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:

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.

Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2013

Three decades ago, in the spring of 1983, E. D. Hirsch published an essay titled “Cultural Literacy” in the American Scholar. He also turned 55. At an age when most people are getting serious about their retirement planning, Hirsch was embarking on a new career. He didn’t know it at the time; he thought the research on the need for background knowledge for skilled communication was so clear that all schools would rapidly revise their curricula and his job would be done. The research was clear, but the resistance to new ideas and evidence was not. Today, the siren song that elevates skills above content remains strong. Here is an excerpt from “Cultural Literacy” in which Hirsch explains how he broke free.

The received and dominant view of educational specialists is that the specific materials of reading and writing instruction are interchangeable so long as they are “appropriate,” and of “high quality.”…

I call this the doctrine of educational formalism….

During most of the time that I was pursuing research in literacy I was, like others in the field, a confirmed formalist. In 1977 I came out with a book on the subject, The Philosophy of Composition, that was entirely formalistic in outlook. One of my arguments, for instance, was that the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose. I suggested that freshman could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve, if they were directly taught those underlying psycholinguistic principles….

So intent was I upon this idea that I undertook some arduous research…. For about two years I was deeply engaged in this work. It was this detailed engagement with the realities of reading and writing under controlled conditions that caused me finally to abandon my formalistic assumptions….

[My colleagues and I] devised a way of comparing the effects of well-written and badly written versions of the same paper…. To our delight, we discovered that good style did make an appreciable difference, and that the degree of difference was replicable and predictable. So far so good. But what became very disconcerting about these results was that they came out properly only when the subjects of the papers were highly familiar to our audiences…. What we discovered was that good writing makes very little difference when the subject is unfamiliar. We English teachers tend to believe that a good style is all the more helpful when the content is difficult, but it turns out that we are wrong….

While the variability of reading skills within the same person was making itself disconcertingly known to me, I learned that similar variability was showing up in formal writing skills—and for the same reasons. Researchers at the City University of New York were finding that when a topic is unfamiliar, writing skill declines in all of its dimensions—including grammar and spelling—not to mention sentence structure, parallelism, unity, focus, and other skills taught in writing courses. One part of the explanation for such results is that we all have limited attention space, and cannot pay much heed to form when we are devoting a lot of our attention to unfamiliar content. But another part of the explanation is more interesting. Part of our skill in reading and in writing is skill not just with linguistic structures but with words. Words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large domains of content….

It would be useful … to have guidance about the words that high school graduates ought to know—a lexicon of cultural literacy. I am thinking of a special sort of lexicon that would include not just some ordinary dictionary words, but would also include proper names, important phrases, and conventions. Nobody likes word lists as objects of instruction; for one thing, they don’t work. But I am not thinking of such a lexicon as an object of instruction. I am thinking of it rather as a guide to objects of instruction. Take the phrase “First Amendment,” for instance. That is a lexical item that can hardly be used without bringing in a lot of associated information. Just what are the words and phrases that our high school graduates should know?

So began E. D. Hirsch’s 30-year struggle to close the achievement gap by giving all children the skills and the broad knowledge that enable strong reading and writing. In the years following his American Scholar essay, Hirsch wrote a bestselling book version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and developed a lexicon of what high school graduates should know: the Core Knowledge Sequence. To find out how the Sequence came about, we turn to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Pages 74 – 77 answer the question “Which Knowledge Do We Need?”*

What exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of? That is the nuts-and-bolts question….

It is assumed by the American educational community that any “representative” knowledge will do. My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to develop more useful guidance for schools than this imprecise and inaccurate notion back in the 1980s. We asked ourselves, “In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?” We considered various scholarly approaches to this problem. One was to look at word frequencies. If a word appeared in print quite often, then it was probably a word whose meaning was not going to be explained by the speaker or writer. We looked at a frequency analysis of the Brown Corpus, a collection of passages from very diverse kinds of publications that was lodged at Brown University, but we found that this purely mechanical approach, while partially valid, did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results. For example, because the Brown Corpus was compiled in the 1950s, “Nikita Khrushchev” was a more frequent vocabulary item than “George Washington.”…

A much better way of finding out what knowledge speakers and writers take for granted is to ask these people themselves whether they assume specific items of knowledge in what they read and write. This direct approach proved to be a sounder way of determining the tacit knowledge, because what we must teach students is the knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge….

