Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap?

by Lisa Hansel
October 7th, 2015

I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.

There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.


Student who deserves an equal opportunity to learn courtesy of Shutterstock.

This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.

Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:

[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.

Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?

Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.

Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.

My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.

It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.

But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.

Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:

  • High level of intellectual/academic demand
  • High level of social demand
  • Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
  • Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy

Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.

Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.

With “The Science of Learning,” These Deans Will Have an Impact

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2015

Twenty years ago, as a psychology major focused on learning and memory, I took a history of psychology course that included phrenology, Freud, Skinner, Piaget, and Vygotsky, among other ideas and theorists. A few years later, as a doctoral student in education policy, I took a child development class that claimed to be current and correct—it featured Piaget and Vygotsky. A pitifully watered-down version of my history course, it did not offer any indication of which aspects of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s insights have endured and which have been updated.

That was one of many eye-opening experiences in my introduction to the field of education. Since then, I’ve often thought policymakers, administrators, and teachers would make different choices if they knew more about how our minds work. Early childhood education would be fully funded. Reading comprehension instruction would focus more on building knowledge and vocabulary than finding the main idea. Efforts to improve critical thinking would embrace the necessity of factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge. Reading comprehension tests would be high stakes only if they drew from academic domains that had been taught.

You get the idea.

At long last, well-established findings from psychology are being applied to education. Deans for Impact has just released a short but powerful document: The Science of Learning. In answering six essential questions, it distills large bodies of research into basic cognitive principles and practical implications. Here are the six questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates children to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

These are complex questions, but The Science of Learning provides clear answers. For example, in explaining how students understand new ideas, one cognitive principle is “Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.” And the classroom application is “Content should not be kept from students because it is ‘developmentally inappropriate.’ The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question ‘is the student ready?’ it’s best to consider ‘has the student mastered the prerequisites?’”

This is especially exciting because of the group behind it. Deans for Impact is just that: 24 deans and leaders devoted to improving teacher education. Instructional quality is just as important as curricular quality; unfortunately, the out-of-date child development course I took seems pretty typical. (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed defending teachers’ intelligence and noting the troubles with preparation programs.)

Being unaware of current cognitive science causes problems in everything from lesson plans to our national vision for education. Consider the vision set forth by Linda Darling-Hammond in announcing her new institute: “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding…. Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.”

Last time I checked, D-Day was still June 6, 1944. We can all agree that students need more than the knowledge provided by “static textbooks,” but we’ll never accomplish our goals if we continue to deride knowledge while lauding forms of critical thinking. It takes knowledge to make knowledge.

Or, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote:

Yes, we must help students learn how to “find and apply knowledge.” But we also need to teach students in ways that ensure that a good deal of knowledge is absorbed and retained in their own heads. (And one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention is retrieval practice, a key part of affirmative testing.)

The difference in emphasis is crucial. The amount of information in the world will continue to grow, as will the accuracy of our search engines. But unless we succeed in moving a lot of that information into our students’ own minds, we won’t be preparing them to grapple with that brave new world.

Hopefully, The Science of Learning will be embraced as an essential guide by educators and policymakers at all levels. It would move essential cognitive science into their minds, and allow all of us to focus on cultivating the broad academic knowledge and related skills our youth need firmly planted in theirs.


Building knowledge of the world, even through textbooks, is absolutely essential to analysis, investigation, and problem solving (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Penguins, Pythons, and Text Sets

by Lisa Hansel
September 22nd, 2015

Pop quiz: What do the following texts have to do with each other?

  • “What Happens When it Rains”
  • “Shasta Dam”
  • “Water Main Break in Downtown New York City”
  • “Penguins: Up Close and Personal”
  • “Pythons Invade the Florida Everglades”
  • “Who Wants a Spiny Snack?”

If you answered that they all have some connection to water, you’re right—but there’s no prize.

