Mere Facts, Mere Knowledge, Mere College Readiness

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 25th, 2013

Is teaching many domains in English language arts more important to college and career readiness than teaching many words?

Research on teaching vocabulary has determined better and worse ways of conducting explicit instruction.  Word lists and isolated definitions, while they may seem efficient, are among the least effective methods, while explicit explanations of words in context are the most effective. Ideally, according to one distinguished researcher, students can learn up to 400 new words in a school year by explicit methods (2+ words a day for 180 days under ideal circumstances). Others offer a more modest estimate, around 200 words per school year.

Yet the minimal count of words you need to be college and career ready is estimated to be 12,000 to 30,000, depending on the mode of counting. The explicit method of instruction at its best yields 5,200 words between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yet even marginal high school students need to know twice that many—meaning that most of their word learning must occur incidentally in the course of understanding the gist of spoken and written language.

Nonetheless, I would agree with advocates of explicit word study that, done strategically as an integrated and not-very-time-consuming part of a lesson, explicit instruction can help unlock enough of the gist of a passage to speed up the incidental learning of words. But then the question arises: what sort of words should we pause over in order to make the best use of class time and help the student make the fastest progress?

Experts in explicit word study have identified three main categories of words called Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, in order of frequency of occurrence in written English. The current expert view is that teachers should focus on Tier 2 words. Tier 1 words are so usual that students are likely to learn them on their own. Tier 3 words, on the other hand, are so rare that focusing on them does not offer much advancement for general reading ability. So under current thinking, the following sorts of Tier 2 words are the ones teachers should spend most class time on:  reputation, disruption, hovers, stifling, obstacle, descendants, maximum, standards, barren, desolate—words that are moderately frequent, because used in multiple written contexts. That’s not true of domain-specific Tier 3 words like, valence, bildungsroman, Renaissance, metabolism, Gettysburg, photosynthesis,  stochastic, ionic, simile, dew point, polygon, Madison, monotheism, kinetic, Dalton, Fourier, Magna Carta, Impressionism, helium, fiscal, TR, and Shiite. 

But I’m not persuaded by this rationale. Although Tier 2 words are to be found in multiple contexts, they do not constitute a big percentage of the totality of different words in the English vocabulary. That distinction belongs to the words of Tier 3, which are domain specific. If you want to reach the magic number of 25,000 thousand or so, it’s best to spend your time learning domain-specific Tier 3 words. After all, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the expert advice to teachers to spend most of students’ explicit-word-study time on Tier 2 words after having said that Tier 1 words can be ignored on the grounds that they are used so frequently that most people have learned them incidentally. That sensible principle recedes when it comes to their doctrine about Tier 2 words, which we are advised to focus on precisely because they are relatively frequent and are used in multiple written contexts. Some serious research needs to be undertaken to determine whether, in a good, coherent knowledge-based curriculum most Tier 2 words aren’t also learned incidentally as a matter of course, just like most Tier 1 words, as the overall math would suggest. (This research has not been conducted, despite the confident advice about studying domain-general Tier 2 words. Indeed there is some counter evidence in the studies by John Guthrie indicating the superiority of domain-specific instruction in ELA.)

To support the emphasis on Tier 2 words many educators assume that there exists such a thing as general “reading skill,” which will be the key to college and career readiness. But cognitive scientists instruct us that it’s an oversimplification to suppose that there is such a thing as a domain-general reading skill that can be fostered by the explicit study of domain-general, Tier 2 words. On the contrary, the latest cognitive science tells us that reading skills, like most skills, are “domain specific.”  Granted, there are important domain-general aspects of reading that include automatic, unconscious procedures like decoding skill, eye movements, strategic meaning searches, and knowledge of domain-general words. It is reasonable, indeed essential, to ensure that students gain such domain-general knowledge. But few experts advise that students be explicitly trained in eye-movement patterns, at least not very extensively. For most students that skill develops unconsciously without continuous instruction.  The same is true of most domain-general word learning—which occurs unconsciously, bit by bit, through multiple exposures to a word in different contexts. Domain general skills like decoding, once mastered, are continually practiced and unconsciously improved precisely because, being domain general, they occur frequently.

