Ed Reformers for Illiteracy

by Robert Pondiscio
March 8th, 2011

“A common curriculum (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we’re about ready to develop school of one–not just a 6th grade math program, but fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student,” writes Tom Vander Ark.   His post at EdReformer.com is in response to yesterday’s call signed by 250 educators, civic and business leaders for a common core curriculum. 

There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings.  But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth:  all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others.  To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  Let me not mince words:  If you don’t think  a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can’t have one without the other.

You may not like it, but you cannot ignore it.  Want to build your reform agenda around technology, structural changes, or accountability but take a hands-off approach to curriculum and content?  May I suggest a name for your group?  Try  ”Ed Reformers for Illiteracy.” 

Vander Ark is obviously a smart guy.  But his vision for education is all about delivery systems. Like many would-be reformers, he tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that how children learn is more important than what they learn. 

“Rather than a common curriculum, learning platforms to come will support not just ‘multiple pathways’ but customized playlists.  Customized learning will be facilitated by comprehensive learning platforms surrounded by application and service ecosystems. Learning platforms will replace today’s learning management systems (LMS) that run flat and sequential courseware.  Like iPhone and Android, these platforms will unleash investment and innovation.

Dazzled yet?  Before you call your broker and load up on Apple and Cisco stock understand that if we don’t attend to what we put through these brave new pipelines, playlists and service ecosystems–or say it doesn’t matter–we will make no progress.  Zip.  Zilch. Nada. 

In a speech in Virginia last month, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. invoked Jefferson’s admonition that we “follow truth wherever it may lead.”  Where it leads — inevitably, incontrovertibly — is to understand that ”a coherent and cumulative early curriculum will raise in a systematic way the knowledge and the language of our students to a much higher level, and greatly narrow the unacceptable achievement gap between blacks and whites and between other demographic groups.”   If you want to raise a child’s general level of reading skill, you must raise his or her “domain specific” knowledge.  There is no way around it.  As Hirsch put it,

“The domain specificity of skill is one of the firmest, and educationally most important, findings in modern cognitive science.   It means that if you have learned a lot about chemistry, that won’t help your critical thinking skills in history.   Cognitive scientists have become quite skeptical of concepts like “critical thinking skills” as though they were a formal acquisition that can be applied to all subject matters.   Science has pulled the rug out from under the entire edifice of the anti-fact, how-to theory of education which has dominated in our schools for many decades, and was the chief cause of the verbal decline that appeared in the sixties that gravely weakened our nation.”

As Hirsch noted, you may not like where this leads, but you can’t pretend the facts aren’t there and the path isn’t clear.  “Consider then what the principle of domain specificity means for educational policy,” he said.  “It implies specific content in the curriculum, and a cumulative building up of the most enabling knowledge and language for all students.   The human capital of our people, the skills that our students will have will be dependent on the specific knowledge they have.  We cannot afford to leave the choice of specific topics and their cumulative sequence up to chance and whim.” [Italics mine.]

Hirsch was being polite.  I will be less so.  If you are opposed teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read.  You are in favor of illiteracy, either by choice or indifference.  You favor damaging our most vulnerable children by denying them the most critical thing: the functional knowledge they need to succeed. 

Deal with it, don’t ignore it.  Follow the facts where they lead.  Not just where you want them to take you.

42 Comments »

  1. Plus: one of the tasks of growing up is to be able to learn from experiences/instruction that was not designed for you. Postponing this reality amounts to postponing maturity.

    Comment by pinetree — March 8, 2011 @ 11:57 am

  2. The Texas Book Depository is alive, and Kennedy dead. A fixed body of knowledge is a wonderfully appropriate tool and ought to include Latin, Greek, and the Great Books – at least as they were known and published by Mortimer Adler. Without that common core of knowledge, how can we share a common vision of the past, and preserve us from the common inconvenience of new technology and information.

    While we’re at it, we might also wear cassock and surplice, wigs and fox scarves. Goodness knows there’s been no new information since the days of Hutchins. How public, like a frog, must the internet become.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 8, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  3. [...] title might seem. In “Ed Reformers for Illiteracy,” Robert Pondiscio writes about why gripes about the a common curriculum, and the argument that individualized learning is king, are pro… “A common curriculum (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we’re about ready to develop [...]

