The Good Life

by Lisa Hansel
December 18th, 2014

It’s not the shopping or the lines. It’s not the angst (will my sister like this color?) or the rush to get everything done. I truly enjoy the holidays, so none of these things bother me. What gets me during the holidays is the fact that so few people have had the opportunities that have been given to me.

I’m going to spend Saturday shopping, picking up the last few things on my list. I could do it online, but then I wouldn’t get to see the decorations (yup, I’m a sucker for twinkling lights). Along the way, I’ll wish happy holidays to dozens of seasonal employees—people trying to work their way through college, to save for their children’s education, or just to get by in today’s economy. I’ll also see dozens of people fixated on getting the biggest, best, hottest gadgets out there.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

It’ll remind me what an extraordinary gift my education is (thanks mom!). Because of my education, I have the economic benefit of a white-collar career and the philosophical benefit of reflecting on the good life. I have both the capacity to buy a hot gadget or two and the insight that gadgets don’t bring happiness.

In the quieter moments this holiday season, I’ll be wondering: How can I help more children get a broad, rich, knowledge- and skill-building education? Will the Common Core give content-rich curriculum a fighting chance? Why do children from lower-income homes still have to fight to learn things that those from higher-income homes take for granted?

Early in the year, we read about Sonia Sotomayor’s fight. During her freshman year at Princeton, Sotomayor’s roommate made a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Sotomayor says:

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.

I think about this anecdote frequently, especially when people ask me how Core Knowledge decided what kids should learn. The fact is, neither E. D. Hirsch nor Core Knowledge decided. History decided. Like it or not, there are many things that people in the US are expected to know—things that news anchors and blog writers and all literate adults refer to without explaining. To have a decent shot at a good life, all children need to learn these things. Many of us want to change our culture, to bring more diversity of peoples and values into the sphere of what’s taken for granted. But to do that, we first have to be able to understand each other, and that means we have to learn those things that are currently taken for granted. We need not fear learning those thing; one of the many beauties of knowledge is that you can always learn more.

Thanks to the Fordham’s Upward Mobility conference, I now have a couple more anecdotes along these lines. I highlighted one last week from Robert Pondiscio’s paper: Cedric Jennings, who studied hard to get from one of Washington DC’s poorest neighborhoods to Brown University, was at a loss “when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it.” I’m pretty sure I learned about Ellis Island in elementary school. It’s not a “mere fact”; it’s a major landmark at the heart of what makes America unique.

The other anecdote, courtesy of Hugh Price’s keynote, is about Maya Angelou. The following version is from his book, Achievement Matters:

Ms. Angelou told me that when she was growing up on her grandparents’ farm, she often went to the little store they owned. She would gaze at the shelves and spot, say, a can of Boston baked beans…. She told me she would say to herself, “I know what baked beans are, but what is Boston?”… Ms. Angelou told me she would then head to the library to learn all about Boston and its history…. Just imagine the potential of the Internet to feed the endless curiosity of the young Maya Angelous of today!

While I appreciate Price’s enthusiasm, I have a different take on Angelou’s self-education. First, why hadn’t she learned about Boston at school? Why didn’t she even mention school as a place to learn about it? Second, can we expect the Internet to be as educational as the library? I think not. Libraries have librarians, who are especially helpful for children. Just as important, libraries have selected contents. Even if the librarian did not help her, when Angelou went looking for information on Boston, she would have found a relatively small array of appropriate resources. The same cannot be said of the Internet.

Once you are well educated, the Internet is a marvelous resource. Broad knowledge and vocabulary are necessary to look things up and seek out trustworthy sources. Seeking out trustworthy sources is not a skill—there’s no such thing as “media literacy.” I don’t judge the websites of National Geographic, the Centers for Disease Control, the BBC, etc.; I rely on them because I’ve been taught that they are reliable. Since I’m almost always using sites like these to explore topics I don’t know much about, I don’t have the capacity to judge the information I find. I have to trust it. Would a little Angelou, who has never heard of Boston, even know which site to rely on? Would she get lost in page after page of sensationalized Boston news and sports? Would she ever learn about the Boston Tea Party or William Lloyd Garrison?

Angelou, Jennings, and Sotomayor all had to claw their way to the good life. Mine was practically handed to me. What a gift it would be for all children to have an opportunity to learn that which our society expects them to know.

 

The Best of the Common Core: Shifting from Skills to Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
December 11th, 2014

You already know that the Common Core English language arts and literacy standards call for building knowledge with a content-rich curriculum. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen evidence of that call’s impact.

