Making College a Genuine Choice: Michael Shaughnessy Interviews Lisa Hansel

by Lisa Hansel
April 22nd, 2013

Michael F. Shaughnessy’s interview with Lisa Hansel was originally posted on April 16, 2013, in Education News.

Michael F. Shaughnessy:

1) Lisa, tell us exactly what your position is currently and what you are trying to do.

In March, I became the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Before that I was the editor of American Educator, the education research and ideas magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. As I explained in my first blog post for Core Knowledge, it was hard to leave that position; I joined Core Knowledge because its approach is really well aligned with research on learning and it has the best curriculum I have ever seen. I would love for more of the national school improvement discussion to be focused on curriculum. For achievement, what could be more important than what gets taught? Bill Schmidt and Russ Whitehurst are both persuasive on this.

2) Now, you recently indicated in a blog that a very low-achieving 8th grader in a high-poverty school has only about a 3 percent chance of “getting ready for college.” What exactly do you mean by “getting ready” for college?

That is drawn from research by ACT, which has a long history of developing tests that assess the extent to which students are ready for college. ACT has figured out what “ready for college” means in terms of essential academic knowledge and skills by doing longitudinal studies; students who attain the “college ready” benchmark score are more likely to get decent grades in credit-bearing college courses and to earn college degrees than students who do not attain the benchmark score. Everyone is familiar with the ACT exams that millions of students take near the end of high school.

ACT also has benchmarks and tests for 8th graders and it is developing an aligned set of tests for elementary school through high school. Instead of doing so much high-stakes testing for accountability, it would be great if states used these as low-stakes tests to find out where students are on the path to college. That would be information schools could use.

3) I think you and I both understand that high school instructors are really not all that keen on doing remedial work with students who are 2-3 grade levels behind. On the other hand SHOULD an algebra teacher be going back and teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division?

I am not qualified to answer that question, so I’ll offer an opinion and then point to an expert. Teachers have to meet students where they are and bring them as far along as possible. So when high school students still need instruction in foundational elementary mathematics, someone must deliver it. But should that class be called algebra? Probably not. To find out how to prevent high school students from being so far behind, please read two articles by Hung-Hsi Wu that I had the pleasure of publishing in American Educator: “What’s Sophisticated about Elementary Mathematics?” and “Phoenix Rising: Bringing the Common Core Mathematics Standards to Life

4) I am going to use a nasty word—retention—should schools be retaining more students so that we don’t have this “achievement gap”?

I would not entirely rule out retaining students, but I think that strategy is used far too often. Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal study clearly showed that the achievement gap starts at home, and research on the “summer slide” shows that it continues to grow at home after children enter school. I think our only hope is to prevent the achievement gap from opening. We have to address child poverty by, among other things, developing better health care, housing, and child care options for low-income families. At the same time, we need to educate parents on the importance of talking to and reading with their children—which is why initiatives like Providence Talks and First Book are so exciting. We also need to rethink early childhood education.

The Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction because they emphasize the need to build children’s knowledge and vocabulary. Relevant background knowledge is essential to comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving. That knowledge can’t just be at your fingertips; it has to be in your long-term memory.

Learning enough to be able to read and think about a broad array of topics is a huge endeavor that must begin as early as possible. For advantaged children, it begins as birth. So in school, including in preschool, building knowledge must become a much greater focus of elementary education.

5) In your blog, you state the obvious that “schools need to get better at closing the gap.” What if I counter that with “schools need to get better at identifying children with learning disabilities and remediating them”?

I agree with you. But I also have to point out that many children who are behind do not have learning disabilities. They simply have not had as many opportunities to learn (in school and/or at home) as their on-grade-level peers. A few years ago Charles Payne of the University of Chicago told me about an important study done by his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. When teachers really challenged students academically and offered lots of social support, students made about two years’ worth of growth in one school year. In contrast, children with teachers who were low on academic pressure and social support made just half a year’s growth. Just as you would guess, schools serving high-income students were far more likely to offer this mix of challenge and support than were schools serving low-income students. What really frustrated Professor Payne was that this study—despite the striking results—is among the least requested from the consortium.

6) There seems to be this emphasis on all students going to college. In your mind is there anything wrong with a student graduating from high school and joining the army, navy, air force, marines, coast guard or becoming a manager at McDonalds?

I often emphasize preparation for college because I want that door to be open to all students (without taking any remedial, noncredit-bearing courses). But it really is not about going to college; it is about making sure that going or not going is a choice. Many students who do not want to go to college do not realize that they still need to be in college-prep classes. For example, a student who wants to become an electrician needs to be really good at algebra. Research by Achieve has shown that employers and colleges are looking for the same things. So if we prepare all students for college, then all students will have lots of great options.

