What’s Working?

by Lisa Hansel
March 24th, 2015

Slowly, steadily building the knowledge and capacity of administrators and teachers—that’s what’s working in school systems around the world. As explained in a report by Geoff Masters, a leading researcher in Australia, the educational systems that are improving have invested in educator capacity, while those that are not improving (or are declining) have been tinkering with accountability and incentives (as US policymakers have been, with poor results for reading).

Before those who oppose accountability and market-based reforms declare victory, they’ll need to take a careful look at what Masters means by building capacity. The sad fact is, very few school systems, and few very reformers, in the US are doing the things Masters identifies as essential to increasing student achievement. What he describes is not your typical professional development—it’s a more fundamental commitment to quality and equity:

In some countries, reform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system. In other countries, including a number of English-speaking countries, greater reliance has been placed on using systems of accountability and incentives to drive improvement….

Table 1 Two general approaches to school reform
[Reformatted for blog]

Improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve (rewards, sanctions, having to compete for students).
- stronger performance cultures
- better measures of outcomes
- personal accountability for improvement
- performance pay linked to test scores
- greater public transparency
- financial rewards for school improvement
- sanctions for failure to improve
- increased competition for students
- greater autonomy to compete
- more parental choice

Improvement will occur by building the capacity of teachers and school leaders and by ensuring high quality practice throughout the system.
- attract more able people into teaching
- train approximately the number of teachers required
- place a high priority on building teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge
- develop school leaders’ capacities to build and lead cultures of continual improvement in teaching and learning
- ensure that high-quality teaching and leadership are equitably distributed across all schools

There has been growing recognition that more effective than setting ambitious targets for improved student performance, or attaching money or other consequences to student test results, is to work directly on developing the teaching and leadership practices that result in improved student outcomes….

Systematic studies of what school leaders do to achieve whole-school improvement reveal a high degree of consistency in the priorities set by leaders of turn-around schools. These priorities are summarised in the National School Improvement Tool (Masters, 2012) and can be thought of as a set of micro-strategies for whole-school reform. They include:

- setting an explicit school improvement agenda;
- systematically monitoring progress in achieving desired improvements;
- establishing and sustaining a culture of support and high expectations;
- targeting the use of school resources to address student needs;
- encouraging teachers to work as a team to improve teaching and learning;
- establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum;
- sustaining a strong focus on addressing individual learning needs;
- implementing effective pedagogical practices including diagnostic practices; and
- using local community resources to better meet student needs.

Reading down this list, these strategies seem like common sense—which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not common practices.

The only suggestion I’ll make is to put “establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum” at the top of the list. Almost all of the other strategies require a shared curriculum as their foundation—you can’t set expectations, monitor progress, address needs, or work as a team without a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject map of the specific content and skills students must master.


Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Thanks to Marc Tucker for drawing attention to this report. I admire Tucker—if we’d been listening to him for the past few decades, we’d have one of the world’s best, most equitable school systems. So, when Tucker wrote that Masters has “written a paper you need to read,” I started reading (you should too).






Raising Readers—Not Test Takers

by Lisa Hansel
March 18th, 2015

In recent months, Teach Plus had over 1,000 teachers review sample items from PARCC, one of the two testing consortia trying to create assessments aligned to the Common Core standards.

I say “trying” because in reading, the task is pretty much impossible. The standards specify things students should be able to do, but they contain almost no content. Thankfully, they do call for content-rich curriculum and explain that comprehension depends on broad knowledge, but they don’t provide the content-specificity needed to guide instruction or assessment.

Thousands of different curricula and assessments could be aligned to the standards, which would be fine if teachers were trusted to develop both. But teachers are not allowed to create the assessments—at least the ones that count. So it is entirely possible for a teacher to develop an “aligned” curriculum that does not prepare students for the content that shows up on the “aligned” assessment.

The result is an unfair assessment.

Test developers acknowledge as much, creating guidelines for item development that minimize knowledge as a source of “bias.”

Well, the 1,000 teachers who just reviewed PARCC think the stripping of knowledge did not go far enough:

Nearly all participants found that the PARCC passages were better quality than the passages in state tests, as they are previously published pieces (indicating that they are complex and demonstrate expertise in nonfiction). However, there was some concern students did not have “background knowledge, nor the vocabulary to understand” vocabulary within the texts. Their comments suggest that to assess students as accurately as possible, some portions may need to be edited for diverse learners, or those with limited background knowledge of certain content areas.

