“Diversity of Preparation”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 2nd, 2010

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein takes up a piece E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and I wrote in the American Prospect a few months back titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.”  The essay explained why, contrary to popular belief, reading is not an all-purpose, transferable skill, and argued for a domain-specific approach to reading instruction and assessment.

But a commenter on Bauerlein’s Brainstorm blog wants to know why the professor is taking up the issue at all.  The piece, after all, was in an issue of the Prospect concerned with getting kids to read by third grade.  What does this have to do with higher education?  Everything, Bauerlein responds.

Just look at the numbers of freshmen who end up in remedial reading courses. And, as I argued awhile back, according to ACT, the biggest college readiness problem in reading is, precisely, inability to comprehend “complex texts.” The point of the post is to argue that reading comprehension doesn’t improve simply by practicing the “skill” again and again. Readers need to build domain knowledge in order to handle texts at the higher levels.

Right.  And that doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be remediated at the college level. 

Ed reformers take note: if you’re not concerned with building domain knowledge in students, increasing graduation rates is only doing half the work (and the easy half at that).  If kids aren’t prepared to succeed in college–and the evidence cited by Bauerlein suggests they’re not–then what have we really accomplished?

Walt Gardner, in an unrelated post over at EdWeek,  considers President Obama’s recent declaration that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” and sees a divide between “Determinists” and “Romanticists.” Determinists like Charles Murray hold that “only a small minority of high school graduates possesses the intelligence to succeed in college.”  Romanticists like Arne Duncan believe far more students should go to college.  “Which side in the debate is right? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Success in college is not solely the result of intelligence or aptitude. Perseverance and dedication play a powerful role that is not fully appreciated,” Garner concludes.

Right again.  But surely preparation is an even more powerful determinant of college success or failure.  “The chief problem in American education,” notes Hirsch, “is not diversity of income, race, and ethnicity but diversity of preparation.”

If we continue to insist on treating reading as a formal skill, while dismissing the importance of the slow, steady buildup of domain-knowledge, we are not adequately preparing kids to succeed in college–a phenomenon most vividly appreciated by Bauerlein and his colleagues who work with the finished products (and only the “successful” ones!) of our K-12 education system. 

If we’re setting kids up to fail in college, what have we really gained?  Gardner puts it well:  ”Let’s hope that the record percentage of female and male high school graduates now enrolled in college get their money’s worth.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but let’s not forget either that debt is a terrible thing to carry.”


  1. Well, actually, if we get more students to graduate from high school we have accomplished something, even if they are not prepared for college, since w/o a high school diploma as a credential, things don’t go well for young people. Yes, we wish the diploma meant more, and we should be working towards making it mean more; maybe the old Regents/Regular system in New York wasn’t so bad. Maybe an even more fine-grained credential would make still more sense.

    Comment by EB — September 2, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  2. Well, sure EB. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no value in a high school diploma. I would, however, suggest that too many of us fall victim to a kind of credentialism–the assumption that possessing a piece of paper acts as some kind of magic talisman. The credential is supposed to be backed by the currency of an education. Even a high school diploma will be of little value if it leaves kids ill-prepared to read, work, participate in civic life, etc.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 2, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  3. Robert — what do you mean by domain-specific or domain-knowledge?

    Thanks –

    Comment by tim-10-ber — September 2, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  4. While I am extremely supportive of the need for domain-specific knowledge across all of the disciplines, and the related need for strong curricula and highly knowledgeable teachers, there is another aspect that needs attention. That is the STUDENT (and family).

    No matter the curriculum or the instruction, student effort is mandatory if learning is to occur and the lower one goes on the cognitive ability curve the more effort is needed to learn the material. As a (HS principal) relative used to say; “learning is an active process, not a passive one.” Unfortunately, the current scenario is that the kids at the lower end, who need to work harder to learn, are the least likely to do that work. Part of the blame lies with the schools, which have failed to demand effort and mastery before advancement, but part lies with the student, family and community who have not made academic effort a priority. The culture has to change; both in the schools and outside of them.

