Are We Really Waiting for Superman?

by Guest Blogger
May 10th, 2013

Having spent the last week thinking a lot about teacher preparation, I’d like to share a few more thoughts on teaching, teacher preparation, and student achievement. In the last two posts, we’ve seen that far too many teacher preparation programs eschew preparation and that, instead, there’s an emphasis on social-justice activism, which often results in academic programs that try to build character while ignoring the social-justice lessons embedded in many great works of literature.

So the typical new teacher is minimally prepared, yet feels responsible for ameliorating the ills of society. On top of that, few administrators, leaders, or reformers offer any meaningful support.

We really are waiting for Superman (and using the dedicated, non-superhero teachers as scapegoats).

Most who care about education seem to agree that, while many of our schools are doing great things, many are not. Yet we skirt around the one lever for improvement that has shown the greatest potential: curriculum.

In a policy paper last year, two Brookings scholars, Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, argued that we ought to be paying far more attention to curriculum:

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. But whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.

Administrators are prevented from making better choices of instructional materials by the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the materials currently in use. For example, the vast majority of elementary school mathematics curricula examined by the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse either have no studies of their effectiveness or have no studies that meet reasonable standards of evidence.

The two problems noted—ignoring curriculum and not having adequate studies of curriculum—go together. Since curriculum is not a policy priority, it is very hard to win grant money to study curriculum. The Core Knowledge Foundation, for example, has some evidence of the student achievement increasing with high-quality implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts—but we are not satisfied with the amount of research we currently have. (Calling all researchers, doctoral students, and grant makers: We would welcome additional studies!) Core Knowledge materials are based on an extremely strong research foundation from cognitive science showing that reading comprehension, critical thinking, and other important abilities rely heavily on having relevant knowledge stored in memory. Still, we would love to have an even stronger set of classroom-based studies comparing Core Knowledge with other programs.

Let’s briefly imagine a new educational universe in which we did put time and money into studying curricula and could say with confidence that programs A, B, and C are more effective than programs X, Y, and Z. Then we could take a crucial step toward excellence and equity: We could build educational systems around effective programs.

School districts could select a specific program (or more than one, assuming they did not overlap or interfere with each other) and have more intensive, targeted professional development. Students that changed schools (at least within the district) would not fall so far behind academically because their academic program would not change dramatically with each school change.

Best of all, teacher preparation programs could offer minors in the most-effective curricula. So, an aspiring elementary-grades teacher could, for example, major in elementary education and minor in Core Knowledge Language Arts. An aspiring 8th grade science teacher could major in secondary science and minor in the Core Knowledge Sequence with a specialization in how the Sequence enables teachers to make cross-curricular connections.

Contrast this with typical preparation, in which, as University of Michigan education professor David Cohen puts it, aspiring teachers learn to teach nothing in particular:

Absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects.

If teacher preparation were largely devoted to the content teachers will be teaching, then there would be time to address not only content knowledge, but pedagogical content knowledge. Pedagogical content knowledge is about knowing the most effective methods for teaching the particular content students must master. It is a relatively young concept, but it appears powerful. So far, what seems most important is being able to predict and correct students’ misconceptions.

A recent study of middle schools science teachers provides a good example:

The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, targeted middle school physical science. The researchers enlisted 181 teachers to administer a multiple-choice test of student knowledge of science concepts. Twelve of the 20 items were designed to have a “particularly wrong answer corresponding to a commonly held misconception,” explained Philip Sadler, the lead author and a senior lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian center.

The “unusual” part of the study, he said, was that teachers also took the test, and were asked to identify both the correct answer and the one students were most often likely to incorrectly select. Although the teachers overall did “quite well” at selecting the correct answer, the results were more mixed in predicting students’ incorrect response.

“Teacher knowledge was predictive of higher student gains. No surprise there,” Sadler explained in an email. “However, for more difficult concepts where many students had a misconception, only teachers who knew the science and the common misconceptions have large student gains.” What’s key, he said, is knowing “what was going on in their students’ heads.”