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill. One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the [New York] Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that “any given day’s issue of the Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of these unexplained terms, which “play a part in the daily commerce of the published language.”

An inventory of the tacit knowledge shared by good readers and writers cannot, of course, be fixed at a single point in time. The knowledge that writers and radio and TV personalities take for granted is constantly changing at the edges, especially on topical issues. But inside the edges, at the core, the body of assumed knowledge in American public discourse has remained stable for many decades…. If we want to bring all students to reading proficiency, this stable core is the enabling knowledge that we must teach.

That’s more easily said than done. One essential, preliminary question that we faced was, how can this necessary knowledge be sequenced in a practical way for use in schools? We asked teachers how to present the topics grade by grade and created working groups of experienced teachers in every region of the country to produce a sequence independently of the others. There proved to be less agreement on how to present the material grade by grade than there had been in identifying what the critical topics are…. The sequencing of many topics is inherently arbitrary. While it’s plausible in math that addition needs to come before multiplication and that in history Greece probably ought to come before Rome, maybe it’s not plausible that Greece should come before George Washington.

We collected the accumulated wisdom of these independent groups of teachers, made a provisional draft sequence, and in 1990 held a conference where 145 people from every region, scholarly discipline, and racial and ethnic group got together to work extremely hard for two and a half days to agree on an intelligent way to teach this knowledge sequentially. Over time, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been refined and adjusted, based on actual classroom experience. It is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.

You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 4: Passing the Test



An Interesting Place to Spend Your Life

by Lisa Hansel
March 9th, 2013

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” That marvelous quote is meant to explain the purpose of college. It’s from Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard, but it comes to me from Diana Senechal, my go-to person for the beauty of an intellectual life. Just three months ago, I had the privilege of publishing Senechal (and that quote) in American Educator, the quarterly journal of educational research and ideas from the American Federation of Teachers. As the editor, I had a terrific job: I listened to teachers and did my best to express their questions, concerns, and ideas to some of the nation’s top scholars. Most of those scholars then agreed to write for American Educator—and what a wonderful array of generous people they were.

But one stood out: E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

So it is with great pleasure—along with admiration and awe every time I see Hirsch in person—that I’m now the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Could there be a better way to make my mind a fascinating place to spend the rest of my life?

The expertise in the Core Knowledge community is extraordinary, and the challenge before us is great: We must ensure that all children’s minds are interesting places. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a huge step in the right direction, but they are just the first step.

Not long ago, at a forum on the CCSS, a well-known superintendent lauded for her reform initiatives inadvertently diagnosed one of our greatest hurdles. She told a story of a young boy who had not done well on a writing prompt. Her district is relatively wealthy, so it was no surprise when the boy’s mother came in to complain: Her son would have done well if he had been allowed to write about BMX bikes instead of being required to write about butterflies.

No doubt he would have.

The superintendent found this compelling. She is now pushing for more student choice in schoolwork.

This is a perfect example of where many educators are today. The necessity of relevant background knowledge has sunk in. Our little boy loves BMX bikes. He probably has expert-level knowledge of BMX racing, equipment, and star athletes. He probably can do an impressive set of tricks on his own BMX bike. I love a similar sport, mountain biking, and I’ve ridden a couple BMX tracks (though not well). I would have enjoyed reading this boy’s BMX essay. But I don’t want him to write it for school.

At school, for his sake, I want him to acquire the type of broad background knowledge that will open the rest of the world to him. Butterflies are a small slice of the scientific world, and many superb lessons with geography, ecology, history, current events, and art have been created by following the monarchs from Maine to Mexico. BMX provides a healthy hobby for many young people—and a rewarding career for a handful of adults. But BMX alone won’t prepare our young student to comprehend the New York Times. If he is the rare boy who ends up with a career in BMX, great. But how will he decide to vote, or be a responsible juror, or communicate with his neighbors? And what will he do if BMX loses its allure? A content-rich, broad education provides a path to multiple higher-learning and career opportunities, the ability to communicate with others, and more varied leisure-time options.

