The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever.

by Robert Pondiscio
September 20th, 2012

The following is a version of remarks presented Wednesday at panel hosted by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, titled “Why Huck Finn Matters: Classic Literature in Schooling.” At the event, Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein presented a new paper, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.  I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with Professors Stotsky and Bauerlein, and moderated by David Steiner, Dean of the Hunter College School of Education, to discuss the paper, which describes “deficiencies in Common Core’s literature standards and its misplaced stress on literary nonfiction or informational reading.

Those who know me will tell you I’m a fairly mild-mannered guy.   In the rough and tumble of education reform arguments, I don’t call people names.  I don’t yell, scream or grandstand.  I have an instinct toward the middle.   But I understand why I’m on this panel today.  Because I’m the guy who likes Common Core State Standards, which are supposed to be the death knell for literature in schools.   If this were a professional wrestling match, I’d be the heavy.

My role is to break a chair over the hero’s head and sneer at the audience.  But you know in the end the good guys will win.  Professor Bauerlein will eventually pin me to the mat. And Professor Stotsky will leap from the top rope and finish me off with a somersault leg drop.  If I don’t tap out, Jim Stergios will stand over my body and count to ten.

These are serious people and important scholars.  I’m an enormous admirer of each and every one, especially Professor Stotsky.  But if I am to play the heavy, I will play my role to the hilt.  I will go down swinging.

In my opinion, the single most important piece of data in American education is the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading for 17-year-olds in the United States.  It is the de facto final report card on American K-12 education.   Educational Progress?   What progress?  Forty years.  No progress.   I can’t look at NAEP scores without thinking of the EKG of someone who has gone into cardiac arrest.  Flatline.  Just like 12th grade NAEP.

When the heart stops beating, several nasty things happen in short order.  The lack of blood flow to the brain causes loss of consciousness.  Left untreated for even five minutes, permanent brain injury is unavoidable.  The patient’s only chance of survival and neurological recovery is immediate and decisive treatment.

American education has been suffering a lack of oxygen to its collective brain not just for five minutes, but for five or more decades.   Brain damage is setting in.  Call a Code Blue!  Stat!  Who’s got  shock paddles?

David Coleman??

Coleman, as you know, is the primary author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.  Or as I like to think of them, the defibrillator.  The reason I see CCSS as the defibrillator – our last chance to shock American education back to life – boils down to 57 words.   These 57 words:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

E.D. Hirsch, as you surely know, is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a frequent guest at Pioneer events like this. If you were to boil down his career to a single paragraph, these 57 words would come close.   In fact, I would go as far as saying these 57 words are the most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk told us in 1983 that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

If time permitted I would explain the importance of these 57 words you.  I’d describe how broad general knowledge is indispensable to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.  I would demonstrate how reading comprehension is not a skill at all, and how reading tests are basically tests of background knowledge.   And I would detail for you how this has been almost completely lost upon American education.

Until Common Core State Standards.

If time permitted, I would also describe for you the tedious, content-free reading instruction I inflicted for years upon my 5th graders in the South Bronx.   How the “best practices” I served up to Viviana, Rebecca, Francesca, Gabriel and Roberto was—I now understand–fundamentally flawed.  How I and others inadvertently denied those children the rich, broad knowledge of the world that we take for granted and that they need to become proficient in English and productive, self-sustaining citizens.

Wait.  Did I say need?  Sorry, not need. Needed.  Past tense.  It’s too late now.

Viviana dropped out in 9th grade and had a baby.  Francesca, too.  Rebecca dropped out and has two babies.  Gabriel and Roberto are in jail.  Our tax dollars support them all.

Huck Finn?  Are you serious?  You expect students like mine to make sense of Huck Finn with no foundational knowledge of 19th century America.  Of slavery?  Of riverboats?  Or rivers.  They don’t know where the Mississippi River is or whether it flows north or south.  They probably don’t even know which way is north.  They left elementary school without the most rudimentary knowledge they need to make sense of the even the most basic texts.

But no Common Core Standards?  Illegal, you say?  Coercive?  They de-emphasize literature and besides, your own Massachusetts states standards are superior.  All of that may be true.  I’ll concede those points.  In an as yet unpublished op-ed piece, E.D. Hirsch writes,

“It is not overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus laser-like on the question: ‘Is this school policy likely to eventuate in a large increase in the vocabulary sizes of 12th graders?’”

He’s exactly right.

Implemented not just by the letter, but in its spirit, Common Core State Standards, by emphasizing the coherent, intentional accumulation of knowledge, will increase vocabulary and language proficiency.  You want to throw out the whole thing.  Fine.  Throw it out.  But keep those 57 words.  If we get that right in the early years, a lot of other problems melt away.  Lose those 57 words, and the rest probably isn’t going to matter anyway.

If opposition to Common Core gives us another forty years of flatlining, of intellectual brain death, we are not doing the country a service.  We will have another of Mark Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generations.  And another.  And another.  And another.

