Making College a Genuine Choice: Michael Shaughnessy Interviews Lisa Hansel

by Lisa Hansel
April 22nd, 2013

Michael F. Shaughnessy’s interview with Lisa Hansel was originally posted on April 16, 2013, in Education News.

Michael F. Shaughnessy:

1) Lisa, tell us exactly what your position is currently and what you are trying to do.

In March, I became the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Before that I was the editor of American Educator, the education research and ideas magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. As I explained in my first blog post for Core Knowledge, it was hard to leave that position; I joined Core Knowledge because its approach is really well aligned with research on learning and it has the best curriculum I have ever seen. I would love for more of the national school improvement discussion to be focused on curriculum. For achievement, what could be more important than what gets taught? Bill Schmidt and Russ Whitehurst are both persuasive on this.

2) Now, you recently indicated in a blog that a very low-achieving 8th grader in a high-poverty school has only about a 3 percent chance of “getting ready for college.” What exactly do you mean by “getting ready” for college?

That is drawn from research by ACT, which has a long history of developing tests that assess the extent to which students are ready for college. ACT has figured out what “ready for college” means in terms of essential academic knowledge and skills by doing longitudinal studies; students who attain the “college ready” benchmark score are more likely to get decent grades in credit-bearing college courses and to earn college degrees than students who do not attain the benchmark score. Everyone is familiar with the ACT exams that millions of students take near the end of high school.

ACT also has benchmarks and tests for 8th graders and it is developing an aligned set of tests for elementary school through high school. Instead of doing so much high-stakes testing for accountability, it would be great if states used these as low-stakes tests to find out where students are on the path to college. That would be information schools could use.

3) I think you and I both understand that high school instructors are really not all that keen on doing remedial work with students who are 2-3 grade levels behind. On the other hand SHOULD an algebra teacher be going back and teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division?

I am not qualified to answer that question, so I’ll offer an opinion and then point to an expert. Teachers have to meet students where they are and bring them as far along as possible. So when high school students still need instruction in foundational elementary mathematics, someone must deliver it. But should that class be called algebra? Probably not. To find out how to prevent high school students from being so far behind, please read two articles by Hung-Hsi Wu that I had the pleasure of publishing in American Educator: “What’s Sophisticated about Elementary Mathematics?” and “Phoenix Rising: Bringing the Common Core Mathematics Standards to Life

4) I am going to use a nasty word—retention—should schools be retaining more students so that we don’t have this “achievement gap”?

I would not entirely rule out retaining students, but I think that strategy is used far too often. Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal study clearly showed that the achievement gap starts at home, and research on the “summer slide” shows that it continues to grow at home after children enter school. I think our only hope is to prevent the achievement gap from opening. We have to address child poverty by, among other things, developing better health care, housing, and child care options for low-income families. At the same time, we need to educate parents on the importance of talking to and reading with their children—which is why initiatives like Providence Talks and First Book are so exciting. We also need to rethink early childhood education.

The Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction because they emphasize the need to build children’s knowledge and vocabulary. Relevant background knowledge is essential to comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving. That knowledge can’t just be at your fingertips; it has to be in your long-term memory.

Learning enough to be able to read and think about a broad array of topics is a huge endeavor that must begin as early as possible. For advantaged children, it begins as birth. So in school, including in preschool, building knowledge must become a much greater focus of elementary education.

5) In your blog, you state the obvious that “schools need to get better at closing the gap.” What if I counter that with “schools need to get better at identifying children with learning disabilities and remediating them”?

I agree with you. But I also have to point out that many children who are behind do not have learning disabilities. They simply have not had as many opportunities to learn (in school and/or at home) as their on-grade-level peers. A few years ago Charles Payne of the University of Chicago told me about an important study done by his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. When teachers really challenged students academically and offered lots of social support, students made about two years’ worth of growth in one school year. In contrast, children with teachers who were low on academic pressure and social support made just half a year’s growth. Just as you would guess, schools serving high-income students were far more likely to offer this mix of challenge and support than were schools serving low-income students. What really frustrated Professor Payne was that this study—despite the striking results—is among the least requested from the consortium.

6) There seems to be this emphasis on all students going to college. In your mind is there anything wrong with a student graduating from high school and joining the army, navy, air force, marines, coast guard or becoming a manager at McDonalds?

