Moving the Chains

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2009

Football fans see it time and again:  It’s 4th down and short yardage.  An official standing 30 or 40 feet away from the play sees a running back hurl himself full throttle into a forest of 300-pound linemen and disappear beneath a collapsing pile of players, a football buried somewhere against his body.   Chaos everywhere, yet the official, with unquestioned authority places the ball he lost sight of on the exact spot on the ground where forward momentum stopped and calls for the chains.  Play stops and the fans grow quiet as a team of officials runs in from the sidelines and takes a precise-to-the-inch measurement of the ball’s location.  If the any part of the ball is beyond the plane of the outstretched chain, a first down is awarded.  The crowd goes wild. 


Never mind that the linesman is merely estimating the ball’s position.  Never mind that the ten-yard length of chain was placed based on an eyeball approximation of where the series of downs began three plays ago.  Never mind that every play in the series of downs begins and ends with a best guess (the wide receiver was knocked out of bounds at about the 35-yard line) When it’s time to determine whether or not a first down is to be awarded, football is suddenly a game of inches

Games, playoff hopes, bowl bids and careers turn on a guess–or a series of guesses.  But no one seems to question it.  Call for the chains!  If you stop and think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The answer however is simple: Don’t think about it.

Here are a few more things not to think about:

  • Writing in the New York Times, Todd Farley, the author of the book “Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry” describes getting a part-time, $8 an hour job scoring fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests after a five-minute interview.  “Arbitrary decision is the rule, not the exception,” he writes.  
  • “Bowen Elementary was part of what [Washington, DC] officials hailed as the success story of their 2008 standardized test results,” reports the Washington Post.  “But Bowen also had four classrooms where children erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones at abnormally high rates.”  The paper reports there were elevated numbers of erasures at six schools involving classrooms with 573 students.  CTB McGraw-Hill declared the data “inconclusive,” and no teachers or administrators have been accused of wrongdoing, the Post reports.  
  • In New York State seventh graders who answered just 44 percent of questions correctly on the state math test were given a passing grade. “Three years ago, the threshold for passing was 60 percent,” the New York Times reports. “In fact, students in every grade this year could slide by with fewer correct answers on the math test than in 2006.”
  • Teacher Diana Senechal recently described an experiment in which she was able to “pass” several standardized tests just by guessing and without even looking at the tests. 
  • “Policy makers define good education as higher test scores,” writes Diane Ravitch. “But students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages.” 

We know this.  We see it all around us, but like the football fan caught up in the arbitrary kabuki dance of the moving of the chains, we accept it, applaud it or moan about lousy spots, but the game goes on. 

“There must be a better way,” Pat Summerall, an N.F.L. veteran and broadcaster said in a recent New York Times article. “Because games are decided, careers are decided, on those measurements.”  He was talking about measuring for first downs.  “There’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains,” said New York Giants president, John Mara in the same article. “Yes, it is subject to human error, just like anything else is. But I think it’s one of the traditions that we have in the game, and I don’t think any of us have felt a real compelling need to make a change.”

“With national standards will come national standardized tests, so it’s an especially good time to rethink how these exams are scored, and by whom,” Dana Goldstein sensibly observes at The American Prospect’s Tapped blog.  “Perhaps teachers and principals should be scoring tests, not $8 an hour part-timers. In that case it would be important, especially with the push for merit pay, to make sure teachers aren’t grading their own students’ tests, to decrease the temptation to engage in foul play.”

Like the theatrical measurement of a first down in football, we want to rely on precise measurements of an imprecise process to make high stakes decisions on everything from federal funding to merit pay to whether a teacher keeps his or her job at all.  “I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently observed. 

Right.  It’s way more complicated than that. 

But it’s 4th down!  Call for the chains!  Take a measurement.  How else are we going to know?

Work Hard, Be Good

by Robert Pondiscio
September 29th, 2009

Schools should stop telling children to be nice and start teaching them to be good.

So writes Diana Senechal at DoubleX.  Reviewing Charles Murray’s recent book Real Education, she seizes on an unremarked upon quote in which the controversial author observes that schools “tell children to be nice but not how to be good. It tells children to be happy but does nothing to help children think about what happiness means.”  When Murray is right, she notes, “he is awfully right.”

