Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Lisa Hansel
February 6th, 2014

It’s been a tremendous few weeks for those who love to read about building knowledge. Here are three great resources that are worth studying.

I. Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

This slim volume from the Fordham Institute has an agenda-setting introduction by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, then several terrific essays:

  • “Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch” by Sol Stern
  • “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content Curriculum They Need?” by Ruth Wattenberg
  • “There Are No Shortcuts: Mending the Rift between Content Knowledge and Deeper Learning” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge” by the Farkas Duffett Research Group

Even better, there are three must-reads by Hirsch: “Sustaining the American Experiment,” “Romancing the Child,” and “Why I’m For the Common Core.”

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (which will be published in the US in March), writes great blog posts all the time, but this one stands out. Christodoulou has a critical message for data-driven education reformers: “We can’t just predict using statistics alone. We need a theory.” She continues:

Without this theoretical understanding, we are more likely to conduct meaningless tests, mistake correlation for causation and confuse statistical significance with causal significance. This is something that E. D. Hirsch has written an absolutely brilliant article about…. Hirsch notes that we do have a strong theory from cognitive science about how pupils learn. We can use this theory to guide our teaching…. Here is his list of reliable general principles (in the article he discusses each at length).

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

It seems to me this is an excellent and easily accessible summary of what we know from cognitive science. If we used these as a basis for devising RCTs [randomized controlled trials] and as a starting point for discussing the findings we get from them, I think we would be doing well.

III. Why We All Have a Stake in the Common Core Standards

This brief essay by Mark Bauerlein drives home a key point for critics of the Common Core standards to consider: Most students are not well prepared for college. The standards alone won’t guarantee that more students are college ready, but they do nudge schools in the right direction. Writing for a higher education audience, Bauerlein argues:

When ACT, one of the best-known judges of college readiness, examined why so many first-year students end up in remedial courses and perform poorly, it identified one factor above all others: “Performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” Students three months out of high school enroll in freshman composition, a survey of U.S. history, and Econ 101 eager and hopeful, only to find that they can’t comprehend a Supreme Court opinion, 100-year-old oration, contemporary poem, and other texts.

Those pages prove too much for half of them (according to ACT), and colleges have insufficient resources to help…. To comprehend the texts they will face in college, students need general knowledge about science, math, history, civics, geography, arts and literature, religion, and technology….

Willy Loman, satire, and the poetry of King James stand proudly beside Gettysburg, separation of powers, and photosynthesis in the procession of cardinal things. The only adjustment English teachers need make is to add more literary nonfiction, which may include letters by Emily Dickinson, essays by Richard Rodriguez, chapters from Up From Slavery, and other unsurprising titles. Common Core readily admits them if they impart verbal facility and background knowledge that serve students well at the next level.

Critics of Common Core rightly worry, however, that curricula currently in development interpret “informational text” too nonliterarily and disregard cultural literacy. A troubling example comes from the National Council of Teachers of English, in a self-proclaimed guide to the standards. It declares, “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions.”

The authors mention “prior knowledge that gives context to the complexities of further reading,” but the “context texts” they recommend include film excerpts, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, and graphic novels, options often nonliterary and minimally fruitful for cultural literacy. Indeed, the choice of materials is secondary: “How the texts are used to scaffold the reading experience takes precedence over which texts are chosen.”

The burden, then, lies with college teachers to ensure that “which texts” does take precedence, specifically, that new informational texts in high school pay off in freshman year. They must be compellingly literary and rich in historical, social, psychological, or moral content. “Do not spend precious hours on media and topics that will not build familiarity that will be rewarded at the next level,” we must insist. Select informational texts that augment the knowledge base and enhance literary understanding.

 

Netflix Academy: A Magical Introduction to Core Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
September 16th, 2013

You might know the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli as a thought-provoking policy wonk and influential writer, but that’s not what makes him stand out. Above all else, Mike’s a great dad—one who struggles with making the best decisions for his kids and with helping all kids have similar educational opportunities.

Now, he needs your help.

Using the Core Knowledge Sequence as a guide to essential content, Petrilli has started a yearlong project to identify the best scientific, historical, and literary videos for kids. Set aside your favorite expensive or hard-to-find videos; Petrilli’s “Netflix Academy” is all about widely accessible works—those that, as he writes, “anyone with an $8/month Netflix subscription, or a $79/year Amazon Prime subscription, could instantaneously stream.”

(Young boy’s virtual safari courtesy of Shutterstock.)

 

Petrilli got the idea over the summer while watching the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons (ages five and three). He explains:

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years. This is why the Common Core State Standards call for a rigorous, coherent curriculum that offers a healthy diet of content knowledge—that’s the key to becoming a great reader, and an enthusiastic learner.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, for instance, my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.)….

