What Works is Boring

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2009

Important, but frustrating piece in the Washington Post this morning about the difficulty of sustaining test-score growth in underperforming schools after dramatic one-time boosts.  “Studies across the country show that many low-performing schools falter after big one-year gains in test scores.  Of the seven D.C. public schools that increased proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more in both reading and math in 2008,” Bill Turque reports, only showed growth in 2009.  “Most of the schools that surged 20 points or more in a single category last year also had difficulty building on the increase this year.”

The piece looks at any number of reasons–from turnover to cheating–why scores might spike in a given year and then plateau or decline.  But if the piece is any indication, DC schools are overlooking the obvious: a key to long-term growth in reading scores is the steady buildup of background knowledge.  Without knowing anything about the particular schools discussed in the Post piece, I’d bet real money that we’re talking about mediocre schools that got religion (or were forced to get religion) about testing and focused on it.  Hard.  But no one should be surprised to see one-time gains.

“Given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement,” wrote Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. ”If not addressed by schools, academic background knowledge can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.”

E.D. Hirsch has obviously spent much of his life banging on this same drum, pointing over and over that reading tests are essentially tests of background knowledge.  If DC school leaders understand this, the Post piece doesn’t say. 

Test prep and simplistic reading strategy instruction that focus on trivial stories–students learn to predict, to summarize, to infer — does nearly nothing to add to a child’s store of knowledge, making an such a one-time boost nearly inevitable.   An absence of background knowledge is the difference-maker and left unattended it eventually shows up in the test scores. 

At a recent Aspen Institute panel discussion with Hirsch, Randi Weingarten observed that the reason we’re not seeing more of this is because “what works is boring.”  Building background knowledge is a slow, steady process.  Boring as hell.  And absolutely effective. 


  1. Educational implications aside, have these people heard of regression to the mean? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regression_to_mean

    Comment by Matt — December 6, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  2. Not nearly as boring as endless drills on making inferences. Actually I don’t think “boring” is the right word. “Slow” seems more apt. Content is the good stuff, in my book; teaching abstract processes is kryptonite.

    Comment by Ben F — December 6, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  3. During a day of fun with a teacher friend, we talked about how we are simply teaching kids to take a test…and it’s really sucking the fun right out of teaching for us and out of learning for kids. Why would they want to come to school if EVERY aspect of their day revolves around “how to take the test.” When the kids go home in the afternoon, if someone asks them what they learned that day, they aren’t lying when they say “nothing.”

    Comment by Teresa — December 6, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  4. How are we supposed to differentiate learning when the tests that students take are not differentiated?

    Comment by Mimi — December 12, 2009 @ 12:30 am

  5. I just talked with a teacher friend about the high stakes test prep instead of knowledge learning. What are we thinking? Flash, Pop, Bam – Norm and the This Old House gang remodels a kitchen in 30 minutes. This is not reality. How can we test when we don’t even know what the children are suppose to know? How can testing be fair when one child does best at essay, another does best at multiple choice and still another can tell you the correct answer and write the wrong answer in the space of two minutes. How do we compare testing that is not about knowledge but about the application of some knowledge, not yet defined or codified, that must be obtained by eliminating distractors and choosing the best of two right choices that may or may not be part of your personal life context. Can I have 1000 on stupid, Alex? We all watch too much TV and live in unreal expectations.

    Why are we demanding that all children learn algebra and go to college? What of some kid wants to learn mechanics and keep your car running? Or some kid wants to learn hair styling and keep you hair looking good? Are these things horrible and a waste? Homogenization is good for milk not children. When do we start thinking individualization for children? It is boring but it is real. Our new phrase should be authentic education and, dare we say it, Core Knowledge that is available to all children and freedom of choice for their lifework. That is the education of Free People.

    Comment by Dee — December 12, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.