The Test of the Common Core

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 6th, 2013

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.

 

Here’s the follow-up post to “Why I’m For the Common Core.” It explains why we should be leery of the forthcoming “core-aligned” tests—especially those in English Language Arts that people are rightly anxious about. These tests could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB for neediest students was vitiated when test-prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In a still earlier HuffPost blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.
The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. The value-added approach to teacher evaluation in reading is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data are modestly stable for math, but are fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It cannot be otherwise, because of the underlying realities. Math tests are based on the school curriculum. What a teacher does in the math classroom affects student test scores. But reading comprehension tests are not based on the school curriculum. (How could they be if there’s no set curriculum?) Rather, they are based on the general knowledge that students have gained over their life span from all sources—most of them outside the school. That’s why reading tests in the early grades are so reliably and unfairly correlated with parental education and income.

Since the results on reading comprehension tests are not chiefly based on what a teacher has done in a single school year, why would any sensible person try to judge teacher effectiveness by changes in reading comprehension scores in a single year? The whole project is unfair to teachers, ill-conceived, and educationally disastrous. The teacher-rating scheme has usurped huge amounts of teaching time in anxious test-prep. Paradoxically, the evidence shows that test-prep ceases to be effective after about six lessons. So most of that test-prep time is wasted even as test prep. It’s time in which teachers could be calmly pursuing real education—teaching students fascinating subjects in literature, history, civics, science and the arts, the general knowledge that is the true foundation of improved reading comprehension.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

The villains in this story are not the well-meaning economists who developed the value-added idea, but the inadequate theories of reading comprehension that have dominated the schools—mainly the unfounded theory that, when students reach a certain level of “reading skill,” they can read anything at that level. We know now that reading skill—especially in the early grades—varies wildly depending on the subject matter of the text or the test passages.

The Common Core-aligned tests of reading comprehension will naturally contain text passages and questions about those passages. To the extent such tests claim to assess “critical thinking” and “general” reading-comprehension skill, we should hold on to our wallets. They will be only rough indexes of reading ability—probably no better than the perfectly adequate and well-validated reading tests they mean to replace. To continue using them as hickory sticks will distract teachers from their real job of enhancing students’ general knowledge, and will encourage teachers to continue doing the wasteful sorts of unsuccessful skill exercises that so many classrooms have already been engaged in.

The solution to the test-prep conundrum is this: First, institute in every participating state the specific and coherent curriculum that the Common Core Standards explicitly call for. (It’s passing odd to introduce “Common Core” tests before there’s an actual core to be tested.) Then base the reading-test passages on those knowledge domains covered in the curriculum. That would not only be fairer to teachers and students, it would encourage interesting, substantive teaching and would over time induce a big uptick in students’ knowledge—and hence in their reading comprehension skills. That kind of test would be well worth prepping for.

 

Why I’m for the Common Core: Teacher bashing and Common Core bashing are both uncalled for

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 4th, 2013

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.

 

When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K-5. They break the fearful silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” That principle of building coherent, cumulative content characterizes the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words in the CCSS which I’ve italicized don’t get down to defining the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did so no state would have adopted the standards, because specific content is a local prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity. Little can come from the current incorrect assumption that critical thinking skills or reading comprehension can be gained without a specific systematic buildup of knowledge.

Not even most prescient among us can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy. That will depend on what the states actually do about developing rich content knowledge “within and across grades.” To do so will take the courage to withstand the gripe-patrols that will complain about the inclusion of say Egypt, in the second grade. But who can be sure that the required political courage to withstand such gripes won’t be forthcoming once the absolute need for specific, cumulative content is understood. As Niels Bohr said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” If just one state or district shows the way, with big, unmistakable gains resulting, those results will influence many others.

Egyptian papyrus showing the Pharaoh Tutankhamen and gods courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Bohr principle ought to be the watchword in this debate over the Common Core. Those who confidently predict failure haven’t any more knowledge about what will really happen than I do. (Of course critics of CCSS are reasonably concerned about the tests that might go with the Common Core, which I’ll quickly discuss in another blog.) But unless the actual curricular plans of the critics (where are they?) also required coherent “content knowledge within and across grades,” their alternatives are not likely to be as effective as CCSS. And if critics do support the key principles of specificity and coherence—well then—why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states rather than get lost in details of who was or was not consulted?

*****

For many years my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K – 12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. It ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, his school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that Common Core will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge-based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. Hence in actual implementation, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does.

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “Oh my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. In them each topic is explained and instructional suggestions are provided. In addition, the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would be useful for the teacher to have by way of background are also laid out. The best sources for further relevant materials wrap up each section. Cleo was greatly relieved.

But what about all the other Cleo’s out there who are being thrown into these sink-or-swim situations in our public schools, sent into classrooms where it’s impossible to know what their students already know, and where teachers are given scant guidance about what they should be teaching—or worse—are asked to teach literacy classes based on the trivial and fragmented fictions found in the standard literacy textbooks?