Of course, five-year-olds have loved dinosaurs for decades, Netflix or not, but the power of cinematography to bring the subject alive is just this side of magic.

Watching with dad is magic too. But far too many dads (and moms and teachers) don’t have time to research how to make the best use of their kids’ screen time. We can all help.

Take a look at Petrilli’s posts thus far, and please use the comments section (here and/or on Petrilli’s site) to add your favorite videos:

Introduction and selected topics: www.edexcellence.net/introducing-netflix-academy-the-best-educational-videos-available-for-streaming

Dinosaurs: www.edexcellence.net/netflix-academy-10-best-dinosaur-videos-available-for-streaming

America’s founders and founding ideas: www.edexcellence.net/netflix-academy-best-videos-on-george-washington-and-other-american-founders-available-for-streaming

 

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: “Five Pillars” of a Good History Education

by Lisa Hansel
August 28th, 2013

Last week, the hard work of educators at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas, was overshadowed by ignorance. Like dedicated educators across the country, those at Minneha had thoughtfully decorated their school to pique students’ interest in the studies to come. For a fall unit on Islam, this bright bulletin board was on display—temporarily.

This photo, which was posted on Facebook, went viral. It was accompanied by a caption claiming that the school had “banned all forms of Christian prayer.” That’s not true, but that detail is not as important as the larger embracing of ignorance that it conveys. When a responsible citizen sees something in a public school that he or she does not like, what’s a reasonable reaction? Is it acceptable to post a photo online without making any effort to learn about the context and without any regard for how the ensuing debate may affect students? Are such actions really something other responsible citizens should reward by showering them with attention?

Minneha’s curriculum is based on the Core Knowledge Sequence (which is a preschool through eighth grade outline of essential knowledge). As anyone who takes 30 minutes to skim the Sequence knows, any curriculum based on the Sequence  will provide a well-rounded, historical examination of all five major world religions. Just as our nation’s founders intended, the Sequence also explores the centrality of religious tolerance to a strong, well-functioning, democratic society.

Minneha and the Wichita Public Schools are to be congratulated for offering an excellent response to the brouhaha:

Religion is an important component of the history of civilizations. Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet students cover the five major religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—as part of their Core Knowledge magnet curriculum. The students study civilizations throughout time, throughout the world, and cover religion with a focus on the history and geography in the development of civilizations.

The bulletin board that originally caused the concern does represent the 5 Pillars of Islam—in a historical context of their studies. There is also a painting of the Last Supper hanging in the school as part of the study of art and the Renaissance period. The students at Minneha have received these lessons for years as part of their Core Knowledge curriculum. A photo taken of a bulletin board without context is misleading, and some have taken it out of context without having all the information. Because of the misunderstanding that has been promoted by that one photograph, the bulletin board has been taken down until the unit is taught later this fall.

Minneha is a Core Knowledge magnet school. As a school of choice, more than 60 percent of Minneha’s students apply for admission to the school in order to receive the Core Knowledge education that is the foundation of the school. As part of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is overseen by a national foundation devoted to Core Knowledge education, children are introduced in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. In the fourth grade the focus is on history, geography and the development of civilization. The purpose is not to explore the matters of theology, but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history. The Core Knowledge goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

The heart of this matter is not one’s values or beliefs—it is a simple recognition that human history can’t be taught without devoting significant time to studying religion. One might even consider the five major world religions to be five pillars of an excellent history education.

Let’s take a closer look at how religion is covered in the Sequence. We can see the intent and progression of the study of religion just by looking at how religious content is framed. The following guidance is provided for early grades teachers:

Teachers: Since religion is a shaping force in the story of civilization, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces children in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. The purpose is not to explore matters of theology but to provide a basic vocabulary for understanding many events and ideas in history. The goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The tone should be one of respect and balance: no religion should be disparaged by implying that it is a thing of the past. To the question, “Which one is true?” an appropriate response is: “People of different faiths believe different things to be true. The best people to guide you on this right now are your parents or someone at home.”

In fourth grade, the studies remain historical, but become more in-depth, so similar guidance is offered:

Teachers: Since religion is a shaping force in the story of civilization, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces children in the early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures. In the fourth grade the focus is on history, geography, and the development of a civilization. The purpose is not to explore matters of theology but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history. The goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The tone should be one of respect and balance: no religion should be disparaged by implying that it is a thing of the past.

