Knowledge for What?

by Guest Blogger
August 28th, 2014

By Will Fitzhugh

Will Fitzhugh is the founder and editor of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students.

Education is an important issue these days, which is both good and bad. Good, because we need to pay more attention to the work of our schools these days, and not so good, because lots of people who know all about convertible debentures, initial public offerings, etc., think they must know a lot about teaching and learning as well.

There is prolonged debate about the role of education in promoting citizenship, character, lifelong learning (try living without learning sometime), career readiness, environmental awareness, respect for diversity, and on and on.

What I find missing most of the time is any suggestion that after an education (and during an education) it might be nice to have gained some knowledge. “How did so many countries and peoples get involved in World War I?” for example. “How did Jefferson feel when he had to change his mind about presidential prerogatives under the Constitution when the Louisiana territory came up for sale?” “What was the crucial insight that led Watson and Crick to the understanding of the double helix?”

When people raise the question of “Knowledge for What?” my response is usually: for its own sake. E. D. Hirsch and others have shown that having knowledge is what makes it possible to gain more knowledge. And being able to gain more knowledge is really necessary in life, I would agree. In addition, perhaps this is just my bias as an editor and publisher of interesting history research papers, I also feel that gaining knowledge is really one of the essential pleasures in life. Jefferson said: “I could not live without books.” I don’t think that was only because some books could aid him in the many architectural and agricultural innovations he cared about.

James Madison wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives…. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

I have been told that Jefferson may even have been able to play some of Mozart’s new work on his violin, and it seems likely he valued that, whether or not he could prove it made him a more efficient farmer, or a more productive President.

Sometimes, I would suggest, in our vigorous (frantic) pursuit of the practical, we skip over some of the things that are of the greatest (practical) value. Once Sir Alexander Fleming was given a tour of the brand-new gleaming headquarters of the Salk Institute by an eager young Ph.D. After the tour, the guide could not help but say: “Just think what you could have discovered if you had only had this state-of-the-art equipment!?!” And Sir Alexander Fleming said, perhaps kindly, “Not penicillin.”

So, by all means, let us introduce more computer technology, more vocational training, more college- and career-ready standards for critical thinking, textual analysis, deeper reading and all of that. But let’s also remember that one of the goals of education must be the acquisition of knowledge, including knowledge of history. We can never be completely sure, at the time we acquire it, when or in what ways some knowledge may be useful in itself in our brief lives as human beings.


Essential pleasures courtesy of Shutterstock.


The Importance of Teaching Content

by Guest Blogger
August 6th, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth 

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful — and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China — the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna — in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn’t necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that’s when I knew why the school’s third-grade reading improvement hadn’t translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.


TV brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the “fourth-grade slump” of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother’s education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn’t so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it’s so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a “myth of education,” is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning.

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program — she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving — many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they’re looking for in Christodoulou’s article and book.


Reading Herman Melville Made Me a Better Teacher

by Guest Blogger
July 29th, 2014

By David O’Shell

David O’Shell is a middle school teacher in Maryland.

I have always wanted my students to be able to solve real problems in the world by relying on the abstract knowledge they have learned from me. I think this is central to what it means to be an educated person. It always has been. And I think no other writer has developed this notion of combining the ideal with the mundane in order to produce a complete individual more than Herman Melville. And this week, with Melville’s 195th birthday on Friday, I’m reminded that when I look out on my classroom, I see Melville and his world.

I see this in White Jacket, kind of an overture to Moby Dick, where Melville reveals this completed person to us in his lovely description of the Man of the Mast, as innocence and experience united: “You would almost think this old mastman had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of this old man’s mother when first she cried for the babe to be laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile immortality within” (649). Melville’s complete (or mostly complete) individual, Ishmael, Ahab, Bartleby, Israel Potter, will always have scars or wrinkles, a sunburn of the soul. But he will have these marks of experience in combination with a small candle within, by the light of which he can read these experiences.


