New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)

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Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)

Curriculum Doesn’t Matter, Unless You Care about Achievement and Mobility

by Lisa Hansel
September 11th, 2014

Five years ago, Russ Whitehurst published an important paper comparing the effects of various education reforms. Better teachers and curriculum rose to the top, with what is taught being just as important as who is doing the teaching. But that finding didn’t fit with reformers’ obsession with teachers, so the paper was largely ignored. Two years ago, Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos did a more extensive look, confirming the previous findings and challenging states to begin gathering data on which materials are being used in schools.

Now, with pressure to interpret and meet the Common Core standards, curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional materials are finally getting wider attention. Much of that attention has been negative, as those who are against the standards seem to enjoy finding misinterpretations of the standards’ intent. I find that gotcha game silly; no one really expects initial stabs at Common Core–aligned materials to be terrific. Over time they will improve—and with support they will improve more quickly.

I’m thrilled to see growing interest in providing that support. The Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are leading the way by funding several efforts, the most promising of which just might be EdReports.org. Preparing to launch in the winter, EdReports.org is involving teachers in intensive reviews of K–12 math and ELA materials, and the reviews will be free online. At the same time, Rachel Leifer and Denis Udall, program officers with Helmsley and Hewlett (respectively), have penned a plea for “Disrupting the Textbook Status Quo.” Since Core Knowledge is a small non-profit trying to offer better materials for free online, I am heartened by their call for more philanthropies to support development and dissemination efforts so that “a marketplace for instructional materials that rewards quality and innovation” can be created.

For philanthropies that aren’t quite convinced that curriculum matters, here’s one more study to add to the great work noted by Leifer and Udall. In “The Role of the School Curriculum in Social Mobility,” Cristina Iannelli shows that the content of the curriculum has lasting effects.* This study is important not only because of its findings, but because relatively few studies look at the actual courses students take. Iannelli is a professor in the UK; she used the UK’s National Child Development Study (NCDS), which tracks all babies born in the UK in 1958, gathering data at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. As Iannelli writes (p. 910):

The people in the study were in secondary schools between 1969 and 1976 during the period of reorganisation of British secondary education from a selective to a comprehensive system. The coexistence of different secondary school systems at the end of the 1960s provides an excellent opportunity to study the effect of studying different curricula and attending different types of school on individuals’ chances of reaching the highest social classes of destination.

Focusing on social and occupational status at ages 23, 33, and 42, Iannelli’s findings at age 23 were what you’d expect: parental education and school selectivity had a big impact. Curriculum did too, but what’s really interesting is that the relative importance of curriculum went up—and the importance of parental education and school selectivity went down—as people aged (p. 923–924):

Selective schools, languages, English, mathematics and science subjects had a positive and significant effect on the chances of being in the top social classes and reduced the chances of entering the bottom classes…. [The] results suggest that the indirect effects of parental education via school types and curricula are stronger at the beginning of respondents’ occupational career than at later stages. The opposite is true for social class of origin: it is in the long run that school and curricular choices emerge more powerfully as transmitters of social advantages….

We tested whether the effect of curriculum and school type at age 33 and 42 was simply a result of their effect at age 23 and 33…. The results, before and after controlling for prior occupational destinations, barely change in the analysis of class of destination at 33, indicating that the effect of studying different subjects and attending various types of schools continues beyond the point of career entry. However, when analysing destinations at age 42 after controlling for destination at age 33, while the effect of subjects remains the same the effect of school types reduces and is no longer significant. These results suggest that the subjects studied at school are very good predictors of individuals’ destinations at all three stages of occupational career. On the other hand, the school type attended has a significant short-term and medium-term effect on individuals’ occupational destinations but they become less important for explaining later destinations. This may indicate that cognitive effects may be more persistent than institutional status effects…. The long-lasting effects of some school subjects may indicate that they provide skills, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning, which are useful for individuals’ future occupational careers. [Emphasis added.]