In sixth grade, building historical knowledge is still the primary goal, but the study becomes more analytical:

Teachers: The World History guidelines for sixth grade begin with a study of ancient civilizations introduced in earlier grades in the Core Knowledge Sequence. Topics include Judaism, Christianity, and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The focus in sixth grade should be on the legacy of enduring ideas from these civilizations—ideas about democracy and government, for example, or about right and wrong. After this study of lasting ideas from ancient civilizations, the World History guidelines pick up the chronological thread from earlier grades with a study of the Enlightenment. You are encouraged to use timelines and engage students in a brief review of some major intervening events in order to help students make a smooth transition across the gap in centuries between the ancient civilizations and the Enlightenment.

The following excerpts from the Sequence show the primary examinations of the major world religions. (For a comprehensive look, see the Sequence itself, which can be downloaded for free.)

Excerpts from Pages 34-35: Grade 1

World History and Geography

II. Early World Civilizations

  • Judaism
    • Belief in one God
    • Story of the Exodus: Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt
    • Israel, Chanukah, Star of David, Torah, synagogue
  • Christianity
    • Christianity grew out of Judaism
    • Jesus, meaning of “messiah”
    • Christmas and Easter, symbol of the cross
  • Islam
    • Originated in Arabia, since spread worldwide
    • Followers are called Muslims
    • Allah, Muhammad, Makkah, Qur’an, mosque
    • Symbol of crescent and star (found on the flags of many mainly Islamic nations)

Excerpts from Pages 61-67: Grade 2

World History and Geography

II. Early Asian Civilizations

B. INDIA

  • Indus River and Ganges River
  • Hinduism
    • Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
    • Many holy books, including the Rig Veda
  • Buddhism
    • Prince Siddhartha becomes Buddha, “the Enlightened One”
    • Buddhism begins as an outgrowth of Hinduism in India, and then spreads through many countries in Asia.
    • King Asoka (also spelled Ashoka)

See also Visual Arts 2: Architecture: Great Stupa, re Buddhism.

Excerpts from Pages 84-87: Grade 3

World History and Geography

II. The Ancient Roman Civilization

B. Background

  • Define B.C. / A.D. and B.C.E. / C.E.
  • The legend of Romulus and Remus
  • Latin as the language of Rome
  • Worship of gods and goddesses, largely based on Greek religion
  • The Republic: Senate, Patricians, Plebeians
  • Punic Wars: Carthage, Hannibal

C. The Empire

  • Julius Caesar
    • Defeats Pompey in civil war, becomes dictator
    • “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
    • Cleopatra of Egypt
    • Caesar assassinated in the Senate, Brutus
  • Augustus Caesar
  • Life in the Roman Empire
    • The Forum: temples, marketplaces, etc.
    • The Colosseum: circuses, gladiator combat, chariot races
    • Roads, bridges, and aqueducts
  • Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, destruction of Pompeii
  • Persecution of Christians

E. The Eastern Roman Empire: Byzantine Civilization

  • The rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire
  • Constantine, emperor who made Christianity the official religion of Rome
  • Constantinople (now called Istanbul) merges diverse influences and cultures.
  • Justinian, Justinian’s Code

American History and Geography

III. The Thirteen Colonies: Life and Times Before the Revolution

C. New England Colonies

  • New England colonies: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island
  • Gradual development of maritime economy: fishing and shipbuilding
  • Massachusetts
    • Colonists seeking religious freedom: in England, an official “established” church (the Church of England), which did not allow people to worship as they chose
    • The Pilgrims
      • From England to Holland to Massachusetts
      • 1620: Voyage of the Mayflower
      • Significance of the Mayflower Compact
      • Plymouth, William Bradford
      • Helped by Wampanoag Indians: Massasoit, Tisquantum (Squanto)
    • The Puritans
      • Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor John Winthrop: “We shall be as a city upon a hill.”
      • Emphasis on reading and education, the New England Primer
  • Rhode Island
    • Roger Williams: belief in religious toleration
    • Anne Hutchinson

Excerpts from Pages 106-115: Grade 4

World History and Geography

II. Europe in the Middle Ages

C. Developments in History of the Christian Church

  • Growing power of the pope (Bishop of Rome)
  • Arguments among Christians: split into Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Conversion of many Germanic peoples to Christianity
  • Rise of monasteries, preservation of classical learning
  • Charlemagne
    • Temporarily unites the western Roman Empire
    • Crowned Emperor by the pope in a.d. 800, the idea of a united “Holy Roman Empire”
    • Charlemagne’s love and encouragement of learning

See also Visual Arts 4: Art of the Middle Ages in Europe: Medieval Madonnas and Gothic architecture. And see Music 4, Gregorian chant.

