Reading Test Developers Call Knowledge a Source of Bias

by Lisa Hansel
October 1st, 2014

You might expect to see a headline like this in the Onion, but you won’t. The Onion can’t run it because it isn’t just ironic—it’s 100% true.

A few years ago, a researcher at one of the big testing companies told me that when developing a reading comprehension test, knowledge is a source of bias. He did not mean the obvious stuff like knowledge of a yacht’s anemometer. He meant typical K–12 subject matter.

Since reading comprehension depends chiefly on knowledge of the topic (including the vocabulary) in the passage, the student with that knowledge has a large advantage over the student without it. And since there have always been great educational inequities in the United States, students’ knowledge—acquired both at home and at school—is very strongly correlated with socioeconomic status.

A logical solution would be to test reading comprehension using only those topics that students have been taught. Teachers can do this, but testing companies can’t—how would they have any idea what topics have been taught in each grade? It’s rare for districts, much less states, to indicate what or when specific books, people, ideas, and events should be taught.

Without a curriculum on which to base their assessments, testing companies have devised their own logic—which is sound given the bind they’re in. They distinguish between common and specialized knowledge, and then they select or write test passages that only have common knowledge. In essence, they’ve defined “reading comprehension skill” as including broad common knowledge. This is perfectly reasonable. When educators, parents, etc. think about reading comprehension ability, they do not think of the ability to read about trains or dolphins or lightning. They expect the ability to read about pretty much anything one encounters in daily life (including the news).

I already had this basic understanding, but still I found the “ETS Guidelines for Fairness Review of Assessments” eye opening. Guideline 1 is to “avoid cognitive sources of construct-irrelevant variance…. If construct-irrelevant knowledge or skill is required to answer an item and the knowledge or skill is not equally distributed across groups, then the fairness of the item is diminished” (p. 8). It continues, growing murkier:

Avoid unnecessarily difficult language. Use the most accessible level of language that is consistent with valid measurement…. Difficult words and language structures may be used if they are important for validity. For example, difficult words may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure depth of general vocabulary or specialized terminology within a subject-matter area. It may be appropriate to use a difficult word if the word is defined in the test or its meaning is made clear by context. Complicated language structures may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure the ability to read challenging material.

Avoid unnecessarily specialized vocabulary unless such vocabulary is important to the construct being assessed. What is considered unnecessarily specialized requires judgment. Take into account the maturity and educational level of the test takers in deciding which words are too specialized.

On page 10, it offers this handy table that “provides examples of common words that are generally acceptable and examples of specialized words that should be avoided…. The words are within several content areas known to be likely sources of construct-irrelevant knowledge”:

ETS table 1

Since having good reading comprehension means being able to read about a wide variety of common topics, table 1 seems just fine. But testing companies’ silence about what their reading comprehension tests actually measure is not. They say they are measuring “reading comprehension skill,” but their guidelines show that they are measuring a vaguely defined body of “common knowledge.”

Common words are not common to all. Even “common” knowledge is knowledge that must be taught, and right now—at home and at school—far too many children from low-income homes don’t have an opportunity to learn that knowledge (which is common to youth from middle-class and wealthy homes). That’s why reading comprehension scores are so strongly and stubbornly correlated with socioeconomic status.

These tests of “common” knowledge are accurate assessments and predictors of reading comprehension ability; but they are not fair or productive tests for holding children (and their teachers) accountable before an opportunity to learn has been provided.

If all testing companies would clearly explain that their reading comprehension tests are tests of knowledge, and if they would explain—as the ACT’s Chrys Dougherty does—that the only way to prepare for them is to build broad knowledge, then we could begin to create a fair and productive assessment and accountability system. Before the end of high school, all students should have broad enough knowledge to perform well on a reading comprehension test. But what about in third, fourth, or even seventh grade? In the early and middle grades, is a test drawn only from topics that have been taught in school the only fair way to test reading comprehension? How many years of systematically teaching “common” knowledge are needed before a reading comprehension test that is not tied to the curriculum is fair, especially for a student whose opportunities to learn outside of school are minimal?

