Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”

Learning by Listening: Why It’s the Best Way to Do the CCSS in the Early Grades

by Alice Wiggins
January 29th, 2013

In my last post I drew attention to John Merrow’s visit to a school in Queens, N.Y., using the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program. Today I’d like to start with a chunk of the transcript from Merrow’s video:

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps…. Not so here. In this reading program at a school in Queens, N.Y., the emphasis is on content, the knowledge kids acquire.

TEACHER: Pick your favorite planet. And you’re going to look back into your reading notebook and you’re going to have to write two facts about that planet.

JOHN MERROW: PS-96 uses a curriculum called Core Knowledge developed by a nonprofit organization led by education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr….

STUDENT: Saturn is the second biggest planet. Saturn has thousands of rings.

JOHN MERROW: Core Knowledge is an outlier used by just over 1 percent of elementary schools. That’s only 800 schools. Because it’s such a small program now, the final cost has not been determined. Organizers say it will be less than basal readers….

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER, Principal, Public School 96: When I initially came to PS-96, we were not a Core Knowledge school. We basically used basal readers and some sort of— and balanced literacy. Through the basal readers, it was a lot of fictional, fictional studies, fictional texts.

JOHN MERROW: But principal Barrett-Walker wasn’t a fan of basal readers and their emphasis on fiction. She felt her students needed to know the same things that children in affluent neighborhoods were learning.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: I felt that some of the students who were here didn’t have enough prior knowledge.

JOHN MERROW: Prior knowledge means?

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: Knowledge that they need to have to, I feel, function in society, to have conversation, just to help them exist and understanding who they are as far as their relationship to the rest of the world.

Core Knowledge can be challenging. So you do have to do a lot of training, because informational text is very complex. Now, how do you tear it down so that young children in kindergarten and first grade can understand about Egyptian civilizations?

JOHN MERROW: Content is king in the Core Knowledge approach. Books are organized by subjects like mythology, Mozart and the Westward Expansion, topics that some say are over the heads of the young readers…. Apparently, nobody told these first-graders.

STUDENT: My favorite book is solar system—actually, a nature book, “The Skeleton.”

JOHN MERROW: Oh, “The Skeleton.”

And how about you?

STUDENT: An archaeologist book because it’s teaching me more than archaeology.

JOHN MERROW: The arrival of the Common Core doesn’t faze principal Barrett-Walker.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards, it seems that we’re where we need to be right now.

P.S. 96 is where it needs to be, and its young students are on the path to college. Schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for PreK–8, and especially those that adopt the new CKLA program, will address all of the CCSS. Core Knowledge is very closely aligned to the CCSS in mathematics and English language arts & literacy. In English language arts & literacy especially, the CCSS and Core Knowledge call for many of the same practices. Other programs could be written to align just as well, but they would have to start from the same shared foundation that supports both Core Knowledge and the CCSS: cognitive science research on reading comprehension.

In my last post I briefly described some of that research, focusing the importance of knowledge for reading comprehension. Now I’d like to mention one more research finding that is critical for the early grades: Until the end of middle school (on average), students’ have better listening comprehension than reading comprehension. In the very early grades this is obvious—children are just learning to read. But the fact that reading comprehension takes so many years to outstrip listening comprehension is not obvious at all. Typical 5th, 6th, and 7th graders read well: Why would they still learn more from listening than reading? Because they still do not have enough prior knowledge to draw the full meaning from the text. In class, when teachers are reading aloud, they support comprehension. They pause to define new vocabulary, to explain an idea or event, to ask questions that gauge students’ understanding, or to answer questions as needed. They also read with good fluency and proper intonation, which also aid comprehension.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers on reading aloud in class, especially in the very early grades when listening, looking, and talking are students’ main tools for learning. Very often teachers have an initial concern that the read-aloud will make students passive (and will quickly lead to behavior problems). But a read-aloud should be quite the opposite. Fiction or nonfiction, a high-quality text offers many words and ideas that students are curious about.  And wonderful conversations, and even short research projects, ensue. (Even so, I have to admit that I also value the listening skills children develop over time when their teachers do lots of read-alouds from engaging texts. Really listening to another person, attending to another’s point of view and feelings—isn’t that terrifically valuable in and of itself?)