Teachers in a typical American classroom cannot rely on their students having acquired any specific item of knowledge. But effective classroom teaching depends on key prior knowledge being shared by all the members of the class. Without such shared knowledge, truly effective whole-class teaching cannot occur—no matter how potentially effective the teacher is. In today’s schools, teachers are compelled to overuse all sorts of individualizing strategies—at huge opportunity cost to the progress of the class as a whole. Individualized instruction is always important. But it is far more effective when students’ share prior academic knowledge, which alone enables the teacher to engage in varied instructional approaches.

That’s why I have become so impatient with the teacher bashing that has overtaken the education reform movement. The favored structural reforms haven’t worked very well. The new emphasis on “teacher quality” implies that the reforms haven’t worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven’t worked because on average they have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught. The Common Core State Standards offer a framework for any state or locality to create the curricular coherence that could lead to massive gains in student learning. It would improve teacher effectiveness on a large-scale if we created a more coherent school environment in which a teacher’s work in one year reliably builds on what has been taught in prior years. A conscientious and intelligent realization of the new Common Core Standards could achieve that essential element that has been missing in our schools for too many tragic decades.

 

The Common Core Tests in Language Arts Will Soon Be Coming to Your Child’s School. Tell Your Local Superintendent: “Don’t Worry. Students Will Ace Those Tests If They Learn History, Civics, Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.”

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
August 5th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on July 30, 2013.

 

“A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.” 

This comment from an able and experienced teacher is one among several similar ones that teachers have recently posted on the Core Knowledge blog. Their worry is also mine.

The success of the Common Core Standards in Language Arts, adopted by more than 40 states, is supremely important for many reasons, not least because of the recent intensification of income inequality. Student scores on language arts tests are the single most reliable academic predictors of later income. The new language arts standards of the Common Core represent an historic opportunity for beneficial change in American schools—if they are put into effect intelligently.

But if you look at the data in Amazon books, you will see that the bestselling books about the Common Core are “skills-centric” ones that claim to prepare teachers for the new language arts standards by advocating techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity” as though such skills were the main ones for understanding a text no matter how unfamiliar a student might be with the topic of the text. The fact is, though, that students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

We need to learn from recent painful experience. The failure of No Child Left Behind in fostering advanced language ability can be traced to the skills-centric test-prepping that left little room for the systematic gaining of knowledge. Of course there is one facet of the skills-centric approach to reading that should be applauded, and which did improve under NCLB—the teaching of decoding. Learning to translate those symbols on the page into sounds and words is a skill that ought to be taught systematically between kindergarten and second grade, beginning with simple letter-sound correspondences and progressing step-by-step to complicated Greek-based spellings. More systematic instruction in phonics explains why test scores went up in the earliest grades under NCLB. But its neglect of knowledge building explains why student scores did not go up in later grades when tests emphasize comprehension.

Test anxiety was paradoxically the main reason that schools spent so much time on abstract skills like “comprehension strategies” and “inferencing.” My aim in this blog post addressed to parents is to explain why the best test prep for their child under the new Common Core standards will be a more systematic approach to imparting knowledge. My argument is simple: If understanding a text depends on some prior familiarity with the topic, then that will also be true of the passages on a language-arts test.

The more a student knows the better he or she will perform on any language-arts test—whether or not that test is said to be “aligned” with the new Common Core standards. If we take a step back from the details of the Common Core standards we can see why this claim necessarily must be true. Older language arts tests—such as Gates-Macginitie, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford 9, the Degrees of Reading Power, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the verbal sections of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—correlate well with each other, indicating that they are all accurately probing underlying competence in language. If the results of the Common Core tests are not strongly correlated with these well-validated ones, then the technical validity of the new tests would rightly be deemed unsatisfactory, and no state ought to adopt them. There is no reason to think that the top experts making the new Common Core tests are not well aware of this technical issue of correlation. It’s the schools, rather, that need to reconsider what will really prepare their students for the new tests—and a productive life.

One reason that the schools have been applying a skills-centric approach is that they have regarded reading as a uniform skill that develops in stages, rather than a highly variable skill which depends on a person’s topic knowledge. The schools cannot be blamed for this. The stage-by-stage conception of reading is the theory that even top experts held up to a few decades ago. The notion that any text on any topic at the right level would enhance reading ability has encouraged our schools to tolerate a topic-incoherent curriculum in language arts. This indifference to knowledge building is the chief reason the verbal scores of our school leavers have stayed flat and low.

Cognitive scientists have found, however, that a student’s average level of reading skill, which is reasonably accurately indicated by the standard tests, masks wide fluctuations depending on the test taker’s familiarity with the topic. That’s why reading tests typically use multiple passages on different topics—characteristically about ten—to try to capture that average. And even then, the passages are not random but have been filtered through the net of grade-level criteria like word rarity and sentence length. The whole system has conspired to make schools think that the topic knowledge is less important than “reading level.” But now we know that the topic of the passage is far more important than the level. The more students know about a topic, the further above their level they can read on that topic. This new understanding of reading ability demands nothing less than a revolution in language arts instruction, with less emphasis on technique and more emphasis on the systematic acquisition of knowledge.

The new Common Core standards have recognized this research finding. They state that these standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” And they add: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Well said! And we have to take care that the schools and the experts hear and act on that truth. Parents and concerned citizens should make sure that they do.