Studying languages, English, mathematics, and science does indeed enhance critical thinking and complex reasoning abilities. In fact, these crucial abilities can only be increased by developing rich knowledge. Cognitive science on how knowledge builds on knowledge, and skills depend on knowledge, would predict these occupational findings. The students who took many courses in these subjects began their careers with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that enabled them to learn and grow at work.

We won’t ever be able to predict where each young person’s career will go, but we have plenty of evidence as to the type of education that offers the best preparation: a broad, rich, academic curriculum that builds content knowledge and skills together.

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Mobility by knowledge courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

* Many thanks to Webs of Substance for finding this study!

If Only We Had Listened…

by Lisa Hansel
July 15th, 2014

Thanks to my history-loving father-in-law, I’m holding a perfectly preserved editorial from the 1948 Washington Times-Herald—Tuesday, February 24, 1948, to be exact. It’s self-explanatory, so here goes:

More About Schools

A few days ago, we shot a short editorial under the title “Something Wrong With Education.” The piece told how the New York State Department of Education, after an exhaustive survey, had estimated the only about 65% of high school juniors can spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

From this we inferred that something was moldy in present-day public education methods, and that the something probably wasn’t traceable to either the teachers or the children.

A couple of mornings after that editorial was printed, three mothers of primary public school children in the first and second grades visited your correspondent. There ensued what seemed to us a most interesting conversation—interesting enough to boil down to its essential here. Let’s call the ladies Mrs. A, Mrs. B, and Mrs, C.

Mrs. A: “The editorial was all right, and I only wish you’d put it at the top of the column instead of the bottom. But the trouble doesn’t start in the high schools. It starts right down in the first grade.”

Mrs. B: “Which they’re turning into kindergarten, where the children don’t learn a thing. Likewise the second.”

Mrs. C: “They call it progressive education. Humph.”

Mrs. A: “Puppets.”

Mrs. C: “Yes, puppets. Puppets they want the children to make out of carrots and things. Even have a book called ‘Puppetry in the Classroom’ or something like that.”

Mrs. B: “It has diagrams—do this and do that, with letters A-B-C to show you what to do to make a puppet. But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Mrs. C: “It’s not the teachers’ fault. I’m sure of that. Plenty of them will tell you on the quiet that they think these progressive—humph—methods are terrible, and just don’t educate and never will. But they can’t say so in public, because if they did they’d lose their jobs.”

In today’s context, the part of this that most jumps out at me is the mothers’ and editors’ confidence that these poor practices and results are not the teachers’ fault. Indeed, these methods are being imposed on teachers. It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.

Like E. D. Hirsch, I find today’s blame-the-teacher rhetoric shocking and disheartening. How did we get to this point? Hirsch offers a compelling explanation:

The favored structural reforms haven’t worked very well. The new emphasis on “teacher quality” implies that the reforms haven’t worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven’t worked because on average they have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

If we are to improve the education we offer all children, reformers must stop blaming teachers and start working with them. As Hirsch explains, “The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught.” A cumulative, rigorous curriculum is not a cure-all, but it is an essential platform for teachers to work together within and across grades. Schools can choose to write their own curriculum, adopt one, adapt a few—whatever works for them, so long as the result is a content-specific, coherent, cumulative body of knowledge and skills to be learned in each grade. Such a curriculum narrows the gaps in children’s abilities, makes differentiation more doable and effective, and enables the school community to deeply understand and support each child’s year-to-year progress.

In reform circles, however, curriculum is rarely discussed. Rather than wade into the hot water of precisely what students ought to learn, most reformers tinker around the edges of the educational enterprise (which boils down to what gets taught and what gets learned). To that, I say Humph! It’s the reformers’ ideas that are ineffective—not the hardworking teachers.

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Stop blaming teachers for reformers’ faulty ideas.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.) 

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping

 

 

Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently

Vocabulary

That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.

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Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math

9.79

Advanced math

6.46

Basic reading

18.06

Advanced reading

11.41

To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math

186.18

Lessons on reading

292.33

Lessons on science

68.11

Lessons on social studies

74.74

You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.