    Comment by momof4 — September 2, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

  5. I should have added that the student/family/community aspect of “diversity of preparation” goes a long way to explain the dirty little secret that in some of the same urban schools where most of the kids feel no shame at remaining illiterate and innumerate, it is not unusual for Asian kids (from immigrant families who don’t speak English) to succeed; their families and their community demand no less; they put in the effort to make it happen.

    Comment by momof4 — September 2, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  6. @tim-10-ber Domain-knowledge = knowledge of the subject you’re reading about. Here’s an example Don Hirsch used in his last book, an account of a cricket match:

    Thus, as the final day dawned and a near capacity crowd lustily cheered every run Australia mustered, much depended on Ponting and the new wizard of Oz, Mike Hussey, the two overnight batsmen. But this duo perished either side of lunch – the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before – and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket.

    I’m a sports fan, but I know nothing of cricket. I can’t understand this passage in the least and I can question the author and try to make inferences. What I can’t make is meaning. And that’s because I have no domain knowledge of cricket.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 2, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  7. You are absolutely right on, Mom of 4. Teachers at my school bend over backwards to compensate for the fact that most students barely try. Today in Advisory class I asked my students, “How many of you think most kids at our school don’t really STRIVE?” Almost everyone raised their hands. Yet it seems almost taboo to talk about this deplorable situation at staff meetings. Teachers have been psychologically badgered into accepting the mantra that THEY are 100% responsible for motivating the student –with juicy lessons, affability and positive incentives only. So we accept the barely legible assignments and pass kids who don’t do a lick of work. To me this is an abdication of our responsibility as adults. To most this is nurturing the child.

    Comment by Ben F — September 3, 2010 @ 1:32 am

  8. I’m a certified Reading Specialist (for 20 years) and it is my belief that for the vast majority (though not all) of my students, increasing their background knowledge in as many areas as possible is at least as important as working on blends, digraphs, phonemic awareness, fluency, etc – the usual focus for struggling readers. When my “struggling readers” can participate in the conversations of the classroom, then they are eager to work harder. If I stuck to the mundane texts and scripted programs endorsed by my district for these designated students, I would surely lose their interest and become quite bored myself. The world is such an exciting place, how can we not allow our own curiosity and quest for new knowledge to be part of our instruction? Background knowledge (“domain knowledge”) is the key to engaging students of all abilities. As I return to school in September, my 36 struggling readers have probably not left their neighborhoods, and perhaps not their own yards. Introducing them to the wonders of the world, through instruction in reading, is the only way I know to try to bring them into the conversation with classmates who have spent their summer months traveling, and at parks and museums with their parents. The”achievement gap” is no mystery to those of us who work day in and day out with students on the lower end of achievement indicators.

    Comment by LynDee — September 3, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  9. Robert,

    Love the cricket example in Don Hirsch’s book. It exemplifies domain-knowledge perfectly. Go non-fiction, go.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 3, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  10. I teach pre-k I am forever frustrated because what I am allowed to do (in an urban area no less) keeps diminishing. This year we are using a curriculum that is “child directed” and there is NO content WHATSOEVER. Tell me we are not cheating these kids. It is a joke.

    Comment by Patti — September 4, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  11. My director told me to stop teaching facts in science yesterday. I’m only to write inquiry-based lessons. I was already doing a blend of the two and quite successfully I think. I wanted to ask her, “If I provide you with all the lab equipment, can you please come up with a vaccine for aids?” but I knew I couldn’t pull it off without oozing of sarcasm so I didn’t. I’m sure she would have looked at me like I’m crazy, but my interpretation of her logic is that children will learn science by inquiry without knowledge than shouldn’t she be able to do the same?

    Comment by geena — September 4, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  12. Students in my district are constantly DOING, but rarely learning anything. Teachers will tell you that the students are learning skills. But where’s the proof? It’s ironic that in these days of data mania and accountability, the supposed main achievement of modern American schools (improved skills) remains shrouded in haze. College teachers I know still complain that kids arrive sans critical thinking or writing skills. Huh? Isn’t this what k-12 schools are devoting all their efforts to achieving, having jettisoned content? It’s a vast fraud, and, sadly, the teachers themselves are as fooled as anyone.