    Pingback by Are Education Reformers Advocating Illiteracy? — March 8, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  4. [...] But rejecting a national curriculum could mean embracing cultural illiteracy. (Robert Pondiscio) [...]

    Pingback by Remainders: Summing the budget battles in 14 quick quotations | GothamSchools — March 8, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

  5. [...] But rejecting a national curriculum could mean embracing illiteracy. (Robert Pondiscio) [...]

    Pingback by Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: Summing the budget battles in 14 quick quotations — March 8, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

  6. “one of the tasks of growing up is to be able to learn from experiences/instruction that was not designed for you. Postponing this reality amounts to postponing maturity.”

    Oh, really? I’ve found that as an adult I tend to have a quite a lot of choice in my life. Doesn’t Starbucks boast that it offers 87,000 different drink combinations? U.S. public schools tend to be a throwback to Henry Ford’s famous dictum about the Model T: “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.”

    I’m fine with having set of topics that all schools must cover by the end of 8th grade. However, I feel strongly that individual schools should be empowered to design their own sequence based on their own intimate knowledge of their students’ needs.

    My goal in our family’s homeschool is to cover everything in the CK sequence at some point prior to high school. However, I don’t particularly care for some of the specific guidelines. As a home educator, I am empowered to re-arrange the sequence to make it work better for us. Teachers and administrators in public schools should have the same level of flexibility rather than having to endure micromanagement from a committee of bureaucrats in D.C.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 9, 2011 @ 8:06 am

  7. Content, content, content. You people must think, for some reason, that knowledge is important. After all, this is 2011, guys!!!

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 9, 2011 @ 11:12 am

  8. @ Anthony

    I’m reading that CW is debating the order of events, not that there are a set of things all kids should know.

    @ CW

    There’s an argument for sequence in the sense that knowledge is additive, right? My 6th grader read a memoir of the Cultural Revolution last year in book club – “Red Scarf Girl.” Every chapter or so he’d poke his head up and say, “Man, who’s this Mao guy? He’s terrible! Why didn’t they just get rid of him?”

    I’m not saying my kid could not ‘get’ the book as a memoir despite his lack of knowledge of Chinese history. But clearly once he has studied Chinese History or 20th Century movements the book will make a lot more sense to him.

    The larger point that Robert eloquently makes is that in our fascination with technology and the ever-increasing ability to offer mass-customization we cannot lose site of the oldest IT adage in the book: “Garbage in, Garbage out”

    Comment by Matthew — March 9, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  9. [...] Get real, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings.  But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth:  all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others.  To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  Let me not mince words:  If you don’t think  a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can’t have one without the other. [...]

    Pingback by Common or uncommon curriculum — Joanne Jacobs — March 9, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  10. My question about a common curriculum (and I acknowledge I’m not very well versed in this issue) is: What do you do about students or classes that learn at different rates? What if a student learns some topics easily but struggles with others?

    I understand an oft-touted benefit of common curriculum is that students (particularly poor students) who move around a lot will be able to pick up where they leave off — So that if 4th grade in Arkansas covers fractions, so will 4th grade in Minnesota.

    The problem is that different students will be able to cover material at different rates. For example, if all kindergarteners in an upper middle class suburb come to school already knowing reading basics, is the teacher supposed to simply teach reading basics anyway (knowing that this won’t help her students) so that her class will be on the same lesson as a classroom in inner-city Detroit?

    Am I missing something here? How does this sort of curriculum work in the real world?

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 9, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  11. Attorney DC,

    “…if all kindergarteners in an upper middle class suburb come to school already knowing reading basics, is the teacher supposed to simply teach reading basics anyway (knowing that this won’t help her students) so that her class will be on the same lesson as a classroom in inner-city Detroit?” Excellent question and one many insiders will avoid at all costs, I mean AVOID AT ALL COSTS.