In Memoriam

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2014

Memorial Day weekend is my favorite few days of the year. I surround myself with friends and family, and I’ve got the whole summer ahead. But even though I gladly partake in typical beer and burger festivities, there are always quiet moments when I wish more of us—including me—devoted more of our holiday to remembering. Remembering is a form of honoring, and that is the very least that those who have given everything to our nation deserve.

Last week I described Core Knowledge as education for liberation, a P–8 extension of the liberal arts idea. With a Core Knowledge education, one of the many wonderful things a person can choose to do is remember. Because I remember the sacrifices of American service members, I smile nonstop through Memorial Day weekend. I smile knowing that our founders (all of them, not just the Founding Fathers) hung together, not apart. I smile for the Union, which nudged our nation closer to its ideals.  For those who defeated tyranny and dictatorship. For those who died trying to bring the freedoms we take for granted to others. I smile when I think of what could be, but for today’s service members; you’ll see me grinning when I’m stuck in traffic to honor those who enable me, a woman, to drive.

If I’m not smiling, it’s because I’m worried about all the young people who are not getting a knowledge-filled, liberal arts education. What does Memorial Day mean to them? I’m sure most youth have a general understanding, but is that enough? Not for me. To honor soldiers’ sacrifices, we must remember the details of what they were fighting for, why, where, under what conditions, against what odds. Research shows that most of our youth do not know these things. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. History, 55% of 12th graders scored below basic. Lest you think that’s a high bar, here’s now the basic level is described:

Twelfth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to identify the significance of many people, places, events, dates, ideas, and documents in U.S. history. They should also recognize the importance of unity and diversity in the social and cultural history of the United States and have an awareness of America’s changing relationships with the rest of the world. They should have a sense of continuity and change in history and be able to relate relevant experience from the past to their understanding of contemporary issues. They should recognize that history is subject to interpretation and should understand the role of evidence in making a historical argument.

That most students—even as they are becoming eligible to vote, be jurors, and join our armed forces—are not performing at this level is shameful.

 

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Gettysburg national cemetery courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Common Core standards for English language arts and literacy are designed to diminish such ignorance. But they call for greater knowledge for the sake of increasing reading comprehension, not for the sake of remembering; a close reading of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address won’t suffice. A more reasonable place to turn is social studies standards. Sadly, the hodgepodge of documents I find (including a damning review of state standards, a proprietary set of national standards, and a new inquiry framework) only shows me why students know so little history. Inquiring may or may not result in learning. The quality of the questions and the rigor of the responses both matter.

Core Knowledge students know that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Sequence p. 134). They know what it means to make the world “safe for democracy” (Sequence p. 180). They know about a particular “day that will live in infamy” (Sequence p. 184). They know why we celebrate Memorial Day. And that makes me smile too.

 

Plato for Plumbers—and 6th Graders

by Lisa Hansel
May 13th, 2014

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way….

The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”…

My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.

Oh good. You’re hooked. Read the rest of this marvelous little article, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” by Scott Samuelson over at The Atlantic. As you read, remind yourself that at its most basic, Core Knowledge is about Plato for all. To live freely, all students need the broad knowledge that frees the mind to think analytically. Core Knowledge provides a liberal arts education to the P–8 set; just as in higher education, the “goal is liberating a person from ignorance and superstition.”

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Plato courtesy of Shutterstock (and Athens).

That may be a lofty goal for the early grades, but much can be accomplished. The Core Knowledge Sequence introduces Plato in second grade. As a note to teachers explains, “The goal of studying selected topics in World History in second grade is to foster curiosity and the beginnings of understanding about the larger world outside the child’s locality, and about varied civilizations and ways of life. This can be done through a variety of means: story, drama, art, music, discussion, and more.” In studying ancient Greece, second graders develop “the beginnings of understanding” about democracy, worshipping gods and goddesses, the Olympics past and present, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and more. In short, they develop the beginnings of their own freedom.