    Comment by Ben F — September 4, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  13. I read about a preschool in a very affluent suburb (Westchester County, NY I think) where all their “graduates” entered kindergarten already reading fluently. There was so much pressure from the public kindergarten(s) that the preschool stopped teaching reading! I can’t believe there wasn’t a parent mutiny; I sure would have been FURIOUS and I wouldn’t have kept quiet.

    Comment by momof4 — September 4, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  14. @geena

    There is this bizarre notion in science education that science is nothing but inquiry. This is huge example of the fallacy of composition. While all scientific knowledge has passed the test of experiment, that is not how all scientists, applied and pure, gained every piece of knowledge they possess. Science may be about experimentation, but it is not about REDUNDANT experimentation. That’s one of the reasons that scientists publish their results. This is something that everyone in science education has completely forgotten. In their heads every kid is going to independently gain all scientific knowledge through personal experimentation. All they need, supposedly, is HOW to ‘design’ an experiment and to formulate a hypothesis.


    Comment by john — September 4, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

  15. Love reading these comments. I am an ex-high-school teacher of English, LOTE ( guess ) Literacy, ESL ( in Australia ) and I have just read and am about to complete translation of a German parent’s experience as a reading helper in a Berlin primary school. It was published in Zeit Magazin in June. It seems that the American disease has spread to Germany. The emphasis was all on ‘self-expression’, performance of such ( as in talks etc. )but no discipline, no central focus. It was so noisy that he couldn’t concentrate. It’s just like that in Australian schools. Schools here are largely child-minders and holding-tanks for the future unemployed or short-employed.

    Comment by John — September 5, 2010 @ 4:06 am

  16. John-

    If you read the intentions of the designers of these science inquiry classrooms, they actually do not think that students will independently gain that scientific knowledge.

    Their point is because not all be excellent in math and science and those not excellent were disproportionately female and minorities, science and math need to be reimagined into an activity classroom. Recording data thus becomes “science” and is classified as a “higher order thinking skill”.

    Through the inquiry classroom, everyone is said to have “democratic access to powerful ideas”.

    I have read both the PARCC and SBAC assessment plans that won the Common Core grants last week. This is only going to get worse especially if you live in a SBAC state with its plans for performance based assessments.

    Comment by Student of History — September 5, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  17. By the way new national inquiry oriented science standards are being developed right now with final public release currently scheduled for December 2011.

    NRC and Achieve are developing the science standards in partnership with AAAS and NSTA.

    The Carnegie Corporation is funding.

    Here’s a link: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2010/0723noyce_standards.shtml

    Comment by Student of History — September 5, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  18. Paul,

    Read Tristram Shandy from start to finish and let’s see whether your “go, non-fiction, go” cheer has changed. Tristram Shandy invokes philosophy, history, theology, languages, science, and medicine over the course of an ingenious, hilarious fictional narrative. You can enjoy the work without knowledge of all of the subjects, but the more you understand of Sterne’s references, the more you can pick up on his subtle jokes.

    But though Tristram Shandy is rollicking fun, it is not just fun. It is a revelation. It opens up the possibilities of what a novel or story can be. It had a huge influence on literature and still does, whether people are aware of it or not. You can walk around for days thinking about certain chapters. If I were to read Tristram Shandy and all the works to which it alludes, and read nothing else for the rest of my life, my time would not be wasted.

    There are many other works of literature for which I would say the same–works that get one to “hear” life in a different way, works I could read over and over for years. Why pretend that fiction is in any way inferior to nonfiction, or that literary knowledge is not domain knowledge? The best of nonfiction has been guided by literary principles–unity, elegance of expression, and so forth. Fiction and nonfiction need each other, and the line between them is often fuzzy. Why not honor them both?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 5, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  19. Well-said, Diana. I’m reading The Adventures of Augie March right now, another ultra-rich fiction experience that ties in lots of philosophy, as well as science and history (e.g. “Like the pyramids and the ruins of Maya, they will commemorate an erroneous development of human genius” –I loved this line.)

