Seeking Confirmation

by Lisa Hansel
July 9th, 2015

Of all the problems with school reform, one of the biggest seems to be the tendency to seek bits of evidence that confirm preconceived notions. Silver bullets, tunnel vision, blind faith—call it whatever you want—somehow, those of us interested in school improvement have to stop searching for THE change. There is no one change that will get the job done.

The whole system has to improve.

Curriculum, materials, instruction, leadership, preparation, and professional development all matter. Funding, facilities, parental involvement, and community support all matter. Health care, nutrition, after school, and summer learning all matter.

Once we give up on searching for the one most important factor, we can make a long-term plan and finally achieve our goals. Just like Finland did.

Huh? Didn’t Finland just tackle teacher quality? Or just minimize assessments? Or just create a strong family welfare system? Or …

No. Unlike the US, Finland spent more than three decades pursuing a coherent, comprehensive improvement plan. But, to put it politely, many reformers eyeing Finland are missing the forest for their favorite trees.

In a recent policy paper, the director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment, Tim Oates, puts it less politely:

Due to myopia and elementary errors in enquiry, what foreign analysts have taken from Finland frequently has amounted to ‘Finnish fairy stories’….

In the course of the 2010 UK Curriculum Review, a number of high-performing jurisdictions were scrutinised for the form and content of their national curriculum specifications. Following its emergence at the top of the first PISA survey in 2000, Finland was included in the countries examined….

The children in PISA 2000 were 15 years of age. We assumed that it was unlikely that 1985 was the first year of the school system being of an interesting form, so we looked back at what was happening in the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1970s. What we found was a period of genuine improvement in educational outcomes and a determined set of reforms to schooling – but what we discovered was that the vast bulk of educational tourists had arrived in Finland 2001 and made a serious error. They got off the plane and asked the Finns about the system in 2000 – not what it was like during the 1970s and 1980s, when standards were rising. During the time of sustained improvement, the system was very different; policy formation was distinctive, the way in which this policy was implemented was distinctive – and very different from the way things were in 2000.

This elementary error of analysis has been compounded by non-Finnish analysts who have asked questions only about the things in which they are interested; they have ‘found’ what they have been looking for, and not understood the importance of things which they have not asked about. Combined together, these two errors have given a very misleading picture of what Finland genuinely appears to have achieved, and how.

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Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

Oates goes on to explain that Finland’s transformation was centrally planned, implemented, inspected, and evaluated. From teacher preparation to curriculum to school leadership to measurement, the national government was conducting the orchestra. While the US is too large and too different from Finland for national or federal education reform, state leaders could learn a great deal from Finland (and from the one state that undertook a multi-decade, planned reform: Massachusetts).

Putting what some mistake for autonomy into its Finnish context, Oates adds, “Finland has a 120-year history of structured educational reform, using centrally specified curriculum requirements. Far from a history of autonomy, there is a culture of negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.”

Pause there: “negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.” While it’s easy to focus on the “centrally specified” part, the “negotiated … agreement” is equally important. Perhaps central planning works in Finland because it is actually collective planning. The path forward is neither autonomous nor top down. It’s mutually agreed-upon action.

Finnish educators Pasi Sahlberg and Jukka Sarjala see such agreement as essential. They trace Finland’s educational improvement to the new consensus that emerged after Finland was devastated in World War II. Finland never tried to attain the highest scores; it built an education system devoted to supporting democracy, ensuring economic sustainability, achieving equality, and increasing cooperation. It saw centrally planned, consensus-driven curriculum, materials, teacher preparation, assessments, and family supports as necessary elements. And it recognized that systematic changes would take many years and much support.

Such comprehensive, collective transformation would be a struggle in any US state (perhaps that’s why none has followed in Massachusetts’s high-performing footsteps). But there’s no solid evidence that anything less is effective at scale.

Teachers Want to Learn about Curriculum Design

by Lisa Hansel
July 7th, 2015

The July 2nd SmartBrief has a little reader poll that doesn’t appear scientific or representative or trustworthy at all. But still, it brightens my day. More than a host of trendy topics, educators want to learn about curriculum design:

Which topics are you most interested in learning about in your self-directed PD this summer?

Curriculum design: 25.89%
Differentiated instruction: 22.33%
Teacher leadership: 16.15%
Children living in poverty: 10.93%
Classroom management: 8.31%
Common Core and other state standards: 8.31%
Lesson planning: 8.08%

Let’s hope they’re learning about knowledge-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum design.

 

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Life Is a High-Stakes Reading Test

by Lisa Hansel
July 2nd, 2015

Life is a high-stakes reading test. Those who pass gain entry to the best humanity has to offer—great literature, active and effective citizenship, fascinating dinner debates, meaningful connections with people across time and space, jobs that are both interesting and high paying, genuine capacity for self-directed learning, etc.