Don’t take it from me. Here’s an excerpt of a communication that arrived in my inbox last week from some educators in New York who are now using the CKLA Listening and Learning program. A network support team member in the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES (those not familiar with New York can think of BOCES as consortia of school districts) emailed me the following reflections on their early experiences using CKLA:

Teachers expressed amazement at the content knowledge their students have been developing. One teacher shared an anecdote in which one of her second graders wondered aloud if Marian Anderson had ever met Rosa Parks, since Rosa would probably have stood up for Marian when she was denied hotel accommodations after a performance.

Teachers expressed great satisfaction with the degree to which students have begun answering in complete sentences and offering support for their thinking. Because this is explicitly requested by the teachers as part of the read alouds, students have come to understand and prepare to meet this expectation on their own….Several teachers shared anecdotes of very young children using very sophisticated vocabulary correctly. There were smiles around the room.

Every educator who finds the time to study both the CCSS and the underlying research; who comes to understand the importance of content knowledge in history, civics, science, and the arts; and who experiments in class with reading aloud interesting fiction and nonfiction texts so as to spark conversations and investigations can experience that same satisfaction.

We’re celebrating each CCSS victory and are happy to have created materials that generate responses such as this and provide a means of leveraging developmentally-appropriate best practices to implement Common Core in the early grades.

Through decades of hard work, cognitive scientists have assembled a new understanding of how listening and reading comprehension work: they depend on prior knowledge. It’s time for all of us in education to embrace that research, and adopt new educational programs that build students’ knowledge.

Stay tuned: Later this week, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., will take a deeper look at the research on learning by listening.

John Merrow’s Crystal Ball

by Alice Wiggins
January 24th, 2013

Last year, John Merrow showed us what early grades classrooms will look like once teachers become experts in the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. He’s long been known as an insightful journalist, so maybe it should not be a surprise that he so quickly grasped the most essential difference between business as usual and the Common Core.

Unlike ELA practices typically used in the early grades today (which our nation’s hard-working teachers have been taught in their preparation programs and required by their school districts to use), the practices that will become typical in the Common Core era are actually based on cognitive science. The first hint is in the standards’ long title: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. It’s ridiculously long for a title—but it’s incredibly short as a summary of all the most critical points.

Common: shared, as in shared by enough educators for them to be able to collaborate in developing and refining lesson plans—and shared across schools so those unlucky students who must change schools often are not always lost in class.

Core: essential yet also expandable; states can add a bit (if they must) and teachers will have time to go deeper in response to students’ needs and interests.

State: not federal.

Standards: not curriculum (though for the sake of teacher training, materials development, assessment, and mobile students, states should consider developing curricula too).

English Language Arts: artful use of the English language will become far easier to find once the new writing, speaking, listening, and language standards are honored in spirit and practice.

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: broad literacy, true literacy; a literate adult has wide-ranging knowledge of these subjects and is therefore able to read any text intended for the public.

This lengthy title will take on even more meaning with a quick review of two amazing findings from cognitive science. Both relate to literacy, and they really explain why the new standards emphasize literacy in specific subjects. The first finding is that, once students are fluent decoders, reading comprehension strategies do help—but students don’t need to spend much time learning or practicing them. Some research shows that just 6 lessons in comprehension strategies (like answering questions and summarizing) are as effective as 50 such lessons. This is great news: we have something effective to build on and it does not need to take much  instructional time. That means we have plenty of time to devote to something that helps more, which brings me to the second finding: knowledge matters. A lot.