    I’ve had a long held theory this was one of the major problems with the purported research findings on Head Start. The control group, kids who attended Head Start, had already learned their letters, sounds, blends, etc., and some were already reading by the time they entered kindergarten. They had also learned number recognition, how to count to twenty or fifty and also had healthy exposure to numbers, period. Let’s also not forget perhaps the most important lesson toddlers learn in pre-school – socialization skills and the ability to function appropriately in a formal school setting.

    They then get placed in a kindergarten class with kids who did not attend Head Start. Guess what the kindergarten teacher does? All aboard for the train wreck? She attempts to teach the whole class the same lessons as the Head Start kids already have had. Of course the Head Start kids look like Ivy League material for the first half year or so but this homogenization into the kindergarten curriculum has robbed them of precious learning time. They could have spent the time continuing to make progress beyond the kids who never attended Head Start. But the instruction wasn’t individualized so they were deprived/robbed/short changed/cheated, whatever you want to call it.

    No wonder Head Start appeared to show no LASTING gains for their students. Once again, WHOLE CLASS INSTRUCTION PROVED DETRIMENTAL to the affected cohort.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 9, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  12. Paul: Thanks for your perspective on the issue I raised above. I know that Head Start doesn’t tend to show lasting academic gains once the kids get a little older (although I believe the Head Start kids are less likely to be arrested?)

    Back to my original point, I am also concerned about kids who (for instance) have a really hard time with math. If the teacher is supposed to teach fractions over the last two months of fourth grade, but some of the students still don’t understand fractions by then, is the school simply supposed to shove the kids off to the pre-programmed 5th grade curriculum, which depends on the students already understanding fractions? This would just set up the students for a snowballing downhill path in math: In math, you generally can’t teach the next concept until the kid understands the previous one.

    In theory, I’m all for the idea of having SOME set standards to guide schools in determining appropriate curriculum. But I am extremely hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all curriculum to America’s public schools, given the very diverse nature of our students.

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 9, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

  13. I’ve heard the “who’s to say?” argument often. But I rarely hear the opposite, the “chance and whim” argument. When you are reluctant to say what kids should know, you are saying that there’s nothing kids need to know. Or you are assuming that through the agency of the inviible hand, kids will somehow emerge at the far end of the pipeline having learned what they need to know by osmosis (a process that kids will not know, because, after all, who’s to say that the child will really need to know osmosis?)

    A variation on this theme is “meet the child where he is” or the idea that individual teachers are the best judges of what kids need. At what point do we expect that Miss Jones will say, “You know what this child needs? He needs to learn the three branches of government.” Doesn’t every child? Or is it possible that Jose needs to learn photosynthesis while Malik needs to learn the water cycle.

    The typical answer to this among constructivist types is, “Only if Malik WANTS to learn the water cycle.” The result of this miasma of edufads and kindly nonsense is kids who learn nothing, an education establishment that refuses to acknowledge that shared content is critical to comprehension and thinking skills, and the shared failure we have right now.

    As I said above, the correlation between language, content, comprehension and critical thinking is not in dispute. We’ve been leaving what children learn to chance and whim for decades. Clearly, it’s not working.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 9, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  14. Attorney DC raises an important question, which Paul Hoss implies can be handled by having individualized curricula within each classroom) to accomodate differing readiness levels. I propose a solution that has already been tried and found to work: special handling for reading and math in K-5. In a school of any size, it should be possible to assign children to math and reading classes that are not necessarily in alignment with their grade levels, if this is necessary in order to provid them with instruction appropriate to their readiness levels. I wish this had been done with one of my children, who would have gotten much farther in math if she had progressed through the curriculum (a pretty good curriculum) at a slower pace. It may not be ideal to have children of different skill levels all in the same geography or science class, but it’s a real disaster to have them all in the same reading or math class.

    Comment by JBB — March 9, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  15. Attorney DC,

    How about a one size fits all curriculum in our schools if students are allowed to progress at their own (learning) pace?

    Those fourth graders who never really mastered fractions at the end of fourth grade would be able to start with fractions at the beginning of their fifth grade year. The students who did learn fractions in May/June of grade four could progress to the next unit (decimals) at the beginning of fifth grade.

