“It’s Only a Movie”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 29th, 2010

Like Alexander Russo, I’m quickly reaching the saturation point with commentary about Waiting For Superman and NBC’s Education Nation.  The last, best word on WFS may belong to Dan Willingham.  “It’s only a movie,” he reminds us.  And in its quest for simplicity and narrrative drive, it “caricatures complex institutions and policies.”

The trope is familiar: spirited band of virtuous reformers battle unfeeling, selfish and powerful foe.  Do teacher’s unions deserve to get beat up on? Sure. So do big city bureaucracies, which take a few licks in the movie. But so too do lazy parents, mountebanks hawking educational drivel, inattentive, idle, or corrupt state legislators, greedy and unprincipled textbook companies, out-of-touch professors at schools of education, and incompetent or cowardly boards of education.

You and I have been a party to this as well, Dan writes, “for letting it all happen.”  Once the hoopla dies down, he concludes, ”the post-movie conversation ought to start by saying ‘Okay, that was really fun. Now let’s get serious about what’s going on.’”

Earlier this week, teacher Steven Lazar posted a level-headed piece about “Education Nation” at Gotham Schools.  “The conversation needs to change,” he wrote.  “It makes no sense to be pro- or anti-charter; the only question that should matter is whether a school is helping students to learn.”

The next change we need is a shift from talking about testing and accountability towards talking about curriculum and learning. There’s a ridiculous notion that bad teachers are bad because they are lazy, and if we could just hold their feet to the fire, they would improve, or leave. That’s simply not reality. Most struggling teachers simply don’t know any better. We need to begin conversations about what they should be doing in their classrooms before their students are assessed, and then figure out how to support teachers in doing this.

This was the message that Lazar, as an invited panelist to “Education Nation,” was prepared to make to a national audience.  How’d that work out?  Not so well.

Stop Me Before I Teach Again!

by Robert Pondiscio
September 29th, 2010

Miss Eyre willfully engaged in a subversive act at her New York City school–something “so controversial, indeed so dangerous, that it might have cost me my rating.”   Her crime?  She taught the-skill-that-must-not-be-named: writing mechanics.

I photocopied handouts with rules. I circled mistakes on students’ papers. I made them write down proper usages of punctuation marks. I did all that and so much more. And it felt GOOD. In fact, I bookmarked some EXERCISES in a WORKBOOK that I might photocopy and make my students do.

Perhaps she can still be saved.  She is not wholly unrepentant.  Indeed, she seems to understand the depth of her depravity, even if she’s not quite able to control the demons within.  “I’m a terrible teacher,” she confesses.

“I’m supposed to assume that my students will magically figure out the rules of the conventions of the English language simply by being wide-eyed ingenues before the great literature of the world and writing about their lives, this despite the fact that relatively few of them have learned any great life lessons at their tender ages. This is what I’m supposed to do.

But faced with fifteen-year-olds “who can’t use commas properly and aren’t even sure what they are” Miss Eyre has gone rogue, left the reservation.  ”Jeez, what will I do next?” she asks. ”Make everyone in the class read the same story? Force kids not to copy research reports from Wikipedia? STOP ME BEFORE I TEACH AGAIN!”

Teaching grammar.  How can something so wrong feel so right?

Education Needs An X Prize

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2010

When Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris in 1927, he was aiming for more than glory.  His flight netted him the $25,000 Orteig Prize, a reward offered a decade earlier by a wealthy New Yorker to the first aviator to to fly from New York to Paris.  Such prizes were a common means of spurring achievement in the early days of aviation.  More recently, the $10 million Ansari X Prize was offered for the first non-government group to launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice in two weeks.  Big prizes get attention, capture the imagination, and create a multiplier effect as competitors battle it out for the money.  The team that won the Ansari X prize spent $25 million of Paul Allen’s money in pursuit of their $10 million payday.  Prizes are small beer compared to the potential to spur an entire industry, like aviation or space exploration, which is precisely what the underwriters have in mind. 