Being nice is something of a bromide in education.  It’s enshrined in KIPP’s “Work Hard. Be Nice” slogan, and is the focus of a lot of group activity that revolves around “pleasant, uncontroversial subject matter” with familiar social messages  “Being good is more complex than being nice,” Diana observes. “It requires that we recognize our own faults and complexities; that we forgive each other; that we say what we think; that we make difficult decisions and face the consequences.”

When we read literature and history, we begin to glean what it means to be good. We see how people with the best intentions can fail; how people struggle with conflicting desires and values and make the best choices they can; how people overcome their limitations when put to the test. From works like Antigone, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Chekhov’s short stories, we learn about selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, and confusion, as well as grace, generosity, and patience. We come to see elements of all these traits in ourselves.

When the curriculum has substance, “students learn not only how to behave, but how to think and feel deeply,” Diana writes. ”They come to understand what humans are made of, what choices we have, and what reason, artistic gift, and imagination can do.”  By contrast, when the emphasis is on group work for its own sake, ”it becomes more important for students to work together than to learn something important.” 

If we only teach children to be nice, they will be at a loss when life calls for more than niceness. They will be at a loss when faced with problems—intellectual, practical, or emotional—that they have to solve on their own. And when the niceness wears out, they will reach for the next thing they know, the knee-jerk reaction. Murray is right: There is a wide gulf between being nice and being good—and while no curriculum can produce goodness, an excellent curriculum can give students a vision of what it might be.

Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

Dan Willingham reviews the draft voluntary national standards in reading and sees a problem:  ”Teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them,” he notes.  “But reading comprehension is not a ‘skill’ that can be taught directly.”

His latest blog post at the Washington Post’s education page observes that teachers tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. “Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” he writes. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

Policymakers need to pay attention here because this is what those of us who complain about curriculum narrowing are complaining about: the natural impulse to focus on pure reading instruction in an attempt to boost reading scores is self-defeating.  When you see, as Dan does, how “bad readers” look like good readers when they have background knowledge to bring to bear on a topic, the reasonable goal of education becomes increasing the number of topics children know something about.  It may sound smart, even heroic, to focus like a laser on reading instruction, but ultimately the law of diminishing returns kicks in.  You build comprehension by building background knowledge in the reader–not by endless practice in determining the author’s purpose, finding the main idea and making inferences. 

The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things–and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it….Can’t you teach kids how to reason about texts, and thereby wring the meaning out of it even if they don’t have the right prior knowledge?  To some extent, but it doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect. For one thing, this sort of reasoning is difficult mental work. For another, it’s slow, and so it breaks up the flow of the story you’re reading, and the fun of the story is lost.

And Dan has a line in his post that I wish could be on the wall of every classroom in the country:  “Hoping that students without relevant prior knowledge will reason their way through a story is a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

Ultimately the draft national standards do not serve us well by reinforcing the idea that reading a a skill.  It’s not, Willingham notes:

The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.

A request–no a plea, really:  Forward Dan’s post to every teacher you know.  Tweet it.  Blog it. Put it on your Facebook page.  Do it now.   We’re not going to solve this problem until or unless we see this for what it is.  Here’s the link: Reading Is Not a Skill.  Pass the word.  And while you’re at it, here’s Dan’s video, Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading


In Case of Accidental Overdose

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

…administer more poison. 

Please explain to me how doing more of what’s not working will make it work better.

Why Send Kids To School?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2009

“The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate,” observes Diane Ravitch. ”Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores.”  Ravitch’s comments come in a forum published by the New York Times Magazine, which also features input from Tom Vander Ark, Geoffrey Canada, Charles Murray and others.  Ravitch writes:

Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts.

Reflecting on the theme of “How to Remake Education,” Vander Ark stumps for more attention to technology.  “By 2020, I believe most high-school students will do most of their learning online,” he writes.  “It shouldn’t take that long, but it will.”  Charles Murray argues we should “discredit the bachelor’s degree as a job credential”; while Canada believes we should lengthen the U.S. school year, which is “one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world.”