Last week, Fordham had a conference on Upward Mobility. Most of the day was depressing—the odds are so severely stacked against our neediest students—but there were just enough bright spots keep us going. The papers are going to be published as a book next year, but right now you can read the drafts for free.

Not surprisingly, Robert Pondiscio’s paper is excellent, reminding us that even the brightest, hardest-working students struggle when they are not given the opportunity to learn essential knowledge:

In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C. who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.

There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”

Because of his lack of background knowledge, Cedric is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep in class. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”

The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits. But he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of his education, but in spite of it. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children.

Now the bright spot. In commenting on Pondiscio’s paper, Dacia Toll of Achievement First explained that the because of the Common Core—and her new understanding of the importance of knowledge—Achievement First schools are radically altering their literacy instruction. While the full panel (panel III) is worth watching, if you only have a few minutes, jump up to Toll’s comments, which begin 38 minutes in.

Because of the Common Core, Toll says, Achievement First’s leaders have realized that “the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was.” She continues, “The more you look at the English language arts gaps in particular, the more you come back to background knowledge and vocabulary.” Toll is honest about Achievement First’s previous mistakes. To increase reading, they used to do more reading—and they made time for that by taking time away from other subjects. They now see how misguided that was, and are dedicated to a content-rich curriculum.

Hoping to help educators across the country come to the same realization, Student Achievement Partners and the Council for Great City Schools have started a “Text Set Project.” The project is based on research (explained in the CCSS’s appendix A) that children acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they focus on one topic for several weeks. Each text set covers one topic, contains roughly 6-10 readings, may be supplemented by a video, and has simple activities to help students extract key points and vocabulary. SAP and CGCS is hosting text set workshops all across the US to immerse educators in the research on reading comprehension—especially why knowledge is key—and to show how to build text sets. I had the pleasure of attending this week in Baltimore.

Core Knowledge educators already know about immersing students in domains of study. Here’s one activity I learned about at the workshop that seems like a great way to boost student learning. It’s called a Rolling Knowledge Journal. Students complete the journal as they work their way through the text set. The Journal is a three-column worksheet in which they fill in the title of the text, list the new and important things they learned from that text, and then explain how this new text adds to what they already knew. It’s a great tool not only for students, but teachers too. One teacher uses the Rolling Knowledge Journal to make sure her texts are well sequenced before she gives the text set to students.

We’ve all heard plenty of examples of the Common Core being misinterpreted. The standards will be what we make of them. In these cases, at least, educators are making them into a great opportunity to learn.

Children Don’t Know How to Close the Vocabulary Gap

by Lisa Hansel
December 3rd, 2014

Most children don’t even know there is a vocabulary gap. They don’t know that reading about a wide variety of topics is the best way to acquire new vocabulary. They don’t know that books (even children’s books) use a wider variety of vocabulary than adults’ conversation. They don’t know that reading several texts on the same topic—and thus staying focused on that topic for two to three weeks—can make vocabulary learning up to four times faster.

Nor do they know what they need to learn. They don’t know what science, history, geography, civics, art, and music content they will be asked to master in later years (if they are lucky enough to attend schools that have a rich curriculum). They don’t know how much more fulfilling their lives would be if they “had a dream” or asked “What’s in a name?” or grasped “one giant leap for mankind.”

What children know is what they’ve been taught—at home, by commercials, at school, by neighbors…. Fortunately, virtually all children do share a wonderful quality that makes them eager to learn: curiosity.

To close the vocabulary gap, adults must do a better job of capitalizing on that curiosity to broaden children’s knowledge. And we must do it early, while the curiosity is so strong and the vocabulary gap is relatively small.

Since you’re reading the Core Knowledge blog, you already know that the first thing to do is write a content-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum for preschool through at least the elementary grades. What else can we do? One thing I think teachers and parents should consider is more carefully curating the books that children have to choose from. With a little gentle guidance, children can become curious about a great variety of topics. Take archeology for example. What kid would not be fascinated by digging in dirt and excavating tombs to find ancient people, stories, and treasures?

For resistant readers, let’s get creative about branching out from their current interests (which, don’t forget, are rarely “natural”; they’re often induced by commercial enterprises). Star Wars could be a great invitation to some astronomy books. Perhaps Sponge Bob could lead to marine biology. Especially if these subjects are introduced with read-alouds by a parent or teacher, kids can get hooked—and get the crucial introduction to a topic that makes comprehension easier—before they try to read about these topics  on their own.

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Child in need of guidance courtesy of Shutterstock.