By sixth grade, Core Knowledge students have learned a good bit about major civilizations from all over the globe, as well as a great deal of American history. They are ready to build broad and deep knowledge of America’s debt to Athens, and to grasp how rare and precious their freedom is. Whether they become plumbers or business moguls (or both), this knowledge will serve them well. They will never be slaves to their jobs, or others’ beliefs, or the unexamined life. They will be free—as will every teacher who had a hand in their liberation.

 

Will The SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

by Guest Blogger
April 24th, 2014

By Burnie Bond

Burnie Bond is the director of programs at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post originally appeared on the Shanker Blog on April 22, 2014.

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well-educated elites—those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best-regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam includes a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane ‘SAT words’ (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’),” with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long heldbut always elusive—mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum.

Curriculum and Equity

The connection between curriculum and equity first occurred to me when I was eight years old (though obviously not in those exact terms). For some reason, my school decided that all third graders needed to have an IQ test. I was sick that day, so one school holiday I found myself filling in bubbles alone in a classroom with Mrs. Beagles, the school’s assistant principal.

All was well until I got to one particular question. Since the test designers couldn’t be sure we could read well, many of the questions were in picture form. This one included a series of line drawings. As I recall, the first was a drawing of a boy in a ski jacket standing on a beach; the second showed a boy in swim trunks and a beach ball standing in the snow near a snowman; the third had the same swim-trunked, beach ball kid standing in sand near a big cactus; and the fourth had the ski jacket boy standing near the snowman. The question was: Which one didn’t belong?

Although I knew the “right” answer, I found myself wondering how they could just assume that I should. Having never left the tropical island of St. Croix, I had not yet been in winter or seen snow or a snowman. And, although some cactus varieties could be found out on the island’s East End, we had no real desert either. Our textbooks had not yet covered the relevant units on physical geography, and my book-loving father had only allowed a television into our house about six months beforehand. I then started wondering how many of my classmates might have thought that the ski jacket was some elaborate water flotation outfit, and how many would have been confused because we all regularly swam at East End beaches with cacti in plain sight. For that matter, what about kids on the mainland who grew up in cities or in the Midwest and who had never been to a beach or seen a desert?

Irate over the unfairness of it all, I complained to Mrs. Beagles, who replied, “Just do the best that you can,” and returned to grading papers.

I found myself thinking about this episode as I read a very interesting 2012 paper by Santelices and Wilson, whose research gave credence to an earlier paper by Freedle (also here)—the upshot of which is that the SAT Verbal continues to be biased against poor and minority students in a very particular way. That is, test takers who are African American, Hispanic-American, Asian American, or White from low-income households tend to do disproportionately well on the “hard” questions and disproportionately poorly on the “easy” ones.

In his 2003 Harvard Educational Review article, Freedle explains:

A culturally based interpretation helps explain why African American examinees (and other minorities) often do better on many hard verbal items but do worse than matched-ability Whites on many easy items. To begin with, easy analogy items tend to contain high-frequency vocabulary words while hard analogy items tend to contain low-frequency vocabulary words (Freedle & Kostin, 1997). For example, words such as “horse,” “snake,” “canoe,” and “golf” have appeared in several easy analogy items. These are words used frequently in everyday conversations. By contrast, words such as “vehemence,” “anathema,” “sycophant,” and “intractable” are words that have appeared in hard analogy items, and do not appear in everyday conversation (Berger, 1977). However, they are likely to occur in school-related contexts or in textbooks.

In other words, kids who are somewhat outside of the cultural mainstream do less well on items built around assumptions about common knowledge—the words and ideas that are “used frequently in everyday conversations.”  But what if your language or culture or social standing diminishes the chances that you actually engage in everyday conversations about golfing or canoes? In that case, it makes perfect sense to expect that you would do better on the “harder”—even the “arcane”—school-related items that are built around the words, ideas, and texts that you have actually been taught.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Or, put another way: Assessments of student learning are neither fair nor valid unless they measure only the content and skills that students have actually been given the opportunity to learn. And the only way to do that, of course, is to know what they have been taught—that is, in the presence of a defined curriculum.

