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What Knowledge Do Citizens Need?

How did our country lose its appetite for rich content, and can we get it back?

Old,Books,On,Wooden,Shelf
Credit: Reinhold Leitner

Americans don’t know very much about the world. The most recent National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP, or “The Nation’s Report Card”) found that only 27 percent of eighth graders are proficient in reading, 20 percent in math, 22 percent in geography, and a mere 13 percent in U.S. History. The adult population is not doing much better. Surveys from the last 15 years show that a full 25 percent of adults were not able to name any of the branches of the U.S. government, and only 6 percent got a “B” or better on a test of international politics. 

Why is our collective knowledge so low? It is low because, more than a hundred years ago, our K-12 education systems rejected the liberal arts in favor of a pedagogy of mere process—for “learning how to learn,” instead of learning something in particular. The results have been the loss not only of common knowledge and civic reference points, but also of lifetime opportunity and social mobility.  

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A subject-specific, knowledge-rich curriculum isn’t just about learning facts. It is about engaging with meaningful information about the world and the questions that human life inevitably raises, about connecting the dots between geography and history and economics and art. This is what historian Diane Ravitch called “the academic curriculum,” which doesn’t mean rote memorization but, rather, “the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history, the arts, and foreign languages; these studies, commonly described today as a ‘liberal education.’”

Most American schools provide nothing of the kind. Instead, disaggregated skills such as “find the main idea” and “compare and contrast” trump content mastery. Educators are taught that school should be about the process of learning, not about learning something specific. Or that, to get practical, students shouldn’t have to memorize state capitals or learn key dates by heart, because any fact is searchable on a smartphone.

As a result, most classrooms routinely underchallenge students, and at every income level, our students underperform their matched peers.  

Besides leading to vacant and boring instruction, a pedagogy of process widens the gaps between low- and upper-income students and thereby shuts down opportunity for the next generation. 

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How so? Parents of means introduce their children to copious knowledge through museums, travel, conversations about current events, and especially through reading. This persistent accumulation of knowledge makes learning new things easier. University of Virginia’s Dan Willingham calls background knowledge “sticky,” because “the more you know, the easier it will be for you to learn new things.”  This inherent advantage translates into better grades and better opportunities. Numerous educational studies in the United States, in Europe, and around the world, find that mastery of important content knowledge benefits all students and helps close achievement gaps.

In the United States, Catholic high schools in the late twentieth-century closed achievement gaps by, among other things, ensuring an intellectually robust curriculum. When Chicago Public Schools put the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in thirteen of its extremely low-performing high schools in 1997, students who went through all four years were 40 percent more likely to attend college than their peers. The focus and rigor of some urban charter networks accelerate learning and erase racial gaps. When Duval County Public Schools (Jacksonville, FL) implemented knowledge-rich curricula in its K-8 schools, students’ academic growth was so pronounced that six districts in the state followed suit.

On the other hand, children whose parents simply don’t have the time, experience, or resources must rely on schools to make up the difference. If schools don’t ensure classrooms brimming with knowledge about the world, the achievement gaps between wealthy and low-income students persist. (For a terrific book that summarizes the research and practice, see Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It.)

But how did our country lose the appetite for rich content, and can we get it back?

Throughout the 19th century in the United States, the academic curriculum served as a unifying factor across the disparate K-12 schools (Catholic, Lutheran, Congregationalist, etc.) that were funded by local taxes. The nation’s high schools, even those in rural communities, insisted that students learn Latin, advanced math, literature, history, geology, physics, rhetoric, and government. 

Teacher preparation followed suit, with a focus on collegiate subject matter and cultural capital-building (field trips, concerts, literary societies, public debates), all designed to foster robust liberal arts K-12 classrooms.

By the late 19th century, however, the equalizing value of the liberal arts came into dispute. Many voices joined the fray, but its contours can be seen in shorthand, through one actual high-profile debate between two educational leaders and the forces they represented: Charles Eliot (1834–1926) and G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924). 

Eliot wanted to modernize and expand access to the liberal arts. He became President of Harvard University in 1869 at the age of 35; chaired the National Education Agency’s most renowned working group (see The Committee of Ten Report, below); co-founded the College Board; and edited a “five-foot shelf” of great texts for popular consumption. He was also a public persona whom both political parties considered nominating for President.

Hall promoted the new science of developmental psychology, rather than academic content, as the key to educational success. Hall invented the modern term “adolescence;” served as president of Clark University; founded the American Journal of Psychology and the American Psychological Association; formalized and elevated the wildly popular field of Child Study; and introduced Freud and Jung to an American audience. Hall was the equivalent of an international rock star, the “most widely known…educational psycholog[ist] in late Victorian and Edwardian England,” and “one of the leading figures in American scientific and intellectual life” at the turn of the century.