Susan Neuman and Donna Celano provide an excellent example of curated choice vs. free choice in their decade-long study of two Philadelphia libraries: Chestnut Hill, in a high-income area by the same name, and Lillian Marrero, in the low-income Badlands area.

In the Chestnut Hill library, children always seem to enter the preschool area accompanied by an adult—most often their mother but occasionally a father, a nanny, or a grandmother. In comparison, in the Badlands, young children almost always enter alone, sometimes with a sibling but very rarely with an adult. Occasionally, an older brother or cousin might help locate a book or read to them. But more often than not, we see short bursts of activity, almost frenetic in nature. With little to do, children wander in and out with relatively little focus. Rarely are books checked out.

For children in Chestnut Hill, the activities are highly routinized. Invariably, the accompanying parent takes charge, suggesting books, videos, or audio books to check out. Sometimes the parent might pull a book down and let the child examine it or ask a child what types of books to look for. But the parents are clearly in charge: in a very authoritative manner, they sometimes note, “That book is too hard for you,” “That is too easy,” or “This one might be better.” Parents steer children to challenging selections, sometimes appeasing them with a video selection as well. Visits are brief, highly focused, and without exception, end with checking out a slew of books and, often, DVDs.

Inside the spacious preschool area at Lillian Marrero, separated from the rest of the library by “castle walls,” we find bins and baskets, crates and shelves full of books, and small tables with computers…. A mother sits 10 feet away in a chair marking her book with a yellow highlighter while her 6-year-old son explores the stacks alone. He forays several times for books, returning with selections to show his mother for her approval. “No, we’ve already seen them,” she says, sending him back to find something new. He returns several minutes later. Collecting what appears to be one, two, or three items from him, the mother gathers the rest of her belongings. Before she heads for the door, she points to the librarian who is now sitting at her desk. “Say bye to the lady,” the mother says to the little boy. “Bye-bye, lady,” he dutifully responds….

For early literacy, these differences have profound implications. In the spirit of concerted cultivation, toddlers and preschoolers in Chestnut Hill appear to be carefully mentored in selecting challenging materials; in contrast, those who experience the process of natural growth in the Badlands receive little, if any, coaching. Left on their own, these children resort to playful activity of short bursts, picking books up and putting them down with little discrimination and involvement. In Chestnut Hill, activities are carefully orchestrated to encourage reading for individual growth and development; in the Badlands, no such mentoring is available—the children are on their own.

Pass Christian Turns Lemons into Limoncello

by Lisa Hansel
November 19th, 2014

Tiny Pass Christian School District on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has long been high performing. Despite two-thirds of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, Pass Christian has been in the top 1% of Mississippi districts for the last five years. Between 2005 and 2013, three of its four schools won Blue Ribbons—and last year, the Education Trust awarded Pass Christian High School a Dispelling the Myth Award. But even all those honors are not enough. While grappling with how to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educators in Pass Christian realized that they could do even better if they worked together.

This story begins in tragedy. Hurricane Katrina destroyed or damaged all of Pass Christian’s schools. Less than two months later, the schools reopened—piled up together in trailers on the least-damaged campus. Everyone had banded together to reopen so quickly. Then they really got to know each other, and they saw the devastation as an opportunity to create a cohesive school system that would sustain districtwide collaboration.

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One of Pass Christian’s schools after Katrina.

Over the past several years of working to implement the CCSS, they have taken that collaboration to new heights with common curriculum, common teacher-made rubrics and assessments, and cross-school observations and mentoring.

Three teachers—Leslie Leyser, a high school English teacher, James Ashley Phillips, a high school mathematics teacher, and Mary Cordray, an elementary teacher—became CCSS liaisons working with teachers in grades 3 – 12 to offer ongoing, in-classroom support. While they saw plenty of good instruction, they also saw different content and expectations. They realized there were gaps and repetitions in what students learned, as well as more- and less-demanding assignments, assessments, and grading practices.

All students had a decent opportunity to learn—but some had a better opportunity to learn than others.

In English language arts, the CCSS set forth the skills students needed to master, but did not offer enough detail to ensure teachers shared the same high expectations for what mastering each skill looks like. An even greater issue was that the CCSS offered almost no guidance as to what to teach.