If any school wants to see a model for what this means in actual practice, there are a couple of resources on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website that should be useful. Here is a grade-by-grade content sequence for all subjects in preschool through eighth grade that is downloadable for free. This sequence takes into account the knowledge that is most needed and used in written language in the United States—imparting topic familiarity as well as deeper insight across the topics that are most enabling for written communication. When schools use this sequence to write a rigorous curriculum, their students do well on language tests. Second, here is an early reading program—preschool through third grade—that systematically brings many history, science, and literary topics into the language arts classroom in sufficient depth so that the student becomes familiar with them. This pre-k – 3 program will be downloadable for free soon. For now, here’s the list of topics, with each taking about 2-3 weeks to teach. Each has about 10-12 teacher read-alouds and related class discussions and extension activities.

The coming of the Common Core standards and tests need not be a new, harrowing imposition on already besieged schools. Rather they are an historic opportunity—a new slate on which schools can write either a topic-indifferent, fragmented curriculum similar to what has failed before, or a new, exciting and successful orientation to knowledge. That’s what the top experts – the cognitive scientists—are telling us, and it’s a message that all parents, educators, and concerned citizens need to act upon.

A Game-Changing Education Book from England

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
July 2nd, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 27, 2013. For more on education reforms in America and England, you may also be interested in this interview of E. D. Hirsch by English journalist and educator Toby Young, as well as Chester Finn’s “Reforms that cross the Atlantic—and don’t.”

 

A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas — brilliantly deconstructed in this book.

Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher. She currently directs a non-profit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.

Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the US has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.

She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.

Here are Ms Christodoulou’s seven myths:

1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”

This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “21st-century” ideas that invoke Google and the internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late 19th-century ideas which came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-20th century. What educators purvey as brave such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:

I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it. … For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.

The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new “Common Core Standards,” comparable in scope to the recent experiment named “No Child Left Behind,” which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that adequate yearly progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.

Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.

Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB — if they had been uninfected by the seven myths — they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S. It’s available at Amazon for $9.99 or for free if you have Amazon Prime.

 

How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
April 5th, 2013

This essay was published on The Atlantic’s website on March 29, 2013; it is reposted here with permission.

Right now, roughly 1,000 schools—public, private, rural, urban, and suburban—are implementing a curriculum plan called the Core Knowledge Sequence. That number is slated to increase significantly in the fall: Under the new Common Core State Standards, the state of New York is recommending the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through second grade.

It won’t be long before the Core Knowledge program will have helped educate more than a million children—an estimate that doesn’t count the several million children whose parents have taken them through Core Knowledge books such as What Your First-Grader Needs to Know. Judging from the evidence, this is a good thing. The Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that students need actual knowledge, not just thinking skills, in order to succeed. As the program’s website explains:

It’s natural to assume that teaching lots of “stuff” isn’t important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much “walking-around knowledge” you carry inside your head—and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it’s easier to learn more. And it’s much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don’t.

As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I’ve written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program’s character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia.

***

A crucial moment occurred about 60 years ago as I was in my first semester of teaching English to Yale freshmen. The poem under discussion that day was “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, and my interpretation was being challenged by a very sharp undergraduate.

The poem starts this way:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
     And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
     ”Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
 
So let us melt, and make no noise,
     No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
     To tell the laity our love.

The undergraduate insisted that it was a poem about death, since the poem forbids “mourning” and offers the image of a man dying quietly.

Most professors of English would agree that this is not a poem about dying. In Donne’s day, the word “mourning” did not have the limited, mortuary connotation it has now. True, the poet does say he is departing from his beloved, but he’s going on a real geographical trip. In the rest of the poem he explains that he’ll be coming back, and they will renew their love as before. The valediction is a “be seein’ ya,” not a “farewell.”

But nonetheless the poem can be read as a permanent farewell. In Donne’s famous image of a compass, the twin legs part from each other, then one leg takes a circular trip, but then the two legs come back together. All that could be read as a reuniting of two souls after death. There are other clues that make death a plausible interpretation—not just the word “mourning” in the title, but also the image of the dying man, and the poet’s insistence that he and his beloved are not like “dull sublunary lovers” who depend on each other’s physical presence. That could suggest some sort of posthumous spiritual reunion.

But my bright undergraduate didn’t even need to bring out those detailed arguments. He made a more decisive theoretical observation: He pointed out that then-current literary theory held that the intention of the poet is irrelevant. A poem goes out into the world as an artwork, a “verbal icon,” to be interpreted as readers wish, so long as their interpretations follow the public norms and conventions of language. That doctrine meant, said the undergraduate, that hisreading of the poem was just as valid as my reading, since both followed public norms and conventions. My immediate response was that his logic was absolutely right.

So, why was I teaching this class?

In 1954, Yale was the vibrant center of the “New Criticism” that had already begun to take over the teaching of literature in the high schools, mainly through the phenomenally successful textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren called Understanding Poetry. The theory was that you didn’t need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques. The other influential text was The Verbal Icon by William K. Wimsatt, who, like Brooks, had been a professor of mine at Yale. All of them became dear friends despite our disagreements.

In those heady days when the Yale English department was rated tops in the nation, it had the feeling almost of a theological seminary for the new doctrines that freed the study of literature from its pedantic, historical trappings and treated works of literature intrinsically as literature—as “verbal icons.” Under this theory, the argument that my student made was right. His “reading” wasjust as valid as mine. Once he had mastered Understanding Poetry, why should I, or anyone, need to teach him how to read Donne’s poem?