There’s a clear analogy with skill in sports. Most sports demand domain-general athletic abilities like hand-eye coordination.  Nonetheless being skilled specifically in golf does not directly transfer to being skilled in tennis or even in croquet. Each sport has domain-specific skills that must be explicitly mastered. Similarly, being skilled in reading about golf does not readily transfer to being skilled in reading about tennis. The golf passages will of course contain domain-general words like but, however, pretty, and willing, but the critical words will be birdie, bogie, and par, and knowing them won’t help you read a tennis story with set point, fault, and ace.

Why do you suppose school reading tests typically offer ten or so passages? If reading were a domain-general skill, one passage would suffice. (If I want to know if you can ride a bike, I won’t bring ten bikes for you to ride. One will suffice.) But reading tests always contain several passages because a reliable reading test has to sample your ability to read in several different domains. Reading tests are essentially tests of how many different domains you have knowledge of and vocabulary for. To be a literate adult—one who could read a newspaper front to back—you must have knowledge in a very broad range of domains.

If we wish our students to perform well on a reading test, we ought to abandon the disparagement of “mere facts.”  Nothing contributes more to a student’s reading abilities than wide knowledge of multiple domains, automatically accompanied by knowledge of many domain-specific, Tier 3 words. In sum, nothing contributes more to college and career readiness than broad general knowledge over multiple domains.

The best way to teach “English language arts” then is systematically to teach substantive domains of knowledge along with their inherently related vocabularies. In fact the whole issue needs to be broadened by a return to real classes in history, science, and the arts in elementary grades, as the best way to gain proficiency in reading. This larger principle transcends the currently debated topic of fictional vs. non-fictional genres. Much good fiction is a repository of domain knowledge—not just of human nature and ethical principles, but also of historical and factual knowledge, including such things as Mississippi river-boating in Huckleberry Finn, and whaling in Moby Dick, as well as the forms and techniques of literature, like simile and metaphor, prefixes and suffixes, which are just as “informational” as chemical valences. What is needed for college and career readiness is extensive general knowledge over multiple domains, coherently delivered—with lots of Tier 3 words.

When this is done well, with gradually increasing sophistication grade by grade, Tiers 1 and 2 will mostly take care of themselves.

The Skills Stranglehold

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 21st, 2013

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious already, but today’s Metlife Survey of the American Teacher confirms that the nation’s teachers are demoralized. How could it be otherwise, with pressure to build the Common Core plane while flying it and also facing new evaluation and accountability requirements?

I don’t want to brush off any of these very real problems, but I do want to suggest that they are not the heart of the matter. Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have. The report states (p. 65):

Middle school and high school principals and teachers are less likely than their elementary school counterparts to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will improve student achievement (principals: 73% vs. 85%; teachers: 61% vs. 76%). Middle school and high school teachers are less likely than elementary school teachers to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will better prepare students for college and the workforce (63% vs. 78%); principals’ views on this do not differ significantly by school level.

At all levels, just “two in 10 principals or teachers indicate that they are very confident that the Common Core will have these effects.” How can this be? Teachers could be feeling too downtrodden to have great confidence in anything, but I think the real answer is hidden in the report itself. There’s a hint in the report’s “From the Experts” box (p. 58):

The public education thought leaders interviewed as part of the survey development process … are concerned that some teachers and principals may be underestimating how large a shift in curriculum, teaching, and assessment may be required to implement the new standards fully.

  • “In all but a handful of states around the country, there are new academic standards that are being implemented that will demand very fundamental changes in teaching and learning; very fundamental changes in the instructional practices that teachers use in the classroom. Teachers say they’re aware of the standards and they like the standards; they’re not much different than what they’re doing now, which is generally not the case.”
  • “The rigor is simply much harder or much more demanding than most states have had in the past, so dealing with the real benchmark of where you are as a teacher and your performance and your mastery of these standards and how well your students are going to do is kind of a… I don’t know whether the word is culture shock, when you start seeing the true benchmark as opposed to where you thought you were.”

