“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

Reading and Language Growth: What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
March 14th, 2012

Note:  This piece also appears on the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet.

For several years, I taught 5th grade in the lowest performing elementary school in New York City’s lowest performing school district.   Four out of five of my students scored below grade level—often far below grade level—on their state tests.  You could easily look at the test scores of my students and conclude, “these kids can’t read.”

In fact, I never had a single student who couldn’t “read.”  Put a piece of text in front of them and they could all (some with greater fluency than others certainly) verbalize the words in front of them, or “decode.”  What they couldn’t seem to do consistently and competently was to discuss or answer questions about their reading.  They “read it” but they didn’t “get it.”  They could decode, but not comprehend.

Separating decoding and comprehension is critical to any discussion of reading.  Decoding is a skill that can–and must–be taught in the early grades.  Students taught with an explicit, systematic phonics approach in the early grades should be able to master all the decoding skills they need.  Decoding is a prerequisite skill but it’s not reading.   We’re readers only when we understand the words we decode, and comprehension is not a skill, despite our persistent attempts to teach and test it like one.  “We tend to teach comprehension as a series of ‘reading strategies’ that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has written on this blog. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

This week, the Core Knowledge Foundation, where I work, announced the results of an intriguing pilot program that sees reading for the complicated, cumulative process it is.  Children in ten New York City schools learned to read with the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, a comprehensive literacy curriculum emphasizing phonics, coherent content knowledge, and oral and written language development across a wide range of subjects.  CKLA has two distinct instructional components: a “skills” strand that teaches decoding; and a “listening and learning” strand that builds background knowledge and vocabulary, primarily through readalouds. Students in ten demographically similar control schools received more traditional reading instruction—the kind of balanced literacy, content-agnostic, comprehension skills-and-strategies approach I was trained to use with my South Bronx 5th graders.  The CKLA students showed significantly higher reading achievement from kindergarten to 2nd grade than the control group in nearly all measures.

Gratifying stuff, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The primary takeaway from the research, tailored for our 140-character age, was “new study finds nonfiction curriculum enhances reading comprehension skills.”  That’s part of the story.  Yes, there is more nonfiction in Core Knowledge than is typically taught in the early grades, but fiction and poetry are equally represented.  If there’s a secret sauce in the curriculum, it probably has as much to do with its emphasis on building background knowledge orally.

Oral language precedes written language; we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write.  Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own. This oral language advantage persists for years. A child’s ability to take in information through reading typically doesn’t catch up to his or her ability to do so by listening until the 8th grade.  Teachers generally understand this, which is why class readalouds are a staple of elementary school classrooms.  But this oral comprehension advantage can also be used to build background knowledge in a systematic, coherent way over many years. Readalouds are more than just an opportunity for a class to enjoy a great story together.  Content-rich, nonfiction readalouds, often in narrative form, are a central feature of the CKLA program and a powerful way to build a child’s store of vocabulary and knowledge–critical components of mature reading comprehension.

This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment.  If this gap remains unaddressed in school, then demographics becomes, if not destiny, then a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Finally, another important issue to keep in mind is time.  The greatest casualty of the education reform era has been patience.  We expect two to three years language growth per year to catch disadvantaged children up.  The inevitable result is quick fixes that overpromise and underdeliver.  Today’s miracle becomes tomorrow’s scandal with depressing regularity.  To understand the nature of language growth and the critical role of knowledge to is to understand that there can be no quick fixes.  The only way to raise achievement and to narrow gaps is through a slow and steady investment in the vocabulary and knowledge that are the prerequisites of language growth and competence.

This patient, coherent investment in background knowledge—so critical to success yet so often missing from language arts instruction—needs to be nurtured and grown for the entirety of a child’s time in school.  It can work.  It is working.  The New York City pilot study is an encouraging first step.  We’re getting kids in the game.  With care and patience, we can keep them there.

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

Promising Results from NYC Core Knowledge Pilot

by Robert Pondiscio
March 12th, 2012

There will be lots more to say about this shortly, but the New York Times this morning has word of promising results from a three-year study of the experimental Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, which has been piloted for the last several years in 10 New York City schools.

“For three years, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of approximately 1,000 students at 20 New York City schools, following them from kindergarten through second grade. Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” an approach that was spread citywide by former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, beginning in 2003.

“The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.”

A web page on the Core Knowledge website links to the the NYC Department of Ed’s data, background on the program, a presentation on the research underpinnings and how the curriculum works with Common Core State Standards.

A Place in the World

by Guest Blogger
March 2nd, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

In the wake of last week’s release of New York City Teacher Data Reports, educators and administrators are debating what exactly the value in a high value-added teacher looks like. Even teachers who scored high marks on the Teacher Data Reports question the value of tests that cannot possibly evaluate every aspect of what it means to be a great teacher, and the value that teacher imparts to his or her students.

The new feature-length documentary A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington, addresses the question of teacher value and the role of a school in building community. The documentary chronicles two years at The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County.

The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”

According to Mr. Drew, the education gap that divides the American and refugee students in his fourth grade classroom at ICS is created by language deficits. Mr. Drew is not talking about language deficits in terms of the ability to hold a basic conversation, he’s talking about cultural vocabulary, the connotation words carry in American culture that help proficient readers understand context and relevance. Mr. Drew gives an example in the film: The math problem 1/2 + 1/4 written numerically, as a math problem, is something his students can do. But ask this same problem as a word problem, with one kid baking cakes and giving half away to friends and then deciding to give another quarter away to another friend, “then it’s not a test of math, it’s a test of language ability.” Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.

Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”

When asked about the standards his students are expected to meet under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), his outlook is not quite as hopeful. “According to NCLB 2014, all students – 100% – will be proficient in all subject matters. What’s the old Garrison Keillor, everybody is above average? That doesn’t make any sense. My guess is that in a few years, all those standards, all those compulsory standardized tests will be a bad memory. I think that the pendulum is going to swing back the other way and return to a more rational, less ideological approach to education.”

ICS did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2011 under NCLB. Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew, who educate malnourished, traumatized, impoverished and previously uneducated children, must cover core subjects such as math, science, and history while helping their students find a place in American society. They are not simply teaching American history, they are teaching their students how to be Americans. The making of Americans is currently not a category in the Teacher Data Reports’ calculation of a teacher’s value-added assessments.

For validation on that front, Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew do not look to test scores and value-added assessments; they look to their students. Dr. Dittman thinks back to that that one Sudanese girl, hiding under the classroom table. His voice breaks as he recounts the ending to her story. The girl refused to come out until one day her teacher crawled under the table and joined her there. Once her teacher had gained the girls’ trust, she felt safe enough to crawl out from under the table and join the class. According to Mr. Drew, “I don’t think teachers should blow their own trumpets or credit themselves overtly, but I think that you can go home at the end of the day and say, you know what, I’ve made a difference, you know, and the world is actually a better place from what I did today.”

As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, it is important to remember that not all value is quantifiable. The Teacher Data Reports, in all their margins of error and fuzzy logic, can never get at the real value of this country’s teachers.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.