7) We seem to have great research, but no implementation. Any insights?

There are many reasons why research fails to affect practice. I’ll mention three.

First, the education field suffers from too many snake oil salesmen, too many well-intentioned people acting on nothing more than their instincts, and too few trustworthy places to turn to cut through the cacophony. The situation is so dire that Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a book about it: When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. Willingham also has called for a “What’s Known Clearinghouse” to complement the What Works Clearinghouse.

Since we don’t have a what’s known clearinghouse, I suggest everyone read another of Willingham’s books: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. If every educator, administrator, and policymaker studied that book, we could take a huge step forward in school improvement.

Second, far too few of our teacher preparation programs teach the research. On average, teacher candidates are not taught the cognitive science Willingham has written about, nor are they taught the very strong research on how to teach reading. Evaluations of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality are very depressing. While there are bright spots, they are few and far between.

Third, high-stakes accountability has become counterproductive. Meaningful learning is a long-term endeavor. Many of the tricks that quickly bump up test scores do not actually contribute to student learning—but they do take time away from effective instruction. I think testing is useful; we need objective (if imperfect) measures of what students know and can do. Without such measures, how can we close the achievement gap? But the current high-stakes environment is not helping.

More policymakers need to realize that the nation’s educators are already doing the best they can with the knowledge and resources they have. No high-performing organization ever punished its way to the top. In places where student achievement is lagging, we need to roll up our sleeves and offer assistance, including research-based curricula and professional development.

8) Where does Core Knowledge fit into this picture?

The Core Knowledge Foundation offers a wide variety of supports for increasing student achievement, including onsite and web-based professional development, teacher handbooks, and materials for parents. What makes Core Knowledge stand out is its research-based guide to what all students should learn in preschool through 8th grade: the Core Knowledge Sequence.

Cognitive scientists have found that knowledge and skills develop together; the higher-order skills that are most crucial—comprehension, critical thinking, writing, and problem solving—all depend on having relevant knowledge not at one’s fingertips, but already stored in one’s long-term memory. Any topic that student need to read or think about is a topic that they must know something about. They don’t need to know a lot about each topic, just enough to be able to make sense of new ideas and information.

We’ve all had experiences that make this clear: recall a time when you tried to read a text on a topic you know very little about—for me, it’s the physics textbook I occasionally try to study—progress is slow, you feel confused, and even if you get the gist, nuances are lost on you. Now contrast that with a more everyday experience—maybe reading a newspaper article about the renovation of your local library—you zip through the article, easily absorb new facts like the name of the architect and the timetable, and fully grasp the renovation plans. But imagine that you did not know anything about libraries, construction, or renovations—the article would be very confusing.

As a basic foundation for lifelong learning, the knowledge that all students need to acquire is the knowledge that is taken for granted in spoken and written language aimed at adults. Here’s a recent example from CNN Health:

It is a case at the intersection of science and finance, an evolving 21st century dispute that comes down to a simple question: Should the government allow patents for human genes?

The Supreme Court offered little other than confusion during oral arguments on Monday on nine patents held by a Utah biotech firm.

Myriad Genetics isolated two related types of biological material, BCRA-1 and BCRA-2, linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

To comprehend these three sentences, the reader must know about patents, genes, the Supreme Court, oral arguments, hereditary risk, cancer, and more. In short, the reader is assumed to have an enormous amount of knowledge.

The best way to ensure that all students learn the massive amount of knowledge they need to comprehend newspaper articles that cover everything from library renovations to patent disputes is to develop a carefully organized grade-by-grade sequence of knowledge for students to master. Such an approach does not ignore skills at all. It simply ensures that the reading, writing, analysis, and problem solving skills students need are developed and practiced through the acquisition and deepening of important knowledge.

This summer, the foundation will also begin offering Core Knowledge Language Arts, a comprehensive program for preschool through 3rd grade. CKLA teaches reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. It also has teacher read-alouds grouped into academic domains—such as fables from around the world, insects, early Asian civilizations, the five senses, mythology and more—that create interactive opportunities to question, discuss, and share ideas centered on the text. This domain-focused, coherent approach is the most efficient and effective way to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I hope Core Knowledge fits into the picture by ensuring that all children acquire the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to be on the path to college—even if they choose not to go.

 

1 Comment »

  1. I think maybe even more importantly, buidling this type of knowledge in children allows them to be empowered citizens. That passage above is not just an issue in the courts, but one our legislature will grapple with and we as citizens need to know enough that our votes are not squandered.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 23, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

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