The only way to squeeze a content-rich, broad education into K–12 is through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum. Is there room for some choice? Sure. Maybe our young student would have found locusts more compelling than butterflies. If the unit he just completed covered both, then maybe he should get to choose which one to write about.

The well-meaning superintendent grasps half of the equation. Relevant background knowledge is essential to writing (and reading, listening, and speaking) well. Broad background knowledge—broad enough to provide something relevant to virtually any situation—is essential to learning and communicating with ease throughout one’s life.

I hope superintendent reads Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. It’ll help her ensure that all of her students’ minds become interesting places to spend the rest of their lives.

P.S. I’ve been told more than a few times that Robert Pondiscio’s shoes are too big to fill. It’s true! If his quips ever inspired you to write a few clever lines, please send them to me (—I’m going to need all the help I can get.

It’s Time to Abandon the Status Quo

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 4th, 2013

Fully implementing the Common Core in the early grades is our best hope for closing achievement gaps

Last week on The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss posted “A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education” by Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Soon thereafter, she posted the following response (presented in full below) by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Reading both the critique and response is useful for understanding ways the Common Core could be misunderstood—or could become a vehicle for bringing systematic knowledge development into the early grades.

Earlier this week Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige raised some thought-provoking critiques of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While I don’t know whether early childhood educators were involved in the standards writing process, I do know that many early educators are pleased with the result. As someone who has studied how to best use the early years to close achievement gaps and give all children an opportunity to live happy, productive, engaged lives, I am also a supporter of the CCSS.

I don’t argue that the CCSS are perfect  (I would not even argue that about the Core Knowledge Sequence). And I agree with Miller and Carlsson-Paige that we should all be open to improving the Common Core standards once we have done our best to implement them well. I’ve seen more than a few sets of standards come and go; I will safely bet that the interpretation, the implementation, and most especially the assessments of the CCSS matter far more than the standards themselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the critiques Miller and Carlsson-Paige put forth.

The biggest problem with their criticism of CCSS is that they don’t offer anything different or better than what we have now. They call for a rejection of the CCSS because of various perceived faults. But then they call for what, exactly? As far as I can see, they want more of the pre-CCSS status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t working.  The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.

Of course, much more goes into reading at age 17 than early childhood education, and there has been some recent improvement among 9-year-olds in reading, especially among our lowest-performing students. Why hasn’t this improvement carried into later grades? As I have argued many, many, many times, the fundamental problem is that American schools, including preschools, typically delay systematic efforts to build students’ vocabulary and knowledge until far too late (usually the end of elementary school or even later).

Building word and world knowledge must begin in preschool if we are to have any hope of closing the enormous language gaps identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, or of enabling children to listen and read with comprehension. That’s why the Core Knowledge Foundation has spent the past several years developing a new preschool–5th grade language arts program (grades pre-K–3 will be online, for free download, by summer 2013). Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is radically different from the most widely used elementary-grades reading programs. Through high-quality fiction and nonfiction, CKLA systematically provides students the broad background knowledge they need to do well in middle and high school. It was developed by researchers and teachers working together. In short, it takes the best of current practice and updates it with solid research: it is nothing like the status quo (and has the results to prove it).

With the troubling results of the status quo in mind, let’s consider the end of Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s critique. They close with this: “Our first task as a society is to protect our children. The imposition of these standards endangers them. To learn more about how early childhood educators are working to defend young children, see Defending the Early Years.”Following that link, I arrived at a website with an open letter to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  The central point of the open letter is that NAEYC is no longer a strong supporter of it’s mid-1980’s statement on developmentally appropriate practice. The open letter states:

NAEYC has long played a valuable role in identifying and supporting best practices in early childhood education. The strong position NAEYC took with its 1986 publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, focused attention on respectful, child centered ways of working with young children…. NAEYC appears to have gradually retreated from its strong defense of DAP. The voices of its leadership have not been heard vigorously protesting the proliferation of standards and assessments or offering meaningful alternatives to them.