I understand why teachers would call for reducing the prior knowledge demands of the test—they are stuck in this crazy world of being measured with content that no one told them to teach. But let’s be honest: reducing the knowledge demand makes the test a little fairer; it does not make the education students are getting any better.

The knowledge bias can’t be avoided with tests that are not explicitly aligned to the curriculum. Without a curriculum that specifies what has been taught—and therefore what it is fair to expect students to know—test writers are reduced to a narrow band of banal topics (but even “Jenny goes to the market” demands some prior, unequally distributed knowledge).

The less the knowledge bias, the less the test reflects real-world comprehension. Outside testlandia, comprehension is not isolated from knowledge. An adult who can’t comprehend a newspaper is not considered literate. Broad knowledge is inherent in literacy. If we care about reading, as opposed to testing, we shouldn’t be creating tests that minimize knowledge demands. We should be developing a coherent instruction, assessment, and accountability system that builds broad knowledge and is fair because it tests what is taught.

Clearly, our nation’s policymakers need a crash course in reading. Once they understand that there is no such thing as general comprehension ability, maybe they’ll stop trying to hold schools accountable for developing it.

Fortunately, a great crash course is now available: Daniel Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. If policymakers read between the lines, they’ll see an awful lot they can do too.

As with Willingham’s previous books, this one is engaging, easy to read, and super informative. Here’s just a taste:

Most parents want their children to be solid general readers. They aren’t worried about their kids reading professional journals for butterfly collectors, but they expect their kids to be able to read the New York Times, National Geographic, or other materials written for the thoughtful layperson. A writer for the New York Times will not assume deep knowledge about postage stamps, or African geography, or Elizabethan playwrights— but she will assume some knowledge about each. To be a good general reader, your child needs knowledge of the world that’s a million miles wide and an inch deep—wide enough to recognize the titles The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, for example, but not that the former may have inspired the latter. Enough to know that rare stamps can be very valuable, but not the going price of the rare Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918.

If being a “good reader” actually means “knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff,” then reading tests don’t work quite the way most people think they do. Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text , because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

There is reason to think that’s true. In one study, researchers measured the reading ability of eleventh graders with a standard reading test and also administered tests of what they called “cultural literacy”—students’ knowledge of mainstream culture. There were tests of the names of artists, entertainers, military leaders, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, as well as separate tests of factual knowledge of science, history, and literature. The researchers found robust correlations between scores on the reading test and scores on the various cultural literacy tests—correlations between 0.55 and 0.90.

If we are to increase reading ability, policymakers will have to accept that it takes many years to develop the breadth of knowledge needed for tests that are not based on a specific curriculum. We shouldn’t be stripping the knowledge demands out of our tests; we should be stripping the unreasonable mandates from our accountability policies. If we all focused on raising readers, we would spend far less time on testing and far more on building broad knowledge.


Young reader, building knowledge and comprehension, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Even TFA Isn’t Boosting Reading Comprehension

by Lisa Hansel
March 10th, 2015

Teach for America (TFA) aims to increase student achievement by increasing the quality of teaching. Concerned with the short-term commitment TFA asks its recruits to make, I’ve never been sure what to make of TFA. Seeking teachers who were themselves strong students and focusing on outcomes, it has the potential to elevate the teaching profession. But by recruiting for a two-year stint, it also questions teaching as a career.

With these grumblings in the back of my mind, I’m always interested in research on TFA. If there were clear evidence that it did, or did not, work, my dilemma would be resolved. Well, even with a very rigorous new study by Mathematica Policy Research, my dilemma lives on. Comparing 66 TFA teachers with 90 non-TFA (mostly traditionally prepared) teachers in 36 schools serving preschool through fifth grade, only one significant difference was found: TFA teachers in preschool through second grade were more effective in reading. They added about 1.3 months of learning.

That’s important—it indicates that the TFA teachers are doing a better job on foundational reading skills. But what’s also important is that there was no difference in third through fifth grade. Even more important, there was plenty of room for improvement: on average, these preschool through fifth grade students’ were at the 34th percentile.

Why isn’t reading comprehension budging? The Mathematica study can’t answer, but readers of the Core Knowledge blog certainly can. Until elementary schools—and all types of teacher preparation programs—get serious about systematically building knowledge and vocabulary, reading comprehension will remain far too low.