***

Five years passed. I was now back from a Fulbright in Germany where I had completed my dissertation on William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling, and I was teaching at Yale again. I now thought I was ready to respond to the undergraduate’s challenge. I had explained in the introduction to my dissertation just why you do really need to know quite a lot of extrinsic things to understand even the simplest poem of Wordsworth.

When I was in Germany, I had eagerly read the works of humanistic theorists like Wilhelm Dilthey and philosophers like Edmund Husserl. I had also begun to read linguistics and cognitive psychology. I wrote up my musings as a 1960 article called “Objective Interpretation” in the Publications of the Modern Language Association. Besides citing a lot of eminent German theorists, I offered a concrete example: a simple Wordsworth poem along with two very different interpretations, one by Cleanth Brooks and the other by historical scholar F. W. Bateson. Here is the poem:

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.
 
 No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In Brooks’s view, the poem evokes a sense of futility—the lover’s “agonized shock” at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree:

Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object’s being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl’s falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. … [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.

In contrast, F. W. Bateson sees the poem building up to a sense of “pantheistic magnificence”:

The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human “thing.”

As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth, I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet’s intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth’s nature. As the poet wrote in “The Prelude Book, III”:

To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

If Wordsworth had meant to imply the “dead, dead inertness” that Brooks found in the poem’s conclusion, he would hardly have ended the series “rocks and stones and trees.”

However, by favoring Bateson’s reading over Brooks’s, I was disobeying the New Critical doctrine that intention doesn’t matter. This raised a troubling contradiction. If there was no such thing as a “correct” interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.

But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.

Such a theory could not interest anyone very long—and indeed deconstruction was much shorter-lived than New Criticism. This explains why literature departments now have largely turned away from “readings” and have focused their work (often productively) on cultural activism and historical studies.

***

Fast-forward a decade and a half to the late 1970s. By this time, I was a chaired professor at a top-rated English department. I’d written several articles and books on English Romantic poets and theory of interpretation, and I was putting the maximum into my retirement fund. But I was getting worried: After serving two stints as department chairman, I’d seen that English programs were neglecting the task of teaching composition.

With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I decided to do some large-scale empirical work on how to teach writing more effectively. Studies by the Educational Testing Service had shown that the teaching of composition was currently neither an art nor a science, but almost completely arbitrary. When a single paper was graded by multiple people, the resulting grade was unpredictable almost to the point of randomness. My research was designed to discover whether we could devise a non-arbitrary grading system based on the actual communicative effectiveness of writing.

But what I discovered was something altogether unexpected and, as it turned out, life-changing. I found that when readers were somewhat unfamiliar with the topic in the text, no paper, no matter how well written, could communicate effectively with those readers. I had assumed that clear writing would help the most when the subject was unfamiliar. In fact, the opposite was true. When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

When we carried our experiments to a community college in Richmond, this truth became more apparent—and extremely urgent. These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge—information already stored in one’s long-term memory—is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It’s more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts.

Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills—the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly.

Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it’s hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills—just as devotees of the New Criticism had done.

***

When I first started my experiment on writing, I thought it would prove that a student could become a good writer by learning a few formal techniques. But the data showed that background knowledge, not technique, is by far the more important element in both writing and reading. Technique only gets you about 10 per cent of the way in communication. The remaining 90 percent requires knowledge—knowledge that those struggling readers in Richmond hadn’t been taught.

When the results of our writing experiment surprised us, an unprepared mind might have simply considered it a failed experiment. I realized years later that it was my own prior knowledge that allowed me to comprehend the results of the study. The light bulb went on for me only because my mind had been prepared by my work in literary theory: the harsh glare of a bright-yet-contentedly undereducated student and the contradictory interpretations of two poems.

Fundamentally, the Core Knowledge reform movement is an effort to give all students the broad knowledge that will set them up for a good income and a lifetime of reading and learning. I won’t be around to see how it ends. With luck it could end with higher achievement and much smaller achievement gaps—but only if far more schools, parents, and concerned citizens become persuaded, as I did, that knowledge trumps skills.

Research Revolution

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
March 6th, 2013

In the spirit of blogdom, I’ll try to make this one as reader-friendly as I can—even though it’s going to deal with research on raising language abilities.

My chief gripe with a lot of educational research is its lack of coordination with cognitive science taken as a whole. For instance, in my last blog, which suggested that we spend more time learning about specific domains of knowledge (and the Tier 3 words that go with them) and less time learning domain-general words, I deliberately refrained from criticizing the research that has persuaded so many textbooks and teachers and to focus on Tier 2, domain-general words. My main criticism of that research is that it doesn’t fit with the totality of what other researchers—mainly cognitive scientists—have learned about language growth. I didn’t stress that critique. I did not want to attack the work of serious scholars whom I like and respect.

But what the heck; a lot is at stake in the way English language arts (ELA) teachers spend their classroom time, especially in the critical early years, and when so much class time—two hours a day in many schools—is being devoted to ELA.