To NAEYC’s current leadership, I say “Bravo!” NAEYC has recognized that research does not stand still, and the best practices from almost 30 years ago are not considered best practices today. NAEYC has consistently been dedicated to updating its advice on DAP; it issued major revisions in 1996 and 2008. I had the good fortune in the mid-nineties to meet and talk with the authors of NAEYC’s guides on DAP, Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple (Bredekamp has worked on each of NAEYC’s DAP papers; Copple joined her in the 1990s). At the time, the Core Knowledge Foundation was creating a preschool program. I found them well versed in recent cognitive science, with a deep understanding of how preschool could enhance children’s oral language development, which is critically important for all future learning.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, has explained that many long-held, widely shared beliefs about children’s cognitive development—such as Jean Piaget’s notion that it proceeds in discrete stages—have not been supported by newer, more sophisticated studies. Cognitive development is continuous, and a child’s performance will vary day to day and task to task. (Even very young children can engage in critical thinking if they have been taught the necessary background knowledge.) In an article for teachers on DAP, Willingham asks them to “recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.” He then explains as follows:

Without trivializing them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

Of course, as teachers, you must also consider the cost if students do not fully understand a concept the way you had intended. The cost may be minimal, and the content may be worth knowing—even if in an incomplete way. For example, suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it’s hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you’re probably presenting content that they’ve already learned elsewhere.

I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary.

In addition to their out-of-date concept of what is developmentally appropriate, Miller and Carlsson-Paige have an unfounded fear that under the CCSS, the early grades will be dominated by direct instruction. I would also be upset to see a classroom in any grade that never departs from direct instruction—as I would be sad to see a classroom entirely devoted to discovery learning, project-based instruction, or free play. Decades ago, Project Follow Through clearly demonstrated that direct instruction works well with young children.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing. There is nothing inherent in the CCSS that discourages early childhood educators from offering rich educational experiences using a variety of pedagogies.

As NAEYC has noted, the CCSS indicate what should be taught in ELA/literacy and mathematics. They do not dictate pedagogy or prevent teachers from offering a well-rounded curriculum, including the arts and social-emotional learning. In its recent paper on the CCSS, which highlighted benefits of and support for the CCSS while also pointing out potential problems with implementation, NAEYC wrote:

Learning standards, or content standards, provide the “what” of education, but they do not describe the “how” of education. The content standards set the goal toward which teaching and learning opportunities are directed for young children.

The “how” of learning should be aligned to the content standard through our understanding of best practices to increase the chances of attaining the goal, even as the goal itself needs to be aligned with our knowledge of children’s learning processes…. Especially critical is maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches—including the use of play as well as both small- and large-group instruction—that are considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children.

While Miller and Carlsson-Paige seem to think that academic content—gap-closing word and world knowledge—can’t be delivered in a developmentally appropriate way, solid research shows us that it can. For example, the distinguished psychologist Robert Siegler has found that numerical board games (like Chutes and Ladders) can help preschoolers from low-income families increase their numerical skills and concepts. Would a classroom that spends 20 minutes playing Chutes and Ladders and another 10 minutes in a direct math lesson really be such a terrible “drill and grill” place (as Miller and Carlsson-Paige wrote)?

The CCSS do leave room for great teaching, but that does not mean that all interpretations of the CCSS have been either accurate or helpful. A New York Post article stated that “the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write ‘informative/explanatory reports’ and demonstrate ‘algebraic thinking.’ Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.” This is a misinterpretation of the CCSS. I am grateful to everyone who is trying to correct such errors. For young children, the focus of the CCSS is—appropriately—oral language.

Such misunderstanding of the CCSS brings me to a final point. All standards, even the CCSS, are goal statements that can be interpreted many ways. If the idea of all children sharing some core content is to come to fruition, somebody needs to come up with a model curriculum along with validated, curriculum-based tests. That curriculum need not say how to teach, but it does need to say what limited core to teach, grade by grade. (That core is  all the more important, since teachers will still need time to address students’ weaknesses and encourage them to pursue their interests.) Without a specific curriculum, and without tests that are drawn exclusively from that curriculum, word and world knowledge will continue to be taught haphazardly and incoherently, and our achievement gaps will not be closed.

