Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Guest Blogger
March 29th, 2013

I have been trying to ignore it. Really. You see, I have great respect for Stephen Lazar. He clearly cares about America’s youth—and America. And even though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him teach, I’m certain he knows his stuff: Lazar is a National Board–certified social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City.

In a blog post last week, he discussed the Common Core State Standards and New York’s draft grades 9-12 Social Studies Framework, I was nodding in agreement for most of it. Here are the parts that made me cheer:

We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally. Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings….

It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

I also found his remarks on the relationships that ought to exist between standards, curricula, and assessments wise:

As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process…don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.

It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Good stuff. Until I got to the three specific recommendations. While I agree with the spirit of the recommendations, the inescapable fact is that they go against decades of findings from cognitive science. I can’t blame Lazar for not knowing this research. Our colleges of education and professional development workshops typically do not teach it; and Lazar doesn’t have an easy job like mine in which he can decide to dig into a topic and stay focused until a body of evidence starts to show itself. There is a cacophony of conflicting voices out there—Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a whole book on how hard it is for educators to know when to trust the “experts.”

Understanding that I truly want Lazar to succeed, please allow me a friendly critique of his recommendations.

Regarding any new social studies framework, Lazar writes:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

What I want to focus on is recommendation number 2. For 1 and 3, I’ll just quickly point out that they are contradictory. A framework can’t both emphasize inquiry and leave many paths open—the very emphasis on inquiry effectively closes the more traditional path. Research shows that in the hands of a master teacher—which I believe Lazar to be—inquiry approaches can be effective. But research also shows that more traditional methods—including lectures, Socratic dialogs, term papers, and plain old reading—can also be effective. So let’s just stick with recommendation number 3 and keep all the paths open. That way, Lazar can use the inquiry methods he finds so effective—and teachers like Diana Senechal, who has written beautifully in support of varied methods, can use whatever approach seems best suited to the content and the students.

Now back to recommendation number 2: “The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.” This is a wonderful idea. So wonderful that educators and researchers have spent decades pursuing it—but to no avail. It turns out, breadth is not useless—it is essential.

To ensure that the “new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults” one of the most important things educators can do is provide breadth of knowledge and vocabulary. If there is anything civic engagement depends on, it is language comprehension and critical thinking. And what do comprehension and critical thinking depend on? Having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Written or spoken, we simply can’t grasp the meaning of language if we don’t know anything about the topic. If we know at least a little bit about it—if we have at least some of the relevant terms already in our vocabulary—then the door is cracked open and we have a chance to ask questions, search for answers, and bit-by-bit deepen our knowledge—thereby deepening our understanding and our capacity to act (or our capacity to decide not to act).

There is no telling which issues may become important over the next several decades. We can predict certain long-lived topics will persist: states’ rights, voter access, and taxation without representation are a few that come to mind. But what will become the critical issues that we need our youth to engage in? That’s like trying to decide which YouTube video will go viral next year.

There’s only one thing that will ensure that today’s youth are prepared no matter which issues arise tomorrow: breadth of knowledge. Students with really broad knowledge are able to read and think about a wide array of topics. Students with narrow knowledge are not. They may have expertise in a few topics, but that won’t help them grasp a newspaper article on a topic they have never encountered.

In Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (a terrific book that should be required reading in all teacher preparation programs), Daniel Willingham explains that “Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory. If any one of them is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.” So, having a bunch of facts (and other stuff) stored in long-term memory turns out to be a great thing. Willingham offers a full explanation in his book, here’s just a little more (drawn from an excerpt of the book) to help clarify the upshot of the research he summarizes:

It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. There is a separation of data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents.

The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.

In his blog post, Lazar writes that he wants “to spark an effective resistance to the ‘laundry list approach’ to social studies standards.” I don’t see a laundry-list approach in New York’s draft—I don’t see any indication that teachers will be encouraged to teach isolated facts instead of teaching facts in the context of exploring important people, events, and ideas. But those who don’t know the importance of broad knowledge and vocabulary tend to see a “laundry list” when presented with an appropriate, research-based effort to ensure that all students have facts in their long-term memories.

And, by the way, depth is not transformative—at least not in the general skill-building way it is usually discussed. Depth is great—every student should seriously investigate and develop some expertise in at least one topic. It’s an essential character-building and self-defining experience in which students come to know that they really do have the ability to meet challenges and accomplish important goals. But the widespread notion that by doing an in-depth project students are going to develop some critical thinking or problem solving skills that they can then apply in different settings to different problems on different topics just isn’t correct. Without some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory, it just doesn’t work.

So, here’s a friendly amendment to recommendation 2: The framework should provide time for in-depth investigations and ensure that all students develop essential breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.



  1. Hi Lisa.

    Welcome to my world of the actual Common Core implementation looking nothing like the PR campaign or anything that has ever been known to work. Couple of points, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe say repeatedly in their prof devt work with teachers that CC is not about teaching content. They are absolutely 180 degrees from the CK view.

