What Americans Want to Know

by Guest Blogger
December 21st, 2015

Sometimes, dreams really do come true. In June, I called for knowledge equality through a new, crowd-sourced effort to specify what all of our children should have the opportunity to learn. Now, a similar project is underway. Eric Liu, of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program and Citizen University, is calling on all of us to determine what every American ought to know. Inspired by E. D. Hirsch, Liu is cultivating a shared body of knowledge that honors our diversity while forming a common bond. As Liu wrote:

It is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols….

Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change…. As Hirsch put it: “to be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987….

It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, we need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. We need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that our diversity can be most fully activated….

The [cultural literacy] list for our times can’t be the work of one person or even one small team. It has to be everyone’s work. It has to be an online, crowd-sourced, organic document that never stops changing, whose entries are added or pruned, elevated or demoted, according to the wisdom of the network….

And indeed, on the website whateveryamericanshouldknow.org, we are starting just such an experiment with an online survey.

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Defining America, one contributor at a time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

As I write, the top twenty items are focused on history and civics, with just a few hinting at science, engineering, mathematics, and economics—and nothing on the arts. I hope this is just a temporary byproduct of the effort being announced in Democracy, not a true indicator of what Americans think we ought to know. Responsible citizenship certainly requires knowledge of history and a strong moral compass for improving the human condition—but it also requires deep knowledge of our natural world and a desire to make ourselves better stewards.

The beauty of this endeavor is that it prompts each of us to consider what we need and ought to know, giving each an equal voice. The more of us who participate, the more valuable this project becomes. So, over the next few weeks, I hope you will contribute your top ten, and ask your family and friends to contribute as well.

Differentiation’s Dirty Little Secret

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2015

I’ve been visiting a lot of elementary schools lately, and I’ve noticed a dangerous pattern: instruction that’s called “differentiated” but looks an awful lot like tracking. To varying degrees, I’ve seen it in high- and low-scoring schools, some using Core Knowledge, some not.

Here’s a typical scenario (abstracted from my admittedly limited experience). The whole class is studying a topic such as the circulatory system. As an introduction, everyone gets to hear the teacher read aloud a short text about circulation, watch a video, and participate in a brief discussion. Then the differentiation begins. The class is broken into three (or more) groups, and different groups are given different projects to complete. The highest group may be given a set of texts and websites to use as reference material, a very detailed diagram of the human circulatory system that they have to fill in as a group, and then a writing prompt that each student has to respond to individually explaining how blood is pumped through the body. The lowest group may be given just one relatively easy text, a greatly simplified diagram to fill in as a group, and a group fill-in-the-blank worksheet on how blood is pumped through the body.

So while the highest group has to learn aorta, femoral artery, cephalic vein, superior vena cava, etc. and then actually explain how all those things work together, the lowest group just has to learn heart, artery, and vein and then use those same words to fill in the blanks. That’s not differentiation. It’s tracking—and it’s dimming the futures of all but our highest-group kids.

But it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s a systemic problem, and the system has tied teachers’ hands.

Differentiation is supposed to provide different learning paths to attain the same goal. In every classroom, some children are better prepared and able to attain that goal more quickly. The rest of the class is just as capable of meeting the goal—but they don’t have as much background knowledge. They have more to learn, and so they need more time. The catch is that the vast majority of schools aren’t able to vary learning time. The students who need more time don’t get it. They just learn what they can in the amount of time provided. So one group masters the basilar artery, and the other has a vague understanding of their heartbeat.

We put a man on the moon. Are we seriously not able to fix this?

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Multiple paths, one goal (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

I wasn’t sure about airing these thoughts, but sadly, I just found confirmation that what I’ve seen is not an anomaly. Toward the end of Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective (hat tip to Susan Neuman for recommending it), Bruce Bradbury and his coauthors write:

There is … a good deal of research under way on using ability grouping … more effectively…. A key factor seems to be the role of aspirations and expectations. If the goal of ability grouping or other remedial programming is to help ensure that all children learn the age-appropriate material, then such programming can be very effective in reducing achievement gaps. This model is in contrast to one in which children in different groups are taught different material, which merely serves to reinforce or widen gaps; with this latter model, those who are lagging never catch up, and indeed, they often fall further behind.