III. The Spread of Islam and the “Holy Wars”

A. Islam

  • Muhammad: the last prophet
  • Allah, Qur’an, jihad
  • Sacred city of Makkah, mosques
  • “Five pillars” of Islam:
    • Declaration of faith
    • Prayer (five times daily), facing toward Makkah
    • Fasting during Ramadan
    • Help the needy
    • Pilgrimage to Makkah
  • Arab peoples unite to spread Islam in northern Africa, through the eastern Roman empire, and as far west as Spain.
  • Islamic Turks conquer region around the Mediterranean; in 1453, Constantinople becomes Istanbul.
  • The first Muslims were Arabs, but today diverse people around the world are Muslims.

B. Development of Islamic Civilization

  • Contributions to science and mathematics: Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Arabic numerals
  • Muslim scholars translate and preserve writings of Greeks and Romans
  • Thriving cities as centers of Islamic art and learning, such as Cordoba (Spain)

C. Wars Between Muslims and Christians

  • The Holy Land, Jerusalem
  • The Crusades
  • Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted
  • Growing trade and cultural exchange between east and west

Visual Arts

I. Art of the Middle Ages in Europe

Teachers: Study of the following works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in fourth grade World History: Europe in the Middle Ages.

  • Note the generally religious nature of European art in the Middle Ages, including Examples of medieval Madonnas (such as Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne—13th century Byzantine)
    • Illuminated manuscripts (such as The Book of Kells)
    • Tapestries (such as the Unicorn tapestries)
  • Become familiar with features of Gothic architecture (spires, pointed arches, flying buttresses, rose windows, gargoyles and statues) and famous cathedrals, including Notre Dame (Paris).

II. Islamic Art and Architecture

Teachers: Study of the following works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in fourth grade World history: The Spread of Islam.

  • Become familiar with examples of Islamic art, including illuminated manuscript and illumination of the Qur’an (Koran).
  • Note characteristic features of Islamic architecture, such as domes and minarets, in Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar), Jerusalem
    • Alhambra Palace, Spain
    • Taj Mahal, India

Excerpts from Pages 130-137: Grade 5

World History and Geography

IV. The Renaissance and the Reformation

A. The Renaissance

  • Islamic scholars translate Greek works and so help preserve classical civilization.
  • A “rebirth” of ideas from ancient Greece and Rome
  • New trade and new wealth
  • Italian city states: Venice, Florence, Rome
  • Patrons of the arts and learning
    • The Medici Family and Florence
    • The Popes and Rome
  • Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo
  • Renaissance ideals and values as embodied in
    • The Courtier by Castiglione: the “Renaissance man”
    • The Prince by Machiavelli: real-world politics

B. The Reformation

  • Gutenberg’s printing press: the Bible made widely available
  • The Protestant Reformation
    • Martin Luther and the 95 Theses
    • John Calvin
  • The Counter-Reformation
  • Copernicus and Galileo: Conflicts between science and the church
    • Ptolemaic (earth-centered) vs. sun-centered models of the universe

Visual Arts

I. Art of the Renaissance

Teachers: Study of the following artists and works of art may be integrated with study of related topics in World History 5: The Renaissance.

  • The shift in world view from medieval to Renaissance art, a new emphasis on humanity and the natural world
  • The influence of Greek and Roman art on Renaissance artists (classical subject matter, idealization of human form, balance and proportion)
  • The development of linear perspective during the Italian Renaissance
    • The vantage point or point-of-view of the viewer
    • Convergence of lines toward a vanishing point, the horizon line
  • Observe and discuss works in different genres—such as portrait, fresco, Madonna—by  Italian Renaissance artists, including
    • Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
    • Leonardo da Vinci: The Proportions of Man, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper
    • Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, especially the detail known as The Creation of Adam
    • Raphael: The Marriage of the Virgin, examples of his Madonnas (such as Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John, The Alba Madonna, or The Small Cowper Madonna)
  • Become familiar with Renaissance sculpture, including
    • Donatello, Saint George
    • Michelangelo, David
  • Become familiar with Renaissance architecture, including
    • The Florence Cathedral, dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi
    • St. Peter’s in Rome
  • Observe and discuss paintings of the Northern Renaissance, including
    • Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Wedding
    • Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (such as from 1498 or 1500)
    • Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (also known as Arnolfini Wedding)

Excerpts from Pages 153-160: Grade 6

World History and Geography

II. Lasting Ideas from Ancient Civilizations

A. Judaism and Christianity

  • Basic ideas in common
    • The nature of God and of humanity
    • Hebrew Bible and Old Testament of Christian Bible
  • Judaism: central ideas and moral teachings
    • Torah, monotheism
    • The idea of a “covenant” between God and man
    • Concepts of law, justice, and social responsibility: the Ten Commandments
  • Christianity: central ideas and moral teachings
    • New Testament
    • The Sermon on the Mount and the two “great commandments” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
  • Geography of the Middle East
    • Birthplace of major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam
    • Anatolian Peninsula, Arabian Peninsula
    • Mesopotamia, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
    • Atlas Mountains, Taurus Mountains
    • Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Black Sea, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf
    • The “silk road”
    • Climate and terrain: vast deserts (Sahara, Arabian)

I hope these excerpts provide some much-needed context. Many thanks to Minneha and all the other Core Knowledge schools committed to ensuring that knowledge triumphs over ignorance.