The answer depends not so much on the test as on what is done with the scores. If we accepted the fact that reading comprehension depends on broad knowledge, we would radically alter our accountability policies. Scores on “common knowledge” reading comprehension tests would be recognized as useful indicators of where students are in their journey toward broad knowledge—they would not be mistaken for indicators of teaching quality or children’s capacity. Instead of holding schools accountable for scores on tests with content that is not tied to the curriculum, we would hold them accountable for creating a content-rich, comprehensive, well-sequenced curriculum and delivering it in a manner that ensures equal opportunity to learn. To narrow the inevitable gaps caused by differences in out-of-school experiences, we would dramatically increase free weekend and summer enrichment opportunities (for toddlers to teenagers) in lower-income neighborhoods. (We would also address a range of health-related disparities, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In sum, reading comprehension really does rely on having a great deal of common knowledge, so our current reading comprehension tests really are valid and reliable. To make them fair and productive, children from lower-income families must be given an equal opportunity to learn the knowledge that is “common” to children from higher-income homes.

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Reading is always a test of knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Ending the Cultural Divide

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2014

It is possible to enjoy NASCAR and polo, FX and PBS, Homer Simpson and Homer’s epics—but it is not always easy. As much as we Americans claim to value diversity and multiculturalism, we tend to shun the idea that one person can embrace and embody more than one culture.

This struggle, writes Vicki Madden (an instructional coach in New York City) in the New York Times, is a reason why many students from low-income homes do not complete college:

Once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap. I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times—not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.

We know that Core Knowledge narrows the knowledge gap. Students in schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence have Homer covered, leaning about Winslow Homer in kindergarten and sixth grade, and reading The Iliad and The Odyssey (or adaptations of them) in sixth grade.

That alone should help students feel that they belong on their college campuses. Explaining how to butcher a deer may be a point of pride for those who can also weave Franz Liszt and Duke Ellington (both studied in the seventh grade via the Sequence) into their conversations. But let’s be honest; it’s the unique student who is resilient when faced with insidious, frequent reminders that grandpa’s fishing boat can’t get you to St. Martin.

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Grandpa’s boat courtesy of Shutterstock.

Just as important as the academic challenge is the personal one students face when they find the strength to stay and earn their degrees. Madden relays her own experience, summing up that of her students:

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

To this I’d like to add two more questions: Is there a way to prevent students from feeling such a tug of war? Educators in Core Knowledge schools—and any schools that focus on closing the knowledge gap—have your students experienced similar challenges?

Maybe it’s just my own very fortunate experience—I grew up in West Virginia, yet attended rigorous schools and had close friends at “regular” schools—but my hope is that these challenges are minimized by an educational environment that values home culture and academic culture from the very first day of school. In passing, I’ve heard of Core Knowledge schools that have book clubs and study groups for parents, as well as cultural festivals in which families share the rich, varied heritages that make up their school community. I’d love to learn more about such opportunities for whole families to grow together. Please submit a comment below, or email me at lhansel@coreknowledge.org. Thank you!

Buckling Down (Not Under): Thoughtfully Embracing the Common Core

by Lisa Hansel
September 18th, 2014

Over the past few years, the Common Core standards have been hailed and reviled. But do these standards merit such passion? For great schools—with rigorous curricula, collaborative educators, and supportive administrators—state standards make little difference. For schools that need to improve, the Common Core standards offer some useful guidance—but it takes far more than standards to provide a sound education.

What really matters is how the standards are interpreted and implemented. Amidst the cacophony of voices weighing in, I found three level-headed pieces this week.

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One courtesy of Shutterstock.

Let’s start with what just might be the Common Core’s biggest bugaboo: close reading. It’s the perfect example of a pedagogical strategy that can be useful if used occasionally to focus students’ attention, and harmful if taken to extremes. Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia (and Core Knowledge’s board) weighed in to remind us that reading without drawing on prior knowledge is not possible—nor is comprehension without sufficient knowledge:

Writers count on their audience to bring knowledge to bear on the text…. Things get [tricky] when it’s not plain to the reader that he lacks information that is important to understanding the text. Researchers Eli Gottlieb and Sam Wineburg offered a wonderful example…. They asked Clergy, scientists, and historians to read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. Clergy and scientists focused on Washington’s invoking the “providence of Almighty God,” and other religious phrasing, with clergy applauding the Christian tone, and scientists upset by it. Historians, in contrast, focused on what the document did not say; it did not mention Jesus, nor salvation, nor Christianity. They saw the document as Washington’s self-conscious attempt to craft a statement that would be acceptable to the diversity of religions practiced in the United States.