These texts are posted on ReadWorks’s website, on a page devoted to “K-12 Articles Related to Water.” As the intro wisely states, “Research says that reading or listening to several articles related to the same topic can help students build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

That’s true. But ReadWorks didn’t follow its own advice.

The texts listed above are its set on water for 4th grade (that spiny one is on pufferfish). Technically all of these texts are related to water, but none is actually about water. Even the first one, which you might assume is about rain or perhaps the water cycle, is really about dirt turning to mud.


Mud-loving child courtesy of Shutterstock.

That one may not be worth a text set, but all the other texts in this collection are. Instead of pretending that these are all about water, it would be far more productive to create text sets on the actual topics: dams, city water infrastructure, penguins (and possibly other animals in Antarctica), the Everglades, and oceanic fish. Only by having multiple texts on these focused topics will students have a chance to “build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

When constructing a text set, the key is for words and ideas to repeat across the set. A well-designed text set will start with an introductory text on a specific topic that provides basic concepts and essential vocabulary; the set will progress to more and more complex texts that provide multiple exposures to the words and ideas that students need to master.

ReadWorks’s texts on water don’t do that. Since water is only tangentially related to these texts’ topics, the text set provides almost no repetition of words or ideas. Students don’t have a chance to build knowledge or vocabulary, and there are very few connections to make (but please let me know if you ever see penguins and pythons hanging out at the Shasta Dam).

Pretty much all of ReadWorks’s text sets on water are like this—not about water. But there is one exception. Five of the six texts it pulled together for third grade are coherent:

  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Living Things & Ecosystems Need Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Water’s Impact on the Earth”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Protecting Out Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Life in the Ocean”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Creatures and Ecosystems of the Ocean”
  • “Li Bing and the Flooding”

The five truly about water were provided by OLogy, a website for children by the American Museum of Natural History. They are informative and engaging—as is the whole Ology site.

ReadWorks could dramatically improve its text sets if it took these five as a model. Even just using the texts listed on its water page, coherent text sets (on topics such as the Everglades) that provide the repetition needed for learning could be created by mixing easier texts for children to read with harder texts for teachers to read aloud.

Of course, old habits are hard to break. Teachers have long been told to create theme-based units. It sounds like a great idea, but much like these texts vaguely related to water, themes tend to be far too broad to support learning. As E. D. Hirsch explained in “A Wealth of Words,” vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts—it’s also the key to increasing equity.

Kids Love Knowing Stuff

by Guest Blogger
September 16th, 2015

By Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, is the author of numerous articles and three books on schools that are succeeding with significant populations of children of color and children living in poverty. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, to which she is a regular contributor.

A commonplace idea floating around schools is that learning facts is the wave of the past.

The basic argument goes like this: Now that we can Google any facts we want, why would anyone need to learn them? They’re so boring! Instead, kids need to learn the skills of “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”

Or, as my kids’ elementary school principal used to say, it doesn’t matter if kids know where Nebraska is as long as they can find out where it is.

A lot of cognitive science argues against this point of view, and some of it can be found here.

But the point I want to make today is that kids love knowing facts. You can almost see them puff up with pride when they can tell a fact to a grownup who doesn’t know it. It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know—like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock, or that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is pi and its decimal representation is infinite—that means it goes on forever!

Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.

I was reminded of the thrill kids have in learning facts a while back when I visited Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Brooke’s students are mostly African American (73 percent) and Latino (25 percent), with 82 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Students at Brooke Charter outperform students in the state by a lotfor example, 91 percent of third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards—compared with 57 and 68, respectively, in the state.

I had asked to speak to students in different grades. The principal set up a little focus group with two third-graders, two fourth-graders, and two fifth-graders and then left us alone.

A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.

I’m sure she was exaggerating somewhat, but another third-grader with a similar experience chimed in to say that he, too, had played most of the time in a previous school. That’s when one of the wise sages in the fifth grade explained that “here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge.”

Her fifth-grade colleague added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework.

Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff—stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.

I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers—not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.


Happy, knowledgeable child courtesy of Shutterstock.