***

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written an exemplary book about the skeptical ways teachers should look at research claims.  I wish all teachers and administrators would read it. It would save them a lot of wasted energy and disappointments. But there’s another kind of skepticism that only experts in a field are able to muster, and that’s when some research findings don’t quite fit the body of relevant research taken as a whole. That is what’s wrong with the current widespread emphasis on the explicit study of Tier 2 words. Research does show that students learn more of such words when they study them. (Surprise?) But that research hasn’t answered one obvious question: Could even more progress be made by spending class time in quite a different way? Being in my ninth decade, and having been interested in this topic for at least six of those decades, I have studied a wide range of psycholinguistic research. My hunch about the answer to that question is: Yes, there are far better and faster ways to induce language growth in our students.

In this blog, I want to discuss three kinds of research from the field of psycholinguistics that elevate my hunch to a good bet. There probably are methods that promise much faster growth than focusing too much on Tier 2 words and other aspects of language that are not specific to any particular domain.

***

(1) Pride of place should go to the work of John Guthrie at the University of Maryland. For many years he and his colleagues have sponsored studies of a method he calls “Concept Oriented Reading Instruction”—CORI for short—whose methods have shown outstanding language gains by focusing ELA classes on academic subject matter for extended periods of time. Using control groups, and rather high experimental standards, he has shown that focusing on actual knowledge domains increases student interest, motivation, general vocabulary, and ability to read strategically.

Guthrie and his work are highly respected among educational researchers, but have had little widespread impact on textbooks or classroom practice. Here’s an early study showing CORI to be superior to traditional instruction and a later one showing CORI to be superior to both strategy instruction and traditional instruction.

(2) Another important line of research in the same vein has been led by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. They have been interested, like Guthrie, in how a durable focus on specific domains of knowledge can increase language growth across domains, especially when developed through computer-assisted “knowledge communities.” Their work has emphasized listening and speaking as much as reading (which is important because research has shown that listening and speaking have significant educative value). One study, in which students studied several topics (including plants, light, and medieval times) over four semesters in grades 3 and 4, found an impressive pattern of vocabulary growth. As the chart below shows, not only were students using lots of new words, in the 3rd and 4th semesters—when the students were in 4th grade—more than half of their new words were above grade level:

(3)  For my last example, I cite a recent research report from Diana AryaElfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson—all distinguished scholars. I mention it last, not just because it’s the most recent, but also because it helps put the other research findings in a larger context. What was most impressive about this research was that it surprised the researchers—often a mark of significant work. Here’s how the researchers summarized their hypotheses and results:

The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.

Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….

Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs. A possible explanation is that prior knowledge of vocabulary, rather than any established index of word frequency, determines how difficult a lexically complex text will be for a student.

These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the “right” reading level of a text for a child.

On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out. It fits with findings by researchers such as Walter KintschThomas LandauerDonna Recht, and Wolfgang Schneider that prior knowledge of and familiarity with a topic, as well as context, trump vocabulary level and verbal strategies in language comprehension.

Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.

This kind of finding further fits with the student progress reported by Guthrie, Scardamalia, and their colleagues, for it suggests that when students stay on a specific domain long enough to become familiar with it, then their domain-general language abilities increase remarkably. They correctly guess the meanings of words they have not seen before; they disentangle complicated syntax much more readily, and thus learn its more general conventions. In short, the study by Arya, et al., strongly reinforces the general principle that the way to make fast progress in language growth is to study specific domains and thus their words more than domain-general words. (Of course, language is a domain highly worthy of study, too.)

Needless to say, the implications of these studies reach well beyond my prior blog about preferring instruction in domain-specific Tier 3 words. That was another way of preferring the study of specific domains; there’s no good way of learning a domain without learning its terms, and vice versa.

Taken as a whole, the three lines of research I just summarized recommend a revolution in the way we try to foster language growth. The language class needs to become a knowledge class, and it needs to stay on topic long enough to induce domain familiarity. There’s no inherent reason why all 3rd and 4th graders should not experience the rapid, above grade level vocabulary growth reflected in the chart above, which, best of all, includes kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, if you stay on a topic long enough, disadvantaged children will gain topic familiarity also, and begin to catch up.

Mere Facts, Mere Knowledge, Mere College Readiness

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 25th, 2013

Is teaching many domains in English language arts more important to college and career readiness than teaching many words?

Research on teaching vocabulary has determined better and worse ways of conducting explicit instruction.  Word lists and isolated definitions, while they may seem efficient, are among the least effective methods, while explicit explanations of words in context are the most effective. Ideally, according to one distinguished researcher, students can learn up to 400 new words in a school year by explicit methods (2+ words a day for 180 days under ideal circumstances). Others offer a more modest estimate, around 200 words per school year.

Yet the minimal count of words you need to be college and career ready is estimated to be 12,000 to 30,000, depending on the mode of counting. The explicit method of instruction at its best yields 5,200 words between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yet even marginal high school students need to know twice that many—meaning that most of their word learning must occur incidentally in the course of understanding the gist of spoken and written language.

Nonetheless, I would agree with advocates of explicit word study that, done strategically as an integrated and not-very-time-consuming part of a lesson, explicit instruction can help unlock enough of the gist of a passage to speed up the incidental learning of words. But then the question arises: what sort of words should we pause over in order to make the best use of class time and help the student make the fastest progress?