    The field of English needs a grand reawakening, a renaissance. But I fear there aren’t enough teachers capable of fomenting such a movement. What tiny percentage of current teachers has had a literature course that did more than deconstruct novels? Well, at least we’re better armed against the sophistry of the ed schools, the Kate Kinsellas, Cris Tovanis, and the Lucy Caulkins that we used to be –thanks largely to E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham.

    Comment by Ben F — September 5, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  20. Diana S, my guess is that if Paul were to write his whole comment it might be:

    “Despite the merits of Robert’s argument, elementary school kids are mostly assigned to read fiction. As are middle/high school English students.

    “Try to find the English teacher who wants to knock out ANY novels/plays and replace with even two nonfiction titles, like Wolfe’s Right Stuff or even one of Gladwell’s titles. ”

    “So…….Go nonfiction, go. Try to increase from perhaps 5% of the typical student’s experience to, say, 30% to 40%.”

    In other words, you and Hoss might not be that far apart in your thinking.

    Comment by MG — September 5, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  21. Both ES and MS kids should be reading non-fiction regularly, in English (essays, diaries, biography, poetry, historical novels, myths,legends, fables etc) and in history and the sciences. FYI: Rosemary Sutcliff has great kids’ versions of classics – Iliad, Odyssey, Aenid, Tristan and Iseult, Boadicea, Arthurian legend etc. and some great historical fiction with young male protagonists. Many are set in Roman Britain. Unfortunately, many are out of print but used copies can be ordered from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

    Comment by momof4 — September 5, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  22. In comment 11 above Geena brings up the idea of science teaching only by inquiry and not by content. Very good parallel, Geena, about curing aids. I happen to think it’s totally applicable to inquiry based instruction. But, alas, I also agree that it would be lost on your director. Very sad. And that’s a good follow up by John in comment 14. If I may toot my own horn once again, some years ago I put together a few ideas about the use of the method of contrived experimentation in the teaching of science. It’s at http://www.brianrude.com/ratlab.htm

    Comment by Brian Rude — September 5, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  23. What is the point of reading if there is no comprehension?
    I think the education system of our day needs an overhaul.

    Comment by Heather — September 6, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  24. One major reason for the lack of teaching facts is that there is no common body of facts, events, or works in the arts such as theater, music, art, and literature that students need to master by the end of twelve grade. Here’s a proposal that Americans seem to be afraid of accepting: set up a common group of facts, events, and artistic works that students need to learn by 4th, 8th, and 12th grade. This group would get larger as students advance in grade level and there would be tests established to test mastery of them along with concepts.

    Comment by Kevin Chen — September 6, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  25. It’s been a while since I looked at the specifics, but I think that’s pretty much what the Core Knowledge sequence does; libraries and bookstores have their series “What Your Preschooler (Kindergartener, First Grader etc) Needs to Know. There are also resources developed for the classical curriculum (by Bauer and Wise. Both of these programs recognize the need for familiarity with a common core of material; cultural literacy – and they probably have the associated testing materials.

    Comment by momof4 — September 6, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  26. Diana,

    My favorite book of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird.

    That being said, I still believe we need to pay more attention to non-fiction in our school curricula. That’s just one person’s opinion.

    Can’t wait to read Tristram Shandy. It sounds great.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 7, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

  27. Geena, it sounds as if you are in early childhood also. What age do you teach? I went through a whole science inquiry inservice last year over 6 months of trainings and the emphasis was letting kids see science is fun…which is all fine and dandy…but they used “real” science words like hydrology,zoology,chemistry etc. But there was no substance beyond the name. Adding vinegar to baking soda may cause a chemical reaction but why call it chemistry unless you are going to explain it further. As for the preschool teaching reading I’M ready to have a protest and my kids DIDN’T READ before first grade

    Comment by Patti — September 13, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

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