Willingham concludes that attending to language and word choices and rereading make sense. But if students lack the knowledge needed to fill the inevitable gaps in language, then the text alone will not foster learning. (For yet more sage advice on close reading, see this post by Harvard’s Catherine E. Snow.)

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Two courtesy of Shutterstock.

Next up is a brief report on exactly the kind of Common Core implementation I’d love to see all over the country: teachers working together, using the standards as a guide to create a more rigorous, knowledge-building curriculum. Last week, Robert Pondiscio (who is now at the Fordham Institute) had the pleasure of visiting Washoe County, Nevada, where Aaron Grossman is leading the homegrown Core Task Project. Obviously impressed, Pondiscio writes:

Those who see Common Core as a curricular monoculture, a boondoggle for publishers, or a violation of local control would do well to come to Reno. They’re doing it all without enriching an army of publishers or consultants—and with regional flair. Like children everywhere under Common Core, Reno kids will be expected to cite evidence in their reading and writing. But unlike anywhere else, they’ll be doing so by studying Nevada mining, conflict, and compromise among native tribes in Northern Nevada, and Nevada statehood and the state’s role in the Civil War—Common Core units developed by the Core Task Project. “We’re able to explain to the electorate that everything we’re doing is in-house, matched to our community values and to things we think are important,” Grossman observes.

Among the many resources the Washoe teachers are drawing on is Core Knowledge Language Arts. By thoughtfully crafting their curriculum, they have found that they have plenty of time for both the broad knowledge all students need and the knowledge of Nevada that they cherish.

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Three courtesy of Shutterstock.

Lastly, in a wide-ranging podcast, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford offers sound advice on how the Common Core (or any college- and career-focused standards) can improve teacher and student learning. She also highlights research on assessments and suggestions for more productive accountability policies.

Curriculum Doesn’t Matter, Unless You Care about Achievement and Mobility

by Lisa Hansel
September 11th, 2014

Five years ago, Russ Whitehurst published an important paper comparing the effects of various education reforms. Better teachers and curriculum rose to the top, with what is taught being just as important as who is doing the teaching. But that finding didn’t fit with reformers’ obsession with teachers, so the paper was largely ignored. Two years ago, Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos did a more extensive look, confirming the previous findings and challenging states to begin gathering data on which materials are being used in schools.

Now, with pressure to interpret and meet the Common Core standards, curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional materials are finally getting wider attention. Much of that attention has been negative, as those who are against the standards seem to enjoy finding misinterpretations of the standards’ intent. I find that gotcha game silly; no one really expects initial stabs at Common Core–aligned materials to be terrific. Over time they will improve—and with support they will improve more quickly.

I’m thrilled to see growing interest in providing that support. The Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are leading the way by funding several efforts, the most promising of which just might be EdReports.org. Preparing to launch in the winter, EdReports.org is involving teachers in intensive reviews of K–12 math and ELA materials, and the reviews will be free online. At the same time, Rachel Leifer and Denis Udall, program officers with Helmsley and Hewlett (respectively), have penned a plea for “Disrupting the Textbook Status Quo.” Since Core Knowledge is a small non-profit trying to offer better materials for free online, I am heartened by their call for more philanthropies to support development and dissemination efforts so that “a marketplace for instructional materials that rewards quality and innovation” can be created.

For philanthropies that aren’t quite convinced that curriculum matters, here’s one more study to add to the great work noted by Leifer and Udall. In “The Role of the School Curriculum in Social Mobility,” Cristina Iannelli shows that the content of the curriculum has lasting effects.* This study is important not only because of its findings, but because relatively few studies look at the actual courses students take. Iannelli is a professor in the UK; she used the UK’s National Child Development Study (NCDS), which tracks all babies born in the UK in 1958, gathering data at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. As Iannelli writes (p. 910):

The people in the study were in secondary schools between 1969 and 1976 during the period of reorganisation of British secondary education from a selective to a comprehensive system. The coexistence of different secondary school systems at the end of the 1960s provides an excellent opportunity to study the effect of studying different curricula and attending different types of school on individuals’ chances of reaching the highest social classes of destination.