Being a teacher will mean that you meet some rough salts. I’ve taught kids without a home, who have attempted suicide, who are cruel or out of control. Other teachers have had much worse. How do you teach people like this? This is where teachers who work with tough kids scoff at tough standards.

Melville’s answer is to work with these people, as in work alongside them. This is Melville’s contribution of ideas to literature I find useful. His ideas are different from someone like Tolstoy, whose characters find enlightenment through a kind of volunteerism and cutting grass. Melville in democratic America had the opportunity to mix more evenly with people at the bottom. He comes through these experiences without sentimentalizing. Some of them are good fellows; some aren’t. It is in these situations, surrounded by the core of humanity in a microcosm, where we find ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This is what Melville’s books are made of.

Melville is unique in this way among writers in that he is both at the bottom and at the top. His aristocratic family lost everything, he worked on merchant, whaling, and navy ships, became a famous author, married wealth, and ran out of money and fame once again. As a teacher I have to find myself in the same place, as being both on the bottom with those I am working with and at the same time being of a tradition of high culture.

That’s why I am glad I had so many terrible jobs before I became a teacher. Working at Pittsburgh’s Original Hot Dog Shop and in roofing gave me the experience of being in the trenches with the kinds of people I help as a teacher. Having to defend myself rhetorically against three other roofers 90 feet in the air on a 15 degree pitch on why I believed “humans came from monkeys” well prepared me to face a group of 30 struggling students alone in a cramped classroom. Some of these experiences were good and some were bad, but I was able to take the most educative of them and read them by my inner candle.

Melville’s educated individual is one who has merged experience with what is native, innocent. Queequeg from Moby Dick thus typifies the Melvillian student: “Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (691). For Melville, man at his best is a book to be read, reread, and puzzled over: “Seat yourself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (670). Here you see the problem that the mass of mankind presents to us. From our experience with the mass, we can come back to our fire within and come to a better understanding of our own book. And as teachers we can see each student as an unread book.

I am one of those teachers to whom principals assign the difficult kids. It has been a surprise to me that over the years I have shown skill in working with the tough ones. I was never particularly popular in school. I certainly do not have charisma like Mr. Keating. I’m the kind of person you grow to like after a few months. Years. But I can be real with you when it is necessary. Any person who is interested in becoming a teacher should first go for being real. Melville and a sunburn are a good place to start.

Follow Dave O’Shell on Twitter @DavidJOShell.

Quotations from Moby Dick are from the 1992 Modern Library Edition. All other quotations are from the 3 vol. Library of America Melville collection.

Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

by Guest Blogger
June 30th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas.” The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

In fact, the idea of teaching “literacy” versus teaching “science” constitutes an unnecessary dichotomy and perhaps not the most useful lens to understand what is needed in early childhood education. Children need challenging content in every domain — be it science, math, English language arts, social studies, music, or the fine arts. Unfortunately, the ECS report notes, “very little science happens in early care settings, and what does happen tends to consist of single activities, disconnected from what came before and what will come next.”

This lack of curricular sequence and coherence is a problem because children learn faster and more independently when they are taught concepts that are related. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they do not understand their relationships and tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. By contrast, as Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright have argued in All About Words:

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference.

For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

Then when children are introduced to a new wild animal, they already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it.


Polar bears courtesy of Shutterstock.

A recent paper by Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth (2014) from Northwestern University adds to this discussion in several ways. The authors looked at whether the inherent attraction of causal information could be used to motivate preschoolers’ task engagement. The researchers conducted an experiment where they looked at whether children would persist in a boring task for longer if they were assigned to different experimental conditions: children were given causally rich information as a reward, causally weak information as a reward, stickers, or no reward at all.

Results revealed a powerful influence of causally rich rewards on the number of times children were willing to complete the boring task.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “providing new knowledge per se as a reward was not enough to sustain children’s engagement.” Recall how ECS report pointed the disconnected nature of science activities in many early childhood settings. In these classrooms, children are probably receiving information that is new but not the kind of information that, according to the Alvarez and Booth study, would promote persistence and engagement.