Stop Reforming, Start Improving

by Lisa Hansel
September 10th, 2015

This post first appeared on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

“Programmatic series of studies”—that’s how one of my psychology professors described research on learning and memory around twenty years ago. Do a study, tweak it, try again. Persist.

I was reminded of that while reading Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk and colleagues. After thirty years of constant reform and little improvement, it’s clear that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the education field goes about effecting change. Quick fixes, sweeping transformations, and mandates aren’t working. Ongoing professional development isn’t working either.

What might work much better is a sustained, systemic commitment to improvement—and a willingness to start with a series of small pilots instead of leaping into large-scale implementation. Guided by “improvement science” pioneered in the medical field, Learning to Improve shows how education could finally stop its reform churn. As Bryk et al. write:

All activity in improvement science is disciplined by three deceptively simple questions:

1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
2. What change might we introduce and why?
3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?…

A set of general principles guides the approach: (1) wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply; (2) be minimally intrusive—some changes will fail, and we want to limit negative consequences on individuals’ time and personal lives; and (3) develop empirical evidence at every step to guide subsequent improvement cycles.

That sounds an awful lot like schools across the country engaging in a programmatic series of studies—a change that likely would result in huge improvements. Even better, the book explains how educators can form networks to grow together. Progress is much faster with pilots in multiple locations, as adaptations for each context generate ideas for further tests.

This application of improvement science seems to be the best possible path forward. But it still suffers from a (perhaps inevitable) problem—you don’t know what you don’t know. An example of this problem is sprinkled throughout the book: The Literacy Collaborative is profiled as a network of educators improving their reading instruction. I don’t doubt that their instruction is improving and student achievement is increasing. I also don’t doubt that even better results could be attained with an entirely different approach.

The Literacy Collaborative is dedicated to guided reading, which begins with the teacher selecting a leveled text. As Tim Shanahan has explained, there’s no real research base for leveled readers. The whole notion of assessing a child’s reading level and then selecting (or letting the child select) a text at that level is essentially a farce. Once children are fluent in sounding out words, their reading level primarily depends on their knowledge level, which means it varies by topic.

Neither today nor in the future called for by Learning to Improve is there a way to guarantee that the improvement process begins with the best possible ideas. But improvement science may still be our last best hope. The type of slow, steady progress that would result from widespread application seems to characterize the few examples we have of sustained and, eventually, dramatic improvement, such as in Massachusetts, Finland, and Singapore:

Think of a future in which practical knowledge is growing in a disciplined fashion every day, in thousands of settings, as hundreds of thousands of educators and educational leaders continuously learn to improve. Rather than a small collection of disconnected research centers, we could have an immense networked learning community.

The book’s vision is ambitious—and far more likely to succeed than the reform churn we’ve tolerated for decades.


Lots of churning makes good butter, not good schools (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.


Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY

Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.


Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Dear Alliance: You Almost Nailed It

by Lisa Hansel
August 21st, 2015

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a new report: The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. It’s definitely worth reading, making many crucial points about supporting literacy from kindergarten through twelfth grade in a few pages.

There’s just one problem: it does not discuss building broad academic knowledge.

Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills. If only such skills were sufficient!

In the section on “Why Readers Struggle,” the report mentions vocabulary and alludes to the Common Core standards, but knowledge is neglected:

Improving literacy achievement can prove daunting because individuals struggling to read and write experience a wide range of challenges that require an equally wide range of interventions. Students may have difficulty with word recognition, vocabulary, or reading fluency. In addition, states’ new English language arts standards increase expectations for reading and writing proficiency by emphasizing the critical thinking and analytical skills students need to succeed in college and a career. These standards foster the progressive development of literacy skills by exposing students to challenging texts within academic content areas. Many students, however, lack the strategies and stamina to understand informational texts, make connections among ideas, and draw conclusions based on evidence gathered from source material.