Books on the brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fortunately, more and more educators, administrators, and professors are coming to understand the nature of comprehension. A recent paper by Donald L. Compton, Amanda C. Miller, Amy M. Elleman, and Laura M. Steacy makes me think knowledge is starting to get its due (thanks to Aaron Grossman for sending it to me).

With a strong-but-brief review of the research on comprehension, the paper is well worth reading. So, I’m just offering some highlights (and hoping TFA’s Wendy Kopp is reading):

Much of the instructional research on reading comprehension has focused on strategy instruction as a means to engage students with text and help them monitor their comprehension…. This focus is warranted as evidenced by the effectiveness of strategy instruction especially for struggling readers…. However, it is unclear whether increased comprehension can be attributed to learning specific strategies. In their review of strategy instruction, Rosenshine and Meister (1994) noted that it did not matter which strategies were combined; as long as multiple strategies were used, students’ comprehension increased. In fact, it may not be the strategies themselves that engender changes in comprehension, but possibly some other factors that strategy instruction fosters, such as deeper engagement with the text and awareness of the need to monitor comprehension.

Our intent here is not to argue against the positive role strategy instruction may play in increasing engagement with text but instead to highlight unforeseen consequences associated with this type of instruction. We propose that strategy instruction may result in low-level text representations that embody only what is explicitly expressed in a text…. Deep level understanding of a text, on the other hand, goes beyond the text in nontrivial ways, requiring the construction of meaning through inference making, not just passive absorption of information….

Reading comprehension occurs as the reader builds a mental representation of the text…. The majority of comprehension theorists suggest that there are at least two levels of representation: a text-based representation and a situation model…. The text representation conveys the underlying meaning of the text’s explicit information…. The situation model involves the intertwining of the reader’s background knowledge with the text-based representation to form a deep representation of the text. Thus, the situation model is a more meaningful representation that goes beyond the text-based information…. We maintain that failure to construct situation models during reading is an acute symptom associated with reading comprehension disability.

A number of studies have reported that individual differences in background knowledge significantly influence the building of a representative situation model…. Readers who possess high levels of knowledge consistently exhibit better comprehension and retention than readers with low levels of knowledge….

[One study] examined the contribution of knowledge to comprehension processes by asking good and poor fifth-grade readers to read or listen to passages and answer questions. Results indicated that having some knowledge about a passage’s topic, which poor readers had less of, was positively associated with the likelihood of correctly answering questions about that passage. In addition, general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge remained significantly associated with correct responses even while controlling for passage specific knowledge. (Again, poor readers possessed less general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge compared to good readers.) Finally, regardless of passage-specific background knowledge, questions about information stated literally in the text were easier to answer than questions that required inference. Results suggest that multiple forms of knowledge, both passage specific and general, are likely required to form coherent and high-quality representations of text.

Teaching for Retention

by Lisa Hansel
March 2nd, 2015

In my last post, I described conversations with three teachers that revealed their different views about what teaching is.

The most persuasive was a teacher who focuses on retention—and thinks teachers are making a mistake when they change topics as soon as they see that students have comprehended the topic at hand.

As we spoke, I thought about what happens to me as I listen to NPR. Even when I find a story really interesting, I’m only able to remember it well if it is on a topic I already know well. Most of the time, the stories are on things I only know a bit about. If I try to retell them, the details are fuzzy; I mix up the key people and events and can’t convey much. It’s an odd feeling—I fully comprehended the story at the time, but I don’t realize how little of it I’ve retained until I try to tell a friend about it.

To really learn the story, I’d have to comprehend it, then study it—quiz myself, practice those details that make the story coherent, and quiz myself again. I’d also need to revisit the material periodically—hopefully adding to it, but at a minimum refreshing my memory. That’s the type of learning that would enable future learning, including deeper comprehension each time new details are added to the web of knowledge growing in my long-term memory.

The retention-focused teacher I spoke with was very intentional about her instructional time. She argued that if a topic was worthy of mentioning, it was worthy of fully teaching—teaching so students could confidently talk about their new knowledge. She saw the school year as far too short, and each class as a precious resource to be fiercely protected. She saw instruction aimed at coverage and even comprehension—anything less than retention—as a waste of time. And, she accepted that her approach meant that she taught fewer topics, and thus had to carefully decide which topics merited class time.