In a week-long conference that sounds a whole lot like the conference in which the Core Knowledge Sequence was created, all of the grades 3 – 12 ELA teachers set forth what they were teaching and hashed out what they would teach. In their first pass, they found an overwhelming amount of Holocaust literature. That’s clearly important, but since it was being taught in multiple grades, students were bored—and missing opportunities to learn other important content. Figuring out who should keep their Holocaust units and who should let go of them was tough. The teachers agreed to use their social studies and science standards as guides, and social studies teachers joined them to map out the new, shared ELA curriculum. Today, many of the novels, plays, short stories, and poems taught complement the social studies content, immersing students in, for example, the literature and history of the Civil Rights Movement through coordinated units. Many writing assignments are also coordinated.

Since Pass Christian is already very high scoring, it will be interesting to see over the next few years if their scores can be bumped up even higher (especially since the state assessments are not curriculum-based tests). Cognitive science promises benefits to students’ comprehension since the new curriculum avoids gaps and repetitions.

But Leslie Leyser knows all the effort is paying off. Recently, one of her students had an interview at Vanderbilt University. The admissions officer made a casual reference to the Allegory of the Cave, which the student had studied thanks to Pass Christian’s intentionally broad, rich, rigorous, common curriculum. The student—who before did not realize that such references are made all the time—was not only relieved, but overjoyed to be in the know. It wasn’t just a fleeting moment; it was a marker that this kid from a small shrimping town fit in at an elite university.

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Pass Christian’s beautiful new schools are a fitting tribute to this community’s hard work.

Killing Three Birds with One Stone

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2014

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill has an interesting new post weighing the merits of state-mandated testing in science and social studies. He notes the cons—like the minimal added information on school quality given the high correlations between scores on science and reading tests—and the pros—like reversing the narrowing of the curriculum driven by the high-stakes emphasis on reading and math. Then he sets forth four options (and ultimately recommends his third option):

1.) Keep the status quo. This would ensure that social studies and science are tested, but in non-consecutive years (e.g., science in grades 5 and 8). Yet the status quo still does not compel schools to treat these subjects as equal partners with ELA and math.

2.) Eliminate testing in social studies and science. This approach would reduce the cost of testing in these areas, which gives us little new information about student achievement for school-quality purposes. However, this option would likely encourage even more focus on ELA and math and would require a waiver from federal statute which presently requires science testing at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

3.) Increase testing in social studies and science to the same frequency as math and ELA (i.e., test these subjects annually in grades 3-8). This would balance schools’ incentives to treat each subject equally, but at the cost of more time and money. From an information perspective, although little additional information is yielded in terms of student proficiency, annual testing could help analysts construct growth (i.e., “value-added”) measures for these subjects.

4.) Decrease testing in math and ELA to non-consecutive grades to match the frequency of social studies and science (e.g., test math and ELA in grades 4 and 6, not consecutively in grades 3-8). This would also balance schools’ incentives to treat subjects equally, but at the cost of less information and accountability. It would also require federal action to grant Ohio relief from consecutive-year-testing mandates in math and ELA in grades 3–8, or more likely, a rewritten federal law that governs state accountability (No Child Left Behind).

I’d like to offer a fifth option that assesses science and social studies yet has fewer tests: Draw the topics for the reading comprehension tests from the science and social studies standards. This blog recently explored the many drawbacks of current reading comprehension tests. In short, they contain a random smattering of “common” topics and topics that ought to be taught in school, but since they are not tied to any specific content that we can be certain has been taught, they inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home).

The only way to construct truly fair reading comprehension tests is to ensure that the passages are on topics that have been taught in school. Since states’ English language arts standards usually do not specify which books, poems, short stories, etc. to teach in each grade, ELA standards are a poor guide for test developers concerned with equity. But states’ science and social studies standards usually do specify some core content to be taught in each grade. The obvious path forward is to construct reading comprehension tests that assess language arts skills using the science and social studies content specified in the standards. After all, skills depend on relevant prior knowledge, so such tests would give a more accurate picture of schools’ impact on students’ language abilities than our current random-content tests. And for the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects.

Even better would be to draw the topics for passages on reading comprehension tests from science, social studies, art, music, geography, and civics standards. Such tests would (1) induce schools to develop a broad, content-rich curriculum and support teacher collaboration, (2) reduce the impact of the home on students’ scores, (3) build the knowledge and vocabulary that is essential to literacy, and (4) be the foundation for an accountability system that requires fewer tests yet still ensures that standards are being met.

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Reading tests with science and social studies content that had been taught would be more equitable and more interesting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)

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Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)

Smarter Balanced Confuses Fairness and Validity

by Lisa Hansel
October 15th, 2014

Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked the ETS guidelines for fair assessments that PARCC adopted, as well as a sample item from PARCC. Now let’s turn to the “Bias and Sensitivity Guidelines” ETS developed for Smarter Balanced. While I can’t say that ETS’s guidelines for Smarter Balanced contradict those adopted by PARCC, they are different.