I’m with Diane. There is a clear failure of vision in American education at present, especially in poor, urban schools.  We have narrowed the definition of what it means to be educated in America.  When affluent parents choose a school for their children—when they enroll in a private school or buy a home near specific schools–reading scores are simply not part of their calculus.  It is assumed that in a good school every child will learn to read, and then read to learn.  That’s simply what schools do. When policy makers, education reformers and even teachers and administrators evaluate what makes schools in poor, urban neighborhoods good or bad, however, a single litmus test applies: performance on standardized reading tests.  For the children of the poor, a good grade on a state reading test has become what it means to be educated.  The contrast could not be clearer:  we set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.

Why Standards Aren’t Sticky

by Robert Pondiscio
September 25th, 2009

In his 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Stanford business professor Chip Heath describes why some bad ideas such as urban legends and misleading bits of conventional wisdom are “sticky” and gain traction, while some very good ideas don’t make it through the clutter.   Early in the book, Heath describes how the Army used to invest enormous time in planning military operations that turned out to be useless for an obvious reason:  the enemy doesn’t follow the plan.  The answer, developed in the 1980s, is a planning concept called Commander’s Intent (CI).

CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.  At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: ‘Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region.’ At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete…The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events.

 “Commander’s Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders,” Heath writes. “When people know the desired destination, they’re free to improvise, as needed in arriving there.”  Right about now, you’re probably thinking, Hey!  That’s just like those voluntary national standards they’re cooking up! Brilliant! 

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Standards might work just as well as “CI” if there was a shared understanding and deep experience with the tactics needed to achieve the desired results—if our understanding of how to teach reading were as simple and straightforward as determining the range of a piece of artillery.  The problem in education is that it is possible – nearly certain, in fact – to follow “Commander’s Intent” yet still fail miserably.  The draft reading standards put up for public comment this week by the Common Core State Standards Initiative can’t “stick” because they are built on a flawed model of reading as a transferable skill.  By promoting even tacitly the idea the we can teach reading independent of content (decoding + reading strategies = the ability to comprehend everything), the standards offer little useful guidance for teachers, virtually ensuring that even these “fewer, clearer” directions will not be met.  Only by describing specific texts and content across disciplines (making clear that comprehension equals background knowledge) with assessments aligned with those texts and content, can there be any hope of measuarable progress. 

Let’s be blunt:  Find one single teacher drawing breath that needed a secretive committee of two dozen experts to tell her that high school students ought to be able to “discern the most important ideas, events, or information, and summarize them accurately and concisely.”  This is not a standard, it’s a platitude.  As a goal or statement of purpose, it offers as much guidance and direction as military orders to “win the war.”   We do not lack clarity on our goals.  We lack clarity on how to achieve them.  The draft of the voluntary standards promotes tacitly the same flawed concepts that have driven reading instruction for decades. 

Worst of all, the standards movement as currently conceived threatens to make matters worse by sending the message that there is now absolute clarity on what is to be taught in the nation’s schools.  That, of course, is not what standards do.  That would require not national standards, but a national curriculum.  They are the same thing in the public imagination.  This predictable confusion between standards and curriculum, strategies and tactics, already colors everything from the political attractiveness of merit pay to the anger at teachers for our failing education system.  Many education policies assume teachers know exactly how to teach every child to read well but fail to do so out of incompetence, laziness, or refusal to execute the Commander’s Intent.  The reality is infinitely more complex.

 As written, our vague, insubstantial voluntary national standards are not “made to stick.”  In fact, they are virtually guaranteed to have exactly the unintended results.  By refusing to specify content to be taught, they will perversely encourage bad practice—teaching reading as a skill rather than a function of background knowledge.  In the absence of clear guidance, we will have more unnecessary and pointless reading strategy instruction, more test prep, more focus on reading as a transferrable skill.  And less–much less–of what actually creates competent readers—a well-rounded, content-driven, robust core curriculum.