One way to study this that has been replicated several times is to take a topic, say baseball, and then get a group of kids, say 12-year-olds, and assess them to find out (1) who is and is not a strong reader, and (2) who does and does not know much about baseball. Then make four groups: strong reader, high knowledge of baseball; strong reader, low knowledge of baseball; weak reader, high knowledge of baseball; weak reader, low knowledge of baseball. Now we’re ready to find out how much knowledge matters: give the kids a text about a baseball game and give them a miniature replica of the diamond, players, etc. Then see who really understands the text by having them show you what happened in the game. Which group does best? The strong readers with a high knowledge of baseball, of course. But the real question is between the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball and the weak readers with high knowledge of baseball. Okay, I gave away the answer at the beginning: it’s the knowledge that really matters. Weak readers with high knowledge of baseball comprehend the baseball text better than the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball. This is spectacular because it gives us a clear path to high achievement: to increase reading comprehension, we need to increase knowledge—and that can be done orally and visually, as well as through text.

Back to the future. Fortunately, when Merrow looked into his crystal ball he had his camera crew standing by to capture the astounding scene: 6-year-olds talking about their favorite books on the solar system and archeology. Take a look (or read the transcript). The first part of the video captures the reading classroom of today. But then, about 6 minutes in, the future is there for all to see in an elementary school in Queens, NY. This is one of 10 NYC schools that piloted the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Grades K–3 of that program will be available—for free—this summer, and samples will be available in February. We’ll be sure to let you know when the future arrives.

Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Dolls

by Linda Bevilacqua
January 22nd, 2013

Many years ago, when my now-grown daughter was in fifth grade, I had a brief exchange with her teacher that left me very concerned. I am sad to say those concerns are still with me. It was the zenith—or nadir—of whole language in that particular public school, but my daughter had already overcome that barrier to learning to read. She was in a “gifted” class and, like me, was a voracious reader. At a parent-teacher conference in the fall, the teacher told me that her approach to teaching reading was to let the kids select whatever they wanted to read in class, including Archie and Superman comic books. I tried (as diplomatically as I could) suggesting that perhaps it would be worthwhile for her to offer some challenging literature for classroom instruction. I knew all was lost when she firmly shook her head “no” and told me she had never liked to read until she discovered Valley of the Dolls as an adult. (While this book about barbiturates has been wildly popular, I feel confident saying it will never enter the canon.)

I was reminded of this exchange while reading Michael Shaughnessy’s interview of Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and current associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She was explaining the brilliant 6/6/41 plan she and Will Fitzhugh, founder of the Concord Review, have come up with: Since youth ages 8 to 18 average 53 hours a week on entertainment media, they could devote 6 hours a week to literature, 6 hours to history, and still have 41 hours for their entertainment. Jago points out that not only would students’ knowledge and vocabulary grow, their writing would improve (since they would have something of substance to write about) and current debates among educators about whether students should be reading fiction or nonfiction would be moot. Just take a small fraction of those entertainment hours, and you’ve got plenty of time for reading fiction and nonfiction.

All true, but what really had me cheering, and brought me back to Valley of the Dolls, was this:

Voracious readers will read anything an adult they respect and trust recommends. It is a teacher’s responsibility to talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve. It is also our responsibility to design curriculum that includes important books and offer instruction that helps scaffold the reading for less-than-voracious readers. Much can be accomplished by pairing books and by using excerpts to tempt students to read the whole work….

One of the biggest obstacles to revising school reading lists is finding books that enough teachers have read in common to make wise decisions. Teachers who read and love reading history and literature will instinctively put the books they love in student’s hands. America’s children deserve no less.

Jago makes a crucial point here. Teachers’ personal preferences often do have an impact on students. In many cases that impact is positive—but not in all. My daughter, without my strong influence at home, could have spent the year reading comics and ended up not having the ability to read anything more complex or enlightening than Valley of the Dolls. How can schools create environments where those who do “talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve” have some influence in the classrooms of those who do not? Revising school reading lists is critical, but there are signs that the first challenge is to keep existing lists from being tossed out.