This brings us to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his decision to give $100 million to Newark, New Jersey’s school system.  Zuckerberg has no obvious reason for friending Newark.  After meeting mayor Cory Booker, he merely decided, ”This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a real person who can create this change.”  One gift, one district, one time, so they can “try out new things.” 

Zuckerberg is to be commended for his generosity.  But if he wanted to give $100 million to an urban school district to drive change, why not follow the lead of the X Prize or its many predecessors?  Offer it up in the form of a $100 million windfall to the first inner city school district that closes its 8th grade reading achievement gap on NAEP and keeps it closed for three years running.  Or the first district to graduate 80% of its 9th graders from high school four years later.   Create a rigorous, independent reading test and give the prize to the first district that gets 95% of its third-graders to pass it.   Since charter schools are supposed to be our engines of innovation, invite them to the party.   Even the sharpest critics of KIPP will stand up and applaud if (to pick another potential prize goal) they manage to send 90% of their graduates to college without the need for remediation.

At Forbes.com, Neil Weinberg cautions that the names Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates swirling around Zuckerberg’s largesse are “enough to blind an observer with its starlight.”  So much so, he warns, as to obscure the question of whether the Facebook founder’s money is “headed down a rat hole.” Newark already spends roughly $23,000 per pupil.  “Even the L.A. Unified School District, whose students are just as poor as Newark’s, gets by with half as much,” Weinberg notes.

“Given that Zuckerberg’s $100 million will be spread over five years and 40,000 students, it will add all of $500 per pupil, or 2% to the annual budget. Add in matching funds promised and hoped for and you get double that. Sound revolutionary? Not if it ends up in the same places as the rest of the money.  What would really be revolutionary would be to use funds from Booker’s celebrity backers to conduct a forensic audit of the waste, fraud and abuse that’s swallowed Newark’s education budget. Giving money to accountants, of course, doesn’t create the same warm-and-fuzzy PR as giving it to kids.

Weinberg has a point.  From a social entrepreneurship persepective, simply writing a big check may not be the best strategy to spur innovation.  I didn’t agree with several of the reform inititiatives enshrined in Race to the Top, but it clearly demonstrated how the promise of a big payday can drive change, especially when budgets are tight. 

So my advice for the next billionaire who decides to give away an eye-popping sum of money is not to force others to adopt your pet strategy.  Avoid the temptation to back high-profile, charismatic reformers, no matter how smart they are or how dazzling their vision.   Pick a clear, simple goal for education.  Make it big.  Make it audacious.  And then put the money aside in an interest bearing account and wait for a knock on the door when some enterprising group of educators steps forward to claim it.

If history’s any guide — and it usually is — someone will come along sooner or later.  And you’ll be buying more than hope and promises.  You’ll be funding results.

Now Comes the Hard Part

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 27th, 2010

Note:  A shorter version of this essay appears today in the New York Daily News under the title “School reform’s next frontier: Translate new standards into good curriculum that puts reading first.” 

Over the summer, 37 states agreed to adopt a single set of K-12 standards in English Language Arts to define the competencies needed for citizenship, productivity, and fairness. It’s a long overdue reform.  But now comes the hard part – figuring out exactly the new standards mean for the day-to-day work of teaching and learning in U.S. classrooms.  It is one thing to insist, as the new standards do, that history and science be taught alongside literature during the many hours spent on literacy in elementary school.   But the ultimate effectiveness of this new effort will turn on another key provision of the new standards – the requirement that literature, science, history and other topics be dealt with coherently from earliest grades, at first in oral form, and that they be integrated with the whole of the K-12 curriculum.  

Any discussion of the new Common Core State Standards must begin with a clear understanding of what the standards do and do not say.  It has been contended that schools in the adopting states will all be teaching exactly the same things at the same time.  Wrong.  The content that teachers teach and children learn is “curriculum.”  Standards and curriculum are not the same thing.  The Common Core Standards do not guarantee a uniformity of educational experience any more than auto safety standards force Americans to drive a single kind of car, or building codes make every house look the same.  The Common Core standards describe the desired outcome only, not precisely what must be taught and how to achieve it.  This distinction between standards and curriculum is no mere pedantry.  It’s not lack of standards but of a coherent and content-rich K-8 curriculum that has created our chronic education crisis.  Curriculum dilution, especially in Kindergarten through fifth grade, has depressed student knowledge levels, caused verbal skills to decline, and perpetuated a competency gap between demographic groups.   If the new standards are carried out well with coherent and substantive curricula, this new reform will begin to reverse the decline. 