Focusing on social and occupational status at ages 23, 33, and 42, Iannelli’s findings at age 23 were what you’d expect: parental education and school selectivity had a big impact. Curriculum did too, but what’s really interesting is that the relative importance of curriculum went up—and the importance of parental education and school selectivity went down—as people aged (p. 923–924):

Selective schools, languages, English, mathematics and science subjects had a positive and significant effect on the chances of being in the top social classes and reduced the chances of entering the bottom classes…. [The] results suggest that the indirect effects of parental education via school types and curricula are stronger at the beginning of respondents’ occupational career than at later stages. The opposite is true for social class of origin: it is in the long run that school and curricular choices emerge more powerfully as transmitters of social advantages….

We tested whether the effect of curriculum and school type at age 33 and 42 was simply a result of their effect at age 23 and 33…. The results, before and after controlling for prior occupational destinations, barely change in the analysis of class of destination at 33, indicating that the effect of studying different subjects and attending various types of schools continues beyond the point of career entry. However, when analysing destinations at age 42 after controlling for destination at age 33, while the effect of subjects remains the same the effect of school types reduces and is no longer significant. These results suggest that the subjects studied at school are very good predictors of individuals’ destinations at all three stages of occupational career. On the other hand, the school type attended has a significant short-term and medium-term effect on individuals’ occupational destinations but they become less important for explaining later destinations. This may indicate that cognitive effects may be more persistent than institutional status effects…. The long-lasting effects of some school subjects may indicate that they provide skills, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning, which are useful for individuals’ future occupational careers. [Emphasis added.]

Studying languages, English, mathematics, and science does indeed enhance critical thinking and complex reasoning abilities. In fact, these crucial abilities can only be increased by developing rich knowledge. Cognitive science on how knowledge builds on knowledge, and skills depend on knowledge, would predict these occupational findings. The students who took many courses in these subjects began their careers with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that enabled them to learn and grow at work.

We won’t ever be able to predict where each young person’s career will go, but we have plenty of evidence as to the type of education that offers the best preparation: a broad, rich, academic curriculum that builds content knowledge and skills together.

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Mobility by knowledge courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

* Many thanks to Webs of Substance for finding this study!

Pariah to Politico 50

by Lisa Hansel
September 4th, 2014

After 30 years of being misunderstood, E. D. Hirsch’s dedication to equalizing opportunity is being widely recognized. Today, he has the honor of being included in the Politico 50.

E D Hirsch

As noted in Politico’s encapsulation of his work, “Hirsch’s argument was revolutionary: All children, regardless of background, should be taught the shared intellectual foundation—from Euclid to Shakespeare to Seneca Falls—needed ‘to thrive in the modern world.’”

Thriving, regardless of the accident of birth, has always been his driving force. In her brilliant article, “‘I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,’” Peg Tyre explores how Hirsch has been revered and reviled:

In 1978, between stints as head of UVA’s English Department, Hirsch was conducting research at a nearby community college. There, he observed that the largely African-American low-income students could read short works of narrative fiction but could barely wring meaning from a piece about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox because they lacked basic knowledge about the Civil War. “What I saw is that background knowledge really mattered,” Hirsch says….

To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”

Which is where his List came in. To make it, Hirsch, along with two professors, scanned newspapers and popular journals for high-frequency concepts and then polled 500 professionals—lawyers and writers—to determine which of those concepts were the most crucial for cultural literacy….

OK, I say, that might have made sense in the 1970s, but what about now when the complexion of American public schools is changing? … How can any dictionary of cultural literacy keep pace with such a rapidly changing world? Hirsch grows crisp. “Why do you think one’s color or ethnicity would affect one’s vocabulary? Without a doubt, Latino culture is having a big influence on America, and the language of culture will change around the margins. But educated conversation is still going on. And you want to make sure those kids—particularly those kids—have the tools they need to be included.”

Tyre concludes, “In the autumn of life, with three grown children (two of whom are teachers), he’ll take vindication where he can. ‘The point wasn’t to perpetuate the culture of power,’ he tells me. ‘It was to open the door to kids who don’t have the keys to power.’”

Knowledge for What?

by Guest Blogger
August 28th, 2014

By Will Fitzhugh

Will Fitzhugh is the founder and editor of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students.

Education is an important issue these days, which is both good and bad. Good, because we need to pay more attention to the work of our schools these days, and not so good, because lots of people who know all about convertible debentures, initial public offerings, etc., think they must know a lot about teaching and learning as well.