The key to passing is broad knowledge.

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Knowledge enables comprehension and creates opportunities (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

That fact is the driver behind the Common Core standards’ requirement that K–12 schooling include dramatically more nonfiction reading, reaching 70% by twelfth grade. I’ve never understood the backlash against this mandate. There is no call for 70% of the reading assigned in English courses to be nonfiction. If students are taking English, history, and science, then two-thirds of their reading should already be nonfiction. Add in some biographies of artists and musicians (in art and music classes) and the 70% requirement is easily met. High schools with solid electives would likely have most students reading 80% nonfiction.

Nonetheless, many English teachers seem to be trying to draw far more nonfiction into their courses. Why? Do they not know that the 70% requirement applies to the whole day? Do they know that their colleagues in other disciplines are not assigning enough reading, so they are trying to fill the gap? Do they fear that whatever their colleagues are doing, they must do more to prepare for the high-stakes tests (since accountability policies unfairly attribute reading scores to ELA teachers alone)? Do they simply not know what their colleagues are assigning because they don’t have time to collaborate?

If only schools would see the 70% mandate as a call for collaboration: English and history teachers could pair great novels and poetry with studies of particular time periods, giving students an understanding of the author’s worldview. English and science teachers could pair science-fiction stories with analyses of the accuracy and potential of the scientific ideas they contain.

If a recent New York Times article is at all representative, such pairings are rare. Working alone, some English teachers seem to be struggling to effectively incorporate nonfiction. One assigned the G.I. Bill along with The Odyssey, which might inspire an interesting discussion, but would likely be based more on opinion than expertise. Others have turned to short pieces on banal topics like cell phones and cheerleading. These anecdotes indicate that teachers are trying to build some set of nonfiction comprehension skills—under the mistaken belief that they could be applied to any nonfiction text—instead of building the knowledge that would make comprehension effortless.

Faith in comprehension strategies is so strong that some teachers don’t seem to have broadening students’ horizons as a goal at all. As the Times reported:

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn … some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.

But there was one glimmer of hope in the article:

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

These two examples are promising because they reveal a dedication to building knowledge of important topics. But they are not as coherent as I’d like. Refugees and women’s rights are very broad themes; there’s a risk of exposure to a great deal and retention of very little. Focusing on a narrower topic, such as the Vietnam War or Sojourner Truth, might give students a more meaningful opportunity to build vocabulary and knowledge. Indeed, the need for background knowledge is likely why students found the unit on women’s rights—a familiar topic anchored with a sports star—more interesting than the unit on Vietnam and refugees.

Knowledge increases curiosity, enables comprehension and other forms of critical thinking, and ensures students pass life’s most important high-stakes tests.

Tapas-Style Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
June 29th, 2015

Education Week noted recently that there’s an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to coherent programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to … mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials on each topic that best meet their students’ needs. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such a curriculum. In schools that aim to instill skills, without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate skills, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. Whether teachers or students are choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.

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This just isn’t what kids need (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet. Kids get plenty of fried cheese outside of school. In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Marc Tucker wrote:

The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days.  But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly.  We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.  The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge.  But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level.  As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them.  Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

In short, cognitive science tells us that broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are necessary for learning and thinking. And both science and common sense tell us that shared knowledge is necessary for effective communication. A tapas-style education might get us there, but only if we remove the fried cheese from the menu and agree to a content-specific plan to guide and balance our selections.

 

DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.

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Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.

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A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2015

“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!

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A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Knowledge Equalizer: Jeff Litt

by Lisa Hansel
June 15th, 2015

In my last post, I called for knowledge equality. My hope is all educators and concerned citizens—and policymakers with counter-productive, curriculum-narrowing mandates—will see that broad, shared knowledge is essential to equality of opportunity.

Today I have the great pleasure of highlighting an educator who truly is a knowledge equalizer: Jeff Litt. Litt spent over 30 years in the traditional public schools, but he’s far from a traditional leader. He transformed P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx from a graffiti-covered nightmare into a loving, high-achieving community of learners. The Core Knowledge Sequence provided a platform for the change, but the heart of it was Litt’s vision for what all schools should be: rigorous and nurturing. As the Chicago Consortium on School Research showed years ago, the combination of high “academic press” with social support  yields striking gains in achievement among disadvantaged youth.

After his success at P.S. 67, Litt launched the Icahn Charter Schools, which is now the second-highest-achieving network in New York City—even though it welcomes new students in the upper grades who are far behind and has almost no suspensions. But neither Litt nor the Icahn schools are famous; they eschew the spotlight to stay focused on their students.