Every teacher in elementary school in the land must understand that without imparting a coherent, knowledge-rich, language-rich ELA curriculum – which Common Core cannot even mandate but strongly recommends – most of our children will not meet any meaningful standard.  I will give you text complexity, evidence-based writing, a 50-50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in the upper grades.  Hundreds of pages of standards and publishers criteria and exemplars and assessments and I will not fight you on any of them.

But I will not give up these 57 words.  The foundation on which American education rests must be intentional and coherent.  It must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.

That is the hill on which I’m prepared to die.

If we overthrow Common Core–if we fail to rigorously, intentionally, coherently implement those 57 words, that is also the hill on which competence, educational attainment, upward mobility, and informed, engaged citizenship also dies.




  1. I agree that a foundation of knowledge is important, but I’m not sure I see standards as the only way to accomplish that.

    Comment by Corey — September 20, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  2. I actually don’t disagree, Corey. The case for content stands on its own and has for some time. But I believe the “57 words” in CCSS is of landmark importance not because they will guarantee that foundation is imparted (it most certainly will not) but because CCSS is prompting a wholesale reconsideration of classroom practice. In that fluid environment, while a major “rethink” is occurring, there is a reasonable chance that the decades long content-agnosticism of U.S. classrooms in the elementary grades may at last be reversed.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 20, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  3. I’d like someone to clear up an issue relating to NAEP scores. I’m trying to present my concern in as neutral a fashion as possible.

    In this post, Robert presents the NAEP track record for 17 year olds in reading over the last 40 years as discouraging.

    However, a former CK Foundation trustee, Diane Ravitch, frequently writes that NAEP scores actually show how good American public schools are. Here’s a quote from her personal blog from August 29, 2012:

    “Reformers dismiss NAEP scores because they show that
    test scores of all groups–blacks, whites, Hispanics,
    and Asians–are at an historic high.”

    What is what? Who is right, and why? Do NAEP scores reflect the high quality of American public schools, or do they show something else?

    Comment by John Webster — September 20, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  4. @John Are you sure she was talking about ELA, not Math?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 20, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

  5. If you are going to have tests to grade teachers & schools, fine. The best way to mark both kids and teachers is to make super-comprehensive tests. Write tests that go outside the box.

    The SAT used to do this. It had to cover all the physics books used in the U.S. and cover each one completely. That meant that for different curricula in different states, some things would be tested in greater detail than were covered. In theory that state made it up in other areas that were covered in more depth.

    The 4th graders write a math test that covers grade 2 to grade 7. A vocabulary test that has similar high end limits.

    Teachers cannot teach to th test. Instead they have to just plain teach using whatever fires their kids (and their own) passion. Teach Huck Finn. And river boats. And how steam engines work, and how to cook crawdads, and slavery. And racism

    When I was a school teacher, I’ll admit that I was easy to distract. The kids would ask a question, and get a ten minute talk about the physics of asteroid collisions. I didn’t mind much, because for 10 minutes I had their rapt attention, and all knowledge is useful eventually.

    Teach content in everything. I don’t think it really needs to be very well co-ordinated. But get the content in there.

    Compared to the past when school libraries were pathetic, kids now have the entire internet to search for knowledge. You can ask questions about slavery and steam engines while teaching Huck Finn and the kids actaully have access to reasonable sources of information about them.

    “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

    James J. Harvey in “A nation at Risk: The imperative for Educational Reform”

    Comment by Sherwood Botsford — September 20, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  6. Robert,

    I’m not sure what she is referring to, which is why I ask the questions I do. I don’t claim expertise about NAEP issues, but I’m sure there are CK blog readers, possibly Dr. Hirsch himself, who can shed light on this matter.

    Comment by John Webster — September 20, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

  7. Congratulations, Robert. I wish I could have heard that presentation. I admire your ability to make a case with passion, seriousness, and levity at the same time.

    I will not rehash the things I’ve said before about CCSS. I have mixed feelings about them (and the “stuff” coming with them) but do see the value of those 57 words.

    It’s good to have a hill on which one is prepared to die. For me, one such hill is subject matter itself–literature especially, but not exclusively.

    Last night I had insomnia because I thought my lesson on timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy (as represented in Plato’s Republic) had been inadequate and spotty. I fretted over this for a while until I realized how fortunate I was to be thinking this. My mind started working; I read for a while, thought for a while, and went to sleep. I went into the classroom and sharpened some of the points I had made the day before, and was able to bring more out of discussion.

    The standards (for obvious reasons) focus on what students actually produce. But that’s not all that’s important. It also matters a great deal what they take in. Some of that stays uncertain and unshaped for a long time. Some of it translates fairly quickly into concrete understandings.

    I do not hold that most of education is unmeasurable. The relationship betweeen the measurable and unmeasurable is tricky, and the words themselves miss the mark a little. But we have tilted a bit too far toward the quick result. You can’t read the Republic and take the quick result for the whole result. Some works and concepts open up over time.

    So, I would give the CCSS their due but recognize their limits as well.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 20, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  8. Robert,

    Questions on NAEP tests? Do all US students take the tests? Are the scores for each student reported to the student? The school? The state? The parents? Do the students who take the test have any reason for trying? Are there stakes, consequences/rewards for superior/inferior results?