There is prolonged debate about the role of education in promoting citizenship, character, lifelong learning (try living without learning sometime), career readiness, environmental awareness, respect for diversity, and on and on.

What I find missing most of the time is any suggestion that after an education (and during an education) it might be nice to have gained some knowledge. “How did so many countries and peoples get involved in World War I?” for example. “How did Jefferson feel when he had to change his mind about presidential prerogatives under the Constitution when the Louisiana territory came up for sale?” “What was the crucial insight that led Watson and Crick to the understanding of the double helix?”

When people raise the question of “Knowledge for What?” my response is usually: for its own sake. E. D. Hirsch and others have shown that having knowledge is what makes it possible to gain more knowledge. And being able to gain more knowledge is really necessary in life, I would agree. In addition, perhaps this is just my bias as an editor and publisher of interesting history research papers, I also feel that gaining knowledge is really one of the essential pleasures in life. Jefferson said: “I could not live without books.” I don’t think that was only because some books could aid him in the many architectural and agricultural innovations he cared about.

James Madison wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives…. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

I have been told that Jefferson may even have been able to play some of Mozart’s new work on his violin, and it seems likely he valued that, whether or not he could prove it made him a more efficient farmer, or a more productive President.

Sometimes, I would suggest, in our vigorous (frantic) pursuit of the practical, we skip over some of the things that are of the greatest (practical) value. Once Sir Alexander Fleming was given a tour of the brand-new gleaming headquarters of the Salk Institute by an eager young Ph.D. After the tour, the guide could not help but say: “Just think what you could have discovered if you had only had this state-of-the-art equipment!?!” And Sir Alexander Fleming said, perhaps kindly, “Not penicillin.”

So, by all means, let us introduce more computer technology, more vocational training, more college- and career-ready standards for critical thinking, textual analysis, deeper reading and all of that. But let’s also remember that one of the goals of education must be the acquisition of knowledge, including knowledge of history. We can never be completely sure, at the time we acquire it, when or in what ways some knowledge may be useful in itself in our brief lives as human beings.

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Essential pleasures courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

What Can Preschools Learn about American History?

by Lisa Hansel
August 21st, 2014

To those who answer “nothing” or “they don’t need to learn it,” I have two responses—you’re wrong and you’re not trying hard enough to see the world through the preschoolers’ eyes.  Do they have some grand concept of human history and arrive eager to see how the American experiment fits in? No. But they are routinely confronted with hints that some unknown past exists, and that it must be pretty important—important enough to take a day or so off school.

Although in later grades the calendar is unlikely to be the most logical, efficient, or coherent way to teach content, for preschoolers, all those special days off with funny names offer a way to connect their present to our shared past. (In a nutshell, that’s why CKLA Preschool’s intro to American history follows the calendar, but the U.S. history domains in CKLA K–2 are in chronological order.)

Most of the content in CKLA Preschool is the standard stuff of early childhood: families, animals, Goldilocks, etc. It’s important, but too typical to capture my interest. The “Important People in American History” domain is different, raising questions about what we ought to expect of 4 and 5 year olds and what the purpose of preschool is. What I find particularly interesting in this domain is both how complex concepts are introduced and that a simplified (simplistic, even) introduction is enough.

Take the lessons on Barack Obama (which are done in conjunction with lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., before and after his birthday). Preschoolers learn that Obama is our president—which is likened to the school principal—and that he became president because “many people” voted for him. (You weren’t expecting the Electoral College, were you?) In a read-aloud and discussion, the role of president is boiled down to things like talking on the phone to important people, reading and signing important papers, and thinking about what laws (or rules) the country should have. Some images and text are devoted to conveying that Obama is a real man with daughters who have to do homework and walk their dog. Fair enough. To me, the most interesting aspects of the lesson come after the read-aloud, when time is spent on two essential concepts: laws and voting. The teacher begins with a discussion of laws; while the teacher is free to do the discussion as s/he sees fit, the domain guide has suggestions for how to explain what laws are, such as:

Laws are special rules that everyone in the country must follow. Laws keep everyone safe and help everyone get along with each other. There is a law that we must wear a seatbelt in a car. There is also a law that all children must go to school. Laws are rules that everyone in our country obeys.

And

Laws are like the rules in our classroom. Rules in our classroom keep us safe and help us all get along with each other. One rule in our classroom is _______. What are some other rules in our classroom?