According to the authors, this research “reveals the viability of causally rich knowledge-infused reward as an effective tool for enhancing task engagement in preschool-aged children,” “reinforces long-standing views of children as hungry to acquire causally rich information,” and “suggests a new approach to rewarding young children that has the potential to encourage (rather than detract from) a mind-set that embraces the pleasure and challenges of learning.”

My take away from this paper is that perhaps we should not think about academic content and student rewards separately. Wouldn’t an age-appropriate curriculum that is rich, challenging and carefully sequenced be a ‘rewards embedded curriculum’?

Another recent study supports the idea that exposing young children (in this case kindergartners) to more advanced rather than basic content “might promote the skills of all children and has the potential to sustain the benefits of preschool attendance.”

Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Amy Claessens (University of Chicago) Mimi Engel (Vanderbilt University) and Chris Curran (Vanderbilt University) explored “whether the reading and mathematics content taught in kindergarten might help to sustain the gains acquired through preschool participation.” The authors found “a consistent and positive effect of exposure to advanced content for all children in both reading and mathematics” and “a negative or, in the case of reading, often null effects of exposure to basic content.”

Although the researchers had predicted that children who did not attend preschool might benefit from receiving instruction that focused on basic content, the data did not support this hypothesis. Conversely, they found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, “likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.”

The authors concluded by noting that:

Shifting to more advanced academic content coverage in kindergarten classrooms is a potentially low-cost means for helping preschoolers sustain the academic benefits they acquired through preschool attendance while simultaneously garnering positive effects for children who begin kindergarten without that advantage.

In sum, teaching children interesting “stuff” that is challenging and coherently presented:

  • Sets the foundation for reading with understanding;
  • Supports children’s ability to learn faster and independently;
  • May make children more perseverant and more engaged in their learning;
  • May benefit all children, while also helping to sustain the benefits of pre-k into elementary school.

So, what’s not to love about a fun, challenging, well thought out and well taught curriculum in the early years?


‘Unlocking the Gate’ to ELA Achievement in Spokane

by Guest Blogger
June 10th, 2014

By Heather Awbery

Heather Awbery is the principal of Balboa Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. This post originally appeared on Amplify Viewpoints.


She was always a quiet student, and for a long time we questioned her ability to comprehend what we were teaching her in class. She seemed to be really struggling, and in first grade she qualified for Special Education Services. As she entered second grade in September, she continued to perform behind her same-age peers in English Language Arts and other subjects.

September was also the time we began piloting Core Knowledge Language Arts in our kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. It took a little while for our teachers to feel comfortable and confident using it, but they quickly got the hang of it, and by October, they were coming in and showing me some of the earliest assessments, as opposed to those we use in the district right now. They were seeing immediate results and were just starting to fall in love with CKLA. They were talking about it in their lunchtime conversations.

Parents were calling us and saying, “What’s going on over there? All my kid asked for for Christmas was books on the War of 1812,” or “my first-grader is talking about Westward expansion at the dinner table.”

We’re all blown away by what these kids know and are retaining as far as deep rich content. Our librarian has figured out what she needs to order for next year that she didn’t have this year; she can’t keep certain books on the shelves, and that’s all stemming from CKLA.

Sometimes I equate it to crackers: We may have had Saltines for a long time and enjoyed them until the Ritz came around, and they’re golden and good for all. CKLA is really leveling the playing field in the classroom. No matter what a student’s background or socioeconomic status, CKLA really levels the playing field. It lets kids grow independently and also enables a classroom to grow collectively.

Most boxed curricula come and they’re written for the average student—not low or high, but average. In everything I’ve seen so far with CKLA, it has rich and deep content and rich strands. Those in the middle are stretched further than they normally would be. We’re seeing significant improvement for all of our kids.

In March, one of our classrooms had 90 percent of the kids meeting the district standards for the May cutoff—so they were meeting May expectations in March. This is what our teachers are finding super exciting.

