Can The Common Core Standards Reverse The “Rising Tide Of Mediocrity”?

Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.

Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled "Cultural Literacy," sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.

In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments."

Mediocrity is what filled the void as schools slowly retreated from teaching all children rigorous content. That retreat happened throughout the 20th century: Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth.

E. D. Hirsch was a professor who shared that misunderstanding until his own research awoke him to the (now well-established) fact that broad literacy depends on broad knowledge. Shanker was by far the most prominent educator to grasp the veracity and power of Hirsch’s work.

Rigor is the antidote to risk.

According to Richard Kahlenberg’s terrific biography of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal,* Shanker “believed, with E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that if one really wished to be a political progressive concerned about disadvantaged kids, one needed to be an educational ‘conservative’ who stood for teaching students certain core knowledge that was essential to upward mobility in American society” (p. 10).

It was in the early 1980s, when Shanker read both A Nation at Risk and “Cultural Literacy," that his particular form of progressivism took shape: Shanker saw that poor children needed a whole array of supports—including a traditional, rigorous curriculum that would give them all the knowledge that wealthier children get from their college-educated parents.

While virtually all education leaders panned A Nation at Risk, Shanker did not. According to Kahlenberg, Shanker’s reaction was “pivotal”:

When the … report was released … Shanker and a group of top union officials sat together and read the document. Sandra Feldman recalled: “We all had this visceral reaction to it. You know, ‘This is horrible. They’re attacking teachers.’ Everyone was watching Al to hear his response. When Al finished reading the report, he closed the book and looked up at all of us and said, ‘The report is right, and not only that, we should say that before our members.’ " (p. 275)
Shanker did just that in a speech to members less than a week after the report came out. And then he spent the remainder of his life (he passed away in 1997) fighting for several major reforms. A few of the noteworthy ones were peer assistance and review, charter schools, and standards.

Thanks in part to Hirsch, Shanker had a very clear sense of what educational standards needed to accomplish. According to Kahlenberg:

Shanker disagreed with education-school professors who favored general thinking skills over gaining specific-content knowledge. He believed students needed both, and that John Dewey’s education theories had been misinterpreted by some “progressive” educators…. “Dewey himself was shocked when he went into some of these progressive schools and saw what was going on in his name."

In the 1980s, Shanker became an early advocate of University of Virginia English Professor E. D. (Don) Hirsch Jr.’s argument that American students needed to be “culturally literate”—to master a body of facts that literate American’s know—in order to be successful in mainstream society. A full two years before Hirsch’s bestselling book Cultural Literacy became a phenomenon, Shanker embraced Hirsch’s view that knowing subject matter was important to reading comprehension…. “To read well you need background information that is culture-specific," Shanker argued. Students needed to be taught Shakespeare and mythology so they could understand common cultural references.

Shanker was also taken by Hirsch’s argument that when students know particular content matter, their interest and curiosity are more likely to be aroused. A student who knows something about dinosaurs is more likely to pick up a book on dinosaurs when browsing through the library. “Subject matter," Shanker argued, “is the life’s breath of learning." While some “progressive” educators dismissed Hirsch’s approach as emphasizing “mere facts," Shanker wrote thirteen separate columns mentioning Hirsch’s theory, invited Hirsch to speak at the AFT’s biennial QuEST Conference, and featured Hirsch on the cover of American Educator….

Shanker … believed that the core knowledge of the dominant culture was essential for all students to master if they wished to advance socioeconomically within the society…. Shanker argued:

Some people have been very critical of Hirsch’s proposals on the grounds that they try to impose the dominant culture on groups that would rather have their children learn their own culture. But the thrust of Hirsch’s proposal is egalitarian. He believes that by starting early and by giving all children the same core knowledge to learn, we can prevent the creation of an educational underclass…. (p. 323-324)

Despite their best efforts, neither Shanker nor Hirsch succeeded in bringing the need for knowledge-building curricula into mainstream reform efforts.

But now, the tide is finally turning.

The Common Core State Standards demand rigor—and a strong curriculum. The Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy, the need for a knowledge-building curriculum is plainly stated and explained:

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students  must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)

Shanker, no doubt, would applaud the effort. Hirsch certainly is. As more and more states take implementation seriously and support schools in creating the content-rich curricula they need, we all should be applauding.

- Lisa Hansel


* In quoting Tough Liberal, I have not included the endnotes. 


Thank you for this. We don't hear enough educators applaud Common Core for fulfilling Shanker's and Hirch's dream. Schools do need help transitioning from NCLB's lowering and narrowing of standards, but Common Core itself has great potential to improve schools.

[I feel like I should mention that I am a public school teacher of 7 years when i comment so people don't think I'm from a lobbying group.]


I think Gerald Bracey, David Berliner and a host of others have thoroughly debunked the use of data in A Nation at Risk. Indeed, I'm pretty positive that Matt could rip it apart as well since it is full of mis-truths, half-truths,, and outright lies.