I often emphasize preparation for college because I want that door to be open to all students (without taking any remedial, noncredit-bearing courses). But it really is not about going to college; it is about making sure that going or not going is a choice. Many students who do not want to go to college do not realize that they still need to be in college-prep classes. For example, a student who wants to become an electrician needs to be really good at algebra. Research by Achieve has shown that employers and colleges are looking for the same things. So if we prepare all students for college, then all students will have lots of great options.

7) We seem to have great research, but no implementation. Any insights?

There are many reasons why research fails to affect practice. I’ll mention three.

First, the education field suffers from too many snake oil salesmen, too many well-intentioned people acting on nothing more than their instincts, and too few trustworthy places to turn to cut through the cacophony. The situation is so dire that Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a book about it: When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. Willingham also has called for a “What’s Known Clearinghouse” to complement the What Works Clearinghouse.

Since we don’t have a what’s known clearinghouse, I suggest everyone read another of Willingham’s books: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. If every educator, administrator, and policymaker studied that book, we could take a huge step forward in school improvement.

Second, far too few of our teacher preparation programs teach the research. On average, teacher candidates are not taught the cognitive science Willingham has written about, nor are they taught the very strong research on how to teach reading. Evaluations of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality are very depressing. While there are bright spots, they are few and far between.

Third, high-stakes accountability has become counterproductive. Meaningful learning is a long-term endeavor. Many of the tricks that quickly bump up test scores do not actually contribute to student learning—but they do take time away from effective instruction. I think testing is useful; we need objective (if imperfect) measures of what students know and can do. Without such measures, how can we close the achievement gap? But the current high-stakes environment is not helping.

More policymakers need to realize that the nation’s educators are already doing the best they can with the knowledge and resources they have. No high-performing organization ever punished its way to the top. In places where student achievement is lagging, we need to roll up our sleeves and offer assistance, including research-based curricula and professional development.

8) Where does Core Knowledge fit into this picture?

The Core Knowledge Foundation offers a wide variety of supports for increasing student achievement, including onsite and web-based professional development, teacher handbooks, and materials for parents. What makes Core Knowledge stand out is its research-based guide to what all students should learn in preschool through 8th grade: the Core Knowledge Sequence.

Cognitive scientists have found that knowledge and skills develop together; the higher-order skills that are most crucial—comprehension, critical thinking, writing, and problem solving—all depend on having relevant knowledge not at one’s fingertips, but already stored in one’s long-term memory. Any topic that student need to read or think about is a topic that they must know something about. They don’t need to know a lot about each topic, just enough to be able to make sense of new ideas and information.

We’ve all had experiences that make this clear: recall a time when you tried to read a text on a topic you know very little about—for me, it’s the physics textbook I occasionally try to study—progress is slow, you feel confused, and even if you get the gist, nuances are lost on you. Now contrast that with a more everyday experience—maybe reading a newspaper article about the renovation of your local library—you zip through the article, easily absorb new facts like the name of the architect and the timetable, and fully grasp the renovation plans. But imagine that you did not know anything about libraries, construction, or renovations—the article would be very confusing.

As a basic foundation for lifelong learning, the knowledge that all students need to acquire is the knowledge that is taken for granted in spoken and written language aimed at adults. Here’s a recent example from CNN Health:

It is a case at the intersection of science and finance, an evolving 21st century dispute that comes down to a simple question: Should the government allow patents for human genes?

The Supreme Court offered little other than confusion during oral arguments on Monday on nine patents held by a Utah biotech firm.

Myriad Genetics isolated two related types of biological material, BCRA-1 and BCRA-2, linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

To comprehend these three sentences, the reader must know about patents, genes, the Supreme Court, oral arguments, hereditary risk, cancer, and more. In short, the reader is assumed to have an enormous amount of knowledge.

The best way to ensure that all students learn the massive amount of knowledge they need to comprehend newspaper articles that cover everything from library renovations to patent disputes is to develop a carefully organized grade-by-grade sequence of knowledge for students to master. Such an approach does not ignore skills at all. It simply ensures that the reading, writing, analysis, and problem solving skills students need are developed and practiced through the acquisition and deepening of important knowledge.