The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

It can’t get through: The barrier erected by the skills stranglehold is far stronger than anyone realizes. Consider this, from the very beginning of the report’s section on the Common Core (p. 53):

Middle and high school teachers indicate that the critical components of being college- and career-ready focus more on higher-order thinking and performance skills—such as problem-solving skills, critical-thinking skills and the ability to write clearly and persuasively—than on knowledge of challenging content.

Here we see the skills stranglehold in its purest form. Skills can’t be more important than knowledge for college and career because without knowledge, there are no “higher-order thinking and performance skills.” Skills depend on knowledge. If I don’t know any physics, I can’t think critically about physics. And, the more I know about physics, the more successful I will be in solving physics problems.

Lest you think I’m making too much of this one sentence about middle and high school teachers, let me take you back to the 2010 MetLife survey. On page 21, you’ll see this:

And on page 22, you’ll see this handy summary:

Teachers share remarkably similar views on the importance of these skills, abilities and knowledge areas regardless of grade level taught, years of experience, school characteristics or even subject area. English teachers are most likely to say the ability to write clearly and persuasively is absolutely essential or very important (99%), and 92% of math teachers also rate this ability as highly. While less than half (45%) of English teachers say that knowledge and ability in higher-level mathematics, such as trigonometry and calculus is absolutely essential or very important, math teachers themselves do not rate the necessity of higher-level mathematics much more highly (50%).

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

But I can’t really blame them. Teachers have themselves been taught that skills are transferrable, independent of particular knowledge or mere facts. The skills stranglehold has been tightening its grip for nearly 100 years. Recently, educators’ focus on skills—particularly so-called 21st century skills—and disparagement of knowledge got so bad that the National Research Council took up the issue, clarifying that skills and knowledge can’t be separated, and then exploring how deepening content knowledge could lead to better skills:

In contrast to a view of 21st century skills as general skills that can be applied to a range of different tasks in various academic, civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views 21st century skills as dimensions of expertise that are specific to—and intertwined with—knowledge within a particular domain of content and performance. (p. 3)

Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem, or context, in or out of school. Nevertheless, it has identified features of instruction that are likely to substantially support deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies within a topic area or discipline. For example, we now know that transfer [within a discipline] is supported when learners understand the general principles underlying their original learning and the transfer situation or problem involves the same general principles—a finding reflected in the new Common Core State Standards…. (p. 8)

The necessary merger of deep content knowledge and higher-order skills is indeed reflected in the Common Core standards. But sadly, we have a long way to go for it to be reflected in most of our classrooms.

The Two Americas Continued: Schmidt and McKnight

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

In my last post (“Antonio Who?”) about the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (pronounced gram-shee who was cited as a big influence by Michael Gove the British Secretary of Education), I hinted—but didn’t venture to say—that maybe our educational systems would be in better shape if our top authorities followed Gove’s lead and read more challenging books, while holding fewer committee meetings. Albert Shanker, the brilliant union-organizer-turned-educational-statesman, once told me, mournfully: “They don’t read.” I once looked through Al Shanker’s own library now housed at AFT headquarters, and was amazed to see his annotations in a multi-volume set by the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. But the vision of a top American official reading the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci could happen only in a Woody Allen movie.

On the other side, an argument against reading a lot of books on American education is that it could cause clinical depression. As I peruse the important book by William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight, Inequality for All, I think to myself: this is a companion volume to a whole spate of recent books on American inequality by eminent scholars, including a book by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and a mournfully vivid book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart. The image one gets from Murray is not of red America vs. blue America, but of one zip code full of striving SAT-takers and community-minded citizens vs.  a neighboring zip code of drifting alcoholic semi-literates who lack any sense of community or hope. It is not too much of a stretch to see Inequality for All as identifying a significant cause of these economic and sociological ills. The book is an indictment of the content-incoherence of our schools.

The sad reality is that the American educational system does not provide equal opportunity for all but rather perpetuates vast inequalities in content coverage…. This inequality of opportunity … disadvantages many, perhaps even most, children in the United States….

Variation in content coverage corrupts the entire U.S. educational system, in effect creating an enormous educational lottery in which every student takes part—whatever their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. The system of schooling represents a game of chance that few are even aware is being played.