One great benefit of this careful weighing of topics was that she had gotten really thoughtful about embedding skill development in serious academic content. While some of her colleagues taught skills with “fun” content, she eschewed that as inefficient. For example, she taught grammar with sentences that refreshed students’ memories on key content they were learning in science and social studies—no grammar lessons with sentences about basketball or cartoons in her classes.

Reflecting on our conversation, my mind returned to Daniel Willingham’s article on familiarity vs. recollection. Along with that article, he has several useful tips for ensuring that students don’t mistake their familiarity for real learning. His tips focus on “jostling students away from a reliance on familiarity and partial access as indices of their knowledge, and encouraging (or requiring) them to test just how much knowledge they recall and understand.” He recommends, for example, that teachers “Make it clear to students that the standard of ‘knowing’ is the ‘ability to explain to others,’ not ‘understanding when explained by others.’”

This pretty well sums up what the retention-focused teacher I spoke with learned over many years of teaching. So it raises a question for another day: why didn’t she learn about the dangers of familiarity (or mere comprehension) and the necessity of recollection in her preparation program or in ongoing professional development?


Writing is a great way for students to explain, solidify, and gauge what they have learned. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Nothing in Common

by Lisa Hansel
February 24th, 2015

According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.


Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.

A Plea for Traditional and Multicultural Education—Our Children Deserve Both

by Guest Blogger
February 5th, 2015

By Joy C. Dingle

Joy C. Dingle is an independent K–16 education consultant in the Washington, DC, area. She can be reached at jd.achieving.equality@gmail.com

Recently, a colleague and I had a fascinating conversation about education and exactly what a meaningful, well-balanced US education should include.  My adopted city of Washington, DC, and our nation are having this conversation also.  It is about time we did.  There is no surprise that a lot of people have diverse views about what our children should be learning.

Eventually our conversation led to the topic of “dead white men.”  Do they really matter?

Let’s be honest.  Many times terms such as “founding fathers” and “great thinkers” are used  as code.  For some people, these terms are a shorthand way of saying that only Caucasian men have shaped history, philosophy, and the “things that really matter” in our society.  In the past, neither historians nor curriculum writers saw a need to explore others’ lives and contributions. Some still believe that white men—particularly if they are affluent, Christian, and heterosexual—are ultimately superior in intellect to others.  Everyone else and their ideas, experiences, culture, and humanity are insignificant, optional, or superfluous.  Nothing could be further from the truth; as educators and citizens, we have a responsibility to speak out whenever such terms are used in untrue and demeaning ways.

For the past few decades, who and what historians should study and schools should teach has been a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the subject is often presented as a stark either/or of embracing or rejecting the canon and the roots of Western Civilization in ancient Greece and Rome.

Multicultural education and “dead white men” are not mutually exclusive ideas.  Really it’s a matter of background and context.  Christopher Columbus is one example.  Whether our children learn that he “discovered” America or that he symbolizes a larger system of imperialist oppression and exploitation—or both—they need to know who he was.  To exclude him from the curriculum is a mistake, just as it is a mistake to exclude women and people of color.  We need the background and context of Columbus to understand more about everything from the plight of our native peoples to why many are deeply offended by the words and images used to describe professional sports teams.

As soon as they can grasp the fundamental concepts of government, our young people should learn all about the Bill of Rights.  Today’s painful but necessary dialogue about gun control and police brutality is underpinned by the history and context of the Second Amendment.  We have left these public problems at our children’s feet.  At the very least, we should educate them, and be brave enough to start the story from the beginning.  Whether we interpret the constitution strictly or broadly, school kids need to know the events and sentiments that led to the “right to bear arms.”  This is the only way to have a productive dialogue about what that right means today.  We owe this dialogue to the memory of young people lost to gun violence, whether they lived in Columbine, Newtown, Sanford, or Ferguson.

Our literary canon need not be limited to William Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad—and our curriculum need not exclude them.  When our young people read these authors, they can appreciate the works of Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Junot Díaz as equals and realize that inclusion of these rich voices and perspectives is part of what makes literature so important to our society.   Comparing and contrasting the views of “dead white men” to others’ makes all of us think more critically about the world around us.