    As for Robert’s constructivist conundrum regarding Malik; the interests of a child can often be immature, whimsical or fleeting to be seriously considered. Besides, there simply are too many substantive areas of academia that must first be addressed and left to the wisdom of adults. A child is in no position developmentally or cognitively to determine what is appropriate for their time in school.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 9, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  16. Best title I’ve seen in a long time. I wish it wasn’t so true.

    Comment by john thompson — March 9, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

  17. Paul’s comment (#17) is the single most important thing for would-be constructivists to note: “the interests of a child can often be [too] immature, whimsical or fleeting to be seriously considered. Besides, there are simply too many substantive areas of academic that must first be addressed and left to the wisdom of adults.” Thank you, Paul, for articulating that.

    To go back to Crimson Wife’s point about choice (#6), I believe that we become skilled at making good choices not by being given unlimited opportunities to make choices but by learning what “good” means AND having some important choice-making opportunities placed before us in developmentally appropriate parcels.

    I like some aspects of the constructivist theories, but believe strongly that it has spun out of control…at least in the extreme examples that get everyone’s attention. Perhaps we can stop apotheosizing choice as an end in itself, and use it in moderation, within a constrained set of productive pathways.

    I don’t propose creating lockstep — I fear that Robert’s strong words could be (mis?)construed as promoting only one path to knowledge — but think that we can develop a range and scope, and intelligent, creative professional educators can work from there to devise arcs over which kids can gain knowledge and skills…and we can find suitable opportunities to respect students’ individuality without pandering to id-driven choices.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 9, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

  18. @Carl Your criticism is well-taken. The issue to me has never been The Path. Merely acknowledgment that content and knowledge are of great consequence, and not mere delivery mechanisms for skills.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 9, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

  19. Carl-

    I think constructivism is more a political theory than a learning theory. It is called a learning theory in order to gain access to the schools as social change agents.

    And the political structures and ideology it is intended to support and undergird have been consistently hostile to academic knowledge and skills-Content-since the French Revolution.

    Amen Robert. It’s not about The Path unless The Path has been intentionally mislabeled in order to lead us where few of us would voluntarily go.

    Comment by Student of History — March 9, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  20. @Robert (#20): I so acknowledge, with fervor.

    @Student (#21): Whoa, wait a minute. If someone wants to organize his or her pedagogy around students constructing their own learning, that’s fine with me AS LONG AS that does not undermine the valuing of content knowledge. One can do both without losing sight of either…although long observation has shown many of us that many people lose sight of one, and others lose sight of the other.

    We do not need to perceive constructivism as a conspiracy theory to recognize its failure to be the panacea that it was purported to be. What I LIKE about it as a philosophy is that it reminds me that kids do have to find their way to accept knowledge and skills, and that I as a teacher will be more successful if I design my lessons around that psychological reality.

    The problem, which Robert consistently attacks here on CK, explodes when teachers perceive that the ONLY thing that matters is what the student accepts. Paul repudiated that position quite efficiently, above, but sadly, some people clearly do fall into this tragic misperception, and away they slide down the slippery slope. We can teach content AND still care about helping students construct knowledge; what we can’t do, under any circumstance, is to stop teaching content. (Or ignoring the students’ needs, but that should be kind of obvious.)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 9, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

  21. I don’t understand why everyone assumes defining a curriculum = defining a singular, lock step pacing for all teachers and students.

    There is no reason that defining precisely what students need to know requires the end of differentiation. In fact, there’s pretty good reasons, in my opinion, to believe that the coherency of a good curriculum that recognizes the role domain specific knowledge plays in literacy instruction will lead to more effective assessments and more effective intervention strategies. As far as I can tell, differentiation can be more effective with a solid core curriculum, not dead.

    The notion that constructivists have a monopoly on differentiated instruction is crazy. Pacing is certainly a matter of differentiation to some extent. Sequence is somewhat more arbitrary for some subjects, but because we have over a century of “common practices” to build upon we have created a self-fulfilling implicit order in which we expect learning to occur.

