“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.

It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Cold, hard facts are what we get from ACT and Mathematica Policy Research. We learn (yet again) that there are massive disparities in preparation for college and kindergarten.

ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:

ACT 7-22-14 A

Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.

ACT 7-22-14 B

That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:

ACT 7-22-14 C

Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”

You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)

If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.

“May the Force be with you”

Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.


  1. My observation is that improving education rigor or raising standards in districts and schools often amounts to creating new curriculum materials that only read like they have raised the bar. Their evidence of raising the bar is the increased complexity of the materials and use of terminology that shows respect for rigor.

    What I haven’t observed are new specific learning objectives or an increase in clarity for existing learning objectives. The common effort of adding rigor is all at the top of the pyramid, but the critical element is the foundation – what students are expected to know and be able to do.

    Core Knowledge followers shouldn’t forget the importance of the Sequence. That’s the foundational element that enables the Core Knowledge schools to succeed. The real work of adding rigor is done when creating the foundation – a concept often missed by educators. Details matter.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — July 23, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

  2. Amen to what Tom has said. And to that, I’d add that the frenzy to fix everything “yesterday” is not ever a help.

    Unlike an industry that may find the resources to completely refit a plant to take advantage of new technology, schools take at least decades to see improvement.

    In my own district, we have often seen a problem and “fixed it” by investing in a new published curriculum. So next year, K-8 gets hit with new books in one or two areas. Ignored are the 7-10 year olds that get derailed. With the exception of the youngest kids, they now see work that does not mesh with what they had been doing. “That’s the point of a change!” is the explanation from the supervisors. However, even the youngest kids won’t get the full benefit because we would derail that program as soon as we see that the upper grades are confused by the upgrade or for some other reason.
    Teachers in the trenches are the answer as long as they can diagnose missing skills and deal with them before moving on to the higher level “wish list”.

    Comment by Ewaldoh — July 25, 2014 @ 8:20 am

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