 

What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education?

by Lisa Hansel
July 11th, 2013

As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”

What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.

That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”

Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.

Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.

I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?

There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.

A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.

And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:

In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.

Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:

1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables

2. The Five Senses

3. Stories

4. Plants

5. Farms

6. Native Americans

7. Kings and Queens

8. Seasons and Weather

9. Columbus and the Pilgrims

10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople

11. Taking Care of the Earth

12. Presidents and American Symbols

Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?

Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.

Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.

Knowledge Really Is Power

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2013

This post isn’t about KIPP, but I’ll start with thanking KIPP for keeping a fundamental truth alive: Knowledge is power. Knowledge enables us to develop, refine, and deploy skills. Knowledge opens doors both literally and figuratively, giving meaning to freedom and democracy.

Knowledge is essential, and it needs to be taught. So it’s with great pleasure that I offer this far-too-long post, with Sol Stern, Annie Murphy Paul, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Tom Birmingham all making the case for knowledge.

Written as an open letter to the next mayor of New York City, Sol Stern’s article in the new City Journal makes a strong case for a content-rich curriculum:

Though children from disadvantaged families, and particularly from single-parent families, certainly tend to start school with less knowledge than middle-class students have, you can nevertheless pronounce confidently that educational improvement is possible, even in the toughest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.

We know that because it happened in Massachusetts…. The Bay State’s 1993 education-reform legislation established the country’s most demanding set of academic standards, which replaced trendy but ineffective pedagogical approaches with an old-fashioned emphasis on “content”—that is, knowledge. The standards eventually brought Massachusetts the greatest overall improvements in student performance in the nation, as measured by the NAEP….

The infrastructure for improvement is already in place, thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards…. If implemented properly—admittedly, a big “if”—the standards could start our schools on a long, difficult path to higher academic performance, not only for poor children but for all students.

Critics of the Common Core argue that the standards aren’t as demanding as Massachusetts’s. They’re right. But the Common Core is far superior to anything that previously passed for academic standards in New York. “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas,” say the standards’ accompanying documents. “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum drove improvement in Massachusetts, it could do the same in New York City….

If you pick a schools chancellor and other top officials who keep up with education research, they will know that a consensus exists among cognitive scientists that building broad content knowledge in the early grades is the best way to raise reading comprehension for disadvantaged children. As education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has warned for the past quarter-century, many poor children remain functionally illiterate not because teachers are incompetent but because those teachers have been “compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum” that dismisses the accumulation of knowledge as “mere facts.” More, a knowledge-based curriculum provides the most promising long-term strategy for preparing all children, poor and middle-class alike, for success in college or, for those who don’t attend college, in the twenty-first-century workplace. As a bonus, the Common Core encourages teaching the historical and civic knowledge that children need to become informed citizens and better Americans.

Contrary to what some critics say, content-based curricula are hardly an untested idea that we should try in only a limited number of schools. Not only do we have the success story of Massachusetts; we can point to the city’s field test of Hirsch’s content-based Core Knowledge literacy program in several schools between 2008 and 2011. The test showed that Core Knowledge produced significantly greater gains for students than the school system’s most widely used reading program (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

You still shouldn’t promise miracles, of course. There will be no overnight double-digit leaps in test scores…. It will take more than a few years to change the culture of teaching and restore the priority of knowledge acquisition in the classroom.

Changing the culture of teaching (which would entail changing most teacher preparation programs) will indeed be difficult. One major obstacle to overcome is the idea that students no longer need to acquire knowledge—with the right skills, they can just look up what they need to know whenever they need to know it. In a new post, Annie Murphy Paul addresses that myth:

What kind of information do we need to have stored in our heads, and what kind can we leave “in the cloud,” to be accessed as necessary?

The answer will determine what we teach our students, what we expect our employees to know, and how we manage our own mental resources. But before I get to that answer, I want to tell you about the octopus who lives in a tree.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis…. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered.

Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction…. The other fable here is the notion that the main thing these kids need—what all our kids really need—is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch).

But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies”—or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Google-able and therefore unworthy of committing to memory….

Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge….