Given this almost universal curricular incoherence in our schools, students with home advantages are able to overcome ineffectual schooling through home tutoring either direct or indirect. In short, (as Gramsci predicted) the “progressive” American theory of education, with its how rather than what approach to schooling, while it is “advocated as being democratic, is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese complexities” (Notebook 29).  In other words Gramsci predicted the very America described by Stiglitz and Murray as being the effect of the schooling described by Schmidt and McKnight.

Inequality for All focuses on math and science education, showing with authoritative thoroughness the failure of our schools to bring rationality and cumulativeness in the topics taught from year to year.   They make the point that reformers on both the left and right have been consumed with equalizing resources or in fostering competition and accountability, but pay too little heed to the essence of schooling which they see as the delivery of academic content by teachers to students. Hear, hear!

I have tried to make exactly the same point with respect to the general knowledge that students need to gain outside the subjects of science and math. The Gramsci principle that the delivery of academic content is the key to social justice holds even more strongly for general knowledge, which is the key to high literacy and the ability to learn and adapt in the future. Indeed, based on data from the Armed Forces Qualification Test, I’ve argued that general knowledge is approximately twice as important as math in determining a person’s future capacity to function economically and as a citizen, and therefore deserves at least the same care and coherence that Schmit and McKnight want for science and math.  Given their sound view that “the delivery of academic content” is the key to future improvement and to equity, Schmidt and McKnight come out strongly in favor of the Common Core State Standards.

Every day my email inbox fills with relentless attacks on these standards, and renewed attempts to undo the commitments of forty-odd states to follow them. I wish these energies and criticisms could be turned to making the standards function well, rather than to making them go away. They are a work in progress, and instituting them will entail many false steps. But Schmidt and McKnight rightly see them as the best way forward for excellence and equity. They see the issue in educational, not political terms: not as some intolerable imposition of the federal government or the Gates Foundation, but as our best chance to overcome failure, incoherence, and injustice.

Unless the carpers against the common core can come up with an alternative plan that brings coherence to “the delivery of academic content,” they leave us in the unacceptable condition of the status quo.   Let these carpers produce a book half as thorough and authoritative as that of Schmidt and McKnight, with a vision of what needs to be done half as compelling. Then I might be more receptive to their constant stream of mosquito bites against the ambitious vision defended in this important book.


Antonio Who?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 13th, 2013

Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable speech the other night, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British educational world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was our own Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from a 1996 book by me. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the 20th century. What gives?

I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the 20th century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he languished because his writing and journalistic work in the 1920s were so cogent and influential that Mussolini’s fascistic regime seized him in 1927 with the avowed purpose of silencing him. There he remained for eight years, until his ill health brought him to a sanitarium in 1934, and to a clinic in 1937, where he died. He was allowed to write, but not, of course, to let anyone see his writing. It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.

He rightly predicted that in the future, most work would entail intellectual work, and that political and economic power would reside with the educated. Especially notable was his critique of progressive education, which became the official educational doctrine of the fascist regime. Despite progressivism’s high claims to “child-centered natural development,” “deep understanding,” and “independent thought,” its anti-bookish tendencies, Gramsci said, were socially retrograde. “Il bambino non è un gomitolo di lana da sgomitolare, ma la parte del complesso mondo storico su cui l’ambiente e la società esercitano la loro coercizione”. “The child is not a ball of yarn to be unwound, but part of a complex historical world in which the environment is a society that exercises its own coercions.” Under progressivism, the children of the rich would continue to possess the knowledge they needed to wield the levers of power (because they would always have multiple opportunities for bookish learning), while the children of the poor would remain in their subordinate poverty.

Hence, what was needed, Gramsci said was a single “formative school” for all students rich or poor that would stress foundational knowledge in literature, science, history and the arts, in a demanding common curriculum. Only in later grades should there be practical trainings in technical and job related subjects. What Gramsci was in fact proposing was the American Common-School idea of the 19th century. And in fact his scuola formativaunica is sometimes translated as “common school.”