The protagonist of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name is Aminita Diallo.  As a young child, she is kidnapped from her village (in modern day Nigeria) and enslaved.  Much of her survival and success is due to her insistence on keeping her birth name, her memories of her homeland, and her spirituality.  Captured and killed by the same slave traders, Aminita’s parents instilled a deep respect for education in their daughter.  She speaks her father’s native tongue of Fulfude, her mother’s’ native tongue of Bamanankan, and writes and speaks Arabic.  On board the ship that takes her to South Carolina, she learns English and eventually becomes fully fluent in the language once she reaches young adulthood—something commonly forbidden during that time.  Aminita’s mastery of multiple languages and understanding of multiple cultures facilitates her ability to free herself and eventually write her story in her own terms.  She never abandons her identity as she fights to acquire the knowledge critical to her survival.  The survival of America’s young people is equally dependent upon a broad, deep, and diverse education.

Book and film titles, news articles, and even television commercials allude to historical people, events, and texts all the time.  Imagine what our children miss when we do not take the time to teach them these events and texts.  To understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a deeper level, our young people need to know the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the US Constitution, passages from the Bible, and the words of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  It would be foolish to leave these documents and their interpretations out of our children’s curriculum simply because they were constructed by those who do not reflect the current diversity of our nation.  Dr. King’s speech is about far more than a dream.  It is about correcting past mistakes and honoring our democratic principles.  Let’s not leave our young people without the tools to continue his vision and fight injustice.

Like it or not, the power structure of our nation is predominately white and male.  Many (including this post’s author) believe the power structure needs to change.   We can envision a nation that embraces all its citizens fully and grows stronger through the sharing of power and from the inclusion of multiple perspectives.  Yet we cannot fix our imbalanced system without understanding how and why it operates the way it does. Both not teaching dead white males and only teaching them amounts to under-educating our children—and that certainly won’t support this endeavor.  We don’t have to embrace “dead white men” and their ideas, but we better know who they are and what they represent. That way, we can take the best of what they have to offer, critically analyze the worst, and build new understandings by learning about others’ contributions.


Teaching broad knowledge, including multicultural and traditional knowledge, opens doors (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Want to Build Knowledge, Skills, and Grit? Assign History Research Papers

by Guest Blogger
January 28th, 2015

By Samantha Wesner

Samantha Wesner is the managing editor of The Concord Review, which publishes high school students’ research papers.

As a junior in high school taking American history, my class had two options for the final project: a PowerPoint presentation or an extended research essay. To many it was a no-brainer; the PowerPoint was definitely going to involve more pictures, fewer hours of work, and less solitude. But some of us went for the research paper, whether because we were naturally drawn to writing, seeking a new challenge, or presentation-averse (as I was). 

The daunting task loomed. The essay length: fifteen to twenty pages. The topic I had chosen: The Spanish-American War of 1898. I was a slow writer, and the longest paper I had written before was a five-page English paper on Kurt Vonnegut. The English department had seen to it that I had plenty of practice writing shorter papers. But this new assignment was a leap forward rather than a step. I might have been better off with Will Fitzhugh’s “Page Per Year” plan: With each year, I would have written a paper to correspond with my grade—one page for first grade, nine pages for ninth grade, and so on.

I scoured the textbook for the few paragraphs it offered on the subject. And then what? I would have stopped there if I hadn’t known that other students had done it. Those of us writing a paper were given examples, plus guidance on paragraph structure, quoting, balancing primary and secondary sources, and footnoting. We toured the library and some online resources to get us started. With this essential how-to knowledge in hand, the assignment inched toward the realm of the possible in my mind.

Stacks of library books, reams of notes, and a twenty-page paper later, I had written what I now consider to be the capstone of my high school education. Years later, I remember 1898 better than the great majority of what I learned in high school. To this day, I really do “remember the Maine”; I have a lasting understanding of turn-of-the-century American imperialism, the power and danger of a jingoist press, the histories of complex relationships between the U.S. and the Philippines and Cuba, and Teddy Roosevelt’s unusual path to national prominence. My initial, vague interest blossomed into a fascination that I did not expect when I first set out. I felt a sense of pride as I tucked the stack of paper neatly into a binder to be handed in. Happy to be done, but even happier to have done it, I felt as if I had summited a peak that had seemed ineffably large from below. And I had certainly needed a big push.


Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine by William Henry Jackson.

Perusing class syllabi my first semester in college, I came upon a description of a final assignment in a history class that looked interesting: a fifteen- to twenty-page research paper. “I can do that,” I thought, “I’ve done it before.”