Over time, many teachers do see patterns in students’ questions and errors, and eventually figure out which misconceptions are common and how to prevent or correct prevent them. If the whole educational field would take curriculum more seriously, studies could be done to rapidly accumulate such knowledge.

Ultimately, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap, which has its roots in an opportunity-to-learn gap. For students and teachers, we could close the opportunity gap by figuring out which curricula are most effective, conducting ongoing studies to increase effectiveness, and making the best curricula the foundation for teacher preparation.

We don’t have to wait for Superman. We can make teaching a profession that “regular” teachers (i.e., many of our country’s most dedicated, caring people) can succeed in. The nation’s teachers don’t deserve blame; they deserve support. Let’s start with developing better curricula and training.



  1. Up until the 1970′s most K-8 teachers were graduates of 2-year Normal schools. But, they had good curriculum to work with. When I started teaching in the late ’60′s the beginning reading curriculum I was given saved my life; it was highly structured and phonics-based (but the teachers’ manual advised teachers to read aloud other stories at the children’s interest level but beyond their reading level every day). My students were all low income and mostly minority, but they did fine.

    Comment by EB — May 10, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

  2. Amen.

    It seems to me that Common Core is forcing us all to do a HASTY re-think of curricula. I’m very afraid that the consensus will be, “More focus on skills! Any old content will do.” The way people are talking about CC, I’m really afraid that “literacy work” will invade and occupy history, science and the other disciplines. Tom Adams, the guy in charge of developing California’s Common Core English/Language Arts teaching “frameworks” suggests creating multidisciplinary “professional learning communities” in schools so that language arts teachers can share methods of teaching literacy in the content-area classes. I fear it will no longer matter if kids know how Galileo helped overturn the geocentric view of the universe; what will count is if kids can trace cause-and-effect in a history text. A good history class will be one that imparts history literacy skills, not history itself. Ugh –such a dreary, ugly vision. If the designers of California’s new “Smarter, Balanced” assessments don’t “get” the importance of learning core knowledge, they’re likely to design new history tests that focus on skills, and new curricula will perforce be all about skills. My impression at this point is that the California Dep’t. of Ed is all about skills and fairly indifferent to content.

    I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can envision a more optimistic implementation scenario.

    Comment by Ponderosa — May 10, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

  3. Ponderosa,
    I do understand your apprehension. In our school there are 6 transdisciplinary themes(local and global issues) that are incorporated into the curriculum. They effectively allow pupils to go beyond the limitations of learning within subject areas as well as promote required language skills. As the ideas relate to the area beyond the school, pupils see their relevance and associate with it in an appealing and challenging way. They learn how to reflect on their functions and accountabilities as learners and become actively involved with their education. Also, we guide them through the journey to recognize that units of inquiry involve them in in-depth investigation of important ideas, and the teachers collect evidence of how well they understand those ideas. The core idea is conceptual understanding via required skills applied to gain new knowledge.

    Comment by Nara — May 11, 2013 @ 3:49 am

  4. ” Teacher leaders engage in critical reflection on their own teaching”(Kolb, 1984, cited in Danielson,2006). To effectively incorporate skills into learning to help students have good grasp of reading, teachers review their approach to reading activities and utilize teaching moments to introduce phonics to learners through meaningful and appealing texts.The texts ESL experts can select are useful for all students who struggle with reading. By promoting literature circles, teacher leaders can support both teachers and students, minimizing frustration caused by unsuccessful restricted reading activities

    Comment by Nara — May 11, 2013 @ 4:02 am

  5. I am chair of California’s Instructional Quality Commission which is developing the Language Arts Framework for the state. I absolutely support Lisa Hansel’s comments and can testify that putting content at the center of the new framework (an idea stressed in our previous framework)is driving our work. Ponderosa, we are mindful of two important themes from the Common Core standards. The first is to make sure more history/social science, science, and humanities content is actually taught especially in elementary schools. Second, that the issues such as of language structure and academic language, how to digest complex texts, and vocabulary are addressed by subject matter teachers also. Language issues are particularly important in dealing with English Language learners. This latter idea is what Tom Adams was talking about and is not at all inconsistent with the idea of strong content at the core of curriculum.

