Writing for Understanding

by Lisa Hansel
November 17th, 2015

Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.

Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.

And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?

Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.

With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.

Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:

Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….

It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.

One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.

Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….

Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:

    • knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    • an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    • a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    • control over conventions.

The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.

For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos:

ANet 1 (2)

ANet 2

This Is Not Your Father’s Geography

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2015

Missouri: Jefferson City, Corn. Kansas: Topeka, Corn.

States, capitals, crops. That’s pretty much what my geography education consisted of. I didn’t even see a topographic map until I was in college—a boyfriend took me hiking.

It was as an adult, reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, that I realized how little I knew of the field and how important it is. Today’s geographers are central to resolving issues as varied as pollution, diseases, poverty, and conflicts.


Geographers are also essential to our mobile lives (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

In schools, geography ought to be a fascinating bridge between history, civics, and science. Instead, it’s barely taught.

After the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress geography results showed abysmal proficiency rates among eighth graders—27% of all students, 11% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 7% of Black students—the Senate asked GAO to report on the challenges of geography education in K– 12. Let’s hope the senators were not surprised when the high stakes attached to reading and math scores emerged as the primary reason little time is spent on geography:

Data on student access to geography education showed that a small portion of instruction time is spent on the subject. Our analysis of 2014 teacher survey data,… showed that 50 percent of eighth grade teachers reported spending 3 to 5 hours per week of classroom instruction time on social studies…. Of those … more than half reported that “10 percent or less” of their social studies time was spent on geography…. In addition, half of all eighth grade students in 2014 reported learning about geography “a few times a year” or “hardly ever.”…

Officials from all four state educational agencies with which we conducted interviews told us they faced challenges in ensuring that geography standards remained an integral part of the state curriculum. For example, one state official told us how the state had eliminated geography from the curriculum for over a decade, and only recently added geography courses back amid concerns from the community that students were lacking essential geography skills. Similarly, all 10 teachers we spoke with reported that geography instruction has decreased in recent years due to a greater emphasis on teaching math and reading. Half of the 10 teachers described pressures to improve student test scores in reading and math, which hindered their ability to devote time to social studies and geography—subjects that generally do not have required tests. Among the 10 teachers we interviewed, almost all described not having sufficient time to teach geography as the top challenge to providing students with a geography education. Five of the 10 teachers also reported that teaching geography was not viewed as important in their district or school. For example, one teacher said she was told that her students’ test scores in geography did not “count” and two of the geography teachers expressed concern about losing their jobs because geography and social studies courses were likely being removed from the curriculum.

Okay, so this boils down to geography isn’t tested and isn’t important. On both points, our leaders and educators are sadly wrong. As Dan Willingham has said—including in this great video—teaching geography is teaching reading. The more students know, the better their comprehension. And, the higher their test scores. Take a look at these grade 3 sample items from Smarter Balanced. The knowledge demands range from birds to how paper is made to—yes—geography. Item 10 is a listening comprehension task on the Northern Lights; it assumes knowledge of stars, the North Pole, the South Pole, Canada, and Alaska.

In reality, geography is tested—as are all other academic subjects—in reading comprehension assessments.

And more importantly, geography is a fascinating subject with critical real-life applications. As the GAO report noted:

Geography and geospatial or location-based technologies are ubiquitous in daily life, from the navigation units in cars to applications on smart phones. These technologies, which include global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS), are used in a myriad of ways, from crisis mapping in Haitian earthquake relief efforts to deciding where to locate supermarkets in underserved communities in Philadelphia…. According to the Department of Labor, employment of specialists in geography, or geographers, is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022—much faster than the average 11 percent growth for all occupations.

Google, the World Health Organization, and the military are all looking for geographers. Are they unimportant too?

The High-Tech Road to Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 27th, 2015

Every time I see a toddler with an iPad, I cringe just a little. I try to hide it. I know I’m supposed to be amazed at the little genius.

I also know that the device could be useful, especially as the toddler becomes a preschooler and starts learning letters and numbers. Still, beyond a few apps for those (very important) basics, I typically see the iPad as more opiate than education. But we can’t just say no. iPads and similar devices are ubiquitous and revered. We must co-opt them. But how?

Lisa Guernsey of New America and Michael Levine of Sesame Workshop provide the first really compelling answer I’ve seen. Their new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, is a rare gem. It’s written in a way that parents will find accessible and it offers a combination of research, initiatives (with videos), and insights that even the most expert decision makers will find useful.