    Secondly, the National Research Council put out a report last July Education for Life and Work that explicitly rejects the cognitive sciences view as too concerned with individual thinking and adopts the Vygotskyian sociocultural model for the implementation of the Common Core. The Hewlett Foundation celebrated that report and said that this sociocultural view was consistent with its vision of deeper learning that CCSSI should produce. Hewlett then hired CRESST to produce an analysis that both the PARCC and SBAC assessments are consistent with its deeper learning vision. CRESST said yes in a January report.

    Quietly released during Thanksgiving week the CCSSO put out the hugely troubling College Career and Civic Life Social Studies Framework. It’s not grounded in the least in the US Constitution or American history view of civics. Moreover, it has students repeatedly assuming as “lenses” metaphorical concepts like Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory that are factually untrue. But as Urie said in a 1977 psychology article I was able to track down, his vision of systems allows for transformative change to be envisioned instead of education that merely preserves the status quo.

    Finally the civic vision in that C3 Framework and elsewhere throughout the Common Core planned implementation is very much grounded in Dewey’s vision of democracy from his 1915 book. Following up on the vision of civics kept referring to a man called Harry Boyte. So I read his 2004 Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life to see what the current civic vision was. It is grounded in community organizing and was created long before we had a President who was previously a community organizer. is the story I wrote quoting Boyte’s vision.

    After I read the book I researched Boyte further and the President was a great admirer of Boyte’s vision when he was still a student at Columbia. I was not looking for the community organizing angle but it is there in footnote after footnote. This view of active citizenship in a transformed polity is consistent with every view of the future that is tied to either CCSSI or the 90s version of these reforms that was known as Outcomes Based education.

    That was long but there were numerous points in your excellent post that need to be the source of scrutiny as the actual implementation rolls into place. Mentioning them is the only way I know to get eyes all over focused on what is really transpiring.

    Comment by Student of History — March 30, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  2. The Concord Review has published the results of 1,055 in-depth historical investigations (average 6,000 words) by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries since 1987. They have learned some history and they have put in a lot of work to be better writers of serious nonfiction as well.

    Samples at Also write:

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 30, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

  3. @Robin,

    Wow. Conspiratory paranoia at its zenith. Knowing the people I know working on the CCSSO, I find it difficult to believe what you’re attempting to prove. I can only hope you’re wrong.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 30, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  4. Paul-

    I am not paranoid nor am I a conspiracist. I am basically functioning as a court reporter at this point following the published documents and reading the footnotes and appreciating what else has been written on point.

    Trust me. I wish I was wrong too. History and economics aid me in tracking but it also gives me frightening insights into the consequences of similar campaigns. is a podcast I gave. Do I sound paranoid or conspiratorial?

    Everything I cited in my post above or the one I linked to is sufficiently detailed to easily check the accuracy of what I am saying. Everyone at the CCSSO can be as charming and well-intentioned as can be. But if what they are pushing has a history they are unaware of, and it does, the consequences flow from the policy, not the intentions.

    Again I am not attempting to prove anything. I do not talk about anything until I have declarations by people in a position to push their druthers through.

    I am hearing from readers in CO by the way that the CCSSI assessments are being used to shut down the nature of the CK curriculum in the charter schools there. I am not posting because I am looking for readers. I am horrifically concerned about this.

    Comment by Student of History — March 30, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

  5. Robin,

    I had a hard time understanding what was really being discussed here but your podcast really helped. Too much to comment on, but thanks for putting that information together.

    Comment by Desuetude — March 31, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  6. Thanks Desuetude. There are a lot of moving parts both to keep what was controversial in the past hidden and because education is really just a vehicle for an envisioned political, economic, and social transformation. That sounds dramatic but I have read that often enough by people in a position to get their way to take them at their word. That is the aim.

    As I told Robert when he wrote that one of us was wrong months ago, I can prove what I am saying. And if talking about it slows down the implementation at all it is worth being harangued a bit. I suspect the CK schools in the NE will be the last to get hammered precisely because it would be fatal to CCSSI if they were squawking now. I hate to be a spoilsport but I am not doing anyone any favors not telling everyone to be wary.

    I am actually going to explain tomorrow why no one is getting traction with the legislators. This will be an economic angle tied to what is called the Regional Equity Movement and what Brookings calls Metropolitanism. I have already covered this some but the announcement that pulls it all together with the Common Core and 21st Century Skills as an international initiative was announced a few weeks ago at that SXSWedu conference in Austin. I see things differently because I am reading everything relevant from related drivers to CCSSI most people are unaware of.

    I really am not doing this to be contrary and I hated even speaking up in class unless I had a question because I thought rocketarms were obnoxious. I had to really be convinced there was no choice to go public like this.

    Comment by Student of History — March 31, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

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