Hmm. Why do the new standards require “challenging texts within academic content areas”? What enables “critical thinking and analytical skills”? And what might we offer students so that they don’t need “strategies and stamina to understand informational texts” (especially since “strategies and stamina” are only minimally effective)?

As decades of research in cognitive science show—and the Common Core standards clearly state—language comprehension requires broad knowledge. In fact, knowledge is so critical in comprehension that a weak reader with extensive knowledge of the topic in the text will substantially outperform a strong reader without such knowledge


In school and throughout life, comprehension depends on broad knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

It’s great to see the Alliance pushing to close the reading achievement gap. Much of its report makes good sense, but the gap can’t be closed via literacy instruction alone.

To be fair, in its discussion of response to intervention, the report does state, “All students need to engage in authentic literacy, which refers to the intensive integration of purposeful reading, writing, and talking into core subject areas.” But this acknowledgement of the importance of all core subjects still fails to recognize that the knowledge students acquire across subjects is the key to good comprehension. If acquiring knowledge were the goal, I’d expect to see “integration of purposeful listening, reading, writing, and talking” since listening to and discussing teacher read-alouds is a great way to build knowledge in the elementary and middle grades. As written, it seems as if the purpose of “authentic literacy” is to build “strategies and stamina.”

I’d love to see the Alliance publish a new report soon. One that touts the need to build broad knowledge from early childhood through twelfth grade, clarifies that a well-rounded curriculum is the only way to narrow the reading achievement gap, and calls for “literacy” interventions for struggling students that include enrichment across subjects.

I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Why Is Creativity in Decline?

by Lisa Hansel
August 13th, 2015

For the past 25 years, creativity has been in decline. I’ve just started to look into it, so I won’t pretend to have an answer—but I do have a hunch. We’re trivializing creativity.

First the research. Kyung Hee Kim is a professor of creativity and innovation at The College of William & Mary. She’s found a couple of interesting things. One is that creativity and intelligence are only weakly correlated. The other is that although IQ scores have been rising throughout the last century, since 1990 creativity scores have gone down—and the most significant drop was for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Some people will assume that too much academic work has been pushed into the early grades. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. In the relatively few early grades classrooms I’ve seen in which children are engaged in sophisticated academic topics, they enjoy learning “real stuff” about the world. I could buy that too many schools have pushed boring worksheets and test prep into the early grades, but I haven’t seen much of that before third grade.

As I learn more about creativity, I think part of the issue is that those of us in education—especially elementary education—don’t think about creativity the way researchers do. When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile.

Kids do say the darndest things, but they are very rarely creative.

Kim’s research uses the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is very widely used and the best-available (although perhaps still not great) predictor of future creative achievement. The subscales on the measure are useful for thinking about what creativity involves:

  • Fluency: “ability to produce ideas.”
  • Originality: “ability to produce unique and unusual ideas.”
  • Elaboration: “ability to think in a detailed and reflective manner as well as … motivation.”
  • Abstractness of Titles: “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes and for capturing the essence of the information involved.”
  • Resistance to Premature Closure: “ability to be intellectually curious and to be open-minded.”

In short, creativity seems to be a mix of being able to think of new things and then being able and eager to analyze and improve on one’s thinking. When Ken Robinson touts kindergartners’ ability to think of new uses for paperclips—and then scolds schools for squashing their genius-level divergent thinking—he’s missing the boat on creativity. As Brent Silby wrote, “If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a ‘genius’? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.”

Along these same lines, the very existence of art schools seems to indicate that fluency and originality are merely the starting places for creativity. Originality is the easy part—useful and worthwhile is the high bar. That takes knowledge, but knowledge itself is not sufficient either (as the minimal relationship between IQ and creativity indicates). Practice, reflection, and the drive to improve (including seeking out and acting on critiques) all seem essential.

So why is creativity in decline, especially among young children? Perhaps because our expectations are too low. Perhaps more academics—taught with interesting read-alouds, more challenging projects, and greater emphasis on feedback, reflection, and revision—would reverse the decline. I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.


Was originality all that Van Gogh needed?