A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

After over 5 years and 1500 posts, this will be my final blog entry as host of the Core Knowledge Blog.

The good news – no, great news – is that the blog will continue to host an ongoing conversation on curriculum, literacy, teaching and learning.  It will continue to make the case for a content-rich education as the indispensable key to language proficiency, vocabulary growth, critical thinking, problem solving and nearly all of the big picture goals we prize in education.   A guy named E.D. Hirsch will be taking over this space for now.  I believe you’ve heard of him.

K-12 education looked very different when this blog launched in December 2007.   The education reform discussion largely revolved around structural concerns—teacher quality, testing, charter schools, school choice, and the like.  This blog expressed frustration early and often at the blithe lack of concern among policymakers and reform advocates with the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.  All of these structural issues struck me, then and still, as important but insufficient if we wish to see not merely incremental change, but a watershed improvement in student outcomes, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students.

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.  Not for nothing has Hirsch been referred to as the intellectual forefather of Common Core.  All of this was nearly unthinkable a mere five years ago.

The fight is not over.  It will never be over.  Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.  Is there any field that is as broadly ignorant of its own history as education?

Which brings me to what’s next for your humble blogger.  Effective this month, I will be continuing to make the case for content, but in a slightly different form and venue.  I will be leading an effort, along with some of the leading thinkers in education and public policy, to launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.  You will find me here shortly, and for now you can also follow me on Twitter here and Facebook here.  You can also email me at rpondiscio@aol.com.

To be sure, I don’t view this as a departure from the work of Core Knowledge, but as an extension of it.  Another voice in the happily growing chorus of those who understand and advocate for a content-rich education, and seek to rescue our kids from the joyless, skills-happy, prep-and-test drudgery to which schools too often descend.  We have a larger mission to serve in education.  One that transcends the unlovely if earnest end of “college and career readiness.”  The public purpose of education is citizenship first.  Don’s last book was titled, The Making of Americans for a reason.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to have been associated with Core Knowledge for the last five years, and to have had this forum to make the common sense case for a content-rich education.  I walked in the door a true believer in the Core Knowledge vision.  I walk out the door doubly so.

I owe debts that can never be repaid to my Core Knowledge colleagues, in particular Linda Bevilacqua and Alice Wiggins.  To Dan Willingham for his wise counsel, friendship and assistance.  And most of all to Don Hirsch.  It has been the singular privilege of my adult life to be associated with him and his deeply democratic and egalitarian vision of education.

How to Get a Big Vocabulary

by Robert Pondiscio
December 20th, 2012

Many of us remember studying word lists to prepare for SAT tests.  But if you have a big vocabulary, it is highly unlikely you developed it through memorization.  Consider that a 12th-grade student who scored well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college has a vocabulary somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Do the math:  acquiring such a sizable vocabulary by rote would mean learning 10-20 new words every day until freshman orientation, assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.

Clearly that’s not what happens.  If you are verbally dexterous, the odds are good that you grew up in a language-rich home with parents who talked and read to you a lot. Over the years, you also probably learned and read a lot across a wide variety of subjects.

With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.  Words are the new black.  E.D. Hirsch entered the fray with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day noting that NAEP confirms that “students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.” He points out for the 24,587th time in a public forum (plus or minus 4) what should have years ago become a hardcore, non-negotiable, fundamental understanding among every person drawing breath and a paycheck in education:  the content kids learn in school matters.  A lot.  Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth. Says Hirsch:

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

The key word there is “intuit.”  Therein lies the secret to building verbal kids.  You hear an unfamiliar word, intuit what it means, and confirm and refine your understanding with each future encounter with the word until you eventually own it and it becomes part of your working vocabulary. That’s how it works.  Not by memorizing lots of words, but by being exposed to increasingly complex words in context, and coming to understand through repeated exposure what those words mean.  It’s not complicated, but it’s very, very time consuming.  It is the work of years and years of exposure to rich language and text.  But if you don’t know the context, you don’t learn the new words.  In Hirsch’s example, “annual” and “fertile” are just two more bits of stuff that go over your head if you know nothing of Egypt, the Nile, farming, etc.  Without the common knowledge, everything grinds to a screeching halt.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

The idea that verbal proficiency, reading comprehension, and a broad, content-rich curriculum are inextricably linked is at the very heart of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the stakes for vocabulary acquisition couldn’t be any higher.  There is “a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.”  The correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are “as firm as any correlations in educational research,” Hirsch writes.