Just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump. And sorting the wheat from the abundant online chaff requires more than simply evaluating the credibility of the source (the tree octopus material was supplied by the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society,” which sounded impressive to the seventh graders in Don Leu’s experiment). It demands the knowledge of facts that can be used to independently verify or discredit the information on the screen.

Okay, students really do have to learn things. Knowledge really is power. How should we go about teaching them all this knowledge? Many educators have been taught that the best approach is the supposedly natural one: having students explore, making observations and discoveries. But according to recent research, it appears as through directly teaching students is both natural and—more importantly—highly effective. In yet another must-read post on his science and education blog, Daniel Willingham explained this research:

I don’t much care about “naturalness” one way or the other. As long as learning is happening, I’m happy, and I think the value some people place on naturalness is a hangover from a bygone Romantic era, as I describe here.

Now a fascinating paper by Patrick Shafto and his colleagues … leads to implications that call into doubt the idea that exploratory learning is especially natural or authentic.

The paper focuses on a rather profound problem in human learning. Think of the vast difference in knowledge between a new born and a three-year-old; language, properties of physical objects, norms of social relations, and so on. How could children learn so much, so rapidly?…

Much of the research on this problem has focused on the idea that there must be innate assumptions or biases on the part of children that help them make sense of their observations…. Many models using these principles have not attached much significance to the manner in which children encounter information. Information is information.

Shafto et al. point out why that’s not true. They draw a distinction between three different cases with the following example. You’re in Paris, and want a good cup of coffee.

1) You walk into a cafe, order coffee, and hope for the best.
2) You see someone who you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe so you get yours there too.
3) You see someone you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe. She sees you observing her, looks at her cup, looks at you, and nods with a smile

In the first case you acquire information on your own. There is no guiding principle behind this information acquisition. It is random, and learning where to find good coffee will slow going with this method.

In the second scenario, we anticipate that the neighborhood denizen is more knowledgeable than we–she probably knows where to get good coffee. Finding good coffee ought to be much faster if we imitate someone more knowledgeable than we. At the same time, there could be other factors at work. For example, it’s possible that she thinks the coffee in that cafe is terrible, but it’s never crowded and she’s in a rush that morning.

In the third scenario, that’s highly unlikely. The woman is not only knowledgeable, she communicates with us; she knows what we want to know and she can tell us that the critical feature we care about is present. Unlike scenario #2, the knowledgeable person is adjusting her actions to maximize our learning.

More generally, Shafto et al suggest that these cases represent three fundamentally different learning opportunities; learning from physical evidence, learning from the observation of goal-directed action, and learning from communication.

Shafto et al argue that although some learning theories assume that children acquire information at random, that’s likely false much of the time. Kids are surrounded by people more knowledgeable than they. They can see, so to speak, where more knowledgeable people get their coffee.

Further, adults and older peers often adjust their behavior to make it easier for children to draw the right conclusion…. more knowledgeable others often do take into account what the child knows, and speak so as to maximize what the child can learn. If an adult asked “what’s that?”  I might say “It’s Westphalian ham on brioche.” If a toddler asked, I‘d say “It’s a sandwich.”

One implication is that the problem I described—how do kids learn so much, so fast—may not be quite as formidable as it first seemed because the environment is not random. It has a higher proportion of highly instructive information….

The second implication is this: when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching.

So whatever value you attach to “naturalness,” bear in mind that much of what children learn in their early years of life may not be the product of unaided exploration of their environment, but may instead be the consequence of teaching. Teaching might be considered a quite natural state of affairs.

I’ll leave the summing up to two leaders of the charge to ensure that all students acquire the knowledge (and skills—they go together!) they need.

E. D. Hirsch, chiming in on Willingham’s blog, noted:

Readers … should be aware of the relevant comments of the most curmudgeonly education commissioner California ever had, Max Rafferty, with regard to the natural teaching methods. “Schooling is not a natural process at all. It’s highly artificial. No boy in his right mind ever wanted to study multiplication tables and historical dates when he could be out hunting rabbits or climbing trees. In the days when hunting and climbing contributed to the survival of homo sapiens there was some sense in letting the kids do what comes naturally, but when man’s future began to hang upon the systematic mastery of orderly subject matter, the primordial, happy-go-lucky, laissez faire kind of learning had to go. [...] The story of mankind is the rise of specialization with its highly artificial concomitants. [...] When writing was invented, “natural” education went down the drain of history. From then on, children were destined to learn artificially. [...] This is civilization — the name of the game. [...] All civilization is artificial.” Actually, I think Rafferty understated the case. The pre-historic kid had to be taught by a grownup how to hunt rabbits — at least if the group was going to be successful.