According to J. Martin Rochester, a professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, many educators (in our schools and colleges of education) are getting swept up in a “voice-and-choice” movement that is grounded in “the student-centered, active, discovery-learning paradigm—that goes back to Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget and that was more recently promoted by disciples of Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College.” He goes on to question such thinking:

What is the likelihood that the voice-and-choice movement in K–12 will produce an increase in academic standards rather than further erosion? After all, as Diane Ravitch once framed the issue, “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?” Where all this “choice” leads can be seen in the recent case of an Honors English course at my local high school where at least one student, entrusted with selecting a “great book” to read as the basis for a semester project, opted for Paris Hilton’s autobiography…. Have we carried the idea of empowering students with “choices” a bit too far? You be the judge.

Yes, we have carried the idea too far. But I’m not going to advocate for no choices. There really is a time and a place for (almost) everything. The time and place for Moby Dick is school (including homework). And students who really need to know more about Paris Hilton can find a time and place for that outside of school, after their homework is done. Such reading will fit nicely into the 41 hours per week Jago and Fitzhugh allowed for entertainment.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying teachers should not try to inspire a love of reading. They should. Like Jago, I remain convinced that such a love comes from great teaching with great works of fiction, literary nonfiction, and nonfiction. Here’s how Jago put it a couple of weeks ago in a blog post about the Common Core State Standards: “I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.”

At the same time, everyone knows that not all books, even books that are widely acclaimed as great literature, will resonate with all students. So with extensive planning, many well-read, knowledgeable teachers may come up with some limited selections for their students. I could imagine a unit on Shakespeare, for example, in which four plays are discussed in class, but students are required to select two plays to read in full and are only required to read essential (teacher-selected) passages from the other two.

In developing reading lists, deciding what works are required, and creating controlled-choice options, I hope educators will keep in mind that reading isn’t just for pleasure, and reading isn’t a skill that is indifferent to what is being read. Reading is vital to vocabulary and knowledge development. As E. D. Hirsch reminded us just last week, vocabulary—and the knowledge it represents—is predictive of future income.

When students, especially young students with so little knowledge to draw on, get to choose their own books, their vocabulary and knowledge acquisition will almost certainly slow down, and their future reading ability will be in jeopardy. One of the chief responsibilities of school districts, schools, and teachers is to ensure that students are rapidly acquiring new vocabulary and knowledge. At the Core Knowledge Foundation, we see only one way of doing that: through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum that efficiently provides broad knowledge and prevents children from either repeating content (e.g., Charlotte’s Web in second and third grades) or missing content (e.g., never studying a nonfiction book about spiders).

An Unclaimed Lottery Ticket

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 17th, 2013

Inspired by Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, which lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, I have a new article in City Journal: “A Wealth of Words.” I hope you’ll find time for the whole article, but here’s my CliffsNotes version.

With the decline of the middle class, the aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded. But there is a road back to the City upon a Hill.

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

The correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

The sociologist Donald Hayes, following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

The context for an unfamiliar word isn’t just the other words surrounding it in a text but also the situation referred to by those words. Familiarity with the relevant subject matter ensures that a student’s unconscious meaning-guesses are likely to be right.

So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. There are so many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000—that a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from systematically acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.

The idea is to immerse students in a domain long enough to make them familiar with the context—and thus able to learn words faster. For the purposes of teaching vocabulary, a “domain” could be defined as a sphere of knowledge in which concepts and words are repeated over the course of two or three weeks. Such repetition happens automatically in a classroom unit on, say, plants and photosynthesis.

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically. But the new Common Core State Standards for language arts, now adopted by more than 40 states, may offer a ray of hope (see “The Curriculum Reformation”). One statement in the new standards reads: “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.” A second encouraging passage: “The Common Core Standards do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

These two statements are big steps forward from the failed how-to approaches of the recent past. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of one major urban district could transform practice throughout the nation.