Connect the dots:  Reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level.  Vocabulary level correlates with life outcomes.  Those old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch:

“The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.”

So how do we get kids where we need them to be?  There is no substitute for reading widely.  We are unlikely to build a strong vocabulary without regular exposure to the sophisticated language of print.  And not just any print, but print of increasing complexity and breadth across subject matter.  This is really no longer “nice to do” but essential.  Job One.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.

 

 

 

Playing Catch-Up

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2012

An important new report from ACT’s National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) turns the lights up on a point that cannot be made often or strongly enough: when it comes to academic readiness, it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.  Over at Education Week, Sara Mead summarizes the findings, which she correctly describes as “sobering.”

“Among students who were ‘far off track’ in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards 4 years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT’s EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored ‘far off track’ in reading–as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can’t like those odds.”

Policymakers take note of this from the report itself:

“Efforts to improve students’ academic preparation have often been directed at the high-school level, although for many students, gaps in academic preparation begin much earlier. Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge. These gaps are likely to widen over time because of the ‘Matthew effects,’ whereby those who start out behind are at a relative disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge.”

Bingo.  Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is your go-to response, here’s some cold water for you: “’Far off track’ 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample,” Mead observes. ”But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of ‘far off track’ students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.”

Sobering, indeed.

The report’s takeaway emphasizes the need for “a realistic view of the difficulty of closing these gaps,” hence the need to start earlier.

“Underestimating the time and effort required could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late. Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores.”

In Mead’s view, this means “high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school.”  I agree.  But critically, it must also mean a clear and focused understanding of what we mean when we say “high quality pre-k.”  Gaps in language proficiency are fundamentally gaps in knowledge and vocabulary–and the deficits are readily apparent on Day One.  To my mind, “high quality preschool” means aggressive interventions aimed at building language skill and knowledge acquisition before the dreaded Matthew Effect becomes a runaway train.

Words Get in the Way

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2012

This blog has long kvetched about the tendency to use terms like standards (what proficiencies kids should be able to demonstrate) and curriculum (the material that gets taught in class) interchangably.  Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH school observes that education lacks a common vocabulary, which makes life harder for teachers.  “They get bombarded all the time with new products, websites, software that all claim they can get students to ‘deeper learning.’ But without a common understanding of what actually qualifies, it’s hard to know if X even purports to get your kids where you want them to go,” he writes.

Goldstein compares education to medicine where there is broad agreement, for example, on the five stages of cancer–and that makes it easier for for medical professionals and patients to work together.  “When scientists come up with treatments,” he notes, “they often find them to be effective for cancers only in certain stages. So when they tell doctors: ‘treatment only effective for X cancer in stage two,’ everybody knows what that means.”

In education, no such common vocabulary exists.

“Our sector talks a lot of “Deeper Learning.” Or “Higher-Order Skills.”

“But what does that mean? There’s not a commonly-accepted terminology or taxonomy. Instead, there are tons of competing terms and ladders.

“In math, for example, here’s language that the US Gov’t uses for the NAEP test. Low, middle, and high complexity. I suppose they might characterize the “high” as “deeper learning.”

“Here’s Costa’s approach, a different 3 levels. Text explicit, text implicit, and activate prior knowledge. Again, perhaps the last is “deeper learning.”

“Here’s another take, more general than math-specific, from Hewlett.

“A software like MathScore has its own complexity ratings.

“And so on. You could find 10 more in 10 minutes of Googling.