Rather than a summary, I’ll offer a few samples of Lisa and Michael’s findings and trust that you’ll be motivated to dive into the whole book.

On literacy:

Literacy in the younger years is not, and never has been, solely about reading print. Walk into a children’s library and what do you see everywhere? Picture books, some with no print at all. Nor is early literacy only about reading books. Literacy has always involved speaking, listening, and writing.

On literacy apps:

Our analysis can be summed up as follows: kids’ literacy apps are abundant within the marketplace, but they have not been designed or distributed in any coherent fashion, and the vast majority are not oriented to help bridge the gulf of literacy problems faced by some families…. Meanwhile, however, we see hope in the growing number of curators popping up, a few of whom are trying to bring in a lens on learning in the early years.

On the future of literacy apps:

To give you a sense of the type of research likely to come, consider the case of the app-based learning system called Learn with Homer…. It brings a mix of proven early learning techniques—story time, rich vocabulary and background knowledge, and skills practice—together in one app…. Kids are not only learning what the letter A sounds like and that “alligator” starts with A, but also taking virtual “field trips” to the zoo, where they learn about alligators.

On wise use:

We cannot afford to ignore the affordances of technology, especially for disadvantaged children and families of many different backgrounds and circumstances who may not otherwise have access to information and learning opportunities. And yet to leave the fate of these children to technology alone would be a big mistake…. Children who interact with technology while working with adults who can set good examples and guide them to new heights are receiving tremendous advantages. If only the privileged few have the opportunity for that kind of tech-assisted but human-powered learning, divides will only grow wider.


To be educational, iPad time needs to be quality time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

On knowledge and comprehension:

One recent day in California, a six-year-old boy named Brandon was … watching one of Disney’s Ice Age movies, when he saw a scene that captivated him. On the screen were the lovable animations of Ice Age’s prehistoric beasts, loping along the barren, icy terrain. Brandon turned to his father: “Papi, at that time, what was it like? There weren’t any buses?” Smiling, his father, José Rubén, saw this as a teachable moment. He went to his computer, pulled up YouTube, and searched for videos that would show his son more about what life was like during that time…. Brandon was engaged in building his knowledge base, getting an introduction to concepts and ideas that not only gave him a little more understanding of the Ice Age, but also helped him put the Ice Age into context of other periods in history and start to gain a framework for thinking about how time passes and how change happens….

When most people talk about the troubling state of children’s reading in the United States, the untapped power of these kinds of learning moments are not likely on their minds. Instead they may think our country’s problems are simply a function of whether children ever learned how to decode words on a page or read sentences with fluency. But the root of the problem may be in children’s abilities to comprehend and make sense of the ideas that are built by those words and sentences. Recent vocabulary scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, showed that American children are making few if any significant gains in understanding the meaning of complex words, with a wide gulf between white students and … Hispanic and African American students. So if there are ways to build that word learning and even more importantly build a deeper knowledge base that enables comprehension in today’s children, don’t we have a moral obligation to seize it?

Help Wanted: Smartphone and Grit Required, Knowledge Optional

by Lisa Hansel
October 21st, 2015

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never seen a position description for a good job that didn’t have a long list of knowledge, skill, and character requirements. It makes me wonder why those focused on “21st century” careers seem to place skills and character—or problem solving, team work, and perseverance—far above knowledge.

David Brooks provides the latest example as he laments widespread enthusiasm for the new documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” In lauding High Tech High, it dismisses the need for broad knowledge. Students’ time is devoted to long-term projects, so they end up with narrow bands of knowledge:

Teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The big question is whether such a shift from content to life skills is the proper response to a high-tech economy. I’d say it’s at best a partial response.

Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of the mind you bring to the group. In rightly playing up soft skills the movie underemphasizes intellectual virtues. For example, it ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not….

The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.

Brooks is absolutely right. The question is how to convince others.


What’s the value in collaboration without enough knowledge to generate and implement excellent ideas? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

While the overwhelming evidence from cognitive science will win over our education system eventually, today’s students can’t wait. Fortunately, a new report from the Center for American Progress could catalyze change. The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? shows that better curriculum could be a low- to no-cost, high-impact reform. Focusing on return on investment (ROI), it should turn the heads of policymakers, philanthropists, and reformers:

Switching to a higher quality curriculum has a huge ROI relative to other educational policies—in large part because curricula cost so little…. The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction in a well-known randomized experiment….