The Nobel economist James Heckman has shown that high school graduation rates rose sharply during the first half of the 20th century, then started dropping in the late 1960s.   During roughly the same era — from 1965 to 1980 — American 15-year olds dropped from 3rd to 14th place in reading comprehension on international comparisons.  Our twelfth-graders’ scores on the verbal SAT dropped a dizzying 50 points.  Since the 1980s the verbal scores of American high school seniors have not budged despite multiple system-invigorating efforts like charter schools, accountability systems, and intensive literacy programs, and a meteoric rise in educational spending.  Other nations, whose students experience the same distractions of TV, internet, video games, and sometimes show the same diversity of population, have improved while we have declined. The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base.  This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence.  During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98 percent white and middle class – dropped with similar sharpness.

What changed was less the demographics of the test-takers than the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools and then the teachers and administrators they trained.   The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum — as researchers have shown by analyzing the severe watering down of American school books in the period 1950-to the present.  The decline of the elementary curriculum coincided with our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores.   To cause them to rise again, we will need to adopt contrary ideas – never an easy prospect — and we will have to strengthen the coherence and substance of the K-8 curriculum — exactly as the new standards recommend.  

Why do I focus on verbal scores as an index of our educational decline?  Math is critically important of course, but language ability correlates highly with nearly all our goals for American education.  Verbal scores correlate with general knowledge, with the ability to learn, communicate, and complete jobs effectively — even with an ability to work in teams.   They are a good predictor of productivity and income.   If we were permitted just one wish for K-12 education, a steep rise in verbal scores would be our safest bet. 

And the surest way to insure a rise in verbal scores is to induce a big rise in vocabulary size.  Reading tests and the SAT verbal test are well correlated with vocabulary size.  You don’t effectively build a big vocabulary by studying words, but rather by studying things starting in earliest grades. You cannot do it quickly nor by intensive remediation at the high school level. A large vocabulary is the product of having gained broad general knowledge from earliest years.  Unfortunately, recent reading instruction has devalued the systematic build up of knowledge, assuming wrongly that reading ability is a general skill, rather than an ad hoc skill essentially dependent on knowledge.  To be a good reader in general you have to know a lot and possess a large vocabulary.  

The connection between verbal ability and general knowledge is the firm scientific foundation of the new CCSS standards.  Their most promising feature is their requirement that during the two hours spent on literacy in grades K-5, students shall begin building knowledge that will serve them throughout their lives.  The standards are indeed silent on what constitutes essential, foundational knowledge.  That’s the hard part.  Within a state, specificity and commonality of core topics are critical, particularly considering how often our children change schools.  If students at each grade level across a state are taught some of the same things as other students, are taught those things them thoroughly, and are thus made ready to move to the next grade, their progress in knowledge and language will be cumulative and sure.

This new core-standards effort constitutes, then, a reversal of the basic ideas and policies that since the mid 1960s have caused American education to decline.   Now is a perilous moment.  The anti-intellectual monopoly of the education world, combined with the financial power of a few large publishers makes the new common-core initiative highly precarious.   There is every likelihood that the same diluted and fragmented early curriculum will be given a new label and present itself as conforming to the new standards.   One already sees signs of this same-old, same-old being set out with fanfare on the web.   Without delay, some private non-partisan philanthropies should get together and form an independent board that will validate claims that school materials and curriculum guides are in conformity with the new standards.   The aim of such a board would not be to determine whether the school materials pass some ideological test, but whether they are likely to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary coherently, year by year, step by step, and thus recapture equality of opportunity, good citizenship, and a path to prosperity.

