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.


  1. A Big Thank You from E. D. Hirsch

    Dear Robert,

    Not many of your admirers on this blog know how you got into educational reform. They have no idea that not long ago you were a highly paid and admired publishing executive (The business world knew how to value your remarkable talents!). One day when you were riding the subway, you saw one of those ads inviting talented people to change their lives and others’ lives by teaching in the New York City Public Schools.

    Idealist that you are, you answered the call (lucky students!), but, realist that you are, you came to see that grinding down talented teachers in a broken system was a band-aid on a mortal wound. You decided – idealist that you are – that you would work to improve the system.

    That’s how you swam into our ken, out of nowhere, it seemed, offering to work for a pittance to help us bring substantive knowledge into the schools – the only real hope for those students you had been teaching. And you energetically started this blog which has brought many more people into the knowledge fold than we at Core Knowledge had ever managed to do.

    Now you have seen another sign. It says “CIVICS.” Yes indeed! I wish I were 50 years younger and could work in that critical enterprise with you. Nothing is a more important mission of the schools. Not even STEM! Jefferson said newspapers in a republic were more important than government. But how could he know that our schools would turn out so many students who can’t read a newspaper or blog with understanding, or that many of his successors in the political class haven’t had a proper education in civics? Sandra Day O’Connor (one of your new civics colleagues) shook her head about a presidential aspirant who promised that on his first day in office he would repeal Obamacare. “Doesn’t he know,” she sighed, “that a president can’t repeal a law?”

    I could go on and on with that theme – as you know. But back here at the ranch we’ll be talking less about the big C than the three R’s. Both jobs are supremely important. Yet I know that however well we manage to do, we’ll lack that Pondiscio touch. In recent weeks you have written on serious topics with the following good-natured titles:
    Squishiness Watch
    Toy Canon
    “OK Dead White Guys, You Can Come Out Now”
    Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor. And Free Beer!!
    When Barbie Drops Algebra
    The Inspector Will See You Now
    Meet the Children Where They Are…and Keep Them There

    Using that good-natured tone to introduce heavy subjects not only keeps your fans interested, it’s also been the cause of their singular civility in making comments. I hope that civility is a tradition we can preserve. Back here at the ranch, I’m sure our blogs will be equally earnest and courteous. But will we ever be as readable? I doubt it, but we’ll do our best. Meanwhile, to follow up on the recent Latin theme: ave atque vale — with the emphasis on the ave.

    Be seein’ ya.

    As ever,


    Comment by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. — January 7, 2013 @ 9:33 am

  2. Robert
    What a vibrant, thought-provoking spot on the web you have made this! I (and all of your readers) will miss you here though I’m confident we’ll see your voice in the comments. I’m looking forward to your next chapter!

    Comment by Dan Willingham — January 7, 2013 @ 10:28 am

  3. Thank you, Robert, for the smart, witty, provocative posts you have written, and for helping me better understand the world of education policy.

    When you first asked me to write for the CK blog, I was flattered but skeptical; I’m no ed policy expert (“Have you READ my stuff??? I asked). But in your usual style, you welcomed new voices into the fray and asked only that I write about what I know to be true and good and right in my classroom.

    I am forever grateful for the opportunity to learn from you.

    Jess Lahey

    Comment by Jess Lahey — January 7, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  4. Robert,
    Let me echo Don’s post – and the many others that I am sure will follow – by thanking you for the incredibly important role you have played in advancing the need for coherent curriculum to be front and center of any conversation about educational reform. Thank you for your passion, intellect, commitment and wit that have been synonymous with your work while you were here at the Core Knowledge Foundation. I look forward to more of the same in your new position.

    Comment by Linda Bevilacqua — January 7, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  5. Robert,

    Wow! You will be missed; by the folks who visit here regularly, the education reform movement, and, I’m sure, by your colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation. You are as knowledgeable and talented as I’ve encountered in this field and your talents will be difficult to replace.

    All the best in your new mission. Teaching America is fortunate to have you.

    Will attempt to follow your new odyssey.

    Paul Hoss

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 7, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  6. Thank heavens. Now we’re all free to go back to teaching “reading strategies” over and over. Cuz that works.

    More seriously, so long as I can still get my fix of your edu-thoughts at some new blog, I’ll survive.

    But I very much appreciate your introducing me to the ideas of Core Knowledge…your tireless advocacy has probably helped a more than a few dopes like me to finally “get it.”

    Comment by Mike G — January 7, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  7. Best of Luck Robert.

    Having read all those Civic Mission of Schools reports, I am glad you will be involved with this. I remain concerned with the flip in those reports away from the historic emphasis on the individual towards a more Communitarian approach. If people want a different Constitution, amend it. Don’t misteach it to the next generation who then act on misperceptions.

    I think the 20th century is proof that much of John Dewey’s vision for using education for Social Reconstruction is pushing a nightmare. I know we can trust you to notice precisely when and why Dewey’s vision is being pushed in the name of Civics Education.

    Not Dewey’s vision of little “d” democracy or Nel Noddings. But a solid grounding for each student in as much of what made America work and prosper as they can absorb.

    Not theory or erroneous facts but solid information should be available to every child. And beware of the American Bar Association’s view of civics ed as well. It seems mostly designed to advance the regulatory state that is lucrative for connected lawyers and lobbyists and few others.

    I look forward to reading your work.

    Comment by Student of History — January 7, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  8. The end of an era!

    It’s hard to believe it’s been only 5 years since you started blogging here. You’ve built this blog into an institution. I don’t believe I’ve missed any of those 1500 wonderful posts.