In sum, Gramsci favored the kind of knowledge-based schooling that Michael Gove is proposing. He would also favor the Common Core State Standards in the United States, so long as these were implemented as a specific knowledge-based curriculum, and were freed from the anti-intellectual and socially retrograde effects of what Gramsci disdainfully called “teoria dello sgomitolamento”—“the unravelling theory,” best translated as “constructivism”—the anti-broad knowledge, anti-guided learning theory that still dominates many teacher training schools in the United States.

It’s Time to Abandon the Status Quo

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 4th, 2013

Fully implementing the Common Core in the early grades is our best hope for closing achievement gaps

Last week on The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss posted “A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education” by Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Soon thereafter, she posted the following response (presented in full below) by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Reading both the critique and response is useful for understanding ways the Common Core could be misunderstood—or could become a vehicle for bringing systematic knowledge development into the early grades.

Earlier this week Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige raised some thought-provoking critiques of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While I don’t know whether early childhood educators were involved in the standards writing process, I do know that many early educators are pleased with the result. As someone who has studied how to best use the early years to close achievement gaps and give all children an opportunity to live happy, productive, engaged lives, I am also a supporter of the CCSS.

I don’t argue that the CCSS are perfect  (I would not even argue that about the Core Knowledge Sequence). And I agree with Miller and Carlsson-Paige that we should all be open to improving the Common Core standards once we have done our best to implement them well. I’ve seen more than a few sets of standards come and go; I will safely bet that the interpretation, the implementation, and most especially the assessments of the CCSS matter far more than the standards themselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the critiques Miller and Carlsson-Paige put forth.

The biggest problem with their criticism of CCSS is that they don’t offer anything different or better than what we have now. They call for a rejection of the CCSS because of various perceived faults. But then they call for what, exactly? As far as I can see, they want more of the pre-CCSS status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t working.  The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.

Of course, much more goes into reading at age 17 than early childhood education, and there has been some recent improvement among 9-year-olds in reading, especially among our lowest-performing students. Why hasn’t this improvement carried into later grades? As I have argued many, many, many times, the fundamental problem is that American schools, including preschools, typically delay systematic efforts to build students’ vocabulary and knowledge until far too late (usually the end of elementary school or even later).

Building word and world knowledge must begin in preschool if we are to have any hope of closing the enormous language gaps identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, or of enabling children to listen and read with comprehension. That’s why the Core Knowledge Foundation has spent the past several years developing a new preschool–5th grade language arts program (grades pre-K–3 will be online, for free download, by summer 2013). Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is radically different from the most widely used elementary-grades reading programs. Through high-quality fiction and nonfiction, CKLA systematically provides students the broad background knowledge they need to do well in middle and high school. It was developed by researchers and teachers working together. In short, it takes the best of current practice and updates it with solid research: it is nothing like the status quo (and has the results to prove it).

With the troubling results of the status quo in mind, let’s consider the end of Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s critique. They close with this: “Our first task as a society is to protect our children. The imposition of these standards endangers them. To learn more about how early childhood educators are working to defend young children, see Defending the Early Years.”Following that link, I arrived at a website with an open letter to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  The central point of the open letter is that NAEYC is no longer a strong supporter of it’s mid-1980’s statement on developmentally appropriate practice. The open letter states:

NAEYC has long played a valuable role in identifying and supporting best practices in early childhood education. The strong position NAEYC took with its 1986 publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, focused attention on respectful, child centered ways of working with young children…. NAEYC appears to have gradually retreated from its strong defense of DAP. The voices of its leadership have not been heard vigorously protesting the proliferation of standards and assessments or offering meaningful alternatives to them.