Goldstein posts a question from Massachusetts’ MCAS tests, a perimeter question that shows four different rectangles and asks, “Which of these has a perimeter of 12 feet?”

“First you need to know what perimeter means. Second you need to know you that you need to fill in the “missing sides.” Third you need to know what to fill in, because you understand “rectangle.” Finally you need to add those 4 numbers. If you only understand 3 of the 4 ideas, you’ll get the question wrong.

“Does this question probe “deeper learning” for a 3rd grader? Who the heck knows?

If this strikes you as mere semantics, think again.  A lack of an agreed vocabulary — what is a “basic skill?”  What is “higher order thinking?” — is not merely irritating, it can lead to bad practice and misplaced priorities.   A third-grade teacher looking to remediate a lack of basic skills might seek help from a software product but she would have “no real idea on how ‘deep’ they go, or how ‘shallow’ they start,” Goldstein notes.  “No common language for ‘Depth’ or ‘Complexity.’”

I would add that the problem is more fundamental than that.  If a teacher is told “teach higher-order thinking” she might incorrectly assume that time spent on basic knowledge, math skills or fluency is a waste of time.  Or, in the worst case scenario, that reading comprehension or higher order thinking can be directly taught.  

In reality, without the basic skills and knowledge firmly in place, there’s no such thing as higher order anything and never will be.  Yet terms like “higher order thinking” and “complexity” are held up as the gold standard we should be teaching toward.  Basic knowledge and prerequisite skills are the unlovely companions of “drill and kill” rather than, say, ”fluency” or “automaticity.” Mischief and miplaced priorities are the inevitable result.

A common vocabulary of diagnosis and treatment would help. 

 

 

 

 

 

“No Younger People Need Apply”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 27th, 2012

The following help wanted ad appears on Craigslist in Portland, Oregon.

Editor needed…over 70 yrs. old (NOT an EMPLOYEE)


Date: 2012-11-11, 9:39AM PST
qqqrc-3402235700@job.craigslist.org[Errors when replying to ads?]


EDITOR NEEDED FOR LARGE NUMBER OF SHORT STORIES: Must be 70 years old (or older if adequately lucid) THIS IS NOT AN AD FOR AN “EMPLOYEE OR A CONTRACTOR” – AND…NO YOUNGER PEOPLE NEED APPLY! “Why? Simply because I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills. I have absolutely no interest in going through that exercise again. ENOUGH SAID!…And spare me your castigating comments! It is a waste of your time and mine.

(via jimromanesko.com)

“No Professional Teacher Should Major in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 13th, 2012

Sometimes, it takes someone outside the field of education to speak the truth.  Historian David McCullough says no professional teacher should major in education.

The award-winning biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams was profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, and his comments highlighted over at The Answer Sheet.  He notes that Americans are “historically illiterate” and tells the depressing story of meeting a student who “came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.”

“And I thought, ‘What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?’ I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.’

McCullough believes we need to “seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers.”

“I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. ‘Show them what you love’ is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

I’ve long favored organizing teacher training around subject matter, rather than what Leon Botstein once termed “the pseudoscience of pedagogy.”  I’ve also never been able to resist seeing teaching, like writing, not as a “profession” but as craft work.   The best writers and teachers master their subject, and then find their voice.

 

A Questionable Schema

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2012

Here’s a charming group of second graders singing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

The words are a little difficult to understand, which might indicate the kids themselves aren’t entirely clear on the lyrics.  But the ditty seems to be a reading strategies lesson, reminding the kids to “check my schema” when they read to ensure comprehension.

“Think about all the things I know about the text before I read.
Building schema really helps me comprehend the words I read.
While I’m reading, I keep thinking ‘Does what I read make sense to me?’
If it doesn’t I check my schema, then I re-read carefully.