In short, to close gaps, schools have to commit to teaching everyone the full curriculum, and they have to find ways to provide the additional instruction and time that some children need.

As Bradbury et al. point out, Finland is doing just that. It starts with family and early childhood policies that minimize the differences in children’s readiness for school. Then, once in school, “another key ingredient in the Finnish story is the fact that students are held to a uniformly high standard. All students are taught the same curriculum, even students who may require extra help to learn the material. (In fact, nearly half of Finnish students do receive extra help at some point during their school years.)”

A few months ago, I admitted that I’m afraid of personalized learning. Now I fear differentiation too. Without a specific, coherent, cumulative curriculum that all students must master, differentiation and personalization seem likely to increase achievement gaps. But with such a curriculum—and with extended day, week, and year options for students who need more time—differentiation and personalization could be our path to excellence and equity.

Dear Chiefs: This Is Your Chance to Close the Reading Achievement Gap

by Guest Blogger
December 1st, 2015

Assuming all goes as planned, we should have a new federal education law by the end of the year. Dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), this version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would greatly increase states’ options for evaluating schools and teachers. As this ESSA cheat sheet explains:

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

Or access to, support in, and success in a knowledge-rich, well-rounded elementary curriculum.

Under pressure from high-stakes accountability and as a result of misconceptions about the role of knowledge in developing skills, elementary schools have reduced science and social studies to just 16 to 24 minutes a day. That’s the average time allocation, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers, which means many schools spend even less time introducing children to our world. Worse, the kids who are least likely to have opportunities to learn science and social studies outside of school are the most likely to attend schools that narrowly focus on reading and math—with the bulk of the day devoted to language arts.

It is not working.

The notion that nothing is more important than reading is understandable, but it’s also self-defeating. Kids who don’t get to study science and social studies—especially in the early grades—don’t become great readers. They become, as Susan Neuman says, “word callers.” They learn to sound out words, but then they don’t know what those words mean. Science, history, geography, music, and art, if rigorously and enthusiastically taught throughout elementary school, are the cure. These are the subjects in which children acquire academic vocabulary, not to mention the essential conceptual knowledge that prepares children for more in-depth studies in later grades.

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“Democracy” is relatively easy to sound out, but relatively difficult to understand. To develop real readers, in the early grades we must teach science, social studies, the arts, and how to sound out words. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

With ESSA, states could strategically develop indicators that incentivize building knowledge and vocabulary. Even a simple indicator—such as requiring at least 150 minutes per week on science, another 150 on history and geography, plus 60 on music and art—could send a strong signal on priorities. That signal would be even stronger if schools had to ensure that all students met these minimal time requirements. Right now, far too many schools pull students out of science, social studies, and arts classes for remedial reading and math.

States that want to go further could specify a grade-by-grade core of topics to be taught in elementary school, and then ensure that the passages on the reading comprehension tests in grades 3–5 were on those topics—and only those topics. Radical though that sounds, it’s actually pretty similar to what happens in our most revered tests, Advanced Placement, in which detailed course syllabi leave no guessing as to what will be tested. That’s inherently fairer than the current state assessment regime, in which the topics of reading passages are a complete mystery, thereby privileging the children with the broadest background knowledge.

It’s also more likely to narrow the knowledge gap, which ought to be the number one goal of America’s elementary schools. But even mandating and testing a rich array of topics won’t get the job done. States and schools must do far more to address disparities in opportunities to learn outside of school. Every single day, some kids get an extra dose of academic knowledge and vocabulary at home; others don’t. To actually close the gap, the further behind a child is, the more time he needs in school and the more access he needs to weekend and summer enrichment. Wise states would offer preschool for three and four year olds, require full-day kindergarten, and extend the school day, week, and year for our neediest children. They would also increase funding for libraries, museums, book mobiles, and programs that encourage parents to read to their children every day.

For far too long, our neediest youth have not found out how far behind they are until they are pushed into remedial courses in community colleges or turned down for apprenticeships. This must stop. In the elementary years, the gaps are still small enough to tackle. ESSA gives states the flexibility needed to show real courage—or cowardice. How many will step up?