Some of our highest achieving students really struggled with CKLA’s listening and learning strand in the beginning. They were used to just kind of being exceptional with what we had given them in the past. They had to stretch themselves a bit more. The curriculum is built such that it’s right above the middle with rigorous content, so higher-end learners are getting what they need as well.

And as for that second-grade girl I mentioned? The quiet one who was placed in special education? Recently her teachers visited one of our kindergarten teachers with five examples of a student’s stellar work, asking her to guess which of her previous students they belonged to. The teacher couldn’t figure it out, and when they told her it was this kiddo who had had so many challenges showing us what knowledge and skills she had in the past, she couldn’t believe it. The great news is that this student was exited out of special ed this spring and is performing well alongside her second-grade classmates.

The listening and learning strand of CKLA was huge for her because it started to build her confidence and unlocked the gate that was closed. She was always very quiet but always wanting to give answers—very deep, rich answers. Her comprehension is better than her decodability, and CKLA helped her build up the skills she needed, and we saw her writing improve 100 percent and her learning improve 100 percent.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Can Early Language Development Promote Children’s Psychological Wellbeing?

by Guest Blogger
May 28th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?

A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions.

Bornstein, Hahn, and Suwalsky examined several competing explanations using path analysis, a statistical method used to determine whether or not a data set fits well with a previously specified causal model. Path analysis is not intended to prove a causal relationship (although it can disprove one), but it illuminates chains of influence (or the sequence in which several dependent variables may shape a dependent measure).

The study analyzed two longitudinal cohorts of children looking at developmental pathways between children’s language skills and their behavioral adjustment in terms of internalizing (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, self-consciousness, shyness) and externalizing (e.g., defiance, impulsivity, disruptiveness, aggression) behavior problems. The authors found strong evidence that weak early childhood language skills can predict later internalizing behavior problems.

The general cascading pattern observed in both cohorts indicated that language proficiency in early childhood affected behavioral adjustment in late childhood, which in turn contributed to behavioral adjustment in early adolescence. Framed in the positive, young children who are more competent verbally have fewer internalizing behavior problems later.

Links between language skills and behavior issues were documented, even after controlling for broad individual and family characteristics (i.e. poverty, nonverbal intelligence, aspects of mothers’ and children’s environments).

Importantly, “internalizing and externalizing behavior problems never predicted language.” The latter is interesting because we often talk about how children’s social-emotional development prepares them to be “ready to learn.” These findings, however, suggest that learning itself – i.e., oral language development – helps to strengthen young children’s socio-emotional development.

“But what is it about language that keeps some behavioral adjustment problems at bay?” – the authors ask.

Language is multidimensional, with receptive and expressive phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic components. We do not know exactly which language competencies or what about language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay. This is a question for future research.

Finally, some of the study’s limitations: (1) a small sample size; (2) some generalizability concerns due to the characteristics of the sample and; (3) the possibility that relevant child characteristics (such as temperament) were not considered by the models.

The study is important because it suggests that “programs aimed at improving child language may also promote their psychological wellbeing” and that “an early focus on language may therefore yield a high return on investment in strategically timed and targeted interventions designed to ameliorate or obviate behavioral problems.”

Will The SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

by Guest Blogger
April 24th, 2014

By Burnie Bond

Burnie Bond is the director of programs at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post originally appeared on the Shanker Blog on April 22, 2014.

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well-educated elites—those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best-regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam includes a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane ‘SAT words’ (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’),” with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long heldbut always elusive—mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum.

Curriculum and Equity

The connection between curriculum and equity first occurred to me when I was eight years old (though obviously not in those exact terms). For some reason, my school decided that all third graders needed to have an IQ test. I was sick that day, so one school holiday I found myself filling in bubbles alone in a classroom with Mrs. Beagles, the school’s assistant principal.

All was well until I got to one particular question. Since the test designers couldn’t be sure we could read well, many of the questions were in picture form. This one included a series of line drawings. As I recall, the first was a drawing of a boy in a ski jacket standing on a beach; the second showed a boy in swim trunks and a beach ball standing in the snow near a snowman; the third had the same swim-trunked, beach ball kid standing in sand near a big cactus; and the fourth had the ski jacket boy standing near the snowman. The question was: Which one didn’t belong?