Experts in explicit word study have identified three main categories of words called Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, in order of frequency of occurrence in written English. The current expert view is that teachers should focus on Tier 2 words. Tier 1 words are so usual that students are likely to learn them on their own. Tier 3 words, on the other hand, are so rare that focusing on them does not offer much advancement for general reading ability. So under current thinking, the following sorts of Tier 2 words are the ones teachers should spend most class time on:  reputation, disruption, hovers, stifling, obstacle, descendants, maximum, standards, barren, desolate—words that are moderately frequent, because used in multiple written contexts. That’s not true of domain-specific Tier 3 words like, valence, bildungsroman, Renaissance, metabolism, Gettysburg, photosynthesis,  stochastic, ionic, simile, dew point, polygon, Madison, monotheism, kinetic, Dalton, Fourier, Magna Carta, Impressionism, helium, fiscal, TR, and Shiite. 

But I’m not persuaded by this rationale. Although Tier 2 words are to be found in multiple contexts, they do not constitute a big percentage of the totality of different words in the English vocabulary. That distinction belongs to the words of Tier 3, which are domain specific. If you want to reach the magic number of 25,000 thousand or so, it’s best to spend your time learning domain-specific Tier 3 words. After all, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the expert advice to teachers to spend most of students’ explicit-word-study time on Tier 2 words after having said that Tier 1 words can be ignored on the grounds that they are used so frequently that most people have learned them incidentally. That sensible principle recedes when it comes to their doctrine about Tier 2 words, which we are advised to focus on precisely because they are relatively frequent and are used in multiple written contexts. Some serious research needs to be undertaken to determine whether, in a good, coherent knowledge-based curriculum most Tier 2 words aren’t also learned incidentally as a matter of course, just like most Tier 1 words, as the overall math would suggest. (This research has not been conducted, despite the confident advice about studying domain-general Tier 2 words. Indeed there is some counter evidence in the studies by John Guthrie indicating the superiority of domain-specific instruction in ELA.)

To support the emphasis on Tier 2 words many educators assume that there exists such a thing as general “reading skill,” which will be the key to college and career readiness. But cognitive scientists instruct us that it’s an oversimplification to suppose that there is such a thing as a domain-general reading skill that can be fostered by the explicit study of domain-general, Tier 2 words. On the contrary, the latest cognitive science tells us that reading skills, like most skills, are “domain specific.”  Granted, there are important domain-general aspects of reading that include automatic, unconscious procedures like decoding skill, eye movements, strategic meaning searches, and knowledge of domain-general words. It is reasonable, indeed essential, to ensure that students gain such domain-general knowledge. But few experts advise that students be explicitly trained in eye-movement patterns, at least not very extensively. For most students that skill develops unconsciously without continuous instruction.  The same is true of most domain-general word learning—which occurs unconsciously, bit by bit, through multiple exposures to a word in different contexts. Domain general skills like decoding, once mastered, are continually practiced and unconsciously improved precisely because, being domain general, they occur frequently.

There’s a clear analogy with skill in sports. Most sports demand domain-general athletic abilities like hand-eye coordination.  Nonetheless being skilled specifically in golf does not directly transfer to being skilled in tennis or even in croquet. Each sport has domain-specific skills that must be explicitly mastered. Similarly, being skilled in reading about golf does not readily transfer to being skilled in reading about tennis. The golf passages will of course contain domain-general words like but, however, pretty, and willing, but the critical words will be birdie, bogie, and par, and knowing them won’t help you read a tennis story with set point, fault, and ace.

Why do you suppose school reading tests typically offer ten or so passages? If reading were a domain-general skill, one passage would suffice. (If I want to know if you can ride a bike, I won’t bring ten bikes for you to ride. One will suffice.) But reading tests always contain several passages because a reliable reading test has to sample your ability to read in several different domains. Reading tests are essentially tests of how many different domains you have knowledge of and vocabulary for. To be a literate adult—one who could read a newspaper front to back—you must have knowledge in a very broad range of domains.

If we wish our students to perform well on a reading test, we ought to abandon the disparagement of “mere facts.”  Nothing contributes more to a student’s reading abilities than wide knowledge of multiple domains, automatically accompanied by knowledge of many domain-specific, Tier 3 words. In sum, nothing contributes more to college and career readiness than broad general knowledge over multiple domains.

The best way to teach “English language arts” then is systematically to teach substantive domains of knowledge along with their inherently related vocabularies. In fact the whole issue needs to be broadened by a return to real classes in history, science, and the arts in elementary grades, as the best way to gain proficiency in reading. This larger principle transcends the currently debated topic of fictional vs. non-fictional genres. Much good fiction is a repository of domain knowledge—not just of human nature and ethical principles, but also of historical and factual knowledge, including such things as Mississippi river-boating in Huckleberry Finn, and whaling in Moby Dick, as well as the forms and techniques of literature, like simile and metaphor, prefixes and suffixes, which are just as “informational” as chemical valences. What is needed for college and career readiness is extensive general knowledge over multiple domains, coherently delivered—with lots of Tier 3 words.

When this is done well, with gradually increasing sophistication grade by grade, Tiers 1 and 2 will mostly take care of themselves.