In the introduction, validity and fairness are equated: “if an item were intended to measure the ability to comprehend a reading passage in English, score differences between groups based on real differences in comprehension of English would be valid and, therefore, fair…. Fairness does not require that all groups have the same average scores. Fairness requires any existing differences in scores to be valid” (p. 6).

By this logic, since youth from higher-income homes, on average, have more academic and common knowledge than youth from lower-income homes, the test that conflates reading comprehension ability with opportunity to learn is perfectly fair. Valid I can agree with. Fair I cannot.

A couple pages later, further explanation is offered (p. 8):

Exposure to information

Stimuli for English language arts items have to be about some topic…. Which topics and contexts are fair to include in the Smarter Balanced assessments? One fairness concern is that students differ in exposure to information through their life experiences outside of school. For example, some students experience snow every winter, and some have never experienced snow. Some students swim in the ocean every summer, and some have never seen an ocean. Some students live in houses, some live in apartments, some live in mobile homes, and some are homeless.

Even though curricula differ, the concepts to which students are exposed in school tend to be much more similar than are their life experiences outside of school. If students have become familiar with concepts through exposure to them in the classroom, the use of those concepts as topics and contexts in test materials is fair, even if some students have not been exposed to the concepts through their life experiences. For example, a student in grade 4 should know what an ocean is through classroom exposure to the concept, even if he or she has never actually seen an ocean. A student does not have to live in a house to know what a house is, if there has been classroom exposure to the term. Similarly, a student does not have to be able to run in a race to know what a race is. Mention of snow does not make an item unacceptable for students living in warmer parts of the country if they have been exposed to the concept of snow in school.

Let’s pause here: “Even though curricula differ, the concepts to which students are exposed in school tend to be much more similar than are their life experiences outside of school.” Maybe. Maybe not.

It might be the case that all elementary schools teach snow, oceans, houses, races, and deserts. But does Smarter Balanced really test such banal topics? No. As far as I can tell from its sample items, practice tests, and activities for grades three to five, Smarter Balanced (like PARCC) tests a mix of common and not-so-common knowledge. Passages include Babe Ruth, recycling water in space, how gravity strengthens muscles, papermaking, the Tuskegee Airmen, tree frogs, murals, and much more.

The sample items strike me as comprehensible for third to fifth graders with broad knowledge, but I am highly skeptical that we can safely assume that children are acquiring such broad knowledge in their elementary schools.

As Ruth Wattenberg explained in “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge” (which was published in Fordham’s Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core), students in the elementary grades have minimal opportunities to acquire knowledge in history and science. Reviews of basal readers in 1983 and 2003 revealed that they contained very little content. This would be a lost opportunity, not a serious problem, but for the fact that elementary schools tend to devote a substantial amounts of time to ELA instruction, and very little to social studies and science instruction. Wattenberg’s table (p. 35) should be shocking:

Grade and subject 1977 2000 2012
K–3 social studies 21 21 16
4–6 social studies 34 33 21
K–3 science 17 23 19
4–6 science 28 31 24

Even worse, Wattenberg found that “When elementary teachers were asked during what time period struggling students received extra instruction in ELA or math, 60 percent said that they were pulled from social studies class; 55 percent said from science class.”

In their home environments, the schools they attend, and the curriculum to which they are exposed, lower-income children do not have an equal opportunity to learn. As Smarter Balanced guidelines state, the assessment is fair “if students have become familiar with concepts through exposure to them in the classroom.” That’s a big if.

Making matters worse, Smarter Balanced (like PARCC) asserts that it’s just fine for some kids to have to learn during the test. Returning to the “Bias and Sensitivity Guidelines” (p. 8):

Information in the stimulus

A major purpose of reading is to learn about new things. Therefore, it is fair to include material that may be unfamiliar to students if the information necessary to answer the items is included in the tested material. For example, it is fair to test the ability of a student who has never been in a desert to comprehend an appropriate reading passage about a desert, as long as the information about deserts needed to respond to the items is found in the passage.

Last week, we explored how difficult it is to learn from one passage and how greatly such test items advantage students who already know the content that the passage is purportedly teaching. Smarter Balanced clearly disagrees with me. Here’s the introduction it its fourth grade Animal World activity:

The Classroom Activity introduces students to the context of a performance task, so they are not disadvantaged in demonstrating the skills the task intends to assess. Contextual elements include: an understanding of the setting or situation in which the task is placed, potentially unfamiliar concepts that are associated with the scenario; and key terms or vocabulary students will need to understand in order to meaningfully engage with and complete the performance task.