This summer, the foundation will also begin offering Core Knowledge Language Arts, a comprehensive program for preschool through 3rd grade. CKLA teaches reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. It also has teacher read-alouds grouped into academic domains—such as fables from around the world, insects, early Asian civilizations, the five senses, mythology and more—that create interactive opportunities to question, discuss, and share ideas centered on the text. This domain-focused, coherent approach is the most efficient and effective way to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I hope Core Knowledge fits into the picture by ensuring that all children acquire the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to be on the path to college—even if they choose not to go.


Dear 8th Grader: You Have a 3% Chance of Getting Ready for College

by Lisa Hansel
April 2nd, 2013

What are the odds that an eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind academically will catch up? You know the odds are low, but single-digit low? According to research from ACT, catching up in high school is rare—if by “catching up” we mean getting poorly prepared eighth graders ready for college by twelfth grade. An eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks has just a 6% chance of catching up in reading—in science and mathematics, that student has a mere 3% chance. What about catching up before high school? Not likely. A fourth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind has just a 7% chance of catching up in reading by eighth grade and an 8% chance in mathematics.

For some readers, the obvious conclusion is that the schools need to get better at closing the gap. But the ACT’s report also has findings for all schools, the top 10% of all schools, the top 10% of low-poverty schools, and the top 10% of high-poverty schools. All of the results on catching up are depressing.

Once gaps exist, we certainly have to do everything we can to close them. At the same time, we must start earlier to prevent these enormous gaps from opening up. The path to college begins in preschool.

And, by the way, after preschool, children should go to kindergarten. Why do I state the obvious? While many of us have been chattering about Obama’s universal preschool plan, ECS has just reminded us that some kids do not have access to kindergarten. Across states, access to high-quality kindergarten is so unequal that it “perpetuates, if not exacerbates, the achievement gap.” While 15 states require children to attend kindergarten, five states do not even require school districts to offer kindergarten. (Those five are Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Four of them have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which begin in kindergarten. Are you scratching your head yet?)

Ultimately, the ECS report reminds us that we have a long, long way to go in developing a strong system of early childhood education in this country.

Silver lining time: The one benefit of having waited so long to get serious about early learning is that we have an enormous body of research to draw from. We have so much research that sorting through it is a challenge. For that, I’m turning to an unsung hero of the school improvement world: Chrys Dougherty. He is a senior research scientist with ACT and a former teacher. He knows the education and cognitive science research—and he gets kids and classrooms.

ACT recently published Dougherty’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning. Everyone involved in early childhood and early grades education should read it. For that matter, everyone interested in school improvement and closing the achievement gap should read it.

I’m assuming that you are going to read it—it’s only 8 pages! So, instead of offering a CliffsNotes version, I’m providing my favorite parts (you’ll have to go to the report for the endnotes):

Students who do not have a good start usually do not thrive later on. That is due not only to the fact that students in stressful environments with limited learning opportunities often remain in those environments, but also because early learning itself facilitates later learning—students who already know more about a topic often have an easier time learning additional information on the same topic, and early exposure to knowledge can stimulate students to want to learn more….

Educators have long emphasized the importance of learning to read well in the early grades, a belief supported by longitudinal research. Reading consists of two abilities: the ability to identify the words on the page (decoding), and the ability to understand the words once they are identified (comprehension)…. Ensuring that students learn to decode well depends, among other things, on using activities and methods in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade that develop children’s phonological (sound) awareness and their knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds. Meanwhile, children’s comprehension can be developed in the early grades by reading aloud to them from books that develop their knowledge and vocabulary….

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

Accountability systems have been designed to create a sense of urgency about improving test scores. However, this has often had the undesirable effect of shortening educators’ time horizons so that they emphasize changes aimed at improving accountability ratings over the short run. These changes can include narrowing the curriculum to deemphasize subjects not tested in the current grade, and spending inordinate amounts of time coaching students on how to answer sample test questions.

By contrast, many steps to improve academic learning and behaviors take time to bear fruit and may not immediately result in higher test scores. For example, implementing an excellent kindergarten and first-grade reading, mathematics, science, social studies, or fine arts program will not immediately affect test results in the older grades. Neither will field trips to science and art museums, nature areas, and historical sites—all of which develop knowledge of the world. Accountability incentives should be modified to recognize efforts that increase student learning over the longer run and promote learning in grades and subject areas not covered on state tests.

If we actually followed Dougherty’s advice, our students would have a great chance of getting ready for college.