The Skills Stranglehold

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 21st, 2013

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious already, but today’s Metlife Survey of the American Teacher confirms that the nation’s teachers are demoralized. How could it be otherwise, with pressure to build the Common Core plane while flying it and also facing new evaluation and accountability requirements?

I don’t want to brush off any of these very real problems, but I do want to suggest that they are not the heart of the matter. Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have. The report states (p. 65):

Middle school and high school principals and teachers are less likely than their elementary school counterparts to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will improve student achievement (principals: 73% vs. 85%; teachers: 61% vs. 76%). Middle school and high school teachers are less likely than elementary school teachers to be very confident or confident that the Common Core will better prepare students for college and the workforce (63% vs. 78%); principals’ views on this do not differ significantly by school level.

At all levels, just “two in 10 principals or teachers indicate that they are very confident that the Common Core will have these effects.” How can this be? Teachers could be feeling too downtrodden to have great confidence in anything, but I think the real answer is hidden in the report itself. There’s a hint in the report’s “From the Experts” box (p. 58):

The public education thought leaders interviewed as part of the survey development process … are concerned that some teachers and principals may be underestimating how large a shift in curriculum, teaching, and assessment may be required to implement the new standards fully.

  • “In all but a handful of states around the country, there are new academic standards that are being implemented that will demand very fundamental changes in teaching and learning; very fundamental changes in the instructional practices that teachers use in the classroom. Teachers say they’re aware of the standards and they like the standards; they’re not much different than what they’re doing now, which is generally not the case.”
  • “The rigor is simply much harder or much more demanding than most states have had in the past, so dealing with the real benchmark of where you are as a teacher and your performance and your mastery of these standards and how well your students are going to do is kind of a… I don’t know whether the word is culture shock, when you start seeing the true benchmark as opposed to where you thought you were.”

The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

It can’t get through: The barrier erected by the skills stranglehold is far stronger than anyone realizes. Consider this, from the very beginning of the report’s section on the Common Core (p. 53):

Middle and high school teachers indicate that the critical components of being college- and career-ready focus more on higher-order thinking and performance skills—such as problem-solving skills, critical-thinking skills and the ability to write clearly and persuasively—than on knowledge of challenging content.

Here we see the skills stranglehold in its purest form. Skills can’t be more important than knowledge for college and career because without knowledge, there are no “higher-order thinking and performance skills.” Skills depend on knowledge. If I don’t know any physics, I can’t think critically about physics. And, the more I know about physics, the more successful I will be in solving physics problems.

Lest you think I’m making too much of this one sentence about middle and high school teachers, let me take you back to the 2010 MetLife survey. On page 21, you’ll see this:

And on page 22, you’ll see this handy summary:

Teachers share remarkably similar views on the importance of these skills, abilities and knowledge areas regardless of grade level taught, years of experience, school characteristics or even subject area. English teachers are most likely to say the ability to write clearly and persuasively is absolutely essential or very important (99%), and 92% of math teachers also rate this ability as highly. While less than half (45%) of English teachers say that knowledge and ability in higher-level mathematics, such as trigonometry and calculus is absolutely essential or very important, math teachers themselves do not rate the necessity of higher-level mathematics much more highly (50%).

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

But I can’t really blame them. Teachers have themselves been taught that skills are transferrable, independent of particular knowledge or mere facts. The skills stranglehold has been tightening its grip for nearly 100 years. Recently, educators’ focus on skills—particularly so-called 21st century skills—and disparagement of knowledge got so bad that the National Research Council took up the issue, clarifying that skills and knowledge can’t be separated, and then exploring how deepening content knowledge could lead to better skills:

In contrast to a view of 21st century skills as general skills that can be applied to a range of different tasks in various academic, civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views 21st century skills as dimensions of expertise that are specific to—and intertwined with—knowledge within a particular domain of content and performance. (p. 3)

Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem, or context, in or out of school. Nevertheless, it has identified features of instruction that are likely to substantially support deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies within a topic area or discipline. For example, we now know that transfer [within a discipline] is supported when learners understand the general principles underlying their original learning and the transfer situation or problem involves the same general principles—a finding reflected in the new Common Core State Standards…. (p. 8)

The necessary merger of deep content knowledge and higher-order skills is indeed reflected in the Common Core standards. But sadly, we have a long way to go for it to be reflected in most of our classrooms.

The Two Americas Continued: Schmidt and McKnight

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 15th, 2013

In my last post (“Antonio Who?”) about the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (pronounced gram-shee who was cited as a big influence by Michael Gove the British Secretary of Education), I hinted—but didn’t venture to say—that maybe our educational systems would be in better shape if our top authorities followed Gove’s lead and read more challenging books, while holding fewer committee meetings. Albert Shanker, the brilliant union-organizer-turned-educational-statesman, once told me, mournfully: “They don’t read.” I once looked through Al Shanker’s own library now housed at AFT headquarters, and was amazed to see his annotations in a multi-volume set by the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. But the vision of a top American official reading the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci could happen only in a Woody Allen movie.