Tucker Takes Zhao in Just One Round

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 16th, 2013

High praise for Marc Tucker’s thoughtful response to Yong Zhao’s well-meaning, but terribly misguided, critique of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Since I’ve decided to judge this boxing match, I’m calling a TKO. Tucker won round one so easily that it would be dangerous for Zhao to try to fight on.

Zhao reveals that he does not know much about the CCSS (he expects a new world “where all American children are exposed to the same content, delivered by highly standardized teachers”) and has been duped by left-brain/right-brain silliness (he writes that “Right-brained directed skills, including design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning, will become more valuable…. [But] the core subjects prescribed by the Common Core … are mostly left-brained cognitive skills”). Tucker refutes Zhao’s key points effortlessly. I hope you’ll read their exchange, so I’ll just give two highlights:

1. Tucker on Zhao’s concern that the CCSS will quash creativity:

“The literature is clear.  Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it.  They typically know a lot about unrelated things and their creativity comes from putting those unrelated things together in unusual ways.  Learning almost anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, because, without that scaffolding, we are not able to put new information and skills to work.”

2. Tucker on Zhao’s concern that the CCSS will not prepare students for tomorrow’s unknown jobs:

“It is true that the future will be full of jobs that do not exist now and challenges we cannot even imagine yet, never mind anticipate accurately.  But, whatever those challenges turn out to be, I can guarantee you that they will not be met by people without strong quantitative skills, people who cannot construct a sound argument, people who know little of history or geography or economics, people who cannot write well.”

The fact is, the new standards are a big step toward preparing all students for more rigorous higher education—be it online, on a traditional college campus, or on the job. What folks like Zhao are missing is a solid understanding of the research on language comprehension, effective communication, critical thinking, and other crucial abilities (like being responsible citizens). These abilities depend on knowledge. Not just any knowledge—relevant, subject- and task-specific knowledge. The more extensive the knowledge, the deeper the analysis. The CCSS—because they bring higher-quality fiction and dramatically more nonfiction into the classroom, and because they provide a coherent, focused, and rigorous approach to mathematics—will help millions of students develop such knowledge.

Blame the Tests

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 15th, 2013

In Praise of Samuel Messick 1931–1998, Part III

The chief practical impact of NCLB has been its principle of accountability. Adequate yearly progress, the law stated, must be determined by test scores in reading and math—not just for the school as a whole, but for key groups of students.

Now, a decade later, the result of the law, as many have complained, has been a narrowing of the school curriculum. In far too many schools,  the arts and humanities, and even science and civics, have been neglected—sacrificed on the altar of tests  without any substantial progress nationwide on the tests themselves. It is hard to decide whether to call NCLB a disaster or a catastrophe.

But I disagree with those who blame this failure on the accountability principle of NCLB. The law did not specify what tests in reading and math the schools were to use. If the states had responded with valid tests—defined by Messick as tests that are both accurate and have a productive effect on practice—the past decade would have seen much more progress.

Since NCLB, NAEP’s long-term trend assessment shows substantial increases in reading among the lowest-performing 9-year-olds—but nothing comparable in later grades. It also shows moderate increases in math among 9- and 13-year-olds.

So, it seems that a chief educational defect of the NCLB era lay in the later-grades reading tests; they simply do not have the same educational validity of the tests in early grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math.

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It’s not very hard to make a verbal test that predicts how well a person will be able to read. One accurate method used by the military is the two-part verbal section of the multiple-choice Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which is known for its success in accurately predicting real-world competence. One section of the AFQT Verbal consists of 15 items based on short paragraphs on different subjects and in different styles to be completed in 13 minutes.  The other section of the AFQT Verbal is a vocabulary test with 35 items to be completed in 11 minutes. This 24-minute test predicts as well as any verbal test the range of your verbal abilities, your probable job competence and your future income level. It is a short, cheap and technically valid test. Some version of it could even serve as a school-leaving test.

Educators would certainly protest if that were done—if only because such a test would give very little guidance for classroom practice or curriculum. And this is the nub of the defects in the reading tests used during the era of NCLB: They did not adequately support curriculum and classroom practice. The tests in early-grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math did a better job of inducing productive classroom practice, and their results show it.