The Problem with Curriculum

There are some very good reasons why the United States, unlike most of the world’s highest-performing nations, has avoided adopting a national curriculum for all of these years. As David K. Cohen has noted:

For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

Another huge issue is that “curriculum” has become a catch-all that describes everything from general performance standards all the way to student texts with scripted daily lesson plans. Thus, in any given discussion about the role of curriculum in a well functioning school system, it is very likely that the discussants are actually talking past each other. This has led to many unintentionally amusing statementsresponses and counter-responses, as each “side” tries to clarify what it and others are actually trying to promote and/or oppose.

In terms of equity concerns, I think that E. D. Hirsch has it exactly right. That is, we need to make sure that every American student—regardless of economic, geographic, racial or ethnic background—is provided with a “coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum” (see here, but also hereherehere and here).

As Hirsch uses the term, the “curriculum” should provide enough guidance to teachers to ensure that what is taught will prepare students for the learning that comes next, while remaining flexible enough for teachers (or schools or districts) to decide for themselves which specific materials and instructional approaches best meet the needs of any particular set of students. He uses the term “core” to mean both that which is most important, which should be taught in common to all students, as well as that which is foundational to the more personalized courses of study that students may choose for themselves during their high-school years. Thus, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence, which covers pre-K to 8th grade, could also be described as a curriculum framework or syllabus—a coherent “outline of the subjects in a course of study.”

It is no accident that Hirsch’s theory of action also squares with a great deal of national and international research suggesting that schools with greater curricular and instructional coherence achieve greater improvement in student performance (herehere and here).

So what might this look like in practice? In a 2003 Educational Researcher article, Lisa Delpit has given a rationale for why schools need to provide all students with access to “the culture of power”:

In my work in dozens of successful classrooms, effective teachers of low-income students of color take every opportunity to introduce children to complex material. While children are learning to “decode,” teachers read complex information to children above their reading level and engage in discussions about the information and the advanced vocabulary they encounter. Students are involved in activities that use the information and vocabulary in both creative and analytical ways, and teachers help them create metaphors for the new knowledge that connects it to their real lives. Students memorize and dramatize material that involves advanced vocabulary and linguistic forms. Students are engaged in thematic units that are ongoing and repeat important domain knowledge and develop vocabulary through repeated oral use. Students are asked to explain what they have learned to others, thus solidifying new knowledge. Not only do the teachers and schools who are successful with low-income children practice these strategies, but some other researchers (Beck et al., 2002Hirsch, 2003Stahl, 1991Sternberg, 1987, to name but a few) have documented the efficacies of the strategies as well. Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom.

Will the new SAT—or, for that matter, the new Common Core State Standards, which David Coleman also had a large hand in crafting—lead us toward this vision of educational opportunity? That is yet to be seen, but I would have much more confidence in the outcome if each state department of education had begun with a focus on teaching to the new standards, rather than just testing them. Where are the rich curriculum resources and professional development opportunities that would allow this vision to take hold? And, failing this, what exactly is it that we propose to measure?

__________

* Paradoxically, although the data confirm the expected class-based differences in the use of test prep courses, it should be noted that “blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation. The black-white gap is especially pronounced in the use of high school courses, private courses and private tutors.” See here for more on this.

 

Stop Spinning Wheels, Start Spinning Webs

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2014

Last week I quoted a great piece by Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies (and, by extension, broad knowledge for making analogies) for innovation. That piece left me thinking about one of my favorite analogies for what knowledge does for our ability to learn. Knowledge is like a spider’s web—the bigger your web (i.e., the more knowledge you have), the more new knowledge sticks to it. Credit here goes to Jessica Lahey, so I’ll gladly let her explain:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Indo-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by.

And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Prometheus unbound.