A teacher could take this as far as s/he likes, expanding into family and school rules and/or helping the children create laws.

To understand voting, teachers are encouraged to pick something the class may choose, such as whether to have goldfish or graham crackers for their next snack, and have the students cast ballots. The choice itself is not monumental (though some 4 year olds may beg to differ), yet critical aspects of voting become concrete: marking one’s choice, dropping the ballot in the ballot (shoe)box, counting the votes, and—perhaps most importantly—having to peacefully accept the majority’s choice. It’s a social skills lesson as much as a citizenship, history, and academic vocabulary lesson.

Those lessons alone are worthwhile, and they become even more so in later lessons. (You were expecting that—it’s Core Knowledge after all. CKLA Preschool’s content is coherent and cumulative even when it’s following the calendar.) The presidency is reviewed while learning about Abraham Lincoln (for Presidents’ Day) and the concept of laws is revisited in the context of learning about Justice Sonia Sotomayor (during March, Women’s History Month).

I thought the concept of a judge would be difficult to convey, but the domain guide offers suggestions to make it comprehensible—especially for children who have already thought about what laws are and why we need them:

A judge’s job is to listen to different people and help make decisions about rules and laws.

And

We have a rule in our class that everyone plays nicely, but sometimes not everyone knows that this means sharing your toys. Sometimes, I act like a judge and help everyone understand what playing nicely means.

After a discussion, the children are ready for the read-aloud, which focuses as much on Sotomayor’s childhood as her career. Which brings me back to the purpose of preschool—not just preparing children to do well in school, but to embrace school as an opportunity to find out what life has to offer. When we introduce preschoolers to important people in American history, we begin showing them just how diverse and significant the choices before them are. Those are the lessons that will last a lifetime; the sooner they grasp them, the better.

CKLA Preschool Sotomayor

This photo of Sotomayor being sworn into office (with her mother holding the Bible) by Chief Justice Roberts is image 7A-7 in CKLA Preschool’s “Important People in American History” domain.

The Skills Myth Might Kill You

by Lisa Hansel
August 13th, 2014

All of us in the Core Knowledge community are well aware of the risks of the skills myth: inadequate reading comprehension, limited critical thinking ability, inability to responsibly fulfill basic citizenship duties like researching issues before voting, etc.

Here’s a new risk: death.

Shockingly, I’m only kind of kidding.

As Annie Murphy Paul explained last week, the vast majority of new doctors think they don’t have to memorize all those pesky medical facts—they can just look them up:

A young doctor-in-training examines a new patient. Should she draw information for the diagnosis from her “E-memory”—electronic memory, the kind that’s available on a computer? Or should she dip into her “O-memory”—organic memory, the old-fashioned sort that resides in the brain?

Research shows that apprentice doctors are increasingly relying on E-memory, often in the form of a digital resource called UpToDate. This is an electronic reference tool, accessible on physicians’ laptops or mobile phones; tap in the patient’s symptoms, and up comes a potential diagnosis and a recommended course of treatment. A recent study found that 89 percent of medical residents regard UpToDate as their first choice for answering clinical questions.

I’m all for reference tools. The more important the decision, the more care we should take in checking our thinking. But doctors who believe such tools make memorization unnecessary are putting us all at risk. They are not developing their own web of knowledge, and so their ability to make connections will be limited. They will be less able to perform the human, artful, problem solving that is the heart of good medicine. This has consequences, as Paul reveals through Jerome P. Kassirer, a professor of medicine at Tufts University:

In medicine, writes Kassirer in an essay in the British Medical Journal, “we don’t always know what we need to know, and searches that are constrained to information we need at a given moment may not generate information that may be critically useful later.”… Kassirer offers an example from his own experience: “From the beginning of my third year at medical school I subscribed to two general medical journals, and I scoured each issue. Then, during my first week of internship, I was asked to examine a patient with hypotension, flushing, diarrhea, and hepatomegaly. About a year earlier a report on the carcinoid syndrome had caught my eye in one of the journals because of its unique metabolic characteristics. I correctly made the diagnosis because the article I had found in browsing had evoked the diagnosis.”