Early-grades reading tests, as Joseph Torgesen and his colleagues showed, probe chiefly phonics and fluency, not comprehension. Schools are now aware that students will be tested on phonics and fluency in early grades. In fact, these crucial early reading skills are among the few topics for which recent (pre-Common Core) state standards had begun to be highly specific. These more successful early reading tests were thus different from later ones in a critical respect:  They actually tested what students were supposed to be taught.

Hence in early reading, to its credit, NCLB induced a much greater correlation than before between standards, curriculum, teaching and tests. The tests became more valid in practice because they induced teachers to teach to a test based on a highly specific subject matter—phonics and fluency. Educators and policymakers recognized that teaching swift decoding was essential in the early grades, tests assessed swift decoding, and—mirabile dictu—there was an uptick in scores on those tests.

Since the improvements were impressive, let’s take a look at what has happened in over the past decade among the lowest performing 9-year-olds on NAEP’s long-term trend assessment in reading.

Note that there is little to no growth among higher-performing 9-year-olds, presumably because they had already mastered phonics and fluency.

Similarly, early- and middle-grades math tests probed substantive grade-by-grade math knowledge, as the state standards had become ever more specific in math. You can see where I’m going: Early reading and math improved because teachers typically teach to the tests (especially under NCLB-type accountability pressures), and the subject matter of these tests began to be more and more defined and predictable, causing a collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice.

In later-grades reading tests, where we have failed to improve, the tests have not been based on any clear, specific subject matter, so it has been impossible to teach to the tests in a productive way. (The lack of alignment between math course taking and the NAEP math assessment for 17-year-olds is similarly problematic.) Of course, there are many reasons why achievement might not rise. But specific subject matter, both taught and tested, is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for test scores to rise.

In the absence of any specific subject matter for language arts, teachers, textbook makers, and test makers have conceived of reading comprehension as a strategy rather than as a side effect of broad knowledge. This inadequate strategy approach to language arts is reflected in the tests themselves. I have read many of them.  An inevitable question is something like this: “The main idea of this passage is….” And the theory behind such a question is that what is being tested is the ability of the student to strategize the meaning by “questioning the author” and performing other puzzle-solving techniques to get the right answer. But, as readers of this blog know, that is not what is being tested. The subject matter of the passage is.

This mistaken strategy-focused structure has made these tests not only valueless educationally, but worse—positively harmful. Such tests send out the misleading message that reading comprehension is chiefly strategizing. That idea has dominated language arts instruction in the past decade, which means that a great deal of time has been misspent on fruitless test-taking activities. Tragically, that time could have been spent on science, humanities and the arts—subjects that would have actually increased reading abilities (and been far more interesting).

The only way that later-grades reading tests can be made educationally valid is by adopting the more successful structure followed in early reading and math. An educationally valid test must be based on the specific substance that is taught at the grade level being tested (possibly with some sampling of specifics from previous and later grades for remediation and acceleration purposes). Testing what has been taught is the only way to foster collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice. An educationally valid reading test requires a specific curriculum—a subject of further conversations, no doubt.

The Work of a Great Test Scientist Helps Explain the Failure of No Child Left Behind

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 10th, 2013

In Praise of Samuel Messick 1931–1998, Part II

In a prior post I described Messick’s unified theory of test validity, which judged a test not to be valid if its practical effects were null or deleterious. His epoch-making insight was that the validity of a test must be judged both internally for accuracy and externally for ethical and social effects. That combined judgment, he argued, is the only proper and adequate way of grading a test.

In the era of the No Child Left Behind law (2001), the looming specter of tests has been the chief determiner of classroom practice. This led me to the following chain of inferences: Since 2001, tests have been the chief determiners of educational practices. But these tests have failed to induce practices that have worked. Hence, according to the Messick principle, the tests that we have been using must not be valid. Might it be that a new, more Messick-infused approach to testing would yield far better results?