    Comment by Jason — March 9, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

  22. The problem is that different students will be able to cover material at different rates. For example, if all kindergarteners in an upper middle class suburb come to school already knowing reading basics, is the teacher supposed to simply teach reading basics anyway (knowing that this won’t help her students) so that her class will be on the same lesson as a classroom in inner-city Detroit?

    EXACTLY!!!!!!!! This is what I was getting at by saying that schools should be empowered to design their own sequence based on their knowledge of their students’ needs so long as everything gets covered by a certain point.

    While certain topics do need to be covered in a particular order (especially in math and history), many of the others have no intuitively obvious timing. Arbitrarily dictating from on high that all teachers must teach X in grade Y seems un-American to me. Many of my ancestors fought against the tyranny of a big bossy central government 3,000 miles away. Are the CCS a sign of Hamiltonian Federalism winning out over Jeffersonian democracy?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 10, 2011 @ 2:21 am

  23. Jason,

    “I don’t understand why everyone assumes defining a curriculum = defining a singular, lock step pacing for all teachers and students.”

    A solid curriculum for all students should in no way define student pacing. Each student dictates that by their individual progress through the curriculum.

    All of that, of course, presumes the teacher is individualizing the pace of instruction for each student. If, on the other hand, the teacher is in the habit of teaching one lesson to the whole class for most of the day, student pacing becomes a moot point. There is none. It’s all teacher paced instruction.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 10, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  24. I read with interest all the responses to my comment… Looks like I’m not the only one with questions about how a common curriculum would work.

    That said, I do see the value having some alignment of curriculum across schools. For instance, it might make sense for all schools in a state to cover American History in 8th grade and World History in 9th grade (or visa versa). This would help students who move between schools avoid repeating subjects (and missing others). But this only seems to be a major problem for low-income students who move frequently.

    Does the common core curriculum movement aim to help the general student population or simply transient students? What does it hope to accomplish for those students who do not move frequently?

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 10, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  25. Does the common core curriculum movement aim to help the general student population or simply transient students? What does it hope to accomplish for those students who do not move frequently?

    The goal is to provide EQUAL ACCESS for all students to a rich body of knowledge;dare say, one we’d want for our own children. Students from Mississippi and Alabama would finally have the same access to this rich body of information that youngsters from Massachusetts have had for years. Horace Mann was pining for this in 1837.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 10, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  26. Paul: So common core movement believes the problem with low-income children’s academic performance derives from a less-than-adequate curriculum? I’m not so sure I agree with that.

    While it couldn’t hurt to have more lesson-planning guidance (especially for newer teachers), from my experience teaching in a variety of schools, the main obstacle low-income students (especially minority students) face is that of their own behavior, study habits, culture, lack of parental support and other similar factors. Great textbooks were useless if the kids continually forgot to bring them to school (or bring them home to study). Lesson plans didn’t work if the students didn’t show up or showed up unprepared or ready to misbehave. While I liked many of these students as individuals, I found it very hard to teach some of the most difficult students ANYTHING — simply because they didn’t come to class on time or do homework and generally didn’t put any real effort into their academic performance.

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 10, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  27. @AttorneyDC To be clear, curriculum isn’t a magic bullet (neither are charter schools, accountability, teacher quality, ending LIFO, et many many al. And as a former teacher in a chaotic urban school, I heartily agree with you that many of the wounds suffered by low-income students are either self-inflicted or unaddressed.

    That said, curriculum is the dog that doesn’t bark in ed reform. And this problem is particularly acute in low-income schools where the curricular gruel is the thinnest. To this day, the kids I lose the most sleep over are my former students who were at grade level on their reading tests–the lowest hurdle and the only one that seems to matter in education discussions–yet remained woefully undereducated by the standards of more affluent students.

    And given what we know about the correlation between broad general knowledge and reading comprehension, what if we gave EVERY child a broad, rich curriculum from the first days of school. Would we eliminate the problems you describe? No. Would we raise academic performance relative to other factors? Yes. Hell, yes.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 10, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

  28. Attorney DC,

    As we all know, education reform centers primarily around how we can fix our lowest performing (urban) schools. We also know this is a very complex problem with myriad variables; poverty, health care, curriculum, homelessness, generational assistance, crime/gangs, single parent homes, recruiting/retaining high quality faculty for high needs schools, and so on. VERY complex.