 The story of America’s educational decline is the story of verbal decline.  It has a beginning, a traceable arc and, if the states are vigilant, an end.

Idiot’s Delight

by Robert Pondiscio
September 26th, 2010

Think anti-intellectualism in American education not a problem?  Submitted for your disapproval:  “There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness.  Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

Seriously?  What possible basis in fact could there be for this broad, blanket condemnation of knowledge, which appears, incredibly enough, on the front page of NBC’s Education Nation website?  The authors ostensibly want us to rekindle our childlike sense of wonder and imagination.  They wax rhapsodic about something called the GeoDome.

Maybe fifteen feet across, eight feet high at the peak. As portable as a tent, as immersive as a womb. Step into the darkness, feel your way to a little canvas camping chair, be seated and gaze upward. Here begins an experience of pure wonder. Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to…anywhere they want in the known universe.

I hate to muddy up the pie-eyed wonder-fest with troublesome facts, but we did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox.  A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others.   And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

A Question for the President

by Robert Pondiscio
September 26th, 2010

As part of its Education Nation edu-pep rally, President Obama will be doing a sit-down Monday morning with NBC’s Matt Lauer.  The network has posted a web page to allow the vast unwashed to ask the President an education question.  Here’s mine:

Dear Mr. President,

Please rank from greatest to least, the importance of each of the following factors in your own educational outcome:

a. testing and accountability
b. your teachers’ membership (or non membership) in a union.
c. data systems to support your instruction
d. the type of school you attended (public, private, charter, etc.)
e. your parents’ engagement in your schooling.
f.  the content of your education (what you actually learned in school).

Now, please rank the above list based on how important you believe they are to other people’s children as reflected in your Administration’s policies. If the two lists are not identical, please explain why. 

If the President doesn’t get to your question, perhaps Ed Secretary Duncan might on Friday.  You can post questions for him here.

Where’s My Damn Juicebox?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 24th, 2010

Good news! New research shows young children are coming to school with more words at their command that ever before.  Words most of us wish they didn’t know, unfortunately.

Children are swearing at an earlier age and more often than children did just a few decades ago, according to Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  “By the time kids go to school now, they’re saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television,” says Jay. “We find their swearing really takes off between (ages) three and four.”

The rise is not surprising and mirrors a rise in swearing among adults.  “Nearly two-thirds of the adults surveyed that had rules about their children swearing at home found they broke their own rules on a regular basis, notes a report on PsychCentral.  Jay has also found that swearing accounts for between 0.3% to 0.7% of all utterances.

Holy $#%!

Scientifically Tested Tests

by Robert Pondiscio
September 23rd, 2010

I’m pleased to welcome educator and author Katharine Beals as a contributor to the Core Knowledge Blog.  She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field, where this essay originally appeared — rp.

In her latest New York Times Op-Ed piece on what’s wrong in education (her third since February), Susan Engel faults No Child Left Behind testing for measuring the wrong things and failing to help schools improve.

Many, myself included, have specific concerns about the NCLB tests: they set too low a bar and too low a ceiling, dumbing down the classroom curriculum; sometimes, correct but unexplained answers to math problems get only partial credit, as do incorrect but explained answers; the tests aren’t used to help teachers adjust to the immediate needs of particular students, or to help particular students and their parents know what they need to work on, in the course of a particular school year. 

But Engel dislikes multiple choice, fact-based tests in general:

“There are few indications that the multiple-choice format of a typical test, in which students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year, actually measures what we need to know about children’s education.

Well, that depends on what your opinion is about “what we need to know about children’s education.”  For Engel, it seems, the priorities are the “higher level” thinking skills that, in Engel’s words, are “the qualities of well-educated children”:

The ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

As for science, Engel mentions understanding the concept of “controlling variables.”

Completely absent from Engel’s proposals is content knowledge–unless “dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live” includes things like world geography, American history, and current events in Pakistan. This, despite the fact that the latest cognitive science research indicates that “higher level” skills neither develop, nor apply, independently of structured, information-rich content. 