I believe Core Knowledge Language Arts is an important step toward such a curriculum, and I would warmly welcome any funder interested in developing a curriculum-based test for CKLA. If we as a nation developed something of equally high quality for the middle grades, then dramatically more students would be able to take AP’s and IB’s curriculum-based courses and exams in high school.

The future of American education hinges on whether CCSS can be made to work. The alternative, despite the protestations of the critics, is more of the same ineffective and unjust practices that have placed the nation and its middle class at risk.

Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”

John Merrow’s Crystal Ball

by Alice Wiggins
January 24th, 2013

Last year, John Merrow showed us what early grades classrooms will look like once teachers become experts in the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. He’s long been known as an insightful journalist, so maybe it should not be a surprise that he so quickly grasped the most essential difference between business as usual and the Common Core.

Unlike ELA practices typically used in the early grades today (which our nation’s hard-working teachers have been taught in their preparation programs and required by their school districts to use), the practices that will become typical in the Common Core era are actually based on cognitive science. The first hint is in the standards’ long title: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. It’s ridiculously long for a title—but it’s incredibly short as a summary of all the most critical points.

Common: shared, as in shared by enough educators for them to be able to collaborate in developing and refining lesson plans—and shared across schools so those unlucky students who must change schools often are not always lost in class.

Core: essential yet also expandable; states can add a bit (if they must) and teachers will have time to go deeper in response to students’ needs and interests.

State: not federal.

Standards: not curriculum (though for the sake of teacher training, materials development, assessment, and mobile students, states should consider developing curricula too).

English Language Arts: artful use of the English language will become far easier to find once the new writing, speaking, listening, and language standards are honored in spirit and practice.

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: broad literacy, true literacy; a literate adult has wide-ranging knowledge of these subjects and is therefore able to read any text intended for the public.

This lengthy title will take on even more meaning with a quick review of two amazing findings from cognitive science. Both relate to literacy, and they really explain why the new standards emphasize literacy in specific subjects. The first finding is that, once students are fluent decoders, reading comprehension strategies do help—but students don’t need to spend much time learning or practicing them. Some research shows that just 6 lessons in comprehension strategies (like answering questions and summarizing) are as effective as 50 such lessons. This is great news: we have something effective to build on and it does not need to take much  instructional time. That means we have plenty of time to devote to something that helps more, which brings me to the second finding: knowledge matters. A lot.

One way to study this that has been replicated several times is to take a topic, say baseball, and then get a group of kids, say 12-year-olds, and assess them to find out (1) who is and is not a strong reader, and (2) who does and does not know much about baseball. Then make four groups: strong reader, high knowledge of baseball; strong reader, low knowledge of baseball; weak reader, high knowledge of baseball; weak reader, low knowledge of baseball. Now we’re ready to find out how much knowledge matters: give the kids a text about a baseball game and give them a miniature replica of the diamond, players, etc. Then see who really understands the text by having them show you what happened in the game. Which group does best? The strong readers with a high knowledge of baseball, of course. But the real question is between the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball and the weak readers with high knowledge of baseball. Okay, I gave away the answer at the beginning: it’s the knowledge that really matters. Weak readers with high knowledge of baseball comprehend the baseball text better than the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball. This is spectacular because it gives us a clear path to high achievement: to increase reading comprehension, we need to increase knowledge—and that can be done orally and visually, as well as through text.

Back to the future. Fortunately, when Merrow looked into his crystal ball he had his camera crew standing by to capture the astounding scene: 6-year-olds talking about their favorite books on the solar system and archeology. Take a look (or read the transcript). The first part of the video captures the reading classroom of today. But then, about 6 minutes in, the future is there for all to see in an elementary school in Queens, NY. This is one of 10 NYC schools that piloted the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Grades K–3 of that program will be available—for free—this summer, and samples will be available in February. We’ll be sure to let you know when the future arrives.

A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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