Although I knew the “right” answer, I found myself wondering how they could just assume that I should. Having never left the tropical island of St. Croix, I had not yet been in winter or seen snow or a snowman. And, although some cactus varieties could be found out on the island’s East End, we had no real desert either. Our textbooks had not yet covered the relevant units on physical geography, and my book-loving father had only allowed a television into our house about six months beforehand. I then started wondering how many of my classmates might have thought that the ski jacket was some elaborate water flotation outfit, and how many would have been confused because we all regularly swam at East End beaches with cacti in plain sight. For that matter, what about kids on the mainland who grew up in cities or in the Midwest and who had never been to a beach or seen a desert?

Irate over the unfairness of it all, I complained to Mrs. Beagles, who replied, “Just do the best that you can,” and returned to grading papers.

I found myself thinking about this episode as I read a very interesting 2012 paper by Santelices and Wilson, whose research gave credence to an earlier paper by Freedle (also here)—the upshot of which is that the SAT Verbal continues to be biased against poor and minority students in a very particular way. That is, test takers who are African American, Hispanic-American, Asian American, or White from low-income households tend to do disproportionately well on the “hard” questions and disproportionately poorly on the “easy” ones.

In his 2003 Harvard Educational Review article, Freedle explains:

A culturally based interpretation helps explain why African American examinees (and other minorities) often do better on many hard verbal items but do worse than matched-ability Whites on many easy items. To begin with, easy analogy items tend to contain high-frequency vocabulary words while hard analogy items tend to contain low-frequency vocabulary words (Freedle & Kostin, 1997). For example, words such as “horse,” “snake,” “canoe,” and “golf” have appeared in several easy analogy items. These are words used frequently in everyday conversations. By contrast, words such as “vehemence,” “anathema,” “sycophant,” and “intractable” are words that have appeared in hard analogy items, and do not appear in everyday conversation (Berger, 1977). However, they are likely to occur in school-related contexts or in textbooks.

In other words, kids who are somewhat outside of the cultural mainstream do less well on items built around assumptions about common knowledge—the words and ideas that are “used frequently in everyday conversations.”  But what if your language or culture or social standing diminishes the chances that you actually engage in everyday conversations about golfing or canoes? In that case, it makes perfect sense to expect that you would do better on the “harder”—even the “arcane”—school-related items that are built around the words, ideas, and texts that you have actually been taught.


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Or, put another way: Assessments of student learning are neither fair nor valid unless they measure only the content and skills that students have actually been given the opportunity to learn. And the only way to do that, of course, is to know what they have been taught—that is, in the presence of a defined curriculum.

The Problem with Curriculum

There are some very good reasons why the United States, unlike most of the world’s highest-performing nations, has avoided adopting a national curriculum for all of these years. As David K. Cohen has noted:

For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

Another huge issue is that “curriculum” has become a catch-all that describes everything from general performance standards all the way to student texts with scripted daily lesson plans. Thus, in any given discussion about the role of curriculum in a well functioning school system, it is very likely that the discussants are actually talking past each other. This has led to many unintentionally amusing statementsresponses and counter-responses, as each “side” tries to clarify what it and others are actually trying to promote and/or oppose.

In terms of equity concerns, I think that E. D. Hirsch has it exactly right. That is, we need to make sure that every American student—regardless of economic, geographic, racial or ethnic background—is provided with a “coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum” (see here, but also hereherehere and here).

As Hirsch uses the term, the “curriculum” should provide enough guidance to teachers to ensure that what is taught will prepare students for the learning that comes next, while remaining flexible enough for teachers (or schools or districts) to decide for themselves which specific materials and instructional approaches best meet the needs of any particular set of students. He uses the term “core” to mean both that which is most important, which should be taught in common to all students, as well as that which is foundational to the more personalized courses of study that students may choose for themselves during their high-school years. Thus, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence, which covers pre-K to 8th grade, could also be described as a curriculum framework or syllabus—a coherent “outline of the subjects in a course of study.”