Second Thoughts on Pineapplegate

by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2012

Writing in his TIME Magazine column, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham offers up a largely exculpatory take on Pineapplegate.  The media jumped all over a bowdlerized version of the test passage, he notes.  New York state officials should have been clearer in explaining that nothing makes its way onto standardized tests by accident.  And in the end, Andy writes, what is needed is “a more substantive conversation rather than a firestorm” over testing.

Very well, let’s have one.

In the unlikely event you haven’t heard, a minor media frenzy was ignited a few weeks back when the New York Daily News got hold of a surreal fable, loosely modeled on the familiar tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, which appeared on the just-administered New York State 8th grade reading test.  In the test passage, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a foot race in front of a group of woodland creatures, loses the race (the pineapple’s lack of legs proving to be a fatal competitive disadvantage)  and gets eaten by the other animals.

Rotherham points out that the passage picked up by the paper was not the actual test passage, but a second-hand version plucked from an anti-testing website. “The passage the paper ran was so poorly written that it would indeed have been inexcusable,” he wrote.  Perhaps, but the correct passage wasn’t exactly a model of clarity and coherence either.  Indeed, the fable’s author mocked the decision by the testing company, Pearson, to create multiple choice questions about his story on a state test.  “As far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn’t necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything,” Daniel Pinkwater told the Wall Street Journal. “That really is why it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense. I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.”

Ultimately the real version of the test passage was released by the state to quiet the controversy.  But it did little to reverse the impression that this was a questionable measure of students’ ability.  Rotherham’s big “get” in Time is a memo from Pearson to New York State officials detailing the question’s review process as well as its use on other states’ tests as far back as 2004.  The message:  nothing to see here, folks.  Show’s over.  Go on back to your schools, sharpen those No. 2 pencils and get ready for more tests.

“Standardized tests are neither as bad as their critics make them out to be nor as good as they should be,” Rotherham concludes.  Perhaps, but they’re bad enough.  The principal problem, which Pineapplegate underscores vividly, is that we continue to insist on drawing conclusions about students’ reading ability based on a random, incoherent collection of largely meaningless passages concocted by test-makers utterly disconnected from what kids actually learn in school all day.  This actively incentivizes a form of educational malpractice, since reading tests reinforce the mistaken notion that reading comprehension is a transferable skill and that the subject matter is disconnected from comprehension.   But we know this is not the case as E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham have pointed out time and again, and as we have discussed on this blog repeatedly.

So this is not a simple case of an uproar based on bad information and sloppy damage control.  What Rotherham misses in a somewhat strident defense of standardized tests and testing is that we are suffering generally from a case of test fatigue. The entire edifice of reform rests on testing, and while the principle of accountability remains sound, the effects of testing on schools has proven to be deleterious, to be charitable. Thus the conditions were ripe for people to overreact to perceived absurdity in the tests. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Was the story was blown out of proportion by some people playing fast and loose with the facts?  Perhaps.  But the facts, once they became clear, were more than bad enough.

The Inspector Will See You Now

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2012

If we look at more than just test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, shouldn’t we do the same for schools, asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.  The best accountability systems, he argues, “take various data points and turn them into user-friendly letter grades, easily understandable by educators, parents, and taxpayers alike.”  Petrilli wants to go one step further adding a human element to accountability in the form of “school inspectors” modeled on Great Britain’s inspectorate system.

Under Petrilli’s proposal, a group of inspectors would visit a school at least once per year. “They would mostly look for two things,” he writes.

  1. Evidence that the school is achieving important outcomes that may not be captured by the state accountability system. For example, the school’s administrators might show them test score data from a computer adaptive exam like NWEA’s that demonstrates progress for individual kids (especially those well above or below grade level) that isn’t picked up by the less-sensitive state test. Or perhaps a high school has compelling data about its graduates’ college matriculation and graduation rates that put its mediocre test scores in a different light.
  2. Indications that the school’s culture and instructional program are inculcating valuable attributes in their students. This is to guard against the “testing factory” phenomenon. Is the school offering a well-balanced curriculum (and extra-curriculars), or engaging in test-prep for weeks on end? Is it focused on teaching “non-cognitive” skills and attributes, such leadership, perseverance, and teamwork? Character traits like empathy, honesty, and courage?