First, some details about the failure of NCLB. Despite its name and admirable impulses it has continued to leave many children behind:

 

NCLB has also failed to raise verbal scores. The average verbal level of school leavers stood at 288 when the law went into effect, dropped to 283 in 2004, and stood at 286 in 2008.

Yet this graph shows an interesting exception to this pattern of failure, and it will prove to be highly informative under Messick’s principle. Among 4th graders (age 9) the test-regimen of NCLB did have a positive impact.

Moreover, NCLB also had positive effects in math:

This contrast between the NCLB effects in math and reading is even more striking if we look at the SAT, where the test takers are trying their best:

So let’s recap the argument. Under NCLB, testing in both math and reading has guided school practices. Those practices were more successful in math and in early reading than in later reading. According to the Messick principle, therefore, reading tests after grade 4 had deleterious effects and cannot have been valid tests. How can we make these reading tests more valid?

A good answer to that question will help determine the future progress of American education. Tune in.

If He’s So Important, Why Haven’t We Heard of Him?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 9th, 2013

In Praise of Samuel Messick 1931–1998

Everyone who is anyone in the field of testing actually has heard of Samuel Messick.  The American Psychological Association has instituted a prestigious annual scientific award in his name, honouring his important work in the theory of test validity.   I want to devote this, my first-ever blog post, to one of his seminal insights about testing.   It’s arguable that his insight is critical for the future effectiveness of American education.

My logic goes this way:   Every knowledgeable teacher and policy maker knows that tests, not standards, have the greater influence on what principals and teachers do in the classroom.   My colleagues in Massachusetts—the state that has the most effective tests and standards—assure me that it’s the demanding, content-rich MCAS tests that determine what is taught in the schools.  How could it be otherwise?  The tests determine whether a student graduates or whether a school gets a high ranking.  The standards do vaguely guide the contents of the tests, but the tests are the de facto standards.

It has been and will continue to be a lively blog topic to argue the pros and cons of the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.    But so far these arguments are more theological than empirical, since any number of future curricula—some good, some less so—can fulfill the requirements of the standards.   I’m sure the debates over these not-yet-existent curricula will continue; so it won’t be spoiling anyone’s fun, if I observe that these heated debates bear a resemblance to what was called in the Middle Ages the Odium Theologicum over unseen and unknown entities.   Ultimately these arguments will need to get tied down to tests.   Tests will decide the actual educational effects of the Common Core Standards.

But Samuel Messick has enunciated some key principles that will need to be heeded by everyone involved in them if our schools are to improve in quality and equity—not only in the forty-plus states that have agreed to use the common core standards—but also in those states that have not.   In all fifty states, tests will continue to determine classroom practice and hence the future effectiveness of American education.

In this post, I’ll sketch out one of Messick’s insights about test validity.   In a second post, I’ll show how ignoring those insights has had deleterious effects in the era of NCLB.  And in a third, and last on this topic, I’ll suggest policy principles to avoid ignoring the scientific acumen and practical wisdom of Samuel Messick in the era of the Common Core Standards.

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Messick’s most distinctive observation shook up the testing world, and still does.  He said that it was not a sufficient validation of a test to show that it exhibits “construct validity.”    This term of art means that the test really does accurately estimate what it claims to estimate.   No, said Messick, that is a purely technical criterion.   Accurate estimates are not the only or chief function of tests in a society,   In fact, accurate estimates can have unintended negative effects.   In the world of work they can unfairly exclude people from jobs that they are well suited to perform.  In the schools “valid” tests may actually cause a decline in the achievement being tested – a paradoxical outcome that I will stress in the three blogs devoted to Messick.

Messick called this real-world attribute of tests “consequential validity.”    He proposed that test validity be conceived as a unitary quality comprising both construct validity and consequential validity—both the technical and the ethical-social dimension.   What shall it profit a test if it reaches an accurate conclusion yet injures the social goal it was trying to serve?