It is no accident that Hirsch’s theory of action also squares with a great deal of national and international research suggesting that schools with greater curricular and instructional coherence achieve greater improvement in student performance (herehere and here).

So what might this look like in practice? In a 2003 Educational Researcher article, Lisa Delpit has given a rationale for why schools need to provide all students with access to “the culture of power”:

In my work in dozens of successful classrooms, effective teachers of low-income students of color take every opportunity to introduce children to complex material. While children are learning to “decode,” teachers read complex information to children above their reading level and engage in discussions about the information and the advanced vocabulary they encounter. Students are involved in activities that use the information and vocabulary in both creative and analytical ways, and teachers help them create metaphors for the new knowledge that connects it to their real lives. Students memorize and dramatize material that involves advanced vocabulary and linguistic forms. Students are engaged in thematic units that are ongoing and repeat important domain knowledge and develop vocabulary through repeated oral use. Students are asked to explain what they have learned to others, thus solidifying new knowledge. Not only do the teachers and schools who are successful with low-income children practice these strategies, but some other researchers (Beck et al., 2002Hirsch, 2003Stahl, 1991Sternberg, 1987, to name but a few) have documented the efficacies of the strategies as well. Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom.

Will the new SAT—or, for that matter, the new Common Core State Standards, which David Coleman also had a large hand in crafting—lead us toward this vision of educational opportunity? That is yet to be seen, but I would have much more confidence in the outcome if each state department of education had begun with a focus on teaching to the new standards, rather than just testing them. Where are the rich curriculum resources and professional development opportunities that would allow this vision to take hold? And, failing this, what exactly is it that we propose to measure?


* Paradoxically, although the data confirm the expected class-based differences in the use of test prep courses, it should be noted that “blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation. The black-white gap is especially pronounced in the use of high school courses, private courses and private tutors.” See here for more on this.


Lincoln and Liberal Education

by Guest Blogger
April 8th, 2014

By Christopher B. Nelson

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis and a founding member of the Annapolis Group, a consortium of more than 120 of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Nelson adapted this piece for Core Knowledge from a blog post he published last year on the Huffington Post.

Abraham Lincoln remains alive to us these days in part because of the extraordinary performance by Daniel Day Lewis in the film Lincoln. In one thoughtful scene, Lincoln sits in a teletype office and wrestles with the question of human and racial equality and the awful institution of slavery. He harkens back to one of the great foundational texts of western civilization, Euclid’s Elements, a beautiful book of elementary geometry written over 2,000 years ago.

In the film, Lincoln cites Euclid’s first common notion: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” He calls it true “because it works, always has done and always will do.” And then he reminds us that Euclid called it “a self-evident truth”, putting us in mind of another great work of civilization, America’s own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Lincoln courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln, self-educated, a versatile and critical thinker, questioned prevailing assumptions of his day, and, in his search for truth, drew upon mathematical axioms as a storehouse of principles he might apply to his political philosophy. This is what liberally educated people do, people who are broadly and deeply educated in the great movements of history, in the foundational texts and fundamental insights of physics and philosophy, literature and biology, music and theology, sociology and yes, mathematics—people who have acquired a kind of worldly wisdom that allows them to rise above and see behind the barriers to understanding and action, and take the imaginative leap that is often necessary to solve a problem or find a solution. These are also the people who have developed the skills of listening attentively, speaking persuasively, arguing logically and working collaboratively to bring an idea to fruition.

