“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.


Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY

Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.


Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Dear Alliance: You Almost Nailed It

by Lisa Hansel
August 21st, 2015

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a new report: The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. It’s definitely worth reading, making many crucial points about supporting literacy from kindergarten through twelfth grade in a few pages.

There’s just one problem: it does not discuss building broad academic knowledge.

Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills. If only such skills were sufficient!

In the section on “Why Readers Struggle,” the report mentions vocabulary and alludes to the Common Core standards, but knowledge is neglected:

Improving literacy achievement can prove daunting because individuals struggling to read and write experience a wide range of challenges that require an equally wide range of interventions. Students may have difficulty with word recognition, vocabulary, or reading fluency. In addition, states’ new English language arts standards increase expectations for reading and writing proficiency by emphasizing the critical thinking and analytical skills students need to succeed in college and a career. These standards foster the progressive development of literacy skills by exposing students to challenging texts within academic content areas. Many students, however, lack the strategies and stamina to understand informational texts, make connections among ideas, and draw conclusions based on evidence gathered from source material.

Hmm. Why do the new standards require “challenging texts within academic content areas”? What enables “critical thinking and analytical skills”? And what might we offer students so that they don’t need “strategies and stamina to understand informational texts” (especially since “strategies and stamina” are only minimally effective)?

As decades of research in cognitive science show—and the Common Core standards clearly state—language comprehension requires broad knowledge. In fact, knowledge is so critical in comprehension that a weak reader with extensive knowledge of the topic in the text will substantially outperform a strong reader without such knowledge


In school and throughout life, comprehension depends on broad knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

It’s great to see the Alliance pushing to close the reading achievement gap. Much of its report makes good sense, but the gap can’t be closed via literacy instruction alone.

To be fair, in its discussion of response to intervention, the report does state, “All students need to engage in authentic literacy, which refers to the intensive integration of purposeful reading, writing, and talking into core subject areas.” But this acknowledgement of the importance of all core subjects still fails to recognize that the knowledge students acquire across subjects is the key to good comprehension. If acquiring knowledge were the goal, I’d expect to see “integration of purposeful listening, reading, writing, and talking” since listening to and discussing teacher read-alouds is a great way to build knowledge in the elementary and middle grades. As written, it seems as if the purpose of “authentic literacy” is to build “strategies and stamina.”

I’d love to see the Alliance publish a new report soon. One that touts the need to build broad knowledge from early childhood through twelfth grade, clarifies that a well-rounded curriculum is the only way to narrow the reading achievement gap, and calls for “literacy” interventions for struggling students that include enrichment across subjects.

I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Why Is Creativity in Decline?

by Lisa Hansel
August 13th, 2015

For the past 25 years, creativity has been in decline. I’ve just started to look into it, so I won’t pretend to have an answer—but I do have a hunch. We’re trivializing creativity.

First the research. Kyung Hee Kim is a professor of creativity and innovation at The College of William & Mary. She’s found a couple of interesting things. One is that creativity and intelligence are only weakly correlated. The other is that although IQ scores have been rising throughout the last century, since 1990 creativity scores have gone down—and the most significant drop was for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Some people will assume that too much academic work has been pushed into the early grades. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. In the relatively few early grades classrooms I’ve seen in which children are engaged in sophisticated academic topics, they enjoy learning “real stuff” about the world. I could buy that too many schools have pushed boring worksheets and test prep into the early grades, but I haven’t seen much of that before third grade.

As I learn more about creativity, I think part of the issue is that those of us in education—especially elementary education—don’t think about creativity the way researchers do. When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile.

Kids do say the darndest things, but they are very rarely creative.

Kim’s research uses the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is very widely used and the best-available (although perhaps still not great) predictor of future creative achievement. The subscales on the measure are useful for thinking about what creativity involves:

  • Fluency: “ability to produce ideas.”
  • Originality: “ability to produce unique and unusual ideas.”
  • Elaboration: “ability to think in a detailed and reflective manner as well as … motivation.”
  • Abstractness of Titles: “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes and for capturing the essence of the information involved.”
  • Resistance to Premature Closure: “ability to be intellectually curious and to be open-minded.”

In short, creativity seems to be a mix of being able to think of new things and then being able and eager to analyze and improve on one’s thinking. When Ken Robinson touts kindergartners’ ability to think of new uses for paperclips—and then scolds schools for squashing their genius-level divergent thinking—he’s missing the boat on creativity. As Brent Silby wrote, “If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a ‘genius’? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.”

Along these same lines, the very existence of art schools seems to indicate that fluency and originality are merely the starting places for creativity. Originality is the easy part—useful and worthwhile is the high bar. That takes knowledge, but knowledge itself is not sufficient either (as the minimal relationship between IQ and creativity indicates). Practice, reflection, and the drive to improve (including seeking out and acting on critiques) all seem essential.

So why is creativity in decline, especially among young children? Perhaps because our expectations are too low. Perhaps more academics—taught with interesting read-alouds, more challenging projects, and greater emphasis on feedback, reflection, and revision—would reverse the decline. I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.


Was originality all that Van Gogh needed?

Mississippi: Common Core Lite

by Lisa Hansel
August 10th, 2015

Mississippi is a little more than half way through a public comment period on the 2014 Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards for English Language Arts—a document that is co-branded with the Common Core and Mississippi Department of Education logos on every page.

The Common Core squabbles in Mississippi became interesting last week when a state official said that “Almost 92% of the individuals that commented have indicated full approval of the state’s academic standards.”

Conventional wisdom seems to be that Mississippi’s standards are the same as the Common Core (e.g., see here and here). With the high approval rating, I wanted to see if the standards really are identical. Each individual standard might be a copy (I only did a spot check), but Mississippi’s version is at best Common Core lite. It’s almost Common Core gutted.

What did Mississippi drop? Just the most important part: the guidance on developing a content-rich, coherent, carefully sequenced curriculum.


Without a knowledge-rich curriculum, Mississippi’s children have little chance of meeting the standards (inamge courtesy of Shutterstock).


In the Common Core, there are three strong statements on curriculum. None of them appear in Mississippi’s version.

This isn’t an oversight. While two of the calls for content-rich curriculum are omitted entirely, one was edited out. Let’s start with the edit.

The Common Core has a “Note on range and content of student reading.” Mississippi’s version has the exact same note—but for the one key sentence I underlined below:

Note on range and content of student reading

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. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Now on to the omissions. Mississippi’s version omits the entire Common Core section titled “What is not covered by the Standards.” In so doing, it drops this critical statement:

[W]hile 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.

Mississippi’s version also omits the section titled “Staying on Topic Within a Grade & Across Grades.” This one really gets me. This section is the absolute best of the Common Core. In just two paragraphs, it explains how to efficiently and enjoyably build knowledge and vocabulary in the early grades with read-alouds of domain-specific text sets. And in one simple table, it provides an excellent example of how to systematically build knowledge of the human body across K–5. This is the type of guidance educators desperately need to meet the Common Core—or any college-, career-, and citizenship-ready standards.

I wish I could claim that this Common Core lite is limited to Mississippi. I don’t know why or how teachers in other states are being prevented from reading the full standards, but it appears to be a widespread problem. A couple of months ago, a colleague who does professional development on the Common Core across the country told me he has yet to encounter a single teacher who is familiar with what Robert Pondiscio has dubbed the “57 most important words in education reform”:

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.

Common Core is supposed to be rich and rigorous, well sequenced and well rounded. Even with a knowledge-building, carefully articulated curriculum, meeting these standards will be tough. Without such a curriculum, all hope is lost.

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.


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.



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.


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.


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.