Please take a look at the activity—it assumes an enormous amount of knowledge. Even if it did not, the notion of learning and immediately demonstrating ability flies in the face of well-established research on human’s limited working memory capacity. There’s no getting around it: the students with relevant prior knowledge have a huge advantage.

One (sort of) positive note: I am cautiously optimistic that Smarter Balanced’s computer adaptive testing will help—a little. Here’s how it’s described:

Based on student responses, the computer program adjusts the difficulty of questions throughout the assessment. For example, a student who answers a question correctly will receive a more challenging item, while an incorrect answer generates an easier question. By adapting to the student as the assessment is taking place, these assessments present an individually tailored set of questions to each student and can quickly identify which skills students have mastered…. providing more accurate scores for all students across the full range of the achievement continuum.

In a hierarchical subject like math, the benefits of this adaptation are obvious. In reading, adaptation might help, but it might be misleading. Once a student has mastered decoding, what makes one passage “easier” to comprehend than another is driven primarily by the topic. If the student knows a lot about the topic, then factors like rare vocabulary (which isn’t rare to the reader with the relevant knowledge) and complex sentence structure are of little import. If a student does not know about the topic, then making the vocabulary and sentence structure easier will only help a little. The main way in which adaptive testing might be helpful is in varying the topics; “easier” passages would consist of more common topics, while more “challenging” passages would consist of less common, more academic topics. Then, if we examined the results carefully, we might see that a child lacks essential—teachable—academic knowledge.

Yet, I am only cautiously optimistic because the knowledge that drives reading comprehension is accumulated more haphazardly than hierarchically. One can have some academic knowledge while missing some common knowledge. A student whose grandparents lived most of their lives in Greece may know a great deal about ancient and modern Greece and be ready for a highly sophisticated passage comparing and contrasting ancient and modern Greece. That same student may have no knowledge of China, gravity, Harlem’s Jazz age, or other topics that might appear on the test. Without assessing topics that have been taught, I see no way to truly gauge a students’ comprehension ability (or what the teacher or school has added).

To reinforce the most important message—that comprehension depends on knowledge, and thus schools must systematically build knowledge—the tests need to be tied to the content taught or the high stakes need to be removed so schools will no longer take time out of regular instruction for test preparation.

PARCC Demonstrates the Benefits of Broad Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
October 8th, 2014

Last week I explored the “ETS Guidelines for Fairness Review of Assessments.” These guidelines were adopted by PARCC, so I decided to take a look at PARCC’s sample items for English language arts. (PARCC is one of the two consortia of states with massive federal grants to create assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced is the other consortium; ETS developed somewhat different guidelines for it—I’ll take a look at those next week).

The knowledge demands in PARCC’s sample items are very broad, from cougars to Amelia Earhart to DNA testing. While I am happy to see some substantive questions—and hopeful that such test items will reinforce the standards’ call for systematically building knowledge with content-rich curriculum—I worry about the fairness of these assessments given how they are being used.

As I mentioned last week, it would be perfectly fair to have test passages on topics that had been taught. But, since the test developers do not know which topics are taught in each grade, they have to assess “common” knowledge. Due to well-documented differences in opportunities to learn at home and at school, some children know a good bit more common knowledge than others.

Let’s take a look at one of PARCC’s sample items for third grade. Three questions are asked based on the 631-word passage “How Animals Live.” There’s a typical main-idea question paired with a supporting-evidence question, and then a narrower question that assesses the “skills of rereading carefully to find specific information and of applying the understanding of a text.” Here’s the first section of the passage:

What All Animals Need

Almost all animals need water, food, oxygen, and shelter to live.

Animals get water from drinking or eating food. They get food by eating plants or other animals.

Animals get oxygen from air or water. Many land animals breathe with lungs. Many water animals breathe with gills.

Animals need shelter. Some animals find or build shelter. Other animals grow hard shells to protect themselves.

Many words here are undefined: oxygen, shelter, lungs, and gills. Are these words common to all third graders? Probably not, but much of the content is likely familiar to the vast majority of third graders—and perhaps enough content is familiar for most third graders to grasp the section (if not every word). Nonetheless, children who have learned about oxygen, shelter, lungs, and gills start out with a big advantage. They are reading and comprehending more quickly (which is extremely important in a timed test), and they are comfortable as they move into the more difficult content in the rest of the passage.