Lincoln was a practical man, a worldly politician, not just a theoretical thinker. Was it true, he must have asked himself, that the truths proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence were self-evident? And if self-evident, then why were they not universally recognized, and slavery abolished? So the practical man in Lincoln must have come to the conclusion that if they were not self-evident or their self-evidence not sufficient, they would have to be proved—some four score and seven years after the writing of the Declaration. Thus, his Gettysburg Address changed the terms of the question from “holding a self-evident truth” to “dedicating oneself to a proposition” that all men are created equal. No longer an axiom of mathematical logic accessible to reason, this would become a proposition requiring proof in action, following an act of will, in a great civil war, dedicating thousands and thousands of lives to the interest of securing freedom for those who had been denied equality under the law. And Lincoln required still more from his listeners, asking “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

This rhetorical change in our founding document represented a momentous re-founding of our nation, from one resting on an axiom of reason to one requiring our dedication to realizing the dream of equality through an act of liberation.

This commitment to liberation, to the principles of liberty, to freedom of speech and action, is what undergirds our nation. And it is our national duty to assure that each generation of citizens is well educated in the arts of freedom to protect them from attack and from atrophy. It ought to be the first concern of our schools, from pre-kindergarten through college, that our young acquire the freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both their public and private lives. This requires the cultivation and practice of the art of reason and understanding and discipline in analysis, argument and interpretation so that they may be free from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions and inherited prejudices.

This cultivation must begin as early as children are capable of seeking. Their innate sense of wonder and unlimited curiosity are the beginnings of wisdom, and educators should do nothing that limits, restricts, or dampens their enthusiasm. Their little minds are natural intellectual sponges; we should be providing them with plenty of material to absorb—and it should be the best.

Lincoln, motivated by his own insatiable curiosity, laid the groundwork for his greatness by reading Aesop and Euclid and the Bible and Shakespeare—on his own. There is no reason to withhold the greatest intellectual achievements of humankind from children. Of course they may need to be adapted somewhat, but I believe that if children are exposed to great books in some way as early as possible, they will on the whole come to interact with them at a much higher level than is commonly supposed, much faster than is commonly supposed. And this will put them on the path to intellectual freedom faster than is commonly supposed.

Our nation was founded on the idea that good government is grounded in its citizens’ intellectual freedom; our strength depends upon this idea. Our economy is grounded in the notion of free enterprise; the freedom we have to test our ideas against the needs and demands of the community has helped build the prosperity we have enjoyed as a society. This too depends upon the intellectual freedom of our citizens. And so it is with our social order and moral character.

For the sake of our country, then, we need our citizens to have two kinds of education that are in a very healthy tension with one another: (1) an education in the political and intellectual foundations, including the economic, scientific and social traditions and principles that have shaped our nation, and (2) an education in the arts needed to question and examine those very foundations and traditions in the light of reason, so that we may keep them vibrant and alive, and so that we may redefine and improve on them when we discover we have good cause. These are called the arts of freedom because they are grounded in the kind of free inquiry that helps us understand our world better and inspires in us a sense of wonder and longing to learn more.

While we can lay the foundations for the arts of freedom in elementary and secondary school, it is the role of our colleges help young people learn to use them to build a life worth living. Our nation’s liberal arts colleges were established to cultivate this freedom of intellect through examining the seminal texts that underlie and inform our understanding of the world, and through developing the arts of inquiry. These colleges are dedicated to cultivating the arts of freedom in order to develop the self-sufficiency that is fit for our republic—fit for a republic that champions the right of all of its citizens to pursue the happiness that belongs to them, for making a life worth living, one that brings opportunities for success in making a living too.

We who are responsible for our nation’s liberal arts colleges take this to be our public trust, one to which we give a full measure of devotion. We serve the common good, and this in turn serves our nation well, keeping it strong and vibrant, able to undertake the challenges of tomorrow because it has a citizenry that has some understanding of the intellectual and moral virtues required and the strength of will to use them well—a fitting legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

by Guest Blogger
March 11th, 2014

By Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher in California. This post originally appeared on his blog:

There is a famous joke about the way economists often undermine the usefulness of their conclusions by making too many simplifying assumptions. Here’s one of the older formulations:

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!


(Imaginary can opener courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s probably not fair to pick on economists in this way when the abuse of simplifying assumptions is at least as widespread in education.

For instance, arguably the trendiest thing going in education today is ‘grit‘: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”.

