice proponents would/should argue is that choice provides the best mechanism for getting us the best curriculum. cheers, –peter meyer

  4. Matthew Ladner says:


    It’s not that I don’t understand the difference between different types of reform. What confuses me is why Hirsch and those like him fail to understand how these different types of reform reinforce each other.

    For instance, middle schools in my neighborhood using world class curriculum will have increased from zero in in 2011 to three in 2013. Choice mechanisms played a large role in this- certainly producing two of the three schools and probably changing helping to change the curriculum for the better at the third.

    If Hirsch were clear-headed, it seems that he would celebrate choice mechanisms as advancing high quality curriculum.

  5. CB says:

    “That’s true theoretically, but as I have tried to show in my article and in this exchange, the reality is that most advocates of market reforms in education have very little understanding of what happens in classrooms.” — Sol Stern

    I found the old Sol Stern essay to be reasonable if not pragmatic. In the same way I found Hirsch’s comments to be on point, they just think the greater leverage is in the curriculum, but they need choice also…

    “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

    Not so sure that I would call it a breaking of the truce as Jay Greene did, but clearly both can and need to work to help each other. As you suggest it might be best to think of the structural and pedagogical/curriculum as separate. Bringing up Alan Bloom was so 1987…

    Part of the issue is the “mindshare” that these reform efforts occupy. The thing that has been left out is curriculum, which might just be the most cost effective tool in saving the Titanic of our public education system. Adding further to this is the vast movement to teach each child in their unique learning style as if such is now fact and building learning communities for teachers that do not have the time to use and further drives activity based lesson planning as opposed to outcome based planning.


    One does not have to be for or against choice to see the goodness of these writings. I am for choice, but I understand the strengths and weaknesses. The two biggest weaknesses being cost (philanthropic money beyond normal charter funding needed for their “intensity of intervention”) and scale (related to funding, locations and human capital) Too many disadvantaged kids are getting left behind.

    With education reformers holding large sway with their philanthropic dollars one should argue for a portfolio approach and yes a truce, some money for TFA, the best charters, say KIPP (YES, Uncommon, AF, Green Dot, Aspire…) and Rocketship for its innovation and model, money for advocacy (student centered) and for research….

    That said we should not leave it all to incentives; the instructionists also have points. What is wrong with helping Hirsch’s idea of a strong coherent sequential knowledge based curriculum and the work being done by people and places like Doug Lemov, UVA-Curry/CASTL and Relay School (related to PD and building better teachers) also attracting the funding they need to help potentially on a huge scale, more importantly in a cost effective manner. Call this the HOW and WHAT part of Ed reform…

    Many of the no excuses charter schools would probably be even stronger with such curriculum….

    I think the instrucionists would be happy with a few major districts adapting stronger more rigorous knowledge based curriculum, giving them the time to play out and then letting; parents, local school boards, administrators and mayors decide…. Philanthropic seed funding would sure help such along with a proper delivery system/platform. Building knowledge and vocabulary takes time, it compounds and it is most critical in the PK-5 grade levels in our most disadvantaged communities. The great thing about something like this “big idea” is IT CAN BE DONE and cost effectively… heck it even lines up well with the CCSS…. for what that may be worth…

  6. Matthew Ladner says:


    The phenomenon I describe going on in my neighborhood is not an isolated example. You can go on to the CK website and see lists of CK schools. When you do, what you will find are a great many magnet and charter schools.

    I therefore am honestly perplexed by all of this- choice is helping implementing the instructionist agenda in addition to other benefits. It isn’t any mystery to me why philanthropists in NYC have backed charter schools.

    If someone presents these philanthropists with a higher impact strategy with a realistic chance of scaling, I have every reason to believe that they would support that as well.

    If no one presents them with such a plan…

    • Greg Forster says:

      Yeah, yeah, but he’s right that Allan Bloom is totally 1987. Also, the Bloom you want here is Harold. He’s the one who said, “Culturally, we are at Thermopylae.” Allan Bloom hated the idea of “the canon” and saw clearly that the agenda of the movement that was then called “cultural literacy” was directly opposed to his ambitions as a teacher, which were intentionally countercultural and subversive. He made no secret of any of this but professed it openly. Read his 1988 Harvard address titled “Western Civ.”

      I know, I know – you can’t tell your Blooms without a scorecard.

  7. Peter Meyer says:

    Matt — still too many apples to oranges. Choice is a structural reform; Core Knowledge is a pedagogical one. Presenting philanthropists — or policymakers! — with a choice between choice and core knowledge is Hobbesian at best, illogical at worst. Can’t we have both a free market and a good curriculum?


    peter m.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I believe that is exactly the point Matt is making. Perhaps you meant to direct your comment to Matt’s critics?

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Greg is correct- choice creates more CK opportunities for kids, so a clear thinking person who supports CK ought to support choice as well.

  8. sstotsky says:

    I am confused about what is intended by “school choice.” Meyer says it is a structural reform. That means to me a different building and governing body. What many parents want to be involved in are discussions about policy changes (who is to decide the change is a reform?). I think getting rid of “reform” would begin to help us out. I doubt most complaining parents simply want different buildings and governing bodies. They want involvement in content matters (what their kids read, write about, and can study in high school). Textbooks matter and large meetings with real content experts, including knowledgeable teachers at that level, should be able to highlight what is significant in a textbook. Classroom org schemes matter, too, and they should be discussed. Parents then make informed choices with regard to content and pedagogy/classroom org (but not from an unlimited range of possibilities). That’s what USED and other bureaucrats or educators have tried to control. It hasn’t worked.

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