Also, I'd sure like to see some evidence for your claim "Mediocrity is what filled the void as schools slowly retreated from teaching all children rigorous content. That retreat happened throughout the 20th century:"

As someone who has taught the History of Education and Education Policy, I can tell you that at no time did US schools even teach ALL children during most of the 20th century, so I don't see where you can make such a conclusion. I think that as schools enrolled and taught a greater proportion of kids, rigor was reduced through perhaps the early 1980s. But, if rigor continued to slide through the end of the 20th century, how would you explain the relatively large gains in NAEP from 1970 through 2000?

Apologies for being harsh, but this post seems to twist history and evidence in an effort to support common core. If you want to provide support for common core, you will have to do better than what is presented in this post.


Hi Ed,

Thanks for taking the time to weigh in. I certainly agree that we have never come close to actually teaching all children rigorous content. We have a tragic history (and ongoing problem, in some places) of systematically undereducating far too many children in many ways—some despicably intentional and some unintentional yet still devastating. That said, I think the main thing I am guilty of here is assuming such knowledge on the part of Shanker Blog readers and moving quickly into my main point: focusing on developing skills without also focusing on building knowledge is not effective. I supposed I should have written something more precise and convoluted like: As schools pursued mistaken theories of reading comprehension and critical thinking, and spent less time trying to teach content knowledge and academic vocabulary, even fewer students were exposed to a rigorous education than had been in the past and mediocrity became even more prevalent than before.

As for NAEP, when I look at the long-term trend data for reading, I don’t see any “relatively large gains.” I see some real gains among 9-year-olds (especially at the 10th and 25th percentiles) and some very modest gains among 13-year-olds. I see no educationally significant gains among 17-year-olds. See, pages 3, 10, and 11.

I would explain it as follows: Across the country, schools have gotten a lot better at teaching decoding. Thus, 9-year-olds’ scores have increased because they are better able to fluently decode the relatively basic, content-light passages on their exam. Among 13-year-olds, gains have been minimal because the reading passages on the test contain a mix of banal topics that almost everyone has knowledge of—and thus can comprehend—and academic topics that are only familiar to—and thus easily understood by—those who have had plenty of science, social studies, art, etc. from the earliest grades. Among 17-year-olds, there are no meaningful gains because the passages on the test are all of a more academic nature. Those scores won’t budge until our schools become far more committed to ensuring that we start building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood and continue to do so in a coherent, domain-focused, sequential way throughout K-12.


Dear Lisa,
Please provide some details. Where exactly do Common Core's college-readiness standards provide "rigor"? Which 6-12 standards in ELA and Math can be deemed rigorous (and on what basis)? And where do the 6-12 standards require a strong curriculum? Which 6-12 standards say that?

Sandra Stotsky


You invoke the name of Al Shanker in your praise of the stampede to the Common Core for all; do you really believe this revered man would sign off on an initiative so poorly researched, with little or no mechanism for effective teacher feedback? At the risk of sounding condescending, I urge you and you readers to do your homework before adding your voices to such a potentially harmful course for education; this article is a good place to start:

A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education…


Quoted from a commenter to E. D. Hirsch's rebuttal to the abobe critique of the evffecrs of common core on ECE:

Starting with his book "The Schools We Need, updated in 1999, E.D. Hirsch started attacking developmentally appropriate practice. He writes well, so the holes in his logic are often difficult to spot, but he often makes claims that go far beyond the available data (or even contradict the best research). On pages 209-210 of Alfie Kohn's book "The Schools Our Children Deserve," Kohn dissected some of Hirsch's sloppy use of research, noting, "anyone who actually takes the trouble to track down the studies cited (by Hirsch) will find that many simply don't show what they claim they do."

As for Hirsch's present claims:

Hirsch: "The future of American education hinges on whether CCSS can be made to work."

Not at all true. Larry Cuban has cited evidence in an earlier column here that there is neither empirical evidence that common standards were needed or that such common can be expected to improve education overall.…


Everytime I check out the articles on this blog, I am amazed by all the pro corporate "reform" propaganda, including this horrible piece. Utter hogwash. Don't buy into this crud, folks!



The overall NAEP scores of all students is subject to Simpson's Paradox (look it up or buy Bracey's book or Koretz's book). You have to look at the disaggregated scores.

Further, you imply in your response that critical thinking is not rigorous. Is that what you really mean? And, if so, are you recommending common core because it focuses on rigor as you define it and does not attempt to teach critical thinking? If so, that is a pretty stunning statement and pretty damning of common core given the pretty unanimous belief that kids need to be critical thinkers in the 21st century.


I've taught for thirty years.

I've seen curriculum come and go.

I've witnessed "bad" curriculum being blamed for lack of academic achievement (instead of income inequality).

Now I'm hearing "good" curriculum will solve our problems (instead of mediating income inequality).



Hirsch was at best naive in thinking that our schools could pass along an organized body of knowledge that constituted cultural literacy.

Even when he published Cultural Literacy, information was greatly expanding, and the dominant culture was fragmenting. With even more cable television shows and the internet, cultural fragmentation has only increased since the internet. The WASPish cultural literacy of E.D. Hirsch will never be the dominant culture again.