I didn’t know how lucky I was to be in the small minority of college freshmen who had learned how to write a research paper in high school. Most American high school students graduate without ever being encouraged to explore a topic in such depth, and yet this is exactly the kind of work they will encounter in college, especially in the humanities. In an era in which the president is invested in making college an opportunity all can afford, it’s only fitting that all should be afforded the proper preparation.

We do a disservice to students when we don’t ask them to do challenging work that will hold them in good stead in college and beyond. True, hard-working teachers, some of whom have over 150 students to teach, often simply do not have the time to grade this kind of assignment. In a perfect world, there would be time and resources to spare for extensive feedback to every student. But a research paper that receives even a little feedback is better than no research paper at all. The former still immeasurably deepens a student’s knowledge, skill set, self-discipline, and confidence.

I have my high school history teacher to thank for the confidence with which I approached my first college research paper. I ended up majoring in history and was comfortable writing a senior thesis of more than one hundred pages. Now, with The Concord Review, I have the wonderful task of recognizing student achievement. And yet, I’m painfully aware that The Concord Review’s young authors are the exceptions—those high schoolers who have written extensive history research papers. Those published go on to great things; many attend top colleges and four have been named Rhodes Scholars. Without a doubt, these are bright students. But how many bright students in the public school system have brilliant papers within them? If they aren’t afforded that first push, we may never find out.

“Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

by Guest Blogger
January 22nd, 2015

By Bridgit McCarthy

Bridgit McCarthy teaches third grade at New Dimensions, a public charter school in Morganton, North Carolina.

Today in social studies, we assassinated Julius Caesar!

My students’ faces registered shock, sadness, and a sprinkling of outrage, all nicely mixed with understanding.

“How mean!  Why would anyone kill their ally? I bet his wife feels sad.”

“JC helped get France for them—except it was, you know, Gaul back then. Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.”

These comments show comprehension and recall—a good start. Here’s one of the most telling comments from our class discussion; notice how it combines historical knowledge and understanding with a bit of empathy.

”Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings waaaay back—like in last week’s … lesson.”

These quotes demonstrate comprehension of rigorous content and use of sophisticated vocabulary. They came from third graders.

Yes, the words “stuff” to describe political change, and “sad” to describe a distraught wife may smack of 8 and 9 year olds and, but “plebeians” and “ally”? I would have expected such vocabulary from the middle school students I used to teach. This is my first year teaching third grade; I’ve been delighted to see how eager younger students are to dig into history and science content.


Caesar courtesy of Shutterstock.

The assassination and subsequent discussion came about two-thirds of the way through our Core Knowledge Language Arts unit on ancient Rome. That unit takes about three weeks, starting with the basic question “What Is Rome?” and then introducing students to legends and mythology, daily life in Rome, and major wars and leaders. It ends with Rome’s lasting contributions.

I am thrilled with what students are saying and writing as we progress. While I always have high expectations in my classroom, I was a bit nervous when we started the ancient Rome unit. The objectives are complex, the vocabulary is challenging. The content itself includes a great deal of geography and culture, plenty of politics, and an assumption that Core Knowledge kids already knew quite a bit about ancient Greece.

The opportunity to check and refresh some of that knowledge of Greece was an early order of business. In CKLA, second graders spend several weeks on ancient Greece with two back-to-back units: The Ancient Greek Civilization and Greek Myths. In the third-grade unit on Rome, a review of the Greek gods and goddesses was the introduction to a lesson on their Roman counterparts. Seventeen of my twenty students attended second grade at New Dimensions, and sixteen attended first (which has a unit on Early World Civilizations), so I was curious to see how much they would remember.

In theory, recall of these facts of Greece ought to come fairly easily. According to one student, they spent “forever” on ancient Greece—and they loved it. In our school, teachers combined the CKLA materials and additional teacher-created materials to really immerse students.

As a result, my third graders had no problems here. Building on their existing knowledge of other cultures’ gods and goddesses made the new material easier to access. I also didn’t have to “teach” polytheism because the very idea that people had separate deities for different aspects of their lives was old hat to them, having explored it in first grade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and again in second with ancient Greece. The three students who didn’t attend New Dimensions in second grade did need a little more support. I helped them do some additional reading and partnered each one with a student who has been at New Dimensions since kindergarten. Because the unit lasted a few weeks, these new students had time to catch up by learning about Greece and Rome together.