Here is the second section, and the beginning of the third:

Ways Of Grouping Animals

Animals can be grouped by their traits. A trait is the way an animal looks or acts. Animals get traits from their parents. Traits can be used to group animals.

Animals with Backbones

Animals with backbones belong to one group. A vertebrate is an animal with a backbone. Vertebrates’ backbones grow as they get older. Fish, snakes, and cats are all vertebrates. Vertebrates can look very different.

Let’s ignore the stiff, unengaging style. What really concerns me is the delusion that it is fair for content to be learned and applied during a high-stakes assessment. (As I noted last week, I do not dispute that the assessment is valid and reliable, so my concerns are with accountability policies, not really with this type of assessment.)

Since a definition of trait is given, it’s clear that some significant portion of third graders is not expected to know that word. Now imagine this is the first time you’ve encountered trait and examine the text:

A trait is the way an animal looks or acts…. Traits can be used to group animals…. Vertebrates can look very different.

What is a third grader to make of this? Clearly, vertebrates are not grouped by how they look.

A trait is the way an animal looks or acts…. Fish, snakes, and cats are all vertebrates.

Clearly, vertebrates are not grouped by how they act. How is the backbone (which is not defined) a trait, since it does not seem at all related to how all these animals look or act?

Making matters worse, understanding trait is essential to correctly answering the main-idea and supporting-evidence questions.

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Do these vertebrates look or act alike?
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

The fact is, vocabulary is not learned by being given a definition. Definitions can be helpful, but they are always incomplete. Words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. Even with simple words, multiple contexts are necessary: What, exactly, makes hoagies and gyros and PB&Js all sandwiches? I can’t even attempt a concise answer—I just know a sandwich when I see one.

Third graders who have had a unit on vertebrates and invertebrates will breeze through this passage; its inadequate definition of trait won’t matter. But students relying on this definition will surely be at least a little confused, possibly totally lost. The assessment will accurately tell us that children without knowledge of traits have limited comprehension of this passage—but it will not accurately tell us anything about their teachers or schools, for no one alerted the educators that the test would measure knowledge of traits.

Reading Test Developers Call Knowledge a Source of Bias

by Lisa Hansel
October 1st, 2014

You might expect to see a headline like this in the Onion, but you won’t. The Onion can’t run it because it isn’t just ironic—it’s 100% true.

A few years ago, a researcher at one of the big testing companies told me that when developing a reading comprehension test, knowledge is a source of bias. He did not mean the obvious stuff like knowledge of a yacht’s anemometer. He meant typical K–12 subject matter.

Since reading comprehension depends chiefly on knowledge of the topic (including the vocabulary) in the passage, the student with that knowledge has a large advantage over the student without it. And since there have always been great educational inequities in the United States, students’ knowledge—acquired both at home and at school—is very strongly correlated with socioeconomic status.

A logical solution would be to test reading comprehension using only those topics that students have been taught. Teachers can do this, but testing companies can’t—how would they have any idea what topics have been taught in each grade? It’s rare for districts, much less states, to indicate what or when specific books, people, ideas, and events should be taught.

Without a curriculum on which to base their assessments, testing companies have devised their own logic—which is sound given the bind they’re in. They distinguish between common and specialized knowledge, and then they select or write test passages that only have common knowledge. In essence, they’ve defined “reading comprehension skill” as including broad common knowledge. This is perfectly reasonable. When educators, parents, etc. think about reading comprehension ability, they do not think of the ability to read about trains or dolphins or lightning. They expect the ability to read about pretty much anything one encounters in daily life (including the news).

I already had this basic understanding, but still I found the “ETS Guidelines for Fairness Review of Assessments” eye opening. Guideline 1 is to “avoid cognitive sources of construct-irrelevant variance…. If construct-irrelevant knowledge or skill is required to answer an item and the knowledge or skill is not equally distributed across groups, then the fairness of the item is diminished” (p. 8). It continues, growing murkier:

Avoid unnecessarily difficult language. Use the most accessible level of language that is consistent with valid measurement…. Difficult words and language structures may be used if they are important for validity. For example, difficult words may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure depth of general vocabulary or specialized terminology within a subject-matter area. It may be appropriate to use a difficult word if the word is defined in the test or its meaning is made clear by context. Complicated language structures may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure the ability to read challenging material.

Avoid unnecessarily specialized vocabulary unless such vocabulary is important to the construct being assessed. What is considered unnecessarily specialized requires judgment. Take into account the maturity and educational level of the test takers in deciding which words are too specialized.