To NAEYC’s current leadership, I say “Bravo!” NAEYC has recognized that research does not stand still, and the best practices from almost 30 years ago are not considered best practices today. NAEYC has consistently been dedicated to updating its advice on DAP; it issued major revisions in 1996 and 2008. I had the good fortune in the mid-nineties to meet and talk with the authors of NAEYC’s guides on DAP, Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple (Bredekamp has worked on each of NAEYC’s DAP papers; Copple joined her in the 1990s). At the time, the Core Knowledge Foundation was creating a preschool program. I found them well versed in recent cognitive science, with a deep understanding of how preschool could enhance children’s oral language development, which is critically important for all future learning.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, has explained that many long-held, widely shared beliefs about children’s cognitive development—such as Jean Piaget’s notion that it proceeds in discrete stages—have not been supported by newer, more sophisticated studies. Cognitive development is continuous, and a child’s performance will vary day to day and task to task. (Even very young children can engage in critical thinking if they have been taught the necessary background knowledge.) In an article for teachers on DAP, Willingham asks them to “recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.” He then explains as follows:

Without trivializing them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

Of course, as teachers, you must also consider the cost if students do not fully understand a concept the way you had intended. The cost may be minimal, and the content may be worth knowing—even if in an incomplete way. For example, suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it’s hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you’re probably presenting content that they’ve already learned elsewhere.

I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary.

In addition to their out-of-date concept of what is developmentally appropriate, Miller and Carlsson-Paige have an unfounded fear that under the CCSS, the early grades will be dominated by direct instruction. I would also be upset to see a classroom in any grade that never departs from direct instruction—as I would be sad to see a classroom entirely devoted to discovery learning, project-based instruction, or free play. Decades ago, Project Follow Through clearly demonstrated that direct instruction works well with young children.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing. There is nothing inherent in the CCSS that discourages early childhood educators from offering rich educational experiences using a variety of pedagogies.

As NAEYC has noted, the CCSS indicate what should be taught in ELA/literacy and mathematics. They do not dictate pedagogy or prevent teachers from offering a well-rounded curriculum, including the arts and social-emotional learning. In its recent paper on the CCSS, which highlighted benefits of and support for the CCSS while also pointing out potential problems with implementation, NAEYC wrote:

Learning standards, or content standards, provide the “what” of education, but they do not describe the “how” of education. The content standards set the goal toward which teaching and learning opportunities are directed for young children.

The “how” of learning should be aligned to the content standard through our understanding of best practices to increase the chances of attaining the goal, even as the goal itself needs to be aligned with our knowledge of children’s learning processes…. Especially critical is maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches—including the use of play as well as both small- and large-group instruction—that are considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children.

While Miller and Carlsson-Paige seem to think that academic content—gap-closing word and world knowledge—can’t be delivered in a developmentally appropriate way, solid research shows us that it can. For example, the distinguished psychologist Robert Siegler has found that numerical board games (like Chutes and Ladders) can help preschoolers from low-income families increase their numerical skills and concepts. Would a classroom that spends 20 minutes playing Chutes and Ladders and another 10 minutes in a direct math lesson really be such a terrible “drill and grill” place (as Miller and Carlsson-Paige wrote)?

The CCSS do leave room for great teaching, but that does not mean that all interpretations of the CCSS have been either accurate or helpful. A New York Post article stated that “the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write ‘informative/explanatory reports’ and demonstrate ‘algebraic thinking.’ Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.” This is a misinterpretation of the CCSS. I am grateful to everyone who is trying to correct such errors. For young children, the focus of the CCSS is—appropriately—oral language.

Such misunderstanding of the CCSS brings me to a final point. All standards, even the CCSS, are goal statements that can be interpreted many ways. If the idea of all children sharing some core content is to come to fruition, somebody needs to come up with a model curriculum along with validated, curriculum-based tests. That curriculum need not say how to teach, but it does need to say what limited core to teach, grade by grade. (That core is  all the more important, since teachers will still need time to address students’ weaknesses and encourage them to pursue their interests.) Without a specific curriculum, and without tests that are drawn exclusively from that curriculum, word and world knowledge will continue to be taught haphazardly and incoherently, and our achievement gaps will not be closed.

I believe Core Knowledge Language Arts is an important step toward such a curriculum, and I would warmly welcome any funder interested in developing a curriculum-based test for CKLA. If we as a nation developed something of equally high quality for the middle grades, then dramatically more students would be able to take AP’s and IB’s curriculum-based courses and exams in high school.

The future of American education hinges on whether CCSS can be made to work. The alternative, despite the protestations of the critics, is more of the same ineffective and unjust practices that have placed the nation and its middle class at risk.