State adoption decisions are often based on limited assessments of quality and weak proxies for alignment to state standards…. There is also a clear gap between the reality of which curricula are effective or aligned to state standards and the curricula that publishers advertise as such.

Much of the problem with adoption seems to be a lack of information. Curriculum has long been ignored by academics, funders, and decision-makers, so there’s shockingly little evidence of which curricula are most effective. Lots of approaches and materials result in at least some learning; rigorous comparative studies are needed to find out what works best for various groups of students.

The report calls for investments in creating better curricula, comparative evaluations, and improvements to the state and district selection processes (including a wise recommendation to pilot materials prior to adoption). The one suggestion I’d add is that districts and states need not do this work alone. Consortia could be more effective and efficient, especially for finding materials aligned with the Common Core standards. One large consortium might even have the resources to fund comparative studies.

The Triumph of Training over Education

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2015

Not all that long ago, college followed a predictable pattern: two years of general education requirements followed by two years of courses in the chosen major. No longer. As this review of course requirements shows, even some of the liberal arts colleges have minimized requirements outside the major.

Of all the potential causes for the disappearance of general ed, two seem lost likely to me (though this is pure conjecture). One is the commodification of higher education, in which climbing walls, dorm-suites with pools, and emphasis on career-focused courses are necessary to compete for students. The is that many faculty members are unaware that a shared body of knowledge is necessary for active citizenship (or effective communication or even on-the-job critical thinking).

Regardless, creating general education requirements is so rare these days that it’s newsworthy. Students seem oblivious to the notion that education could have more than one purpose. As a freshman at Boston University said, “I feel like, if you know you want to be an engineer, you shouldn’t have to spend your time doing things that aren’t really going to apply to you.”


Engineering may make for a good career, but there’s far more to a good life (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Of course, this isn’t the students’ fault. The real problem is with the adults who have abdicated their duty to define and protect the very notion of an education. Marc Tucker tackled this recently, asking “What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Person Today?

One of the most influential—and, I think it is fair to say, thoughtful—statements on what it might mean to be an educated person … was the Harvard University report on General Education in a Free Society, released in 1945.  It addressed both the schools and higher education, offering the view that social and moral development is no less important than academic learning. It argued that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is positively dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility, that a democracy likes ours cannot survive if serious learning is monopolized only by our elites. For all these reasons, it said, the modern university had an obligation to require all students to take at least a third of their course selections from courses specially designed by teams of top faculty not to advance students in their march toward specialization but rather to involve them in the study of complex issues, systems, big ideas from the full realm of human experience … to help them lead the good life as the Greeks would have understood that phrase—to be decent, capable, concerned, involved contributors and thoughtful citizens.  They proposed, in other words, what amounted to a common curriculum, with some choice, that would be designed to enable all students to achieve goals that the Harvard task force had thought long and hard about.

Just a few years ago, another Harvard president called a subsequent Harvard task force together to update General Education in a Free Society. It failed to come to a consensus on a common, coherent undergraduate curriculum. Little wonder. In the intervening years, the university had become a vast holding company of faculty entrepreneurs and specialists and the student body had come to build and hone the specialist skills and faculty and student connections that would give them an edge in a highly competitive job market.

With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature…. We need to turn off the autopilot. We need to examine the technological, political, social and moral challenges we face and ask ourselves how and for what purpose we should be educating—not training—our young adults.  If it were ever the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is the case now.

While there are still some institutions teaching the liberal arts, I don’t see most colleges escaping from a narrow concept of career preparation. But since most students don’t complete college, perhaps our focus should be on K–12. With Core Knowledge and other rigorous curricula, shouldn’t our goal be for high school graduates to be well educated, ready to lead good lives?

Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap?

by Lisa Hansel
October 7th, 2015

I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.

There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.


Student who deserves an equal opportunity to learn courtesy of Shutterstock.

This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.

Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:

[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.

Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?

Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.

Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.

My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.

It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.

But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.

Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:

  • High level of intellectual/academic demand
  • High level of social demand
  • Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
  • Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy

Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.

Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.