Fanaticism, Factions and SAT Scores

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 24th, 2009

(Ed. Note:  A version of this essay appears in today’s edition of  The New York Daily News.  Both are based on ideas in E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans)

In town hall meetings and the Internet people address fellow citizens with whom they disagree as though they were dangerous creatures from another planet.  The animosities on display have an almost tribal flavor — Hutus versus Tutsis, white versus black, Democrats versus Republicans. 

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”   Rodney King, a man whose beating by the police became a flashpoint in U. S. race relations achieved with those words a place in national memory.  Coming at a moment of tension and resentment, they resonated with Americans’ deep desire for comity – just as we now wish for greater civility at health-care town hall meetings and more cooperation among members of Congress.    

Quasi-tribal domestic hostilities constitute a mortal danger to our nation that the founders of the United States were anxious to overcome.  They believed that the deepest threats to any republic were the two F’s: faction and fanaticism.   When Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady asked him:  “Well, Doctor, what have we got?”  To which he replied: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”   His remark reflected a worry shared by other delegates to the convention, including George Washington and James Madison.  Washington bequeathed part of his estate to the creation of a system of schooling that would “do away local attachments and state prejudices.”  And Madison acknowledged in the Federalist Papers that we need to develop a new kind of citizen through our schools:  “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; So there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.   Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”    Unless we could educate citizens and leaders who could rise above personal ambition and special interest to seek the common good, our new republic would fail as had all prior republics in history.     

Throughout the nineteenth century, American schools deliberately fostered a sense of commonality with other Americans.   It was the great era of the common school movement which featured a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to teach many of the same things across all subjects in the early grades, and especially in American history. As one early textbook author put it, the aim was “to exhibit in a strong light the principles of religious and political freedom which our forefathers professed . . . and to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage, and patriotism which have rendered them illustrious.”    During the 19th century, American politics were as hardnosed as now, but compromise in Congress and civility in the public sphere were greater then.   During the 19th century the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville reported that the schools of the United States were being far more successful in the effort at citizen-making and allegiance to the common good than the schools of Europe.   

Today, our schools are failing to raise the language proficiencies of high school students.  We see clear evidence in disappointing scores on college entrance exams like the SAT.  It is no coincidence that we are seeing a rise in public incivility along with this decline in verbal skills.   The key point in understanding the profound connection between the two is that language proficiency is chiefly based on wide knowledge, and more specifically on knowledge that is silently shared by every competent member of a speech community.   This tacitly shared knowledge constitutes the public sphere — the commons upon which civic discourse takes place.  The key to being a good speaker, reader, and writer is the possession of the broad unspoken knowledge that is shared by other effective speakers, readers, and writers within a nation. 

Space won’t permit an elaboration of the strong scientific consensus that explains the connection between shared, unspoken knowledge and effective communication.   I’ve done that at length in various books, most recently in The Making of Americans.   Here I’ll simply assume that basic point about communication and make a further point about the decline of civility.  The shared knowledge that enables communication in the public sphere also induces a sense of community, and helps overcome tribal antipathies.   Horace Mann, often described as the father of public education, said: “The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”   

Mann, and education pioneers like Noah Webster, as well as our brilliant founders understood that shared knowledge and loyalty to the common good could only be fostered through a common elementary education – a shared core curriculum in the early grades.   By 1950, that insight became neglected and, indeed, aggressively rejected in our schools.    The subsequent fragmentation of the elementary-school curriculum is the root cause of our students’ low verbal scores, and of the wide gap in verbal proficiency between our low-scoring white students and far lower-scoring black and Hispanic students.    We will recover verbal proficiency, economic justice, and social comity only if we institute more coherent substance and greater commonality in our elementary schools.

A Promising Start for Core Knowledge Early Literacy Program

by Robert Pondiscio
September 23rd, 2009

One year after announcing a pilot program to test a new Core Knowledge Early Literacy program in ten New York City Schools, Joel Klein Tuesday announced very strong early results.  As a news release from the New York City Department of Ed puts it: 

The progress of students in the ten participating schools was more than five times greater than the also-significant performance of students at ten peer schools with comparable student populations, and was reflected among students at all levels of literacy.  Additionally, teachers surveyed as part of the pilot rated the program highly, and nine of the ten participating schools have selected to use the Core Knowledge program with their new kindergarten classes in addition to continuing the program with their first graders, who remain in the pilot.