Natural or not, acquiring academic knowledge is necessary. To the extent that we ignore the power of knowledge, and the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching it directly, we are locking the doors that a content-rich education would open. Tom Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate and coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, clearly stated our dire situation just a few days ago in the Boston Globe:

As education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated, achievement gaps are really knowledge gaps. Poor kids tend to have access to less background knowledge outside school than privileged kids. Unless poor kids are exposed to the same academically rich content in school that more affluent kids can get at home, we consign these students to second-class citizenship.

 

This Is What Equal Opportunity Looks Like

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2013

A few days ago, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote about supporting the Common Core State Standards—and doing whatever it takes to implement them well—simply because they reflect real-world standards. Institutions of higher education and employers have high standards. For many children from disadvantaged homes, rigorous schooling offers the only hope for being well prepared. Tucker recalled:

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

Tucker points out that instead of shying away from the Common Core, we ought to accept it as one necessary step in a total overhaul of our educational approach. “We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.”

All true. I argue that the place to start is standards and curriculum. The standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the specific content. With those as the foundation, we can rebuild the rest of our educational infrastructure—especially teacher preparation.

Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is a comprehensive reading, writing, speaking, listening, and knowledge-building curriculum for preschool through third grade that could be used to strengthen the elementary grades.

Teachers are excited about it because it develops decoding and encoding skills while also engaging students in listening to and discussing rich teacher read-alouds. Fiction and nonfiction, the read-alouds have a mix of fables, science, and history, including tales from around the world, ancient civilizations, the human body, and astronomy.

To really understand it, you have to see it. Take a look at this video featuring two schools that participated in the pilot of CKLA in New York City: P.S. 96Q and P.S. 104Q.

In the video, Alice Wiggins, Core Knowledge’s executive vice president, explains that one great benefit of CKLA is the carefully organized content: Children “are pulling knowledge from what they learned earlier in the school year and even in prior years because of the way the program spirals.”

Hope Wygand, a teacher, has seen this in action. In her hands, CKLA builds knowledge and excitement:

In second grade, I know I have to teach ancient Greek myths because in third grade, they are going to do ancient Roman myths. So it all builds….

When you can start a lesson and the children already know what you are talking about, they are so much more interested because they already have an investment in it—and they want to show you what they know.

But don’t just take it from me. See for yourself.

 

Can the Common Core Standards Reverse the “Rising Tide of Mediocrity”?

by Lisa Hansel
April 26th, 2013

This post originally appeared on April 25, 2013, on the Shanker Blog:  http://shankerblog.org.

Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled “Cultural Literacy,” sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.

In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

Mediocrity is what filled the void as schools slowly retreated from teaching all children rigorous content. That retreat happened throughout the 20th century: Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth.

E. D. Hirsch was a professor who shared that misunderstanding until his own research awoke him to the (now well-established) fact that broad literacy depends on broad knowledge. Shanker was by far the most prominent educator to grasp the veracity and power of Hirsch’s work.

Rigor is the antidote to risk.

According to Richard Kahlenberg’s terrific biography of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal,* Shanker “believed, with E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that if one really wished to be a political progressive concerned about disadvantaged kids, one needed to be an educational ‘conservative’ who stood for teaching students certain core knowledge that was essential to upward mobility in American society” (p. 10).

It was in the early 1980s, when Shanker read both A Nation at Risk and “Cultural Literacy,” that his particular form of progressivism took shape: Shanker saw that poor children needed a whole array of supports—including a traditional, rigorous curriculum that would give them all the knowledge that wealthier children get from their college-educated parents.

While virtually all education leaders panned A Nation at Risk, Shanker did not. According to Kahlenberg, Shanker’s reaction was “pivotal”:

When the … report was released … Shanker and a group of top union officials sat together and read the document. Sandra Feldman recalled: “We all had this visceral reaction to it. You know, ‘This is horrible. They’re attacking teachers.’ Everyone was watching Al to hear his response. When Al finished reading the report, he closed the book and looked up at all of us and said, ‘The report is right, and not only that, we should say that before our members.’ ” (p. 275)

Shanker did just that in a speech to members less than a week after the report came out. And then he spent the remainder of his life (he passed away in 1997) fighting for several major reforms. A few of the noteworthy ones were peer assistance and review, charter schools, and standards.

Thanks in part to Hirsch, Shanker had a very clear sense of what educational standards needed to accomplish. According to Kahlenberg:

Shanker disagreed with education-school professors who favored general thinking skills over gaining specific-content knowledge. He believed students needed both, and that John Dewey’s education theories had been misinterpreted by some “progressive” educators…. “Dewey himself was shocked when he went into some of these progressive schools and saw what was going on in his name.”