“Building schema, building schema
I do it every time I read.
Because it gives me background knowledge
For the next books that I read”

I don’t wish to be overly critical of an earnest attempt to make kids better readers.  But does it really help second graders’ comprehension to toss around (let alone sing about) terms like “building schema?”   I’m skeptical.  The word itself is more jargon than vocabulary.  Call it the Lipnicki Effect.  It’s cute, funny and sometimes impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching kids to activate their background knowledge when they read? Or actually building background knowledge?

Sorry, I meant schema.

 

A Good School Washed Away in the Storm

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2012

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple School, is a Core Knowledge Official School in New York City.  It started the year with an enrollment of 578 children.  This morning, fewer than 30 showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy punished the city eight days ago.

The school sits less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in the Arverne section on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, a neighborhood that lay defenseless against the storm.  Hundreds of homes in the Rockaways were damaged or destroyed when a 12-foot storm surge submerged the slender spit of land in seawater and sand.   P.S. 333 was too badly damaged to occupy when New York City schools reopened this week–one of 79 schools in 44 buildings deemed unsafe.  The school’s temporary home, at least this week, is I.S. 126 in Long Island City, a school named after the late teacher’s union leader Albert Shanker, who taught and organized his colleagues there.

A school bus picked up the students for what turned out to be an hour and a half ride to the other side of the borough.  Only a handful made the trip.  P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good.  “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

I found Logan and her staff this morning in the third floor library of their temporary home.  They were not teaching.  They were working the phones, trying to find their students. “My teachers are calling right now to find out where are they and if they’re planning on coming to the relocation site.”  But even this temporary home is only temporarily theirs.  “They gave us this site this week,” she said.  “Next week we’re going to be at an elementary school and a middle school.”

It is unclear when their own building will be ready for use again.  The storm surge flooded the school’s basement destroying its boiler.  Water damaged the first floor. Power may be weeks away from being restored.  “The only thing I was told is that the boiler is definitely shot.  They’re thinking about putting a temporary generator and temporary boiler outside so it can power the building.  But they don’t know when they can do that,” Logan says.

P.S. 333 occupies a special place in the universe of Core Knowledge schools and the hearts of our staff.  It was one of the ten New York City pilot schools that road tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program.  I’ve regularly brought visitors who are interested in the curriculum to observe K-2 classes there.  Thanks in part to the stellar results posted by teachers at Goldie Maple, CKLA is now being made available to schools statewide.  Indeed, the pilot was so successful that P.S. 333 continued to use the program even after the demonstration ended.  Their materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

Even that concern seems small right now.  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.  “How do you hold them accountable to sit there and learn when [the children are thinking] ‘I don’t have a house. When I go back home it’s freezing cold?’ Those kids are going to suffer,” she says.  Even after the all-clear is given and the school safe to occupy, there’s no way to know how many students will return. Some, perhaps most of the low-income families served by Logan’s school, will simply melt into the neighborhoods to which they’ve moved.  The scale of the dislocation is immense:  P.S. 333 is one of 11 schools in the Rockaways put out of commission by Sandy, and the smallest of them.  “No one’s talking about that right now.  What’s the reality for the kids that were on that Peninsula?”  She doesn’t know.

Logan is openly frustrated with city officials trying to give the impression that things are getting back to normal in New York City’s schools.  “You want to make it look good, but you’re not thinking about these kids,” she says.  That said, New York City is relocating more schools than Oklahoma City or Portland, Oregon has in total.

As Logan is speaking, a mother and small child wander toward us from the far end of the unfamiliar hallway that Al Shanker once roamed.  They look lost and bewildered.  “Look at the babies who’ve come,” she says.  “Some parents this morning were worried because their kids didn’t have their school uniforms.  They were washed away.  I’m like, ‘As long as you’re OK and your family’s OK.’  I just feel bad.”  Logan mumbles under her breath. “To think that’s something you’d think about right now.” She’s incredulous.  Close to tears.  “I just don’t know what to say.”

“You try to keep going, you try to move on,” Logan says.  “But this is crazy.”

 

 

Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.

 

Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.