Speaking at a press conference at a South Bronx elementary school — one of the pilot schools – E.D. Hirsch noted thatwhile the initial results were gratifying, the bigger payoff could come later, since the program is designed to build broad background knowledge across the curriculum, which pays off in improved reading comprehension in the years ahead:

Kindergarten is just a start.  There is always the danger of fade out in later years, as we know from Headstart research.  Elsewhere in the nation, and right here in New York, schools have made noticeable progress in raising reading scores in the early grades according to NAEP, the Nations Report Card.   These improvements reflect better teaching of decoding.   But the improvements in scores are still confined to the early grades.   Verbal scores in the later grades of NAEP have stayed unacceptably low.   Yet these later verbal scores are the ones that predict a student’s ultimate success in life.     

The program consists of two strands: a phonics-heavy decoding strand, and a “listening and learning” strand to build content knowledge.  “Assuming that we will get funding to develop materials for the later grades,” Hirsch noted, “I am predicting that even more dramatic results will show up further on. Instead of the current flat or even declining verbal scores among middle and high school students we will see in students who follow a program like this significantly higher scores, and we will see a narrowing of the language gap between races and ethnic groups. ”

More coverage of the pilot program results can be found here and here.

Common Core Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2009

The revised draft is up.  Read ‘em here.  EdWeek’s Curriculum Matters has reaction here.  Flypaper weighs in here.   I haven’t the chance to pore over the documents, but hope to do so later today or tonight.  That said, it’s good to see an extra measure of clarity: “Standards are not curriculum,” notes the release from the NGA.  ”The curriculum that follows will continue to be a local responsibility (or state-led, where appropriate),” it concludes.  Outside the ed bubble (and sometime inside it) that distinction is not clear.

The End of Education Reform

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2009

A remarkable speech by Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute is all the more remarkable for the lack of chatter it has generated in the edusphere.  Titled “Is It Time to Throw in the Towel on Education Reform?” the September 9 speech at Rice University notes a broad consensus on education reform that has existed for better than two decades is coming apart at the seams.  “The overriding goal of that consensus was to boost America’s academic achievement at the K-12 level,” Finn notes, and it gave rise to “a tsunami of standards-based reform.”

He cites several major developments contributing to the fraying of that consensus.  Among them: unhappiness with NCLB and a palpable backlash against testing that “goes to the heart of standards-based reform.”  On school choice, he points out, far too many charters and schools of choice have been “disappointingly mediocre.”  Then there are the results of the reform era:

Despite all the reforming, U.S. scores have remained essentially flat, graduation rates have remained essentially flat, and our international rankings have remained essentially flat. You can find some upward blips but you can also find downward blips. Big picture, over 25 years, is flat, flat, flat. In other words, all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.

Finn also cites “principled critiques by serious people” as another crack in the ed reform wall:

E.D. Hirsch’s new book may be its most cogent example, at least until Diane Ravitch’s next book emerges—of both standards-based reform and school choice on grounds that these structural changes neglect crucial issues of content and pedagogy—neglect what actually goes on in classrooms between teacher and learner—while narrowing the curriculum and weakening the common culture. 

 Has the reform consensus “outlived its usefulness?”  Finn compares American education to the situation the nation found itself in when the Articles of Confederation proved insufficient to the needs of the new nation.  “We may be at a similar stage with regard to our public-education system,” he notes. “Further tugging and kicking at it from the banks of the Potomac is not going to modernize it.”

I’m suggesting to you that American education today resembles America itself in 1785. The old arrangement isn’t working well enough and probably cannot be made to. A new constitution is needed. It’s in that sense that we should throw in the towel on education reform and think instead about reinvention.

 Checker briefly lists his ideas for “essential ingredients” of this new constitution including national standards and measures; portable statewide “weighted-student” financing; and the replacement of traditional school districts “with an array of virtual systems and regional or national operators (some of them technology-based).”