With “The Science of Learning,” These Deans Will Have an Impact

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2015

Twenty years ago, as a psychology major focused on learning and memory, I took a history of psychology course that included phrenology, Freud, Skinner, Piaget, and Vygotsky, among other ideas and theorists. A few years later, as a doctoral student in education policy, I took a child development class that claimed to be current and correct—it featured Piaget and Vygotsky. A pitifully watered-down version of my history course, it did not offer any indication of which aspects of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s insights have endured and which have been updated.

That was one of many eye-opening experiences in my introduction to the field of education. Since then, I’ve often thought policymakers, administrators, and teachers would make different choices if they knew more about how our minds work. Early childhood education would be fully funded. Reading comprehension instruction would focus more on building knowledge and vocabulary than finding the main idea. Efforts to improve critical thinking would embrace the necessity of factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge. Reading comprehension tests would be high stakes only if they drew from academic domains that had been taught.

You get the idea.

At long last, well-established findings from psychology are being applied to education. Deans for Impact has just released a short but powerful document: The Science of Learning. In answering six essential questions, it distills large bodies of research into basic cognitive principles and practical implications. Here are the six questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates children to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

These are complex questions, but The Science of Learning provides clear answers. For example, in explaining how students understand new ideas, one cognitive principle is “Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.” And the classroom application is “Content should not be kept from students because it is ‘developmentally inappropriate.’ The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question ‘is the student ready?’ it’s best to consider ‘has the student mastered the prerequisites?’”

This is especially exciting because of the group behind it. Deans for Impact is just that: 24 deans and leaders devoted to improving teacher education. Instructional quality is just as important as curricular quality; unfortunately, the out-of-date child development course I took seems pretty typical. (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed defending teachers’ intelligence and noting the troubles with preparation programs.)

Being unaware of current cognitive science causes problems in everything from lesson plans to our national vision for education. Consider the vision set forth by Linda Darling-Hammond in announcing her new institute: “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding…. Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.”

Last time I checked, D-Day was still June 6, 1944. We can all agree that students need more than the knowledge provided by “static textbooks,” but we’ll never accomplish our goals if we continue to deride knowledge while lauding forms of critical thinking. It takes knowledge to make knowledge.

Or, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote:

Yes, we must help students learn how to “find and apply knowledge.” But we also need to teach students in ways that ensure that a good deal of knowledge is absorbed and retained in their own heads. (And one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention is retrieval practice, a key part of affirmative testing.)

The difference in emphasis is crucial. The amount of information in the world will continue to grow, as will the accuracy of our search engines. But unless we succeed in moving a lot of that information into our students’ own minds, we won’t be preparing them to grapple with that brave new world.

Hopefully, The Science of Learning will be embraced as an essential guide by educators and policymakers at all levels. It would move essential cognitive science into their minds, and allow all of us to focus on cultivating the broad academic knowledge and related skills our youth need firmly planted in theirs.


Building knowledge of the world, even through textbooks, is absolutely essential to analysis, investigation, and problem solving (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Penguins, Pythons, and Text Sets

by Lisa Hansel
September 22nd, 2015

Pop quiz: What do the following texts have to do with each other?

  • “What Happens When it Rains”
  • “Shasta Dam”
  • “Water Main Break in Downtown New York City”
  • “Penguins: Up Close and Personal”
  • “Pythons Invade the Florida Everglades”
  • “Who Wants a Spiny Snack?”

If you answered that they all have some connection to water, you’re right—but there’s no prize.

These texts are posted on ReadWorks’s website, on a page devoted to “K-12 Articles Related to Water.” As the intro wisely states, “Research says that reading or listening to several articles related to the same topic can help students build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

That’s true. But ReadWorks didn’t follow its own advice.

The texts listed above are its set on water for 4th grade (that spiny one is on pufferfish). Technically all of these texts are related to water, but none is actually about water. Even the first one, which you might assume is about rain or perhaps the water cycle, is really about dirt turning to mud.


Mud-loving child courtesy of Shutterstock.

That one may not be worth a text set, but all the other texts in this collection are. Instead of pretending that these are all about water, it would be far more productive to create text sets on the actual topics: dams, city water infrastructure, penguins (and possibly other animals in Antarctica), the Everglades, and oceanic fish. Only by having multiple texts on these focused topics will students have a chance to “build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

When constructing a text set, the key is for words and ideas to repeat across the set. A well-designed text set will start with an introductory text on a specific topic that provides basic concepts and essential vocabulary; the set will progress to more and more complex texts that provide multiple exposures to the words and ideas that students need to master.