    As AL Shanker’s students always asked, “Will this test/quiz count towards my grade?”

    If there are no stakes such as competency determination for graduation (as with the MCAS tests we administer here in Massachusetts), NAEP as the “gold standard” of tests is, for me, substantially lacking somewhere, somehow.


    If the NAEP tests are essentially meaningless to the students who take them, how can such relevance be attached to them? As the “nation’s report card” NAEP exams being “low stakes” or “no stakes” exacerbates the entire testing regime for schools in this country.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 20, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  9. This may be relevant to the discussion:

    By Michael Alison Chandler, Published: September 14, 2011

    SAT reading scores for graduating high school seniors this year reached the lowest point in nearly four decades, reflecting a steady decline in performance in that subject on the college admissions test, the College Board reported Wednesday.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — September 20, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

  10. [...] The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever. ( Biography of the Author(Read Below)..Latest Posts (view them ).. stlgretchen Co-editor of Missouri Education Watchdog. [...]

    Pingback by Missing the Twain and No Absolutes. The Future for our Children? | Grumpy Opinions — September 20, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

  11. @Sherwood,

    A comprehensive test is a good way to make the teachers and students think outside the box. This will show who is paying attention to what is going on around them. Teachers need to teach on topics that interest the students. Even when you get distracted, you must find a way to get back on track.

    Comment by Lola Dixon — September 21, 2012 @ 1:27 am

  12. The SATs have also been recentered and the analogies section, which really used to separate the top scorers from the rest, was dropped many years ago (decades, I think).

    Large numbers of Midwestern kids take only the ACT, not the SAT. The Midwesterners who take the SAT tend to be those intending to attend college on either coast and/or attend one of the most elite colleges, which tends to mean the top students. If all Midwestern kids who intended to go to college took the SAT, the average SAT score would probably be lower.

    I attended a small-town 1-12 school in the 50s-60s and the amount/quality of reading in 1-8 (across the disciplines) was far more than today and the HS college-prep track was light years more – ditto for writing, including college-standard term papers. Even the commercial and general tracks read more and better material. I attended the flagship state university and was routinely expected to read 1000 pages per week – sciences, English, history, psych, soc, clinical texts and foreign language. My freshman year, English required at least one play (from Greeks to Shakespeare to moderns) per week (at least two in honors), French required a play per week (mostly 20th century, highly idiomatic and the pages had to be cut, two sciences with several chapters each, plus lab manuals, and one or two social sciences with several chapters a week each. Writing assignments were correspondingly heavy. If that was required today, the college population would probably drop by half and a large chunk of the college debt problem would disappear.

    Comment by momof4 — September 21, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

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  15. While I understand the political impossibility of true common core SS and Science standards (not standards for reading in those content areas), developing them is the only way to ensure rich Science and SS learning. What SS and Science knowledge is essential? Students should read informational texts in those subjects. Yes, read some non-fiction in English classes, but it seems to me we have SS and Science teachers to teach that content? But Common Core stops short of outlining this. And so there will be no systematic science and SS instruction in elementary school, in particular, as the sole focus will be literacy and math. Exactly what ED Hirsch would NOT want to happen.

    Comment by Amy — September 25, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  16. Amy,

    I see some very positive developments happening in CA w/r to SS and science: Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a bill that will give these subjects greater weight in calculating API. This, combined with very explicit, content-specific SS state standards, could lead to a renaissance of SS education here (I teach history, so I’m less informed about the science situation).

    Comment by Ponderosa — October 1, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  17. Amen….that’s simply all I can add. Ive been teaching for 17 years. My heart aches daily as I see kids underserved in the ‘flavor of the week’ trends we steep them in. Too many schools just don’t teach content. (but maybe we will practice with a kid about how to use a strategy if he were in fact actually learning something–so helpful. And then we will assess him by having him evaluate the author’s purpose)

    Comment by Cathy — October 22, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  18. [...] of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the [...]

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  20. […] And, in fact, a signature value of the Core is its potential to bolster both skills and knowledge by encouraging sequenced, spiraled, content-rich curricula in the classroom. This promise is embodied in what Robert Pondiscio, former Vice President of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation (on the board of which I have served), quoting the Standards, called “the 57 most important words in education reform“: […]

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  21. […] And, in fact, a signature value of the Core is its potential to bolster both skills and knowledge by encouraging sequenced, spiraled, content-rich curricula in the classroom. This promise is embodied in what Robert Pondiscio, former Vice President of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation (on the board of which I have served), quoting the Standards, called “the 57 most important words in education reform“: […]

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  22. […] Yet the NCSS lost a big battle in 2010 when the Common Core State Standards explicitly called on schools to adopt a content-rich curriculum, with the 57 most important words in education reform: […]

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  23. […] within the Common Core Standards itself in a brief passage that I have elsewhere described as the fifty-seven most important words in education reform since A Nation at […]

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  24. […] Literacy, is almost 30 years old, for crying out loud. Many (Pondiscio, for sure — here, here, and here are examples of similarly themed/presented pieces he authored or co-authored […]

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