Reading Solution “Hiding in Plain Sight”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 14th, 2011

Sol Stern shines a welcome spotlight on New York City’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) pilot program in a Daily News op-ed.  Launched to considerable fanfare under then-Chancellor Joel Klein three years ago, the program has quietly continued in ten low-income elementary schools.  It represents ”a ray of reading hope in the city,” says Stern, and one that stands in sharp contrast to other initiatives “including giving cash bonuses to teachers and principals and paying minority children to show up in class and behave.”

Two large (and largely overlooked) problems remain at the root of the reading crisis:  a lack of a coherent elementary school curriculum, and a stubborn insistence on teaching and testing reading comprehension as a how-to ”skill.”  Comprehension is highly correlated with general knowledge—the more you know, the greater your ability to read, write, speak and listen with fluency and comprehension.  Thus an essential component of reading comprehension instruction must be a focused commitment to build broad background knowledge in a coherent manner from the earliest days of schools–precisely what CKLA seeks to do. Stern elaborates on how the curriculum differs from the dominant approach in most classrooms:

“Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in early grades. But the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing E.D. Hirsch believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students’ background knowledge.  So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.”

Perhaps most significantly, the New York City pilot program also includes a study of 10 matched control schools for comparison.  Stern points out that the program has produced stunning results to-date:

“After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group. The results of the third-year study, now that the children have completed second grade, won’t be announced until sometime this autumn, probably at about the same time as the 2011 NAEP reading results are made public. It is probable that the Core Knowledge program will continue to show promising results, while scores on the NAEP eighth-grade reading test will be as stagnant as ever.

Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal, where his piece will also appear, argues that New York should keep the program in place ”showing the education authorities that the solution to the city’s reading problem is in plain sight.”

Unfortunately, rationality is usually in short supply at the Department of Education; Klein has moved on, and it’s not clear whether Hirsch’s reading program remains on the department’s agenda. Right now, there’s no guaranteed funding for continuation of the program.


  1. Great validation!

    Comment by Harold — July 15, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  2. [...] those of you who aren’t deeply familiar with Core Knowledge, Robert Pondiscio explains the theory behind the action: Comprehension is highly correlated with general knowledge—the more you know, the greater your [...]

    Pingback by Ed is Watching » NYC Study Shines Positive Light on Core Knowledge Program Reading Success — July 15, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  3. As a member of the Governor’s Read-to-Lead Task force in Wisconsin, I have been subjected to endless iterations of the status quo that caused our state to plunge from 3rd to 30th over the past decade in the NAEP rankings for 4th grade reading. When I suggested bringing in outside experts who could help us find what Stern suggests “lies in plain sight,” I was told that doing so would spark curricular debate and reignite the reading wars. The advice was that curricular decisions were best made at the district and school level. I guess some feel it’s OK to have the Wars fought locally, where kids live and go to school and where adult cowardice and intransigence can be masked as child advocacy. How can we ever hope to make progress with an attitude like that?

    Tony Pedriana
    Retired urban school teacher and principal
    Author, Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming Barriers to Literacy and Reclaiming At-Risk Readers

    Comment by Tony Pedriana — July 16, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  4. Tony, I am not surprised to hear that state officials in Wisconsin follow the path of least resistance for fear of reigniting the reading wars. The same story I heard happened in Massachusetts and in NYC – after a while, state education department people stopped pushing this or other curriculum because they got badly burnt in the textbook fights of the 1990s.

    Education officials discovered after the debacles of the 1990s that if they push for curriculum, they get all the lovers of fuzzy math and of reading-as-skill resisting tooth and nail the introduction of a content-rich, well sequenced curriculum like Singapore Math or like Core Knowledge. But if the education officials instead push for testing and high scores, if they close their eyes to the quality of the textbooks we have in our schools – and if they don’t mind our schools teaching to the test, then magically everybody is happy. The parents, the kids, the teachers are happy, a few night owls growl here and there but there is less of a resistance in the system.

    The standardized testing in our schools in the decade 2000-2010, the bubble tests that everybody hates and all schools love to teach to are as natural in wake of the late math and reading wars as water flows to lower ground.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — July 18, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

  5. Andrei, I wouldn’t quite number teachers among the complacent in the aftermath of the “reading wars.” I’m not sure teachers were engaged much in the reading wars in the first place since their training, as we know from the 2006 National Council for Teacher Quality study,”What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching About Reading—And What Elementary School Teachers Aren’t Learning,” prejudiced them toward the “Balanced Literacy” argument. But teachers, nevertheless, are by circumstance relentlessly focused on the practical. Every day, unlike the wonks and the pundits, they face live children with all their pressing needs. If teachers are told Balanced Literacy or Whole Language or Whole Word or anything else is a practical solution to their problems, they will dutifully implement it. Cynical as they are from long experience seeing new program after new program fail, they are still driven by the imperatives of that daily challenge to grasp at any offered solution that just-might-work. They don’t care about theory and they scorn “research,” a word they equate with the pungent epithet describing one of the waste products of the male bovine. What teachers want is tools that work. They are, in short, very susceptible to influence. Teachers would become powerful advocates for the Core Knowledge approach if their own leadership, the unions, would it through their thick skulls that their old negotiating paradigm, “We don’t care how ineffective your curriculum is just so long as you pay us well to implement it,” is now dead as a doornail. In the new era of value-added evaluation, it is the teachers who get their throats cut when management implements dopey curricula. In this regard I am, as a teacher, especially disappointed in the American Federation of Teachers which, under Louisa Moats, has actually developed a professional development program in effective reading instruction. Yet, the AFT seems utterly incapable of selling it to their membership. “Reading is Rocket Science”? I’ll bet not one in a hundred AFT members have ever heard of it. This isn’t a shame; this is a tragedy. But if leadership undertook a campaign to sell the program to its membership and the general public, I believe they would meet with great success. Core Knowledge, which flows logically from such a program, would then be easy to sell as well. Teachers have a powerful thirst for practical teaching solutions. Present them one and they’ll buy it. (Disclosure: I am an NEA member, a union that, so far as curricula are concerned, is like the Brontosaurus: controlled largely not from head but rather from an enlarged ganglion located in the rear-end.)

    Comment by bill eccleston — July 19, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  6. You’re so right, Bill. NEA or AFT, both have conflicting roles. As teachers, they’re supposed to prioritize kids and what’s needed to make them better learners. As big wigs in national teacher unions the last thing on their plates is what’s best for their students.

    This obvious vacillation back and forth with their conflicting roles is what ruined teacher unions for me, local, state and federal. Look at how long it has taken the NEA to enter the twenty-first century on education reform that prioritizes children – FOREVER; and they’re only now relenting because they’re being called on the carpet by everyone, many of their own members included.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 19, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

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