We all agree, I suspect, that a tendency to persevere is desirable, and that we should prefer that students have more of that tendency than less of it. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the term was popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth many teachers and schools have begun reorganizing their work to better promote and instill ‘grit’ in their students.

And yet, here’s Duckworth being interviewed by Alexander Russo last month:

Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
AI don’t know that anybody’s totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That’s why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we’re organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It’s not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world’s leading expert on grit is saying that educators who are substantially altering their work to better teach grit are doing so without much in the way of scientific backing or guidance.

In other words, in their excitement over grit many teachers and school leaders have simply assumed – without justification – that it is a trait that can be taught and that they know how to teach it.

This is by no means a problem limited to grit. Before grit it was “21st century skills“, “social-emotional learning”, “critical thinking”, or “scientific thinking”. What unites these fads is that they all, to varying degrees, suffer from a lack of rigorous scientific evidence indicating that they can be taught at all, let alone that we have reliable ways of teaching them in schools. (“Fluid intelligence” may be next.)

Meanwhile, we have good evidence indicating that schools today are reasonably – if imperfectly – effective at teaching kids the less-glamorous knowledge and skills – e.g., in math, science, and history – that we associate with “traditional” education.

So while it’s a good idea for researchers and educators to experiment with methods for teaching other, “higher-order” or “non-cognitive” abilities, it’s also important to remember that it is probably premature to ask schools to move away from their core competencies if we can’t also give them a clear alternate path forward.


Lost in Wonderland

by Guest Blogger
February 3rd, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.


First I’ll get the confession out of the way. I haven’t yet read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book, My Beloved World. It’s been on my list for a while, and now that it’s out in paperback I have no excuse.

But even before reading it I have been struck, from the excerpts and interviews I’ve read, by how thoughtful Sotomayor is about her experience growing up poor in the Bronx.

I was really interested in something she said in a recent interview with Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air:

One day talking to my first-year roommate … I was telling her about how out of place I felt at Princeton, how I didn’t connect with many of the experiences that some of my classmates were describing, and she said to me, “You’re like Alice in Wonderland.”

And I asked, “Who is Alice?”

And she said, “You don’t know about Alice?”

And I said, “No, I don’t.”

And she said, “It’s one of the greatest book classics in English literature. You should read it.”

I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children’s classics that I had not read … Before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children’s classics, and she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them.

That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they’re talking about.

For me, this is an example of how, unless provided with a really coherent, comprehensive education, many kids who grow up in poverty—heck, many kids period—are robbed of being able to enter into any conversation that assumes a broad cultural knowledge.

It wasn’t that Sotomayor wasn’t smart in the sense of being fully capable—she has more than proven that.

It wasn’t that Sotomayor’s mother didn’t care about her education—Sotomayor said her mother worked hard to send her children to Catholic schools and even bought the newly popular Dr. Seuss books.

And it wasn’t that Sotomayor’s school was “bad”—after all, she got into Princeton.

But her K-12 schooling didn’t provide her with the kind of grounding that she should have had, leaving her feeling lost. Sotomayor was sure to feel social disorientation—she had never heard of a trust fund until she realized many of her fellow students were living on them, for example. But her schooling should have provided her with enough grounding to avoid academic disorientation and understand ordinary conversations.

Sonia Sotomayor’s 8th grade graduation photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All kids should be able to rely on their schools to help them become conversant enough with important cultural, historical and scientific touchstones that by the end of 12 or 13 years in school they aren’t lost when they hear about Alice in Wonderland, or references to Gettysburg, or read a newspaper story about a Supreme Court case or scientific breakthrough. But that kind of grounding requires schools to be very intentional about what kids need to know and be able to do and plan accordingly.

Right now, far too many kids are still receiving a haphazard education that doesn’t allow kids to enter the larger civic and cultural conversation. That is bad for all kids, but it puts a barrier in front of any kid whose family is unable to fill in the gaps. Sotomayor notwithstanding, for many children who grow up in poverty, it can be an insurmountable barrier.