    Robert is dead on with his suggestion for a broad/rich curriculum for every child from the first days of school as one safety net. I would take that even a step farther knowing what we now know about the first three years of life.

    I believe Geoffrey Canada has the right idea to address a great deal of these issues with his Harlem Children’s Zone, picking up and servicing youngsters from a very early age. While it might not be perfect, it’s clearly a step in the right direction. The big obstacle for this approach is, of course, resources.

    Sadly, at five years old many poor/minority youngsters are already years behind their more advantaged peers. Waiting for schools to pick up many of these kids at five years old has proven to be ineffective.

    Full-time kindergarten? How about full-time pre-school for two and three year olds, maybe even earlier?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 10, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  29. Robert, I flagged this post days ago meaning to weigh in, and I intend to pick up on the topic a bit more in my own blog soon (in part 2 of 2 – part 1 posting today). I wanted to ask you about this comment, above:

    “The typical answer to this among constructivist types is, “Only if Malik WANTS to learn the water cycle.” The result of this miasma of edufads and kindly nonsense is kids who learn nothing, an education establishment that refuses to acknowledge that shared content is critical to comprehension and thinking skills, and the shared failure we have right now.”

    Do you find there are teachers who take constructivist approaches -that- far? Maybe it depends on the subject matter. I don’t think I know any elementary teachers who would look at a core concept and let kids dodge it due to lack of interest.

    As an English teacher, I have other thoughts about how we construe and negotiate our way through shared content. We can take those up another time.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — March 11, 2011 @ 4:29 am

  30. [...] doubt about what’s going on.  (In Part Two, coming soon, I plan to look more closely at a related discussion on the Core Knowledge Blog, and dig into some of the statements made at this week’s meeting of the California State [...]

    Pingback by Common Core Confusion « InterACT — March 11, 2011 @ 5:04 am

  31. @David The short answer is yes. But keep in mind I was responding rhetorically to my own scenario, specifically pushback from constructivist-minded educators that there is place a body of knowledge worth knowing–that’s the real issue and the real source of pushback.

    In elementary school the greater problem is a skills-driven approach to literacy: A mistaken notion that comprehension strategies, for example, can be taught that can be applied to all content (and that therefore a sequence of content does not matter) or that students can read almost exclusively in their area of interest with no impact on their development.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 11, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  32. Paul & Robert: Thanks for your responses to my inquiry (above). I am gratified to see that both of you view core curriculum as one part of a larger effort to improve and reform academic performance of lower-income students. Having worked in schools with NO curriculum I certainly could appreciate having a solid curriculum (and hopefully sample lesson plans) in place to assist our teachers. However, I would hope that teachers would be able to expand and embellish the curriculum as they became comfortable with it. For instance, a teacher might bring in other sources or use student projects to add to a core lesson on colonial America.

    Your approach would be especially helpful in low-performing schools, which often have high rates of teacher turnover and are more likely, in my experience, to have teachers teaching out of their subject area or teaching new subjects. Teachers who are hired at the last minute or placed out of subject area would probably be grateful for help with their lesson plans and course curriculum. I hope the core curriculum would help teachers plan the lessons — rather than just listing a myriad of subjects they will have to cover (with no background assistance)?

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 11, 2011 @ 9:42 am

  33. It is not difficult to obtain lesson plans and even a whole unit with lesson plans from the Core Knowledge web site.
    While I do think that constructivist theory has caused a lot of wayward fads in education. I have to agree that the skills idea is one of the biggest problems in elementary education right now. While most everyone agrees that certain skills are essential, the idea that they can be taught without specific knowledge is where the problem lies. If teachers are simply given a list of skills (this is what many state standards consist of) without any content then the content is left to each teacher to decide. The result is four years of big units on dinosaurs and butterflies because dinosaurs are fun and butterflies are pretty and no instruction in water cycle or electricity for example. Then the student arrives in mid school or high school completely unprepared. Our national science scores reflect the fallacy of this thinking.