Petrilli’s first point is deeper data that probably doesn’t require on-site inspections; the second is more interesting.  I’m all for a more nuanced view of school performance.  If you’ve been in a school lately and haven’t come away dispirited by the sheer volume of test-prep and frustrated by curriculum narrowing, you’re likely engaged in a form a denial or willful ignorance.  Anything that broadens the lens is a step in the right direction.

I certainly agree that you can tell a lot about a school by walking its halls and sitting in its classrooms.  The trouble is that the higher the stakes, the less likely you are to see—or to be allowed to see—the school as it actually is, warts and all.  I’m reminded of the spitting and polishing we used to do in my school when we were having a Superintendent’s walk-through or preparing for our “quality review.”  Suddenly fresh student work bloomed on every bulletin board.  Daily agendas were posted.  Aims and standards in child-friendly language were omnipresent on the blackboard.  Records and planbooks spruced up and made ready for review.  Amazing, engaging lessons were planned and delivered.  No boxed macaroni and cheese when company’s coming.   Dirty dishes went into the oven and dust bunnies were swept under the rug moments before guests arrive.

In short, it’s not hard to master the art of displaying “visible evidence” of teaching and learning, while the underlying practices remain disappointing.  If you think that test prep is a waste of time, try getting your lesson plans, student data, running records and myriad other bits of housekeeping presentation-ready for the Inspectorate.  Is this really what we want teachers to focus their energies on?

Some years ago, I proposed a system of random testing whereby the students to be tested, testing dates, grade levels and subject matter was a matter of chance.  The only way to perform well under such an accountability system would be to actually teach all of the students well in all subjects.  That still strikes me as the right impulse.  Any accountability measure with stakes attached to it will inevitably come to dominate classroom practice.  It’s simply human nature to want to put your best foot forward when your reputation or your job is on the line.  This is fairly obvious.  The most likely response to the accountability mechanism should be precisely the practice you want to see in classrooms.  Anything else misses the mark.

A good inspection system can add significant value.  A thoughtful review diligently considered can lead to constructive suggestions and improved outcomes.  It needn’t be a “gotcha” game.  But the same is true of pure test-driven accountability.  In theory, the best outcomes should come from a well-rounded curriculum, effectively implemented by well-trained teachers.  It just hasn’t seemed to work out that way in practice.


by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2012

“President Obama and Secretary Duncan pushed the reform envelope as far as they could be expected with these waivers….We remain skeptical, however, of the storyline that says we are a nation filled with states chomping at the bit to do the right thing for children but which are hamstrung from doing so by federal bureaucrats and paperwork.” — Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform on states receiving waivers from compliance with No Child Left Behind (via This Week in Education)

I remain equally skeptical of the storyline that says schools are dysfunctional purely as a result of adult indifference or self-interest.

I see no reason to believe that failing schools are filled with tenured layabouts refusing to teach and not getting fired.  In my experience, such schools are mainly filled with decent people trying their best and failing. And with depressing regularity, they are failing despite doing exactly what they were trained to do–even because they are doing exactly what they were trained to do.

The entire edifice of accountability assumes that American education is essentially a sound product, but it’s delivered poorly. I see no evidence to suggest this is true. I see much evidence to suggest it’s not.

What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher?

by Guest Blogger
January 12th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students test scores.  While the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

I’m a practical person.  I understand that we spend billions of dollars educating our children and that the taxpayer deserves some assurance that the money is not being squandered.  Accountability matters.  I get it.  Still, as a teacher, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful, perhaps even wince a little, reading this study.

It’s important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such measurable outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller – about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel will be released on February first, and she still has that poetry portfolio.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts.

“One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

While the studies of economists may add to the discussion about what makes teachers valuable in our lives, I believe that if we reduce teachers’ value to dollars and cents, we run the risk of becoming, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “the kind of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”



Student Achievement, Poverty and “Toxic Stress”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 4th, 2012

It’s a safe bet that not many teachers are avid readers of the medical journal Pediatrics.  But a report that appeared in the publication last week deserves to be read and understood deeply by everyone in education.  It has the potential to transform the way we think and speak about children who grow up in poverty–and education as a means of addressing its worst effects.

The report links “toxic stress” in early childhood to a host of bad life outcomes including poor mental and physical health, and cognitive impairment.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in an accompanying policy statement, calls on its members to “catalyze fundamental change in early childhood policy and services” in response.