On page 10, it offers this handy table that “provides examples of common words that are generally acceptable and examples of specialized words that should be avoided…. The words are within several content areas known to be likely sources of construct-irrelevant knowledge”:

ETS table 1

Since having good reading comprehension means being able to read about a wide variety of common topics, table 1 seems just fine. But testing companies’ silence about what their reading comprehension tests actually measure is not. They say they are measuring “reading comprehension skill,” but their guidelines show that they are measuring a vaguely defined body of “common knowledge.”

Common words are not common to all. Even “common” knowledge is knowledge that must be taught, and right now—at home and at school—far too many children from low-income homes don’t have an opportunity to learn that knowledge (which is common to youth from middle-class and wealthy homes). That’s why reading comprehension scores are so strongly and stubbornly correlated with socioeconomic status.

These tests of “common” knowledge are accurate assessments and predictors of reading comprehension ability; but they are not fair or productive tests for holding children (and their teachers) accountable before an opportunity to learn has been provided.

If all testing companies would clearly explain that their reading comprehension tests are tests of knowledge, and if they would explain—as the ACT’s Chrys Dougherty does—that the only way to prepare for them is to build broad knowledge, then we could begin to create a fair and productive assessment and accountability system. Before the end of high school, all students should have broad enough knowledge to perform well on a reading comprehension test. But what about in third, fourth, or even seventh grade? In the early and middle grades, is a test drawn only from topics that have been taught in school the only fair way to test reading comprehension? How many years of systematically teaching “common” knowledge are needed before a reading comprehension test that is not tied to the curriculum is fair, especially for a student whose opportunities to learn outside of school are minimal?

The answer depends not so much on the test as on what is done with the scores. If we accepted the fact that reading comprehension depends on broad knowledge, we would radically alter our accountability policies. Scores on “common knowledge” reading comprehension tests would be recognized as useful indicators of where students are in their journey toward broad knowledge—they would not be mistaken for indicators of teaching quality or children’s capacity. Instead of holding schools accountable for scores on tests with content that is not tied to the curriculum, we would hold them accountable for creating a content-rich, comprehensive, well-sequenced curriculum and delivering it in a manner that ensures equal opportunity to learn. To narrow the inevitable gaps caused by differences in out-of-school experiences, we would dramatically increase free weekend and summer enrichment opportunities (for toddlers to teenagers) in lower-income neighborhoods. (We would also address a range of health-related disparities, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In sum, reading comprehension really does rely on having a great deal of common knowledge, so our current reading comprehension tests really are valid and reliable. To make them fair and productive, children from lower-income families must be given an equal opportunity to learn the knowledge that is “common” to children from higher-income homes.

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Reading is always a test of knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Ending the Cultural Divide

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2014

It is possible to enjoy NASCAR and polo, FX and PBS, Homer Simpson and Homer’s epics—but it is not always easy. As much as we Americans claim to value diversity and multiculturalism, we tend to shun the idea that one person can embrace and embody more than one culture.

This struggle, writes Vicki Madden (an instructional coach in New York City) in the New York Times, is a reason why many students from low-income homes do not complete college:

Once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap. I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times—not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.

We know that Core Knowledge narrows the knowledge gap. Students in schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence have Homer covered, leaning about Winslow Homer in kindergarten and sixth grade, and reading The Iliad and The Odyssey (or adaptations of them) in sixth grade.

That alone should help students feel that they belong on their college campuses. Explaining how to butcher a deer may be a point of pride for those who can also weave Franz Liszt and Duke Ellington (both studied in the seventh grade via the Sequence) into their conversations. But let’s be honest; it’s the unique student who is resilient when faced with insidious, frequent reminders that grandpa’s fishing boat can’t get you to St. Martin.

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Grandpa’s boat courtesy of Shutterstock.

Just as important as the academic challenge is the personal one students face when they find the strength to stay and earn their degrees. Madden relays her own experience, summing up that of her students:

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

To this I’d like to add two more questions: Is there a way to prevent students from feeling such a tug of war? Educators in Core Knowledge schools—and any schools that focus on closing the knowledge gap—have your students experienced similar challenges?

Maybe it’s just my own very fortunate experience—I grew up in West Virginia, yet attended rigorous schools and had close friends at “regular” schools—but my hope is that these challenges are minimized by an educational environment that values home culture and academic culture from the very first day of school. In passing, I’ve heard of Core Knowledge schools that have book clubs and study groups for parents, as well as cultural festivals in which families share the rich, varied heritages that make up their school community. I’d love to learn more about such opportunities for whole families to grow together. Please submit a comment below, or email me at lhansel@coreknowledge.org. Thank you!