Many years ago I experienced the force of Messick’s observation before I knew that he was the source of it.    It was in the early 1980s, and I had published a book on the valid testing of student writing. (The Philosophy of Compsition).   At the time, Messick was the chief scientist at the Educational Testing Service, and under him a definitive study had been conducted to determine the most valid way to measure a person’s writing ability.   Actual scoring of writing samples was notoriously inconsistent, and hence unfair.   Even when graded by specially socialized groups of readers (the current system) there was a good deal of variance in the scoring.

ETS devised a test that probed writing ability less directly and far more reliably.   It consisted of a few multiple-choice items concerned with general vocabulary and editorial acumen.     This test proved to be not only far shorter and cheaper, it was also more reliable and valid.    That is, it better predicted elaborately determined expert judgment of writing ability than did the writing samples.

There was just one trouble with this newly devised test.  Used over time, student writing ability began to decline.   The most plausible explanation was that although the test had construct validity it lacked consequential validity.   It accurately predicted writing skill, but it encouraged classroom activity which diminished writing skill—a perfect illustration of Messick’s insight.

Under his intellectual influence there is now, again, an actual writing sample to be found on the verbal SAT.   The purely indirect test which dispensed with that writing sample had had the unfortunate consequence of reducing the amount of student writing assigned in the schools, and hence reducing the writing abilities of students.  A shame: the earlier test was not just more accurately predictive as an estimate, it was fairer, shorter, and cheaper.  But ETS has made the right decision to value consequential validity above accuracy and elegance.

Next time: Consequential Validity and the Era of No Child Left Behind

A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

After over 5 years and 1500 posts, this will be my final blog entry as host of the Core Knowledge Blog.

The good news – no, great news – is that the blog will continue to host an ongoing conversation on curriculum, literacy, teaching and learning.  It will continue to make the case for a content-rich education as the indispensable key to language proficiency, vocabulary growth, critical thinking, problem solving and nearly all of the big picture goals we prize in education.   A guy named E.D. Hirsch will be taking over this space for now.  I believe you’ve heard of him.

K-12 education looked very different when this blog launched in December 2007.   The education reform discussion largely revolved around structural concerns—teacher quality, testing, charter schools, school choice, and the like.  This blog expressed frustration early and often at the blithe lack of concern among policymakers and reform advocates with the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.  All of these structural issues struck me, then and still, as important but insufficient if we wish to see not merely incremental change, but a watershed improvement in student outcomes, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students.

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.  Not for nothing has Hirsch been referred to as the intellectual forefather of Common Core.  All of this was nearly unthinkable a mere five years ago.

The fight is not over.  It will never be over.  Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.  Is there any field that is as broadly ignorant of its own history as education?

Which brings me to what’s next for your humble blogger.  Effective this month, I will be continuing to make the case for content, but in a slightly different form and venue.  I will be leading an effort, along with some of the leading thinkers in education and public policy, to launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.  You will find me here shortly, and for now you can also follow me on Twitter here and Facebook here.  You can also email me at rpondiscio@aol.com.

To be sure, I don’t view this as a departure from the work of Core Knowledge, but as an extension of it.  Another voice in the happily growing chorus of those who understand and advocate for a content-rich education, and seek to rescue our kids from the joyless, skills-happy, prep-and-test drudgery to which schools too often descend.  We have a larger mission to serve in education.  One that transcends the unlovely if earnest end of “college and career readiness.”  The public purpose of education is citizenship first.  Don’s last book was titled, The Making of Americans for a reason.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to have been associated with Core Knowledge for the last five years, and to have had this forum to make the common sense case for a content-rich education.  I walked in the door a true believer in the Core Knowledge vision.  I walk out the door doubly so.

I owe debts that can never be repaid to my Core Knowledge colleagues, in particular Linda Bevilacqua and Alice Wiggins.  To Dan Willingham for his wise counsel, friendship and assistance.  And most of all to Don Hirsch.  It has been the singular privilege of my adult life to be associated with him and his deeply democratic and egalitarian vision of education.