The term “toxic stress” is not a familiar one in education circles, but it should be.  The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes a toxic stress response as occurring “when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.”  Think of it as one plus one equals negative two:  something bad happens to a child, and there’s no positive adult response to mitigate the trauma.  The lack of adult support is what makes stress, which is largely unavoidable, “toxic” to a child.  Crucially, repeated or prolonged activation of a child’s stress response system “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years,” notes the Center’s website.

This cannot be dismissed as pseudoscience or a mere hypothesis.  The report and policy statement notes a “strong scientific consensus” and a growing body of research “in a wide range of biological, behavioral, and social sciences,” on “how early environmental influences (the ecology) and genetic predispositions (the biologic program) affect learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.”

“Game changer” is a trite and overused phrase, but it applies here.  The report should have a profound impact on educators and education policymakers.  At the very least, understanding the language and concept of exposure to toxic stress should inform the increasingly acrimonious, dead-end debate about accountability and resources aimed at the lowest-performing schools and students.

On the one hand, those who insist that improving educational outcomes must be viewed within a broader context of health care, community resources and poverty can claim a victory here and a potential ally in the AAP.  Interventions must start from Day One.  Not Day One of school, Day One of life.  Kindergarten is too late.  Those who favor quality preschool programs have crucial evidence to support their case.  The story in four words:  Geoffrey Canada is right.

But it is equally clear (or should be) that low-income status is not synonymous with toxic stress. Even the worst schools and poorest neighborhoods have a significant number of children from stable homes with engaged, caring adults, who are able to provide the consistency and nurturing necessary to buffer the negative effects of even the most traumatic stressors.  “Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response,” according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

To this end, no less than pediatricians, schools and teachers–especially in early childhood– have an essential role to play.  In the absence of nurturing relationships at home, children may be able to find the support they need within the educational environment.  According to Rebecca Schrag, Ph.D., psychologist at Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center, supportive adult relationships “can no longer be considered the ‘touchy-feely’ domain of child psychologists alone.  Rather, there is hard science suggesting that they are perhaps the number one protective factor against the negative outcomes of a range of stressors.  The AAP has made a huge step forward in releasing its policy statement on toxic stress, and it would be truly wonderful if other professionals who work with children – educators, most notably – followed suit.”

In light of the important role of supportive adult relationships, the takeaway here is clearly not that exposure to toxic stress makes it impossible for schools to succeed with low-income children.  But it should make clearer that the bar is much, much higher for a significant number of kids who endure extreme levels of chaos and disruption in their lives, children whose brains – even by age 5 – show the deleterious effects of toxic stress exposure.  This does not mean we should throw up our hands and say, “let’s not waste time and money on poor kids.  It’s not going to work.”  But it certainly puts the “No Excuses” mindset at a disadvantage, particularly when most children only begin school in kindergarten.  Given the scientific consensus cited by the report, holding to the idea that schools or teachers should be able to reverse unilaterally the worst effects of toxic stress in all cases begins to sound ill-informed and hopelessly naïve.

At present, the standard reform recipe for improving educational outcomes for all children living in poverty is high expectations, improved teacher quality and muscular accountability.  For many low-income kids, perhaps even most, this may indeed be enough.  For others, more – much more – is clearly required.  It is critical that educators and policymakers begin to differentiate between the two.

A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

On standardized high school English examinations in New York, students must write what is often called a “critical lens” essay. They are given a quotation (the “lens”) and must interpret it, state whether they agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their position with examples from literary texts of their choice. This task has logical flaws and encourages poor reasoning and writing. The problem is largely due to the lack of a literature curriculum; when there are no common texts, essay questions on state tests become vague and diffuse. The test question needs an overhaul, and New York State needs a literature curriculum with some common texts and ample room for choice.

One flaw of the “critical lens” task is that students must interpret the quotation out of context. Students may or may not have read the source of the quotation; they are allowed to make it mean whatever they want it to mean (within reason). The test-taker must provide a “valid” interpretation of the quote, but without a context, “valid” simply means free of egregious error. When it comes to analysis, this is not good practice; the student latches onto the interpretation that comes to mind instead of searching for the most fitting one.