Also absent are such specific skills as penmanship, decoding, sentence construction, foreign language fluency, balancing chemical equations, and finding the roots to quadratic equations. 

Specific skills; rich, structured, factual knowledge: these are things a decent multiple choice test could assess, assuming you cared about them.

Then there are the specific skills Engel proposes tests should assess. However important these skills may be, it’s highly questionable whether they (unlike, say, geography and quadratic equations) can actually be taught by classroom teachers.

For example, Engel proposes randomly sampling student writing to measure vocabulary and grammatical complexity. But as every linguist knows, general vocabulary (as opposed to specific vocabulary words taught in the classroom) and, even more so, grammatical complexity are developmental skills, not academic ones. Neurologically typical native speakers increase their general vocabulary sizes and their grammatical complexity through a combination of incidental exposure and brain development. Neither regular classroom teachers, nor standard curriculum packages, do much to address these skills, and, to the extent that they do, they have very little effect on them.

The same goes for perspective taking skills. Engel suggests having children “Write a description of yourself from your mother’s point of view” in order to “gauge the child’s ability to understand the perspectives of others.” Again, it’s not clear what purpose this assessment serves–beyond identifying who is and who isn’t on the autistic spectrum.

Similarly problematic is Engel’s proposal to measure reading comprehension levels by having children do an oral reconstruction of a story to a “trained examiner.” What about shy children; what about children were struggle to express themselves orally?  How does this testing not penalize them and their teachers for circumstances beyond their control?

Then there’s the cultural bias we see in Engel’s proposal to measure literacy levels by “testing a child’s ability to identify the names of actual authors amid the names of non-authors.” Unless these authors come from some sort of core curriculum–something that Engel does not support–how does this testing not penalize socio-economically disadvantaged children and/or those who teach them?

While there are lots of problems with NCLB testing, there are decent ways to test children that help teachers teach better and children learn more. Unfortunately, Engel’s proposals lead us in the opposite direction.

Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.”  She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum.

A “Profoundly Egalitarian” Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
September 22nd, 2010

Earlier this year, the Pioneer Institute hosted a discussion with E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and Andrew Rotherham at the Suffolk Law School in Boston.  A transcript of the event has just been made available and it’s a good read. 

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are pretty good that you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work and ideas.  But I was especially struck by Rotherham’s remarks introducing Don.  He points out that Hirsch’s best-seller Cultural Literacy, which gave rise to the Core Knowledge movement, came out at the same time as Allan Bloom’s 1987 book Closing of the American Mind and was ”injected into the culture wars alongside it” through no fault of Hirsch.   ”Don’s books say what they say if one takes the time to read them,” Rotherham noted.  He proceeded to take issue with the all too common notion that, when it comes to curriculum, “it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading something.”

“Is there a more vain or ahistorical sentiment in education? Never mind that it ignores that throughout the ages there has been some content and ideas that societies felt was so important it should be written down and preserved. But that idea is also at odds with what we know about how people learn and acquire domain knowledge and skills in the first place. And how important content is to reading and understanding. That’s why the divides in this debate don’t always fall along education’s traditional lines. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, has long championed Don’s work because they understand how central clearly-defined content is to learning. So Don’s ideas are hardly conservative in the political sense. On the contrary, they’re profoundly egalitarian.”

To this day there is still hostility among too many who have not taken the time to let Hirsch’s work ”say what it says”; who assume the message is, as one blogger put it as recently as last week: “Clearly, Bloom and Hirsch’s view of relevant curriculum is white curriculum.”

Not right.  His point was not that children from other walks of life be force-fed American literate culture, rather that familiarity with the common knowledge of our culture is the principal difference between those who are literate and those who are not. This distinction is what led Dan Willingham, to call Cultural Literacy the most misunderstood education book of the last 50 years

“The challenge today is democratizing that kind of education both to increase individual opportunity and also our collective good,” in Rotherham’s words.

Profoundly egalitarian is exactly right.

Who Lost Rick Hess?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 22nd, 2010

The Waiting for Superman backlash is on.