For teachers in schools without a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other, it can be hard to understand just how much children can learn in the early grades. For example, I have a good friend who teaches third grade in another school—one that does not use Core Knowledge. In a recent conversation, she shared her “word a day” way to tackle tiered vocabulary words and complained about highly scripted practice-test items that she must teach to prepare for the end-of-grade tests. I shared that my Rome unit is going well, but she worried for me: Are we covering the state standards? She meant this as a genuine professional concern, and she wondered what my students’ real “take-away” would be from our unit on Rome. I shared a little anecdote from my class, showing that my students are developing sophisticated language and useful knowledge: A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

For Equity, for Kids, for Democracy—Let’s Create a Model District with a Well-Rounded Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 15th, 2015

Last week, I shared that the Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a courageous district to partner with. A district that will push back against pressure to teach to the test, and instead commit to a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that are too often neglected) in all of its elementary schools. The response has been heart-warming; I’m having a wonderful time getting to know districts with a passion for closing the achievement gap. (If you would like to work with us, please get in touch: lhansel@coreknowledge.org.) 

This week, as we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I’d like to explain a little more about our dream of partnering with a district to collaboratively develop and implement a well-rounded elementary curriculum. A rich curriculum creates a magical—and empowering—childhood. From ancient civilizations to faraway galaxies, our universe offers wonders that children eagerly explore if they are given an opportunity. Too often, social inequities are blamed for the achievement gap, even as curricular inequities are overlooked. Social inequities are deep and real; they must be addressed. At the same time, schools are part of the solution—especially schools that focus on equalizing opportunity to master academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills.


The elementary grades are perfect for introducing students to our fascinating universe. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While Core Knowledge already works with well over 1,000 schools, some that use our materials to deepen and round out their curriculum and others that teach the full preschool through eighth-grade Sequence, we believe children would benefit even more if schools worked together. Imagine all of the elementary schools in a small district, or a coalition of schools in a larger district, co-constructing their curriculum—voluntarily. If administrators create sufficient time for teachers to collaborate, teachers’ collective wisdom grows as they share expertise and materials. Teachers’ collective impact grows too, as they now have the opportunity to support learning across several schools, not just inside their classrooms.

In far too many elementary schools, teachers are not given opportunities to work together. Two fourth-grade teachers may teach totally different content—they don’t know what the second- or third-grade teachers taught, so they can’t reliably build on what students already know. Some topics get repeated in two or more grades; other topics are never taught. Grade by grade, students study an array of different topics, leaving little for the class as a whole to build on together. In such schools, each teacher must build each lesson from scratch. It’s exhausting and inefficient. Having to plan the whole curriculum alone, teachers don’t have enough time for diagnosing and addressing individual needs. And since they often teach different topics, teachers can’t easily share their materials.

Contrast this with schools that do have a schoolwide curriculum. Students’ knowledge and skills grow predictably and reliably year to year. Teachers know what to build on, are able to share lesson plans, and can help each other refine best practices for the specific content they are teaching. The common curriculum should not be a rigid script; teachers ought to have the freedom to extend topics that their students love and pause when needed to reinforce knowledge and skills. But with an agreed upon set of topics for each grade, teachers get the benefit of working as a team—and students get the benefit of a well-rounded, coherent education.

Sounds pretty good. So good that some elementary schools have done the hard work of developing their own schoolwide curriculum.

Things can get even better when several nearby schools create a common curriculum. More teachers working together means more expertise to share. If students change schools, they will not fall behind or disrupt their peers’ learning. Because of the common curriculum, the receiving teacher will be able to get very detailed information on the student’s knowledge and skills. And if teachers change schools or a new teacher is hired, the common curriculum creates a strong foundation for excellent instruction.

But wait! What about choice? What about schools with special themes? There’s room for those. Currently, nearly 40% of schools using Core Knowledge are charters. We’d love to partner with a district that has charter and neighborhood elementary schools—and to involve all the schools that are interested in collaboratively developing a common curriculum. Likewise, we’d welcome schools with special themes.

Just as the shared curriculum should give individual teachers room to breathe, it should give schools the flexibility to customize. The shared curriculum could be designed to take two-thirds of instructional time, leaving teachers and schools ample time to pursue unique strengths and interests. In fact, once the shared curriculum is in place, teachers and schools will find they have more time for such customization. Knowing that the shared curriculum gives all children a well-rounded education in literature, history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, educators will be able to give more attention to how they want to extend children’s learning.