    Best of luck in your new adventure, Robert. It’s very good news that this blog will continue to thrive without you, and that we’ll still be able to get our Pondiscio fix in your new blog.

    Comment by Claus von Zastrow — January 7, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  9. You did a wonderful job blogging here. I look forward to reading you on civics education.

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — January 7, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

  10. Yes, this is the end of an era.

    Thank you, Robert, for welcoming me to write for the CK blog in 2008 and onward. Aside from a few pieces for the New York Teacher, it was here that I started writing on education, and here that I found myself at home.

    That is only a fraction of what I will miss. I have been in awe of your blog titles, not just for the puns, but for the good spirit behind them. As E. D. Hirsch said, you set a civil and vivacious tone for the blog. Your own commentary was evenhanded and biting, almost simultaneously, as when a person takes a burger with both hands and seizes about a third of it with the teeth. I enjoyed the many guest-bloggers as well.

    Congratulations on your new position and project. I look forward to hearing about it over time, and I look forward to reading E. D. Hirsch’s blog posts here.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 7, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

  11. [...] five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and [...]

    Pingback by From Core Knowledge to civics — Joanne Jacobs — January 7, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

  12. Robert
    Your voice will continue to ring in our work! Many, many thanks for 5 years of collaboration and camaraderie. Looking forward to many path crossings – and more bad Mexican food – to come!

    Comment by Alice Wiggin — January 7, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  13. Let’s hope that Robert is as successful at promoting Civics as he has been at promoting Core Knowledge. In some ways, he isn’t making that much of a career switch. I’ve seen the entire K-8 CK curriculum in practice, and it’s all impressive, but the top prize goes to the parts on American history and government. Most college graduates haven’t learned as much worthwhile American history as CK students do by eighth grade.

    It’s amazing how uninformed many otherwise well-educated people are about basic Civics. As an example, most people seem to subscribe to the Magic Wand theory of the presidency. President Obama (or Bush, Clinton, Reagan, or whomever) can wave this Wand, and all by his lonesome, can generate prosperity or depression, depending on whether he is smart and virtuous, or stupid and malevolent. The President gets most of the credit or blame for things he only partially influences. I could cite many similar examples.

    The best part of the CK blog has been the civil tone of the writers and commenters. As Dr. Hirsch notes, Robert is great at writing headlines that draw a reader in through humor (this art was long ago perfected by the headline writers at the Wall Street Journal, which even in the days of its staid front page, had great puns scattered throughout its pages).

    I read a couple of dozen blogs to varying degrees, and the most humorless ones are those on the political extremes – and the education blogs. Education bloggers/commenters tend to take themselves far too seriously, and erroneously conflate seriousness with solemnity and self-righteousness. Robert’s good humor rescued the CK blog from being like that.

    Best wishes, and I look forward to you joining us as a frequent commenter.

    Comment by John Webster — January 7, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

  14. Robert,

    I’ve always been challenged by your thoughtful posts (and enjoyed both your series and satirical tweets). I look forward to more of the same in your future endeavor — Best of luck!


    Comment by Larry Ferlazzo — January 7, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

  15. We’ll miss you!

    Comment by Rachel — January 7, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

  16. Farewell, Robert. As an intellectually-isolated middle school teacher, this blog has been a boon to me. I still know of nobody in my area who espouses E.D. Hirsch’s ideas. My only kindred spirits, professionally speaking, are on this blog. Many thanks for your incisive, witty posts, and for modeling civil discourse so beautifully. I wish you best of luck in your new post.

    Comment by Ponderosa — January 7, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

  17. Robert,
    I am one of many who has read your posts, passed them on to friends and colleagues, discussed them, and been inspired by the ensuing conversation on this site. Once or twice, I was especially honored to have you refer to my comments regarding my own classroom experiences. I look forward to following your new project, wishing you the best; you have added immeasurably to this most important conversation.

    Comment by Barbara S Glanz — January 8, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  18. This is like attending your own funeral. Everyone says such lovely things about you, yet you’re alive to hear them! Thanks, everyone. I’m honored. And humbled. I pledge to do my best to be worthy of your warm words and votes of confidence.


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 8, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  19. I’m sorry to hear you’re leaving CK, but it sounds like you will still be making a difference in your new incarnation. Best of luck to you!

    Comment by Barry Garelick — January 8, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  20. I sure looked forward to your posts. You gave me much to ponder. I loved the readable manner in which you expressed complex ideas. I will miss you on here.

    Comment by Angie B. — January 8, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  21. Warmest best wishes for every success in your new position!

    Comment by Jeff Ziegler — January 8, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

  22. Have I really been reading this blog for 5 years?! My introduction to Core Knowledge was through the “What Your __th Grader Needs to Know” books, and through some long-forgotten means, I found this site and this blog. It was largely responsible for my changing college majors twice in the past 5 years (Business/HR to Int./HS Social Studies, to Elementary Ed.). Robert, I can’t thank you enough for all the wonderful topics you’ve covered, other genuinely intelligent educators, bloggers, and posters you have exposed, and the innumerable links to other valuable sources and sites that I just would never have found on my own. As I close in on student teaching and grduation, I’m eternally grateful for the various perspectives and the intelligent arguments found here. Godspeed, and I’m bookmarking your new home!

    Comment by Cindy — January 11, 2013 @ 2:11 am

  23. [...] I’ve been told more than a few times that Robert Pondiscio’s shoes are too big to fill. It’s true! If his quips ever inspired you to write a few clever [...]

    Pingback by An Interesting Place to Spend Your Life « The Core Knowledge Blog — March 9, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

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