Eliot and Hall represented clear voices respectively for and against the academic curriculum, with Hall’s “against” resting on developmental psychology and a strand of evolutionary theory. In subsequent years, the “against” side took different angles—from social efficiency and expressivism, to social adjustment and “child nature”—as Diane Ravitch’s Left Back chronicles in detail. 

After the Eliot–Hall debates, that is, by the 1920s, teacher preparation programs no longer fostered academic preparation and cultural exposure. Field trips to theaters and participation in rhetorical societies became a thing of the past. Child development had become the single most important tool for the classroom.

In short, Hall’s side won. The world he designed is still recognizable to those of us in the field of education. Every reference to “personalized education,” “learning how to learn,” or that teachers should be merely “a guide on the side” is not new, but rather calls upon 100 years of educational orthodoxy. 

And even though K-12 classrooms changed more slowly than teacher preparation programs, by the 1950s and 60s the anything-but-the-curriculum yielded its expected fruit. American high schools required very few academic courses for graduation. A serious attempt to align K-12 with higher education failed. Psychological development in the guise of “social adjustment” had become the currency of the realm in teacher training institutions—even making its way into landmark court cases such as Brown v Board of Education.

By the 1980s, the low level of student achievement finally rose to the level of a public emergency—and governors responded by creating uniform standards for math and ELA, called the Common Core State Standards (“CCSS”), which their legislators voted to adopt en masse. The genius of the CCSS was that, “by displacing the fifty sets of state standards with one largely uniform set of content standards, they represent[ed] a seismic, heretofore unseen turn in curricular policy.” The political necessity of the CCSS meant that they were formulated to ensure (mostly) content-agnostic standards rather than specific bodies of knowledge. The early 21st century was thus dominated by calls for “standards-alignment” and “twenty-first-century skills” rather than a return to the academic curriculum.

The influence that the CCSS has had on student achievement has proved ambiguous. In their favor, the Common Core State Standards set a more rigorous bar than the state standards they replaced (with the possible exception of Massachusetts). Another positive outcome has been greater attention to high-quality materials. The non-profit EdReports’ standards-alignment reviews of math and ELA textbooks have been crucial; state and district leaders increasingly use EdReports’ “all green lights” indicator as a criterion for new textbook adoptions

Standards and skills are a necessary component of excellent instruction. By themselves, however, they are simply insufficient. A preference for anything-but-the-academic-curriculum has contributed to America’s tragic NAEP scores and the reality they reflect: Far too many Americans graduate intellectually and civically under-prepared. 

Dismantling the liberal arts in K-12 education took decades, and restoring—and updating—it will, too. 

The good news is that the turn towards knowledge-building is picking up steam in state departments of education, district schools, charter school networks, and many non-public schools. The truth is that any school, anywhere, can pull the academic curriculum lever to good effect. 

For example, Baltimore City replaced a skills-based English language arts curriculum with a robust, knowledge-building one. Success Academy, a high-impact network of charters in New York City, built its academic reputation on a culture based on high expectations, “joyful rigor,” and a strong, knowledge-building curriculum. The New York Partnership Schools, a network of Catholic schools in the South Bronx, attributes much of its academic success to its adoption of knowledge-building curricula—a move CEO Kathleen Porter-Magee considers both cost-effective and high-impact

Membership organizations such as Chiefs for Change support the value of high-quality, culturally affirming curriculum and instruction, resulting in powerful reports such as their 2019 Honoring Origins and Helping Students Succeed. The nonprofit Knowledge Matters Campaign provides resources, podcasts, and proof points of the impact of content-rich curricula on student learning. The center I co-direct—the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy—reviews English and social studies curricula for their knowledge-building capacity, quality, and coherence. 

All of us can play a role in supporting the instructional core. Parents can ask schools whether they use a knowledge-rich curriculum. Principals can calibrate classroom observations to academic rigor. System leaders can support teachers with curriculum-aligned professional development and collaborate on curriculum-aligned assessments, creating a virtuous circle that only Louisiana has attempted in recent years. Civil rights groups can commission studies of curricular quality and inclusion. We can raise the bar and keep on raising it, one step at a time.

A few qualifications. First, a “yes” to the liberal arts does not mean an exclusionary focus on “Great Books” and Euro-centric, white, male authorship. Modernizing and expanding the academic curriculum means reaching a new generation with a myriad of voices that reflect their own worlds and call them to others. Second, the above is not a plea for a rigid national curriculum, nor for the imposition of a “common narrative.” It is, however, an argument for knowledge-building to take its place at the center of classroom instruction, for the sake of the next generation and our common life.

This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

This article was also adapted from Berner’s upcoming book, Educational Pluralism and Democracy: How to Handle Indoctrination, Promote Exposure, and Rebuild America’s Schools, to be released in April 2024 by Harvard Education Press.