Of course, as Lahey knows well, we all start building our webs long before college. The more opportunities we have to learn, the bigger, stickier, and finer our webs will be. Lahey is making sure her children—and students—build webs that even a Darwin’s bark spider would be proud of:

My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

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Spider web at sunrise courtesy of Shutterstock.

Now, a new study, published in the April issue of Cognition, shows the early stages of web building. By 19 months, babies are already starting to use what they have learned to acquire new vocabulary. While the Cognition article is well worth purchasing, the summary by Northwest University’s news team offers a good overview:

Even before infants begin to talk in sentences, they are paying careful attention to the way a new word is used in conversations, and they learn new words from this information in sentences.

For example, if you take an infant to the zoo and say, “Look at the gorilla” while pointing at the cage, the infant may not know what exactly is being referred to. However, if you say, “Look! The gorilla is eating,” the infant can use the word that they do know—“eating”—to conclude that “gorilla” must refer to the animal and not, for example, the swing she is sitting on.

The zoo scenario mirrors the method the researchers used for their experiment. First, infants at ages 15 and 19 months were shown several pairs of pictures on a large screen. Each pair included one new kind of animal and a non-living object. Next, the objects disappeared from view and infants overheard a conversation that included a new word, “blick.” Finally, the two objects re-appeared, and infants heard, for example, “Look at the blick.”

“After overhearing this new word in conversation, infants who hear a helpful sentence such as ‘the blick is eating’ should look more towards the animal than the other, non-living object,” said Brock Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study. “We show that by 19 months, they do just that. In contrast, if infants heard the new word in an unhelpful sentence such as ‘the blick is over here’ during the conversation, they don’t focus specifically on the animal because, after all, in this kind of sentence, ‘blick’ could mean anything.”…

“What’s remarkable is that infants learned so much from hearing the conversation alone,” said Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.”

Between research like this, initiatives like Too Small to Fail, and advances like the Common Core standards calling for “content-rich curriculum,” perhaps eventually we’ll have a society in which all children have excellent opportunities to build their webs.

 

Do We Underestimate All Learners?

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2014

Last week, Dan Willingham asked if we underestimate our youngest learners. It seems we do, given the research he reviewed showing that seven- and eight-year-olds can understand a concept as complicated as natural selection. Willingham clarifies that, “No one would claim that these children have a complete understanding of natural selection. But they got much farther along in their understanding than I think most would have guessed.” He also noted one way in which it might be easier to teach complex ideas to younger children than to older children: “The authors speculate that … explaining natural selection at a younger age may have worked out so well because they were not old enough to have developed naïve theories of species change; ideas that would become entrenched and potentially make it more difficult to understand natural selection properly.” And he ends with an important question: “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate.’”

Almost everything Willingham writes sticks with me, rolling around in the back of my mind. This piece on young children kept coming to mind as I read a couple of articles in the spring American Educator. Could it be that our tendency to underestimate our youngest learners sets us up for a lifetime of underestimation? I think so.

It was a short step from Willingham’s piece to Daisy Christodoulou’s Educator article. Adapted from her book, Seven Myths about Education (now out in paperback), it’s all about how little knowledge is systematically and coherently taught to students:

In 2007, I trained as a teacher and started teaching English in a secondary school in Southeast London that enrolls students between the ages of 11 and 18. One of the first things that struck me when I was teaching was that my pupils seemed to know so little. Even the bright and hard-working pupils seemed to me to have big gaps in their knowledge….

I was born in East London to a working-class family. My father’s parents were immigrants from Italy and Cyprus. My father said that when he was in school as a child in England, he very often felt as though he was on the outside of a conversation. He didn’t know what the conversations were about, and he couldn’t go home and ask his parents because they didn’t know either. He was very determined that I wouldn’t have that experience, and I didn’t want my pupils to have that experience. Middle-class children pick up a lot of knowledge from home, from books, from programs on the radio, and so forth. Working-class children and the children of immigrants don’t always get those advantages. A lot of the pupils I taught were just as bright and hard-working as the pupils at private schools, but they lacked crucial knowledge, and this deficit held them back in their studies….

Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist. But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is! …

When we commit facts to long-term memory, they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition…. Long-term memory is capable of storing thousands of facts, and when we have memorized thousands of facts on a specific topic, these facts together form what is known as a “schema.” When we think about that topic, we use that schema. When we meet new facts about that topic, we assimilate them into that schema—and if we already have a lot of facts in that particular schema, it is much easier for us to learn new facts about that topic.

Critics of fact learning will often pull out a completely random fact and say something like, “Who needs to know the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Why does it matter?” Of course, using one fact like this on its own would be rather odd. But the aim of fact learning is not to learn just one fact—it is to learn several hundred, which taken together form a schema that helps you to understand the world. Thus, just learning the date of the Battle of Waterloo will be of limited use. But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present day, and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important, will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding….

Factual knowledge is not in opposition to creativity, problem solving, and analysis. Factual knowledge is closely integrated with these important skills. It allows these skills to happen. In a sense, these important skills are the functions of large bodies of knowledge that have been securely committed to memory.

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a devastating double whammy. We start the early years with an unwarranted belief that sophisticated content is developmentally inappropriate. Then, we continue through elementary and secondary grades with the misconception that skills can be developed without extensive knowledge. The result is that we systematically underestimate what our children are capable of learning. Such underestimations seem to become self-fulfilling prophecies, with especially long-lasting, truly harmful consequences for our least-advantaged learners.

With Willingham and Christodoulou on my mind, I dove into the next article in the spring Educator: Jennifer Dubin on the three-week summer institute for K–12 teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. These institutes—which require teachers to read 2,000 – 3,000 pages of texts like Prometheus Bound, Antigone, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, and Beloved just to get ready to participate—are described by teachers as “divine” and “some sort of heaven.” In contrast, teachers often complain bitterly about typical professional development. Mind-numbing and time-wasting are descriptions I’ve heard frequently. It seems we’re underestimating our adult learners too.

At the Dallas Institute, teachers aren’t given tools for increasing students’ test scores. Teaching is hardly ever mentioned. Teachers are immersed in many of humanity’s most profound works and are trusted to apply these works to their professional lives in their own ways:

“Teachers work with human material, and the best way traditionally to gain access to human things is through the humanities, which are the foundation of a liberal arts education,” says Claudia Allums, who directs the Summer Institute. But a liberal arts education encompasses more than literature or philosophy or history courses, she says. It’s a particular spirit with which one approaches any discipline. “If a teacher has a broad, strong liberal arts education, then he or she is going to have a broad, strong foundation in human sensibilities. That’s the foundation we believe is important for any teacher’s wisdom.” … “The institute is where you recover what it means to be a teacher.”

It appears to be working. As the article states, “In a survey of participants from 2008 to 2013, nearly 70 percent said the program transformed the way they think about the teaching profession.”

It’s a sad state of affairs to see our education systems continually underestimating their learners, from preschoolers to experienced teachers. Perhaps the Dallas Institute—and teachers everywhere who know the joy of challenging studies—can end such fruitless practices by showing how high they, and their students, can reach.

 

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Prometheus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

We Teach Beauty

by Lisa Hansel
February 27th, 2014

What is the purpose of our public schools? It’s a question some answer quickly—too quickly, and too easily—with “college and career readiness.” I’m not against those things, but they seem to me to set the bar too low, so low that many of our students don’t buy in. It’s all utility, no passion, a monotone call to hop on a conveyor belt toward becoming a worker bee. (I’m not saying that’s what the adults intend, but the teenager in me remembers it that way.)

There is a loftier goal, one that would appeal to many youth but that, sadly and wrongly, tends to be reserved only for our most privileged: classical intellectual and character education—the type of liberal education that opens the door to the highest forms of freedom. This form of education gets the college and career part done by intentionally embedding necessary knowledge and skills in humanity’s enduring questions.