    Comment by Bill Honig — May 11, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

  6. “instead, there’s an emphasis on social-justice activism, which often results in academic programs that try to build character while ignoring the social-justice lessons embedded in many great works of literature.” YES! YES! and YES! Finally, somebody comes out and says this! I see it every day in the private school at which I work, and it is a constant concern, for it seems administrators and many teachers are content for students to have high empathy and low knowledge!

    Comment by Broeck Oder — May 11, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Nara’s mention of Conceptual Understandings and Big Ideas reminds me of having tracked Lynn Erickson’s Enduring Understandings presentations as well as the NSF funded Understandings of Consequence work Project Zero at Harvard has been pushing now for more than a decade. Many of the guiding concepts I have seen in history and science are factually untrue. It’s not a matter of developing the concepts from a set of facts. The understanding gets supplied and then illustrated. Big difference. There is also a push to find causal relationships whether they exist in fact or not.

    Lisa- I would love to see ED Hirsch respond on this precise point to Nel Noddings’ contrast between his and the CK approach and the Big Idea/Essential Questions/ Enduring Understandings approach. It is laid out in her new book Education and Democracy in the 21st Century. is where I walked through the troubling RECAST-REvealing CAusal STructures and CORE-Cognitive Reorganization and Understandings of Consequence. It really appears that the real change action is coming through the C3 Social Studies Framework quietly released Thanksgiving week as well as those Carnegie financed Science Frameworks.

    Bill-since you are from California, have you looked at the 2010 Framework for Equity and Transformative Improvement in Education or the Hewlett Foundation’s statements that their Deep Learning push is really what the Common Core was supposed to be about? Or Pearson’s statements that the assessments will be about 21st Century Skills?

    I continue to worry about all the legal mandates that affect the actual classroom practices that impede the kind of content oriented implementation so many here at CK are planning for. I have also been examining the role of the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory school now based at UC-San Diego in the implementation plans.

    I would appreciate a heads up from teachers feeling a CHAT push or the Discourse Classroom as Courtney Cazden calls it.

    Comment by Student of History — May 11, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  8. Unfortunately, I think the fact that credentialing programs themselves need to be accredited according to various standards means that ed schools are, in fact, required to focus on the practical aspects of teacher preparation. And while accreditation standards do nominally require a lot of that, in reality individual programs have a lot of flexibility in terms of the content of their courses. (Provided that the course titles and descriptions align in at least some superficial way with the accreditation standards.)

    Comment by Paul Bruno — May 11, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  9. Whoops, sorry, typo there: the fact that ed schools must be accredited often *confuses people in to thinking* that the programs are preparing teachers adequately.

    Comment by Paul Bruno — May 11, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  10. Paul-

    I have collected accreditation criteria through the decades and what the accreditors are insisting must be changed.

    There’s a good reason I call them the poison delivery system to education.

    Too often it is compliance with the social change instead of academic vision.

    Comment by Student of History — May 11, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

  11. It is the students going through the process of understanding the concepts that are guided not the concepts. The point is to assist student in finding ideas that have relevance within the subject areas but also transcend them and that students must explore and re-explore in order to develop a coherent, in-depth understanding.There is a powerful emphasis on inquiry- based learning. For example, Inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; person, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human.

    Where we are in place and time
    Inquiry into orientation in place and time; personal histories; homes and journeys; the discoveries, explorations and migrations of humankind; the relationship between and the interconnectedness of individuals and civilizations, from local and global perspectives.

    Comment by Nara — May 12, 2013 @ 3:35 am

  12. The term curriculum as used in the Brookings excerpt, was referring to instructional materials as was your call for more research. Materials like unit and lesson plans with activities and assessments. I understand that CK has these materials available, but isn’t the centerpiece of CK the Sequence? The concise definition of content at operational levels – teachable and measurable knowledge and skills. The Sequence is the common denominator and it gives cohesion to the instructional materials developed for their implementation.