    Comment by Mary S. — March 11, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

  34. Paul raises the point above of offering preschool to try to bridge gaps that are present in Kindergarten because of differences in what happens in the home before then and the resulting gaps.

    You might want to look into the Striving Reader Program and how its funding seeks to federalize many aspects of child rearing from birth on (literally). The idea is that you cannot eliminate gaps in reading proficiency otherwise.

    The Annie E Casey Foundation is also greatly involved with this GLR initiative.

    Of course if this is the remedy for the reading gap, what isn’t the responsibility of the federal government to equalize?

    Comment by Student of History — March 11, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

  35. SoH,

    I’d prefer to spend the money on this cohort of society as toddlers (3-4 years) rather than to have to support them for their entire adult lives (50-70 years) either on public assistance or incarcerated. It could actually give them a chance in life. After all, doesn’t that benefit everyone, especially the affected individuals.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 12, 2011 @ 8:02 am

  36. The states that have universal government-run preschool don’t have lower “achievement gaps” than the states that do not have universal preschool. The solution to a broken K-12 system is not to expand it another 2 grades.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 13, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  37. I honestly don’t see the problem with having a set generic curriculum. There are and will always be topics that “some” students get while others struggle. On other topics there may be the reverse effect. As a teacher and a parent I never really seen anything wrong with the information that is being taught until people with ridiculous salaries started sharing their information.

    Comment by Steven Peeler — March 14, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  38. Steven: I would argue that it depends on what you mean by a “set generic curriculum.” For example, if 7th grade world history has a set list of subjects that should be covered by the end of the year (e.g., Prehistoric man, Ancient civilizations, middle ages in Europe, etc.) that would not appear to be problematic.

    But if the school district mandated that all 4th graders must spend one month studying basic fractions, even if the students in the ‘gifted’ classes already understand basic fractions, that would seem to be silly. Similarly, if all 8th grade English classes have to teach To Kill a Mockingbird (which is written perhaps on an 8th grade reading level) but some 8th graders in the state read as low as a 2nd grade reading level while others are reading at a college reading level, it wouldn’t make sense for all the students to have to struggle through the same book.

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 15, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  39. Attorney DC

    I understand what you are saying. I have to ask this question; How did these students get to the eighth grade while reading on a second grade level? Is this the problem or problems that need to be addressed?

    Comment by Steven Peeler — March 15, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  40. Steven: There are a number of reasons that some students end up in middle school reading several years below grade level. I personally have taught students (white, black and hispanic) who read MANY years below grade level.

    The reasons for their low performance are varied. These are some of them (in my opinion): Some students have a diagnosed learning disability. Some students are recent immigrants from other countries and have difficulty reading English (or had little schooling in their home country, leaving them behind when they came to the U.S.). Other students have difficult home lives, possibly abusive family situations. Some students were already involved with the criminal justice system (I taught 8th graders with probation officers!). Some students simply don’t try very hard or chronically misbehave or are frequently absent, and don’t learn much in school. Lack of learning may also be influenced by lessons that are over their heads.

    There are many reasons for low reading ability. There are also many reasons for higher-than-verage reading skills. I’m not so sure that trying to equalize them (as you suggested?) is a particularly realistic goal.

    Comment by Attorney DC — March 15, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  41. [...] he was slammed by Robert Pondiscio on the Core Knowledge blog as carrying the banner for "Ed Reformers for Illiteracy" .  Okay, so not surprising that the folks in E. D. Hirsch's shop are going to prefer [...]

    Pingback by Wading into the Curriculum/Instruction Cage Death Match | Blogrige — September 20, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

  42. [...] he was slammed by Robert Pondiscio on the Core Knowledge blog as carrying the banner for "Ed Reformers for Illiteracy" .  Okay, so not surprising that the folks in E. D. Hirsch's shop are going to prefer [...]

    Pingback by Wading into the Curriculum/Instruction Cage Death Match | — March 8, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

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