A sample New York Regents English examination illustrates how this might play out. (I discuss this example in my book, Republic of Noise.)  Here the quotation is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” (See p. 21 of the PDF file.) This quotation can mean many things, but it has particular meaning in The Little Prince. It is the fox who speaks these words, after befriending the prince and being tamed by him. They have been meeting, day by day, at the same time and place; the regularity of the ritual allows the fox to prepare his heart for the prince’s arrival. Seeing with the heart in this case has to do with caring for another, spending time with another, honoring rituals together. But students are more likely to take the quotation as a comment on romantic attraction (and some of the sample responses do precisely that). Then they agree or disagree with the quotation on the basis of this incorrect interpretation.

Another flaw in the “critical lens” task is that it hinges on the student’s opinion (about a statement that may apply to a range of situations). The opinion may be hasty or superficial, yet it is unassailable. It would make more sense to ask the student to explain how a particular literary work affirms the quotation in some ways and negates it in others, and to decide whether the affirmation or the negation is ultimately stronger. That would require careful, thoughtful analysis and examination of a work and would leave room for the student’s ideas and judgment. At the very least, the prompt could ask the students to show how a literary work addresses or touches on the idea in the quotation. That runs the risk of reducing literature to ideas and themes, but at least it keeps the focus on the literature.

A third flaw is that students must cite examples from literature in support of their opinion. It is possible to do this, but one must do so cautiously. Literature is not a direct reflection of life; often its messages are oblique and contradictory. So, for instance, if one looks to Romeo and Juliet for examples of people blinded by love (not seeing rightly with the heart), one will find them, but one will also miss the point. In the play, love has both delusion and illumination and is part of a larger scheme. Help and harm intermingle, as Friar Laurence suggests in his monologue:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.


The play does not pass judgment on the lovers’ passion; rather, it shows the playing out of passions, feuds, and good intentions, where no one grasps the full situation until the end. But students who ignore this can get a high score on the essay. One can even ignore key details of plot and get a high score. A sample student response with the highest score (on p. 58) states that “if Romeo had not used his heart, he would have seen rightly. He could have stayed with Rosaline, and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless, love-inspired antics.” The student neglects the fact that Rosaline has sworn herself to chastity, that the Montagues and Capulets have antics of their own (the play begins with a fight that escalates), and that it is the lovers’ deaths that brings an end, finally, to the warring of the two families. This is at least partly the fault of the essay question; by requiring students to cite literary examples to support their opinion, it encourages (or at least does not penalize) shallow interpretations of these examples.

In short, the “critical lens” task rewards poor writing and thinking, precisely because it can rely on no common knowledge. There is no check on the student’s opinion; nothing  challenges the student to examine the quotation or the works closely. The student who follows the directions does well. He may provide a flawed interpretation of the literary examples and quotation, yet receive a top score. He may even get basic plot details wrong without losing any points. It would not be surprising if some students made up the details and still passed. To fight this absurdity, we should have a few texts—just a few—that everybody reads, including those scoring the tests. The essay question could then pertain to the works themselves. This would allow for coherent, probing essays and would take students out of opinion’s muddier puddles.

Innovate or Imitate?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2011

If education is a test, America might want to spend a little more time copying the answers the other countries are writing down on their papers.

Writing in at The Atlantic, Marc Tucker notes that despite spending “more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg” America continues to lag not just developed nations like Japan, Finland, Canada, “but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.”

“You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.”

Tucker’s list of “unproven solutions” includes charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests. These strategies are “nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations,” he writes. “And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing,” notes Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.”

The top performers also raise entry standards for the teaching profession and insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach” and generally make teaching a high-status profession.

“The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world’s highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.”

The cycle in the U.S., Tucker notes, is the opposite of virtuous.  Teaching is a low-status profession, lacking in prestige and colleges of education set a low bar for admissions.  Salaries are low.  Teachers also have weak knowledge of their assigned subjects “and increasingly, they’re allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training,” he notes. “When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing.”

The inevitable result is ever lower student achievement, which drives more attacks on teaching and stricter accountability, which Tucker wisely observes, makes it “even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers.”

But hey, we can innovate and disrupt with the best of them!

The problem, Tucker concludes, is not a lack of innovation but a simple lack of what successful countries have: “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.”

An Inconvenient Truth About Teacher Quality

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2011

If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat?  Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers?  That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.

Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?

That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning.  They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:

“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.

“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?

Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught.  It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write.  “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”

In reading? Not so much.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading.  We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests.  We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all.  Willingham and Grissmer conclude:

“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”