    The CK sequence is far more than a list of content, it’s really like a giant solved Sudoku grid of education content by grade and subject. This is where the “engineering” is done for an education system. The sequence must result in teaching and learning the planned sum of knowledge and skills by graduation. Content for every grade and course must be age appropriate and bounded. The workloads per course must be achievable and balanced. And the sequence must have both vertical alignment and horizontal integration. The sequence is the essential foundation that supports cohesive instruction for each student even with 40+ different teachers over 13+ years. And, as you point out, it would serve well as a cornerstone for teacher education.

    The sequence is not the same as the standards, but is the first logical step in implementing standards and would have traceability to the standards. We don’t have a national content sequence today, and the problem I see is the natural inclination to attempt writing units and lessons directly from the standards. Skipping the step of developing the Sudoku grid is as problematic as trying to compose a research paper without using note cards or outlining to collect and organize elements in a structure suitable for developing instructional materials.

    Imagine the madness and low student outcomes that would result even with 100% excellent teachers, but without operational level objectives. I think the first step to helping teachers is setting that sequence foundation. How can we get the CK sequence extended through grade 12 and accepted as a national education resource?

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — May 12, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

  13. @ Nara – While what you say is a nice sounding theory, the truth is this: None of it matters in 6th grade band class. Nobody has the time or inclination to wait for you to discover which end of the trumpet you blow into, how to put the mouthpiece into the trumpet properly, how to form the correct embouchure, which combination of valves and embouchure produces an E, how to read that E on the staff, how long to hold that E in measure 17, which note comes after the E, how playing that E makes you feel, and how playing that E relates to your life. All that matters is you can in fact play the E in measure 17, otherwise the Imperial March will sound like garbage, and everyone will hate you for screwing up constantly.

    If you are the first chair trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony, then yes, you have time to contemplate the philosophical implications of the E in measure 17, if you so choose. Why? Because you’ve practiced it 18, 509 times and there is no possible way you can do it wrong. In 6th grade band, the failure rate is much higher, and yet, like in most of life outside of school, your director and classmates still expect you to do it right. They do not care how long you have practiced to produce that E, they do not care about your journey of self discovery you have undertaken to understand that E, they do not care what it means to you or what connections it has to the rest of the world. Why? Because all of that other stuff is irrelevant, what matters is whether or not you can demonstrate your knowledge of that E and the correct instant in the piece.

    My job, as your 6th grade band director is to show you how to do that, not only for the E in measure 17 but for the all the other notes in all the other pieces we play. I have to have the knowledge of every instrument, every embouchure, every fingering, every mark in every score, and the best way to teach all of that as quickly as possible. (In other subjects, these are called content and pedagogy.) Why? Because band class only meets for 45 minutes a day (if we’re really lucky), and the concert is 6 weeks from now. And guess what? Nobody in the audience cares about journey, they care whether the band sounds good and their child plays well.

    Unless you’ve taken up residence at Walden Pond, results matter. And the best thing any teacher preparation program can give me are the specific content, properly sequenced and the necessary pedagogy to get those results. Because at the end of the concert, nobody in the band cares about how interconnected everything is. They care about whether they sounded good and nailed that E in measure 17.

    Comment by Miss Friday — May 12, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

  14. Miss Friday has written one of the all-time greatest comments to appear on this or any other education blog: immersed in common sense and the realities of the world.

    The only downside is that she has forever closed off her chances of becoming a tenured professor of education.

    Comment by John Webster — May 13, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  15. One of the fetishes of inquiry learning is the idea that a child will develop a passion and seek to deeply learn a subject and many, though I think far fewer than is hoped, develop such a passion. Many don’t develop that passion because they just don’t know enough generally. The idea of a Renaissance man was valued because it combined a wide range of knowledge and curiosity and active inquiry. The three-legged stool can’t stand without all three parts and yet the wide-range of knowledge is constantly undercut by our education system- low expectations of poor children, sterile environments, poorly sequenced curriculum, teachers and administrators with political agendas, just too much confusion about how to get from A-Z or even if that is the alphabet we want to use. Like many things in this society one our great challenges is that we have very little agreement of the hows and why’s of education, or frankly a long enough political memory to think about what we know and where we need our children to go.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 13, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  16. [...] well defined, articulated, delivered.  I was reminded of that conversation today when I read this blog from Core Knowledge.  Lately I have wondered if we have the internal district capacity to implement the CCSS in ways [...]