On the other side, an argument against reading a lot of books on American education is that it could cause clinical depression. As I peruse the important book by William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight, Inequality for All, I think to myself: this is a companion volume to a whole spate of recent books on American inequality by eminent scholars, including a book by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and a mournfully vivid book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart. The image one gets from Murray is not of red America vs. blue America, but of one zip code full of striving SAT-takers and community-minded citizens vs.  a neighboring zip code of drifting alcoholic semi-literates who lack any sense of community or hope. It is not too much of a stretch to see Inequality for All as identifying a significant cause of these economic and sociological ills. The book is an indictment of the content-incoherence of our schools.

The sad reality is that the American educational system does not provide equal opportunity for all but rather perpetuates vast inequalities in content coverage…. This inequality of opportunity … disadvantages many, perhaps even most, children in the United States….

Variation in content coverage corrupts the entire U.S. educational system, in effect creating an enormous educational lottery in which every student takes part—whatever their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. The system of schooling represents a game of chance that few are even aware is being played.

Given this almost universal curricular incoherence in our schools, students with home advantages are able to overcome ineffectual schooling through home tutoring either direct or indirect. In short, (as Gramsci predicted) the “progressive” American theory of education, with its how rather than what approach to schooling, while it is “advocated as being democratic, is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese complexities” (Notebook 29).  In other words Gramsci predicted the very America described by Stiglitz and Murray as being the effect of the schooling described by Schmidt and McKnight.

Inequality for All focuses on math and science education, showing with authoritative thoroughness the failure of our schools to bring rationality and cumulativeness in the topics taught from year to year.   They make the point that reformers on both the left and right have been consumed with equalizing resources or in fostering competition and accountability, but pay too little heed to the essence of schooling which they see as the delivery of academic content by teachers to students. Hear, hear!

I have tried to make exactly the same point with respect to the general knowledge that students need to gain outside the subjects of science and math. The Gramsci principle that the delivery of academic content is the key to social justice holds even more strongly for general knowledge, which is the key to high literacy and the ability to learn and adapt in the future. Indeed, based on data from the Armed Forces Qualification Test, I’ve argued that general knowledge is approximately twice as important as math in determining a person’s future capacity to function economically and as a citizen, and therefore deserves at least the same care and coherence that Schmit and McKnight want for science and math.  Given their sound view that “the delivery of academic content” is the key to future improvement and to equity, Schmidt and McKnight come out strongly in favor of the Common Core State Standards.

Every day my email inbox fills with relentless attacks on these standards, and renewed attempts to undo the commitments of forty-odd states to follow them. I wish these energies and criticisms could be turned to making the standards function well, rather than to making them go away. They are a work in progress, and instituting them will entail many false steps. But Schmidt and McKnight rightly see them as the best way forward for excellence and equity. They see the issue in educational, not political terms: not as some intolerable imposition of the federal government or the Gates Foundation, but as our best chance to overcome failure, incoherence, and injustice.

Unless the carpers against the common core can come up with an alternative plan that brings coherence to “the delivery of academic content,” they leave us in the unacceptable condition of the status quo.   Let these carpers produce a book half as thorough and authoritative as that of Schmidt and McKnight, with a vision of what needs to be done half as compelling. Then I might be more receptive to their constant stream of mosquito bites against the ambitious vision defended in this important book.

 

Antonio Who?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 13th, 2013

Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable speech the other night, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British educational world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was our own Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from a 1996 book by me. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the 20th century. What gives?

I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the 20th century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he languished because his writing and journalistic work in the 1920s were so cogent and influential that Mussolini’s fascistic regime seized him in 1927 with the avowed purpose of silencing him. There he remained for eight years, until his ill health brought him to a sanitarium in 1934, and to a clinic in 1937, where he died. He was allowed to write, but not, of course, to let anyone see his writing. It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.

He rightly predicted that in the future, most work would entail intellectual work, and that political and economic power would reside with the educated. Especially notable was his critique of progressive education, which became the official educational doctrine of the fascist regime. Despite progressivism’s high claims to “child-centered natural development,” “deep understanding,” and “independent thought,” its anti-bookish tendencies, Gramsci said, were socially retrograde. “Il bambino non è un gomitolo di lana da sgomitolare, ma la parte del complesso mondo storico su cui l’ambiente e la società esercitano la loro coercizione”. “The child is not a ball of yarn to be unwound, but part of a complex historical world in which the environment is a society that exercises its own coercions.” Under progressivism, the children of the rich would continue to possess the knowledge they needed to wield the levers of power (because they would always have multiple opportunities for bookish learning), while the children of the poor would remain in their subordinate poverty.

Hence, what was needed, Gramsci said was a single “formative school” for all students rich or poor that would stress foundational knowledge in literature, science, history and the arts, in a demanding common curriculum. Only in later grades should there be practical trainings in technical and job related subjects. What Gramsci was in fact proposing was the American Common-School idea of the 19th century. And in fact his scuola formativaunica is sometimes translated as “common school.”

In sum, Gramsci favored the kind of knowledge-based schooling that Michael Gove is proposing. He would also favor the Common Core State Standards in the United States, so long as these were implemented as a specific knowledge-based curriculum, and were freed from the anti-intellectual and socially retrograde effects of what Gramsci disdainfully called “teoria dello sgomitolamento”—“the unravelling theory,” best translated as “constructivism”—the anti-broad knowledge, anti-guided learning theory that still dominates many teacher training schools in the United States.