The more important the job, the more care we should take in building our expertise. Depending on E-memory results in shallow knowledge. As Paul writes:

Medical residents are, or should be, in the process of becoming experts, and that process involves building a rich and interconnected database of knowledge in one’s own mind. Research in cognitive science and psychology demonstrates that the ability to make quick and accurate judgments depends on the possession of extensive factual knowledge stored in memory — in internal, organic memory, that is, and not in a device.

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Terrifying photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

The Importance of Teaching Content

by Guest Blogger
August 6th, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth 

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful — and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China — the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna — in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn’t necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that’s when I knew why the school’s third-grade reading improvement hadn’t translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.

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TV brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the “fourth-grade slump” of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother’s education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn’t so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it’s so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a “myth of education,” is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning.

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program — she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving — many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they’re looking for in Christodoulou’s article and book.

 

Reading Herman Melville Made Me a Better Teacher

by Guest Blogger
July 29th, 2014

By David O’Shell

David O’Shell is a middle school teacher in Maryland.

I have always wanted my students to be able to solve real problems in the world by relying on the abstract knowledge they have learned from me. I think this is central to what it means to be an educated person. It always has been. And I think no other writer has developed this notion of combining the ideal with the mundane in order to produce a complete individual more than Herman Melville. And this week, with Melville’s 195th birthday on Friday, I’m reminded that when I look out on my classroom, I see Melville and his world.

I see this in White Jacket, kind of an overture to Moby Dick, where Melville reveals this completed person to us in his lovely description of the Man of the Mast, as innocence and experience united: “You would almost think this old mastman had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of this old man’s mother when first she cried for the babe to be laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile immortality within” (649). Melville’s complete (or mostly complete) individual, Ishmael, Ahab, Bartleby, Israel Potter, will always have scars or wrinkles, a sunburn of the soul. But he will have these marks of experience in combination with a small candle within, by the light of which he can read these experiences.

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Being a teacher will mean that you meet some rough salts. I’ve taught kids without a home, who have attempted suicide, who are cruel or out of control. Other teachers have had much worse. How do you teach people like this? This is where teachers who work with tough kids scoff at tough standards.

Melville’s answer is to work with these people, as in work alongside them. This is Melville’s contribution of ideas to literature I find useful. His ideas are different from someone like Tolstoy, whose characters find enlightenment through a kind of volunteerism and cutting grass. Melville in democratic America had the opportunity to mix more evenly with people at the bottom. He comes through these experiences without sentimentalizing. Some of them are good fellows; some aren’t. It is in these situations, surrounded by the core of humanity in a microcosm, where we find ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This is what Melville’s books are made of.

Melville is unique in this way among writers in that he is both at the bottom and at the top. His aristocratic family lost everything, he worked on merchant, whaling, and navy ships, became a famous author, married wealth, and ran out of money and fame once again. As a teacher I have to find myself in the same place, as being both on the bottom with those I am working with and at the same time being of a tradition of high culture.

That’s why I am glad I had so many terrible jobs before I became a teacher. Working at Pittsburgh’s Original Hot Dog Shop and in roofing gave me the experience of being in the trenches with the kinds of people I help as a teacher. Having to defend myself rhetorically against three other roofers 90 feet in the air on a 15 degree pitch on why I believed “humans came from monkeys” well prepared me to face a group of 30 struggling students alone in a cramped classroom. Some of these experiences were good and some were bad, but I was able to take the most educative of them and read them by my inner candle.

Melville’s educated individual is one who has merged experience with what is native, innocent. Queequeg from Moby Dick thus typifies the Melvillian student: “Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (691). For Melville, man at his best is a book to be read, reread, and puzzled over: “Seat yourself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (670). Here you see the problem that the mass of mankind presents to us. From our experience with the mass, we can come back to our fire within and come to a better understanding of our own book. And as teachers we can see each student as an unread book.

I am one of those teachers to whom principals assign the difficult kids. It has been a surprise to me that over the years I have shown skill in working with the tough ones. I was never particularly popular in school. I certainly do not have charisma like Mr. Keating. I’m the kind of person you grow to like after a few months. Years. But I can be real with you when it is necessary. Any person who is interested in becoming a teacher should first go for being real. Melville and a sunburn are a good place to start.

Follow Dave O’Shell on Twitter @DavidJOShell.

Quotations from Moby Dick are from the 1992 Modern Library Edition. All other quotations are from the 3 vol. Library of America Melville collection.