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  17. Unless you’ve taken up residence at Walden Pond or the former Antioch College, results matter. Thank you, Miss Friday for this ever so enlightening thought.

    “Inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; person, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human.” What teacher, and on what planet, has the time to even consider these inquiry approaches? How about we try them out in an inner-city school with security guards and metal detectors, and the detention hall booked solid?

    @Nara, without intending to sound rude, I believe you may have entered, not the Core Knowledge blog, but the twilight zone of education.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 13, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

  18. Mr. Honig,

    Thank you for addressing my concern. I’m delighted to know that someone in your high position is dedicated to the teaching of robust content in California schools. You’ve given me reason to hope. I just hope you realize that if the new TESTS are perceived to be mainly about skills, content will continue to get short shrift regardless of what the frameworks say. My colleagues have been conditioned to regard the tests as king, and they’re likely to pay slavish homage to the tests rather than the frameworks if they see incongruity between the two. It’s critical, it seems to me, that the tests test for specific content knowledge.

    Comment by Ponderosa — May 14, 2013 @ 1:08 am

  19. Two Paths to 21st Century Learning
    New Brief Examines Debate over the Focus of Schooling
    William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
    URL for this press release:

    BOULDER, CO (May 14, 2013) –The eighth in a series of short briefs summarizing current relevant findings in education policy research explores the idea of “21st Century skills.” The brief explains the sometimes-conflicting values and proposals for making schools relevant to meeting the needs of the 21st Century.

    The paper is written by Dr. William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

    Mathis points out that, depending upon who is speaking, the question of what 21st Century skills can or should entail fall into two very different categories. One perspective points to the increasing importance of so-called soft skills of teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication skills and diversity awareness – a focus that typically emphasizes constructivist learning. The other perspective focuses on cognitive skills in science, technology, math, and reading. It can be traced back at least as far as the Nation at Risk report 30 years ago and also encompasses No Child Left Behind as well as most policies arising out of the Obama administration.

    In truth, both types of skills are almost universally embraced as important, and there are ongoing efforts to advance both perspectives together. Mathis writes about approaches that combine “the three R’s” with “the four C’s (Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation).” But he cautions that, “given our history of testing as well as current obstacles, it seems likely that the four C’s will end up being treated merely as weak add-ons to the three R’s.”

    Mathis points in particular notable example of a fused effort in the work of Marisa Saunders, who describes a “multiple pathways” or “linked learning” approach that combines academic and technical learning. Linked learning is designed to make school relevant, collaborative, and creative, keeping a variety of options open to all students. “As contrasted with tracking, all students in a Linked-Learning school are provided with a high-quality education that maintains both college and workforce options,” Mathis writes. Additionally, a broad variety of methods are used to assess student achievement rather than simply relying on traditional standardized tests.

    Mathis concludes with a series of recommendations that focus on broadening accountability measures to ensure against the narrowing of curriculum and to promote the expansion of authentic learning opportunities. The recommendations also explain the importance of investing time, energy, and resources needed to expand the skills of teachers who would be teaching in a linked-learning setting.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 14, 2013 @ 7:55 am

  20. @ Nara (not to pile on too much, but this is an important issue): the activities and values you name are good things, they are just not things that can be scheduled in a K-8 (or even high school or college) classroom. The places where they can be scheduled are things like Encounter Groups, self-help meetings, family discussions, philosophical bull sessions late at night over a beer, and so forth.

    Comment by EB — May 14, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

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  22. I can appreciate the value of preparing teachers in the content area that they will specialize in. I am a high school science teacher who holds a Biology degree. My teaching credentials were earned through an alternative certification program. I imagine that not having a foundation in science would create obstacles in relaying conceptual information to my students. I attribute student success within my classroom to having the ability to comfortably integrate fundamental core science concepts with authentic applications.

    Comment by Erika — May 26, 2013 @ 10:44 pm

  23. [...] do, however, agree with Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel that many programs could be improved by focusing less on issues of social justice and more on [...]

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  25. […] of supporting research for Core Knowledge’s success, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids […]

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