At Ridgeview Classical Schools (a charter with an elementary, a middle, and a high school), the curriculum is so carefully planned that even simple grammar lessons are infused with a higher purpose. I haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of visiting, but I feel like I have after reading a terrific new policy brief on the school by William Gonch. Gonch, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote the brief for AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Here’s Gonch:

One important element of the Ridgeview approach is the way in which texts and assignments are made to do double duty, so that assignments teach grammar and logic while introducing students to profound ideas and artistic beauty. T. O. Moore, the founder and first principal of Ridgeview, describes the way in which the school integrates skills and core knowledge:

A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and eloquence. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers in the language.

“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Shakespeare

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “I come to help Jane, not to hurt her.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Jane” sentence we teach three things rather than one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce students to the masters of the language so they will begin to emulate them.

Actually, that’s just one of their purposes. As Gonch explains, Ridgeview uses Socratic, discussion-based classes in which “students spend their time interpreting texts and interrogating arguments and assumptions.” In K–8, its curriculum is guided by the Core Knowledge Sequence, and throughout K–12, the “Hirschean idea that Americans are defined by certain shared ideas and ideals, and that a school is the main vehicle for passing on those ideas, is central to Ridgeview’s understanding of civic education.”

Education for freedom is invigorating, but not easy. As readers of this blog know well, the critical thinking it takes to interrogate a text depends on having extensive relevant knowledge. Ridgeview’s curriculum is intentionally designed to build that knowledge starting in the early grades:

Ridgeview’s faculty have designed their curriculum as a coherent whole; ideas and approaches that are introduced when students are six or eight years old are developed, expanded, and drawn into increasing complexity as students turn 12, 14, or 18. One parent described this as a “cycling back process:” the curriculum introduces young children to a simple form of an idea, an intellectual method, or a story, and then brings it back recurrently in increasingly complex forms. A student might read a picture book of Greek myths in first grade, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade, and Euripides’s Medea in ninth….

The climax of the Ridgeview experience comes when students write their senior theses. The thesis is a 25–32 page research paper that asks students to sum up and reflect on their education. Students often describe the paper’s question as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the good life?” Students draw on texts that they have read throughout their schooling, especially the landmarks of their 11th­ and 12th­grade literature classes: The Scarlett Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Apology of Socrates, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment, and Heart of Darkness.

Because the thesis is the climax of students’ work, students begin thinking about it early in high school. Whether or not they talk about it explicitly, they know that the questions they ask about the nature of honor in the Iliad, the law of consciousness in Emerson’s Self-Reliance, or the nature of the American political community in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will return in their final papers and that they will have to draw from those texts a theory of the good life that they can defend before their parents and peers….

But the senior thesis, the final product of a self-conscious community of inquiry, might be the most individual thing that any student does. John Herndon, a high school history teacher who frequently advises thesis writers, urges students to address the question by asking, “Given everything I’ve seen in my education up until this point, what can I actually put stock in?” Students … have read Augustine and Plato but also Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Necessarily they must pick and choose, rejecting some texts (at least partly), while making others their own. And they must do it in full view: Herndon says that, standing in front of their peers and fielding questions from their teachers, “They can’t hide anymore.”

As a result, students have a unique freedom to interrogate their own lives and experiences.

If there were one thing I wish all educators would understand about classical education, it is the dedication to questioning. All too often, I see specific traditional content derided as indoctrination. But I never comprehend this point of view. It seems to me that all of the works that have stood the test of time push readers to question themselves, to juxtapose ideas, to see that things are never as simple as they may seem, to see that a good life is one of striving toward ideals, not meeting concrete goals. I understand and agree with those who say traditional content alone is too narrow, that students benefit from more recent and varied perspectives. That’s a yesterday-plus-today approach that can create great challenges for students. It stands in stark contrast to those who wish to toss yesterday out of the curriculum, to leave students anchorless, without the power to use longstanding questions and ideals to keep pushing humanity to better itself.

“We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty.” Now that’s a Core Knowledge school!

Ridgeview

Ridgeview’s homepage. Seems far more gripping than “Where Will You Work Someday?”