With a terrific video and article, Reason magazine gives us a rare look at Litt’s extraordinary work. Here are just a few highlights:

“These kids are like my flesh and blood, and I would do anything for them,” says Litt, who walks the halls of his schools reminding students with motherly consternation to take off their warm coats, tie their shoes, and not to come to school without socks to avoid blisters….

One reason Icahn gets so little attention in the press is that it has been overshadowed by Success Academy…. But while Icahn’s scores are not as good as Success’, the comparison between the two organizations gets hazier when you take into account what’s known as “backfilling.”

When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn’s overall scores….

“I think it’s no fluke that they’re the two highest performing charter networks in New York City,” says Charles Sahm, who’s the education policy director at the Manhattan Institute. Sahm has been researching and writing about both Success Academy and Icahn, and he says the reason they’ve done so well is sort of a no-brainer: It’s their rich curricula. “Success and Icahn both focus like a laser beam on what kids are being taught and how,” says Sahm. “It sounds very simple, but actually doing it is quite difficult.”

Reason video

Don’t miss Reason’s terrific, 8-minute video, highlighting Litt’s dedication to finding successful, experienced leaders.

On Blooming

by EmmaEarnst
May 26th, 2015

As a member of the team of educators and editors developing Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), I’m continually proud of and impressed by the understandings, connections, and accomplishments that students reach when their incredible teachers use the CKLA program to guide instruction.

There’s Olivia, the darling girl on this Amplify Learning video, who discovers her ability, and love for, reading. There are the scores of children we see and hear during school visits who are using academic and domain vocabulary (tiers 2 and 3) as they make cross-curricular connections.

And then there are the writers. Being a writer myself, seeing students use writing as a means of expressing themselves is one of my favorite rewards.

Acting as “Kate,” I have the opportunity to see students blossom in just this way every year.

You see, every spring as the daffodils, tulips, and peonies lift their heads in succession to greet us, something else magical happens as well: Kate Skipper letters come pouring in!

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As part of CKLA’s Skills strand, first graders read Kate’s Book during the fifth of seven units. Depending on various factors like school schedules and student progression, this typically falls between the months of March and May. After reading Kate’s Book and learning about opinion writing, students write a letter to Kate Skipper, the main character and “author” of their reader. Kate explains it best in her introductory letter to the book:

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Students read the thirteen stories that make up Kate’s Book over the course of a 23-day unit. While reading the book, students simultaneously develop and then publish an opinion letter to Kate. At the end of the book and unit, students are offered the chance to send their letters to Kate Skipper care of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hundreds of letters pour in and I, as Kate, write back. First-grade teachers: Keep them coming!

As explained in the recent post by Debbie Reynolds, a teacher in Nevada, CKLA develops writing ability by supporting students to use their background knowledge, build new knowledge orally, and organize their thoughts before tackling any larger writing project. First graders’ letter to Kate is the culmination of exposure and study throughout the year; students’ growth, enthusiasm, and attitudes are clearly reflected in their letters.

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The most common response from students follows along these lines: “Loved your book, Kate! When will you write another?”

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Notice Linsey’s opinion “I like Max” is backed up with reason: “because he has a hat.”

 

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Likewise, Samuel explains that he likes the books because Kate and her friend, Max, find a T. rex bone.

This year, we got a special surprise as just before the letters to Kate Skipper began rolling in: We received a letter from Olivia (not the same Olivia in the Amplify video), a second grader, that reflects not just her heart-felt opinion, but also showcases her reasoning. Olivia, described by her teacher as “the premier animal lover and animal expert in [her] classroom,” disagreed with the portrayal of snakes and spiders in the CKLA book Sir Gus. Olivia’s teacher used this as an opportunity for enrichment, and suggested that Olivia write to us at the Foundation respectfully explaining her position.

Olivia took up on her teacher’s suggestion, and wrote us the following letter:

bear CKLA,

My name is Olivia and I am second grader….I am reading Sir Guse I like it but Sir Gus is a skardy cat. I noticed a big problem….You making a bad impreshen to make kids skarde of spiders and snakes you know you should relley study an animal before you guge it.

Sinserely,

Olivia

Olivia clearly displays the tenets of persuasive writing she learned from CKLA (argument, reasoning, and personal connection), and uses them to make her opinions known and potentially improve how CKLA represents animals. I am—we are—enormously proud of her!

By learning about and practicing persuasive writing in CKLA, and building a base of knowledge, Olivia was prepared for this unique opportunity to make her voice heard—and that will serve her well throughout her life.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

Liteacy Ladders Cover

The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.

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* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.