In the 1980s, Shanker became an early advocate of University of Virginia English Professor E. D. (Don) Hirsch Jr.’s argument that American students needed to be “culturally literate”—to master a body of facts that literate American’s know—in order to be successful in mainstream society. A full two years before Hirsch’s bestselling book Cultural Literacy became a phenomenon, Shanker embraced Hirsch’s view that knowing subject matter was important to reading comprehension…. “To read well you need background information that is culture-specific,” Shanker argued. Students needed to be taught Shakespeare and mythology so they could understand common cultural references.

Shanker was also taken by Hirsch’s argument that when students know particular content matter, their interest and curiosity are more likely to be aroused. A student who knows something about dinosaurs is more likely to pick up a book on dinosaurs when browsing through the library. “Subject matter,” Shanker argued, “is the life’s breath of learning.” While some “progressive” educators dismissed Hirsch’s approach as emphasizing “mere facts,” Shanker wrote thirteen separate columns mentioning Hirsch’s theory, invited Hirsch to speak at the AFT’s biennial QuEST Conference, and featured Hirsch on the cover of American Educator….

Shanker … believed that the core knowledge of the dominant culture was essential for all students to master if they wished to advance socioeconomically within the society…. Shanker argued:

Some people have been very critical of Hirsch’s proposals on the grounds that they try to impose the dominant culture on groups that would rather have their children learn their own culture. But the thrust of Hirsch’s proposal is egalitarian. He believes that by starting early and by giving all children the same core knowledge to learn, we can prevent the creation of an educational underclass…. (p. 323-324)

Despite their best efforts, neither Shanker nor Hirsch succeeded in bringing the need for knowledge-building curricula into mainstream reform efforts.

But now, the tide is finally turning.

The Common Core State Standards demand rigor—and a strong curriculum. In the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy, the need for a knowledge-building curriculum is plainly stated and explained:

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students  must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)

Shanker, no doubt, would applaud the effort. Hirsch certainly is. As more and more states take implementation seriously and support schools in creating the content-rich curricula they need, we all should be applauding.

 

* In quoting Tough Liberal, I have not included the endnotes.

 

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.

 

How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The poem starts this way:

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

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

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

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

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

So, why was I teaching this class?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Does Knowledge Have Any Value in the 21st Century?

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2013

In the UK, a debate is raging about Michael Gove’s proposal to implement a Core Knowledge–style curriculum. The discussion largely parallels criticisms and defenses of Core Knowledge in the US, so it’s both interesting and relevant to those of us who would like to see American students become more knowledgeable.

Sadly, strong opposition to the new curriculum is coming from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).  I don’t know anything about teacher preparation in the UK, but if it is anything like teacher preparation in the US, then the teachers are not to blame for their own lack of understanding of the many benefits of a rich, broad, carefully sequenced, knowledge-building curriculum. The UK teachers have probably never been taught about the decades of cognitive science demonstrating that knowledge and skills develop together; they probably have no idea that the higher-order skills we all want students to possess simply cannot be developed without simultaneously ensuring that they also have lots and lots of knowledge.

Now would be a good time for them to learn. As David Green (the director of Civitas, which is publishing a UK Core Knowledge Sequence) points out, the NUT is appropriately concerned about the de-professionalization of teachers—but it fails to see that the new curriculum is an opportunity to right that wrong:

Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them….

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years…. An official report in June 2011 … recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it…. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

Confusion over the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and skills is so widespread that the sociologist Frank Furedi decided to weigh in too. He sees very basic misconceptions in teachers’ objections to the new knowledge-building curriculum:

Education has been so instrumentalised that its main function is now to ‘provide skills’. The teaching of knowledge itself, for its own sake, is frequently dismissed as an old-fashioned custom that is not relevant to the twenty-first century….

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is easy to become one-sided. Often, too much of a polarising distinction is made between knowledge and its application. It is possible to make a distinction: knowledge is accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts, while skills represent the capacity to use that knowledge in specific contexts. But in reality, these two things are inextricably bound together….

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts; it is based on concepts, theories and specific structures of thought. So even if some of the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for very long periods of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over time, but they nonetheless express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries….

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by a conviction that children are the rightful heirs to the achievements and legacy of the past. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right.

Anyone who takes a careful look at the Core Knowledge Sequence for the US or the UK will see a curriculum that builds broad knowledge of the world and engages students in grappling with ideas and questions that are central to the human condition. As Green explains, it is a curriculum that could fully restore the teaching profession because it restores teachers to their rightful position as guides to the world:

Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism….

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods….

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about….

Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective.

Educators should be celebrating knowledge for its own sake and should be fighting for this new curriculum. It offers students the best of what humanity has discovered and created—and it builds knowledge and skills in the only way that really works: together.