Together, we can achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “complete education.” Writing for Morehouse College’s Maroon Tiger in 1947, King called us to duty:

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture…. The function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society…. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.



Wanted: A District with the Courage to Close the Gap

by Lisa Hansel
January 8th, 2015

I’m not one to do New Year’s resolutions—why set myself up for failure? But I do like to take a little time over the holidays to reflect on the year.

For me, the highlight of 2014 was attending the Politico 50 reception with E. D. Hirsch, who shared the No. 8 spot on Politico’s list of “thinkers, doers, and dreamers” with David Coleman. Most striking as we mingled was the depth and ease of the conversation. For Prof. Hirsch and me, at least, this was a room full of strangers. No matter. The topic could be the Iranian revolution or United States v. Windsor or technology’s potential impact on opportunity to learn; we all possessed enough common knowledge to converse seriously.

Whether at home, at school, at the library, or online, somehow we all acquired a definite core of knowledge. As a result, it did not matter that we had just met, were from all over the US, and specialized in different fields—we understood each other.  The evening was a microcosm of how a democracy ought to be. Each of us had our personal interests and individual expertise; and each of us had enough knowledge in common to be able to discuss important topics. That’s not to say we agreed on those topics. Differing views were expressed and, in a couple of instances, vigorously debated.

The heart of a democracy is the ability to communicate with fellow citizens across space, time, and individual differences. Especially in a country as large and diverse as ours, that ability to communicate depends on all of us sharing a core of knowledge. That core does not mean we will agree, but it gives us a platform for being able to understand each other.


Communicating across time and place requires shared knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

No one kernel of knowledge may matter; but collectively, this core of knowledge divides the citizens with full access to civil society from the disenfranchised. It is essential for literacy, grasping analogies, critical thinking, and learning yet more (and more easily). Recent research shows that such knowledge is a powerful factor in social mobility, more powerful than parents’ education or school selectivity by one’s early 40s.

Most of us lucky enough to have learned this core of knowledge seem not to appreciate just how often we rely on it. At work, at the coffee shop, catching up on the news, we draw on and add to our vast stores of knowledge constantly. Neither news anchors nor neighbors provide all the details; they give you what’s new, and your store of knowledge plugs the holes. Even better, our shared knowledge is a source of strength. From the celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner that took place in Baltimore in September (another highlight of 2014 for me) to “one giant leap for mankind” 45 years ago, there are certain events, concepts, and people that cause a flood of images and ideas among the education haves. That flood is instantaneous. It offers both an anchor to steady us and a foundation on which to build. The simple words “I have a dream” can be overwhelming. Joyous. Sorrowful. Hopeful.

Well, I too have a dream. It is for everyone to have the core of shared knowledge that facilitates communication and invites all to be full participants in civil society. Yes, we have a long way to go. But at least people are starting to recognize that E. D. Hirsch’s great idea—that we could identify essential knowledge and create a curriculum to teach it to all children—is essential for equal opportunity. It’s egalitarian, not elitist, and it guarantees that everyone gets to study the arts, sciences, and humanities. Nor does it interfere with unique pursuits: If we spread that core of shared knowledge over several grades, there’s plenty of time left each year for students to learn content of local import and pursue their individual interests.

If you know of a district that shares my dream, please let me know: lhansel@coreknowledge.org. The Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a district with the courage to close the achievement gap by implementing a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that too often are neglected these days) in all of its elementary schools. While Core Knowledge would like to work with the district in creating the curriculum, it need not follow the Core Knowledge Sequence. The curriculum would have to be rigorous, coherent, and cumulatively build knowledge and skills. School entry is when the achievement gap is the smallest. By addressing vocabulary and knowledge disparities from the very beginning of schooling (mainly through engaging read-alouds, discussions, and projects), we can close the gap by the end of elementary school.

In the Core Knowledge community, we have individual schools that achieve terrific results with all of their students. We believe the results would be even better if the effort were districtwide. Teachers would be able to collaborate across schools; after a few years of shared problem solving and visiting each other’s classes, they would have world-class curriculum and pedagogy. They could even engage in their own form of Japanese lesson study. In addition, student mobility would be less of a problem, because children would not be completely lost academically when they changed schools within the district.

My words are neither eloquent nor enduring, but they are sincere. Let’s work together to give all children the broad, rich knowledge they need to become productive, responsible, engaged citizens.