ReadWorks’s texts on water don’t do that. Since water is only tangentially related to these texts’ topics, the text set provides almost no repetition of words or ideas. Students don’t have a chance to build knowledge or vocabulary, and there are very few connections to make (but please let me know if you ever see penguins and pythons hanging out at the Shasta Dam).

Pretty much all of ReadWorks’s text sets on water are like this—not about water. But there is one exception. Five of the six texts it pulled together for third grade are coherent:

  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Living Things & Ecosystems Need Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Water’s Impact on the Earth”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Protecting Out Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Life in the Ocean”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Creatures and Ecosystems of the Ocean”
  • “Li Bing and the Flooding”

The five truly about water were provided by OLogy, a website for children by the American Museum of Natural History. They are informative and engaging—as is the whole Ology site.

ReadWorks could dramatically improve its text sets if it took these five as a model. Even just using the texts listed on its water page, coherent text sets (on topics such as the Everglades) that provide the repetition needed for learning could be created by mixing easier texts for children to read with harder texts for teachers to read aloud.

Of course, old habits are hard to break. Teachers have long been told to create theme-based units. It sounds like a great idea, but much like these texts vaguely related to water, themes tend to be far too broad to support learning. As E. D. Hirsch explained in “A Wealth of Words,” vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts—it’s also the key to increasing equity.

Stop Reforming, Start Improving

by Lisa Hansel
September 10th, 2015

This post first appeared on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

“Programmatic series of studies”—that’s how one of my psychology professors described research on learning and memory around twenty years ago. Do a study, tweak it, try again. Persist.

I was reminded of that while reading Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk and colleagues. After thirty years of constant reform and little improvement, it’s clear that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the education field goes about effecting change. Quick fixes, sweeping transformations, and mandates aren’t working. Ongoing professional development isn’t working either.

What might work much better is a sustained, systemic commitment to improvement—and a willingness to start with a series of small pilots instead of leaping into large-scale implementation. Guided by “improvement science” pioneered in the medical field, Learning to Improve shows how education could finally stop its reform churn. As Bryk et al. write:

All activity in improvement science is disciplined by three deceptively simple questions:

1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
2. What change might we introduce and why?
3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?…

A set of general principles guides the approach: (1) wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply; (2) be minimally intrusive—some changes will fail, and we want to limit negative consequences on individuals’ time and personal lives; and (3) develop empirical evidence at every step to guide subsequent improvement cycles.

That sounds an awful lot like schools across the country engaging in a programmatic series of studies—a change that likely would result in huge improvements. Even better, the book explains how educators can form networks to grow together. Progress is much faster with pilots in multiple locations, as adaptations for each context generate ideas for further tests.

This application of improvement science seems to be the best possible path forward. But it still suffers from a (perhaps inevitable) problem—you don’t know what you don’t know. An example of this problem is sprinkled throughout the book: The Literacy Collaborative is profiled as a network of educators improving their reading instruction. I don’t doubt that their instruction is improving and student achievement is increasing. I also don’t doubt that even better results could be attained with an entirely different approach.

The Literacy Collaborative is dedicated to guided reading, which begins with the teacher selecting a leveled text. As Tim Shanahan has explained, there’s no real research base for leveled readers. The whole notion of assessing a child’s reading level and then selecting (or letting the child select) a text at that level is essentially a farce. Once children are fluent in sounding out words, their reading level primarily depends on their knowledge level, which means it varies by topic.

Neither today nor in the future called for by Learning to Improve is there a way to guarantee that the improvement process begins with the best possible ideas. But improvement science may still be our last best hope. The type of slow, steady progress that would result from widespread application seems to characterize the few examples we have of sustained and, eventually, dramatic improvement, such as in Massachusetts, Finland, and Singapore:

Think of a future in which practical knowledge is growing in a disciplined fashion every day, in thousands of settings, as hundreds of thousands of educators and educational leaders continuously learn to improve. Rather than a small collection of disconnected research centers, we could have an immense networked learning community.

The book’s vision is ambitious—and far more likely to succeed than the reform churn we’ve tolerated for decades.


Lots of churning makes good butter, not good schools (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.


Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY