In 1492…

by EmmaEarnst
October 25th, 2013

Last week, hundreds of thousands of elementary school children across America celebrated Columbus Day (a federal holiday since 1937) by learning about the courageous but flawed man. National holidays offer unique opportunities to build excitement about historical figures and events. But in elementary school, is teaching a unit about Columbus ideally done around Columbus Day?

In teaching Columbus, content and timing are key. The content piece is personal for me. Like most other students of my time, I was taught the famous couplet (In 1492/Columbus sailed the ocean blue) and the over-the-top story of his initial voyage, but little about Columbus ever fascinated me as a child, or stuck with me to my adult years. Eventually, majoring in history and then working for a history organization, I learned more about his life—one marked by great triumph, but also by callousness and incompetence. The Columbus I knew as a child was (and sometimes still is) treated as a hero—the singular individual whose hard work happenstance-d him into greatness. But the real story is far more nuanced than simply a mistaken discovery propelling Columbus to eternal fame, and for that reason it’s far more interesting as well. That more truthful story is the one that kindergarten teachers using Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) will tell their students this spring.

Why not in the fall, right around Columbus Day? Because interesting, nuanced stories require background knowledge. Before children can comprehend Columbus, they need to know more about the indigenous population of the Americas, the political atmosphere of Columbus’ voyage, the farming that Native Americans practiced, and the plants they and Europeans grew. Therefore, before CKLA’s domain on Columbus, there are domains on Plants, Farms, Native Americans, and Kings and Queens.

This may seem like a lot of information for kindergarteners, so please bear this in mind: All of this learning is done through the use of teacher read-alouds in the Listening & Learning strand. Teachers sit down with their students for roughly twenty minutes and read to them—using engaging discussion questions and images throughout. Students listen to and discuss the stories, gradually building their content knowledge and vocabulary. By the time the class gets to Columbus in the second half of the year (roughly speaking, this would happen in February or March of a 9-month school calendar year), students have built substantial knowledge of plants, farms, kings and queens, and Native Americans, and are better prepared to understand Columbus.

Consider the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain. Over the course of six lessons, kindergarteners will hear about the European desire for spices that sent Columbus (among many others) in search of a faster route to Asia. Columbus appears in the second lesson, when he presses King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to fund his voyage. In 1492, he lands in the Caribbean, mistaking it for the Indies. Though other explorers soon recognize he encountered an entirely new continent, he returns to govern Hispaniola:

His [Columbus’s] greediness and the greediness of his sailors had changed things on the island. The men who had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage also treated the natives badly and were just as greedy for treasure.

Once more, Columbus and his crew took advantage of the natives. They were forced to work for no pay, carving mines into the high mountainsides. “There is gold in those mountains,” Columbus and his men told one another, “and we did not sail all this way to leave it there.” But they did not find as much gold as they had expected.

His mistreatment of natives, inability to find gold, and keeping what gold he found for himself, rather than giving it to the king and queen, eventually landed him in prison. He was released but ended his life in ruin financially, politically, and in reputation. The section on Columbus in kindergarten CKLA concludes:

Today, Americans remember Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas back in 1492. This day is called Columbus Day. Later, you will learn about a group of people called the Vikings who came to North America even before Christopher Columbus did. Historians from many countries have researched and retold the story of Christopher Columbus many times over. It means different things to different people, but one thing we know for sure is that Columbus’s mistake changed the world.

Contrary to the overblown story of Columbus I and many others heard as kindergarteners, those in the CKLA program discover him as the man he was—brave but brutal, courageous and imperfect—and are better equipped to discuss his legacy adeptly in the future.

A Moving Problem

by Lisa Hansel
October 21st, 2013

Terrifying. Half-way through first grade, I was plucked out of a Montessori program that was part of the Montgomery County, MD, school district and dropped into Page Jackson Elementary School in Jefferson County, WV. Everyone was perfectly nice, helpful even—but I was a shy kid in a strange land.

Jarring is too mellow a word. Having gone to that Montessori program for kindergarten as well, I only had one concept of what school was. Page Jackson did not fit that concept. It was bigger and more traditional; finding my way from the front door to my classroom took me weeks to master. Too fearful to speak up for myself, for several days my inability to print was mistaken for an inability to write. No one ever asked if I wrote in cursive, if I had taught younger children some phonics and writing strokes, if I had memorized the times tables up to 10×10.

Lucky me—my mother was there to speak up for me. Soon enough, the ways in which I was ahead were appreciated and the ways in which I was behind were remediated.

Most children who change schools are not so lucky. The research is clear: changing schools is strongly associated with lower performance. The more kids move, the less they learn.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Now a new report, The Invisible Achievement Gap, shows that changing schools is devastatingly frequent for some of our most at-risk students: youth in foster care. Here’s a quick summary:

Only about two thirds of students in foster care attended the same school for the full school year. In contrast, over 90 percent of the low-SES [socioeconomic status] and the statewide student populations attended the same school all year. Furthermore, about 1 in 10 students in foster care attended three or more schools during the school year, a level of school mobility experienced by only about 1 percent of the low-SES and general student populations….

Students in foster care, like low-SES students, were consistently more likely than the general population to attend the state’s lowest-performing schools and less likely to attend the state’s highest-performing schools….

CST [California Standards Test] results showed that students in foster care consistently fell far short of achieving proficiency in English language arts, elementary mathematics, and the secondary mathematics courses algebra I and algebra II…. They were consistently outperformed by low-SES students. Test results for students in foster care fell into the two lowest performance levels for English language arts and mathematics—below basic and far below basic—at twice the rate of those for the statewide student population….

Students in foster care were more likely than all comparison groups to drop out.

These results are terrible! Yet these data also point to one major way to help:

The majority of California students in foster care were enrolled in just a small number of districts. Specifically, two thirds of these students were enrolled in 10 percent of the state’s school districts, with each of these districts enrolling at least 100 students in foster care.

I know it’s heresy, but here goes: All of the schools in that 10 percent of districts should teach the same core curriculum. School districts can’t prevent the need for foster care or the school transfers that result. They can make those transfers much easier on their students. If all of the schools in these high-foster-care districts shared a core curriculum, then students could change schools without having to change what they are learning. Any days missed would be easier to address, and teachers would have common ground for helping each other serve these neediest of students.

As the report states, foster care students are already likely to “attend the state’s lowest-performing schools.” This shared curriculum project could be the foundation for a renaissance for these schools. Not only would mobile students have fewer gaps in their knowledge, the districts could collaborate on instructional materials and professional development.

Districts that share students already have shared responsibilities. Why not share curriculum and wisdom too?


Of Ostriches and the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2013

All signs point to just one way for schools to dramatically narrow the achievement gap: implement a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, content-rich curriculum that builds broad knowledge and essential skills. That’s the foundation on which high-achieving, more equitable school systems (here and abroad) have built the rest of their educational infrastructure. Specific knowledge and skills for each grade give direction to teacher preparation, enable teacher collaboration, empower parents to better support their children’s learning, increase the quality of textbooks, create stability for students who change schools, etc. When the whole infrastructure is moving in the same direction, students’ education is coherent and learning accelerates.

But seriously, who cares? Let’s just stick our heads in the sand.


(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s easy. We can pretend that schools are doing the best they can under (very truly) difficult circumstances. We can pretend that the narrowing of the curriculum doesn’t matter, that the past several decades of cognitive science findings do not exist, that comprehension, critical thinking, and learning to learn will arise magically from a scattershot of engaging lessons.

That’s what we’ve been doing—and it’s the mistake most states and school districts are now repeating with the Common Core. Despite the repeated admonitions that the Common Core ELA standards can only be met with a rich, knowledge-building curriculum, most educators and leaders talk of individual lessons with isolated content and skills—not of coherent bodies of knowledge that enable skill development.

If your head is buried, you can’t see the results. Fortunately, there are some clear-eyed participants in this fractured ed reform world who have drawn attention to three of the worst consequences of our collective denial on curriculum.

1) 17 year olds’ reading scores are flat. E. D. Hirsch explains this one in the Answer Sheet:

The reading proficiency of high school seniors has not budged since the great verbal decline of the 1970s, which was well documented by drops in scores on the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Tests of Educational Development. So, why haven’t the short-term early boosts in grades 4 and 8 translated into better verbal scores in grade 12?

Reading tests in later grades are more knowledge-intensive than the tests in the early grades. Emphasis on phonics (which has improved early reading) plus test-prep aren’t enough to do well on these later tests, which require broad knowledge and vocabulary. Scholars of the subject (including the late great reading researcher Jeanne Chall) showed that 12th-grade scores declined in the 1970s and stayed flat, because of a narrowing of the school curriculum.

2) Far too many teachers don’t understand that skills hardly ever transfer from one topic to the next. Paul Bruno tackles this on his blog:

One of my most memorable experiences in my two-year credential+MA program came out of a class discussion of chapter 3 of How People Learn, on “Learning and Transfer”. Much of that chapter was dedicated to discussing the challenges faced in getting students to “transfer” something they’ve learned in one context and apply it successfully in another context….

[Studies] suggest very strongly that the sort of transfer many teachers claim to want is at best much more difficult than we typically acknowledge and at worst largely impossible….

In my graduate school classroom … rather than challenging our conceptions of transfer, the finding simply represented a puzzle: Why did students not transfer the problem-solving strategy from one situation to the other and how could teachers have taught the strategy differently to promote such transfer?

For what feels like the billionth time: Skills depend chiefly on knowledge! If you want to read with comprehension and think critically about the Bill of Rights, you have to learn a lot about the Bill of Rights. Your resulting ability to think critically about the Bill of Rights will not help you in the science lab or at the art museum. It won’t even help very much if you want to analyze the Civil War—there’s a bunch of stuff between the Bill of Rights and the Civil War that you have to learn in order to analyze the Civil War.

3) Our assessment system is less helpful—especially for our neediest students—than it should be. Marc Tucker brings clarity to this one. Technically he’s interviewing Jim Pellegrino, but it’s more like a conversation—and Tucker’s pointed summaries make me smile:

In the United States, there is strong resistance to the idea that the federal government or even the states should specify what the curriculum should be, or, for that matter, what instructional techniques should be used…. But what I thought I heard you saying is that how one teaches fractions actually defines what the curriculum is and it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean.  The standards might say that the student will learn to do fractions, but there is a world of difference between simply teaching the algorithms needed by students to do standard fraction problems and teaching ratio and proportion at a fairly deep level.  Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?…

It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries.


The High Price of Willful Ignorance

by Lisa Hansel
October 3rd, 2013

Joe Nocera’s op-ed for the New York Times last week, “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s),” is about the radically different experiences three teachers (actual sisters) had in learning to teach. For all three, teacher preparation was, well, less than useful. Nocera’s piece is about the need to greatly improve teacher preparation—and I fully agree with him, and with NCTQ, that an overhaul is desperately needed.

But far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the sisters’ experiences once they started teaching.

Two of the three, Edel Carolan and Melinda Johnson, “have undergraduate degrees in elementary education, yet they both recalled how lost they felt when they first stood in front of a classroom.” One was so desperate that she asked a former professor for help. The other “recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job—classroom management, organization, lesson planning—were things she had to figure out on her own.”

The third, Denise Dargan, did not have a teaching degree. She too felt unprepared in the beginning, but then “she made it sound as if learning on the job was relatively easy.”

What’s the difference? Dargan taught at Icahn Charter School. She was hired by Jeff Litt, who was then the principal and is now the superintendent of the seven Icahn Charter Schools. Litt made learning to teach easy because he “was such a gifted teacher himself.”

I don’t doubt that’s true, but I do know it is only part of the story. Litt is not just a gifted teacher, he is a brilliant educator who understands the full enterprise. He knows that schools need a strong curricular and organizational foundation on which to build student and teacher learning. Litt has used the Core Knowledge Sequence as his curricular foundation, and he has created a supportive structure for teachers and administrators in all of the Icahn schools to solve problems and grow together.

Dargan’s work was still difficult, as teaching children whose home life is not filled with books and museums will always be. But she was not left to struggle in isolation like Carolan and Johnson were.

Nocera may think he’s writing about teacher preparation, but in fact his op-ed is about our nation’s approach to education. I’m not one to say the schools are failing. Even our lowest-performing schools are accomplishing some good things. But I’m not all roses either. Most schools are far less coherent, systematic, efficient, and effective than they should be.

So long as states refuse to specify a core of content students ought to learn in each grade, K – 12 education, teacher preparation, instructional materials, professional development, and students will suffer. Holding on to mistaken ideas about the nature of reading comprehension and critical thinking, far too many professors of education, textbook developers, and professional development providers are willfully ignorant of decades research in cognitive science.

It boils down to this: Any topic a student needs to be able to read and think about is a topic that student must know something about. Take Nocera’s title, for instance. How many readers understand the reference to Anton Chekhov’s play?

Broad literacy requires broad knowledge. That means students have a lot to learn. Some students have the great luxury of learning much of the college-, career-, and citizenship-enabling knowledge at home. Some don’t. For them, anything less than a grade-by-grade, content-specific, cumulative curriculum will not be efficient enough to get the job done.

The price we pay for this willful ignorance is our massive achievement gaps. It is too high.


We all value education. Is eschewing a core of content truly worth the cost?


Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.


The Boredom Charade

by Lisa Hansel
September 24th, 2013

As Mark Bauerlein explained, boredom is a top reason students give for dropping out of school. Why?

There are lots of possibilities—many noted by the commenters on Bauerlein’s post. Yesterday I mentioned watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. Since this forum is all about knowledge, these seem to merit a little extra discussion. Two points are particularly important: (1) topics students know little about may seem boring and (2) holes in students’ knowledge can be downright scary—feigning boredom is easier than admitting to being lost.

Both of these can be addressed with a content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum in the hands of expert teachers.

Gina DiSipio-Parrish, a second grade teacher at Pioneer Preparatory School (where 67% of the students are English language learners and 94% quality for free or reduced-price lunch), has found that building knowledge often leads to future interest:

All of the lessons spiral and build on each other year after year so that children are repeatedly exposed to the academic content. As a result, students are able to deepen their knowledge base as they progress through their educational career. For example, in second grade students will learn about ancient Greek civilizations, and listen to Greek myths. Then in sixth grade, children will have the opportunity to read these same myths themselves and build on their prior knowledge. We all know that the more a child already knows about a topic, the better their attention and the more increased their interest and subsequent learning experience.

Perseus and Medusa courtesy of Shutterstock.

There’s no reason for young children to take an interest in ancient Greece before they know anything about it. Yet, with a knowledgeable, skilled teacher helping them understand ancient Greek life and beliefs, the topic becomes fascinating. (Has anyone ever thought Medusa was boring?) Even better, as DiSipio-Parrish points out, the foundation she provides greatly increases the odds that her students are looking forward to reading some myths themselves later on.

This interaction between a strong curriculum and a strong teacher is the heart of a great education.

The intentional, coherent building of knowledge that DiSipio-Parrish describes is ideal, but real life is rarely so smooth. What might happen to a student who entered Pioneer in sixth grade? Would she be looking forward to reading Greek myths if she had never heard of ancient Greece—or worse, if she still struggled with fluent decoding? Doubtful. What if her previous school spent much of fifth grade on Greek myths, would she be eager to read them again? More doubtful.

As Daniel Willingham has explained, enjoying learning—maintaining curiosity—depends on being challenged at the right level:

Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” here, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking…. It’s notable … that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating. And there’s not great pleasure in simply knowing the answer either.

This is why a strong curriculum is just a starting place. A strong teacher has much to do in customizing that curriculum to create the right level of challenge for each child. If Pioneer’s new sixth grader has never heard of ancient Greece, rapid intervention to provide context is crucial. Without it, boredom is the best case scenario—total lack of comprehension, disengagement (driven by the need to save face), and those first few steps toward dropping out are possible. In contrast, if our new student has already read many Greek myths, an advanced unit may be in order. Or, a better use of time may be condensed units on any content Pioneer teaches in earlier grades that the new student had not yet learned.

Boredom is a symptom—not a problem to be solved by selecting more entertaining content. Our bored students may need help in developing perseverance and grasping the greater purpose of their schoolwork. They may need gaps in their knowledge and skills to be filled. They may need a more challenging climb. At different points, most students probably need all of these things.


Reducing Boredom with Rigor, Not Relevance

by Lisa Hansel
September 23rd, 2013

James Fenimore Cooper assures me that Mark Bauerlein is correct: Boredom is inevitable, relevance can be dangerous, and lonely persistence is essential. Fortunately, I learned that lesson in high school. No, I never grew to like Cooper’s endless descriptions of mundane (to my 16-year-old eyes) things. Thanks to my insightful teacher, I understood the context in which that miserable prose had been written, wondered at the idea that it had ever been popular, and saw its importance in early American life.

I also saw the danger of relevance—at least as is commonly defined in education. Education is not for the here and now; it is preparation for leading a good life (including grasping that defining a good life has been contemplated for thousands of years). What is most relevant to students’ education is what will best prepare them for seeking their best path in life.

And yet, when people talk of making education relevant, they mean bringing kids’ faddish, temporary obsessions into the classroom. Some of the ideas are harmless, like giving the word problems in math sports themes. This might give students a pleasant few minutes to space out about Saturday night’s basketball game, but it doesn’t change the math. Other attempts at relevance are truly harmful. There are the pitfalls of edutainment that Bauerlein described. There are also lost educational opportunities, such as when The Scarlet Letter is dropped to make room for Twilight. Students interested in Twilight will have no trouble reading it on their own or with their friends. The Scarlet Letter, however, becomes more meaningful with the careful guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

James Fenimore Cooper was not relevant to me as a teenager. He was relevant to me as an American—and I was fortunate to have a teacher who explained why.

I kept plodding through that Norton Anthology (where else does a teenager read Cooper?) and was rewarded many times over. For very different reasons, I was grabbed by Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel L. Clemens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more.

As some of the comments on Bauerlein’s post noted, academic content is actually quite compelling, especially with a thoughtful teacher. While I agree with Bauerlein that working through boredom is an essential skill, I also agree with the commenters that much boredom in class ought to be addressed because it has unproductive sources: watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. The world is beautiful and fascinating—studying it through literary, scientific, artistic, mathematical, and historical lenses can be a wondrous journey.


Wondrous image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Tomorrow, I’ll take another look at reducing boredom by strengthening the early grades.


Why I’m for the Common Core: Teacher bashing and Common Core bashing are both uncalled for

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

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.


When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K-5. They break the fearful silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state: “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.” That principle of building coherent, cumulative content characterizes the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words in the CCSS which I’ve italicized don’t get down to defining the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did so no state would have adopted the standards, because specific content is a local prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity. Little can come from the current incorrect assumption that critical thinking skills or reading comprehension can be gained without a specific systematic buildup of knowledge.

Not even most prescient among us can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy. That will depend on what the states actually do about developing rich content knowledge “within and across grades.” To do so will take the courage to withstand the gripe-patrols that will complain about the inclusion of say Egypt, in the second grade. But who can be sure that the required political courage to withstand such gripes won’t be forthcoming once the absolute need for specific, cumulative content is understood. As Niels Bohr said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” If just one state or district shows the way, with big, unmistakable gains resulting, those results will influence many others.

Egyptian papyrus showing the Pharaoh Tutankhamen and gods courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Bohr principle ought to be the watchword in this debate over the Common Core. Those who confidently predict failure haven’t any more knowledge about what will really happen than I do. (Of course critics of CCSS are reasonably concerned about the tests that might go with the Common Core, which I’ll quickly discuss in another blog.) But unless the actual curricular plans of the critics (where are they?) also required coherent “content knowledge within and across grades,” their alternatives are not likely to be as effective as CCSS. And if critics do support the key principles of specificity and coherence—well then—why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states rather than get lost in details of who was or was not consulted?


For many years my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K – 12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. It ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, his school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that Common Core will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge-based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. Hence in actual implementation, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does.

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “Oh my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. In them each topic is explained and instructional suggestions are provided. In addition, the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would be useful for the teacher to have by way of background are also laid out. The best sources for further relevant materials wrap up each section. Cleo was greatly relieved.

But what about all the other Cleo’s out there who are being thrown into these sink-or-swim situations in our public schools, sent into classrooms where it’s impossible to know what their students already know, and where teachers are given scant guidance about what they should be teaching—or worse—are asked to teach literacy classes based on the trivial and fragmented fictions found in the standard literacy textbooks?

Teachers in a typical American classroom cannot rely on their students having acquired any specific item of knowledge. But effective classroom teaching depends on key prior knowledge being shared by all the members of the class. Without such shared knowledge, truly effective whole-class teaching cannot occur—no matter how potentially effective the teacher is. In today’s schools, teachers are compelled to overuse all sorts of individualizing strategies—at huge opportunity cost to the progress of the class as a whole. Individualized instruction is always important. But it is far more effective when students’ share prior academic knowledge, which alone enables the teacher to engage in varied instructional approaches.

That’s why I have become so impatient with the teacher bashing that has overtaken the education reform movement. 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.”

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. The Common Core State Standards offer a framework for any state or locality to create the curricular coherence that could lead to massive gains in student learning. It would improve teacher effectiveness on a large-scale if we created a more coherent school environment in which a teacher’s work in one year reliably builds on what has been taught in prior years. A conscientious and intelligent realization of the new Common Core Standards could achieve that essential element that has been missing in our schools for too many tragic decades.


Honoring the Framer’s Intent: A Close Look at Close Reading

by Lisa Hansel
August 8th, 2013

The further we dive into implementing the Common Core, the more questions and concerns arise. Some see this as evidence that the Core is crumbling. I don’t. I think it’s an inevitable, and welcome, phase of wrapping our minds around some very big changes. In fact, the more time I spend talking to people—from teachers deep in this work to policy wonks on the foggy fringes—the more it reminds me of debates about the Constitution.

No, I’m not ready to give the Common Core’s writers Founder status, but I do think that the new standards will prove to be living, lasting documents. The main way I am reminded of the Constitution is in the debates I’m hearing about what the writers intended. I’m glad that these debates are happening. Figuring out the intent is far more important than “covering” each individual standard. As I noted several weeks ago, anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results.

One line of questions and concerns I find really interesting is how close reading might work (or not) early in elementary school. Is a 7-year-old really supposed to analyze and cite evidence from a complex text?

Yes, but—two big buts! First, keep in mind that the text is supposed to be complex from the 7-year-old’s perspective, not from the adult’s perspective. Second, there are things the adult can do to make the text accessible.

As the Core Knowledge Language Arts team has been revising the pilot version of the program and rolling out the final version, it has been writing close reading lessons. In second and third grades, they’re doing about one per week (earlier grades are focused more on building the foundation via close listening). This hasn’t been easy. After plenty of head scratching and bumping, here’s what they figured out: Close reading in the elementary grades should focus first and foremost on ensuring students’ comprehension of the text; a secondary focus should be the manner in which words have been used as literary devices or how text has been crafted. CKLA’s close reading lessons focus student attention on words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, and syntactic structure as a way of unpacking the meaning of the text.

Recently, I got a peek at some materials currently being developed for a unit on the War of 1812 that comes at the end of second grade. I’m just going to share some snippets here. I think they show that second graders really can analyze complex text—if the curriculum is carefully constructed to make the text accessible.

For accessibility, one critical feature is that children are reading about the War of 1812 after having listened to and discussed a series of teacher read-alouds on the same topic. (For those who are familiar with the program, the War of 1812 first appears about halfway through second grade as a domain in the Listening & Learning strand; then, at the end of the year, the War of 1812 returns in the Student Reader in the Skills strand.) So, students are already familiar with the ideas, people, events, and vocabulary. Another important way CKLA makes this text accessible is that the Student Reader is decodable. From K – 2, all of the Student Readers are written using only the sound-spellings and tricky words that have been taught to date.

Now, let’s take a look at the Student Reader on The War of 1812. Chapter 1 explores some of the disagreements that the Americans and British were having. Chapter 2 looks at internal disagreements between American war hawks and merchants. Here’s roughly the first half of chapter 3, “The War Starts”:

Presidents have to make hard choices. James Madison had to decide whether to side with the war hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the war hawks. Madison asked Congress to declare war. On June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain.

The Americans were in for a hard fight. The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans. It meant that they would have a better chance of winning.

Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win. Today the U.S. is a strong nation. It has been around for many years. It has a strong army and navy. But that was not the case in 1812.

In 1812, the U.S. was not very old as a country. It had broken away from Great Britain only about thirty years before.

The U.S. had a different kind of government, too. At the time, most of the nations of Europe were monarchies. That means they were ruled by kings. A king would rule until he died. Then, in most cases, his oldest son would take over. The U.S. was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for 4 years. Then the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not confident that the system would last and that the U.S. would be able to survive.

Before we get into specifics, here’s on outline of CKLA’s approach to close reading:

  • Have students partner-read a selected chapter in their Readers.
  • After students have finished reading the chapter with their partners, lead students in a close reading of the text that requires them (individually, in pairs, or in small groups) to draw on evidence from the text by doing the following (as appropriate, not all texts will support all of these forms of analysis):
    • calling attention to and explaining instances of words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, specific word choices, and nuances of meaning.
    • identifying and discussing general academic (Tier 2) vocabulary.
    • unpacking sentences with difficult syntax, including identifying pronoun referents, discussing the temporal and/or causal relationship and meaning of specific conjunctions, calling attention to words that signal transitions, and breaking complex sentences with clauses into separate parts.
    • discussing sections of the text that might pose difficulty due to dense information and/or that require making inferences and/or connections to previously read texts or  knowledge.
    • discussing the voice or narrator of a particular text excerpt.
    • calling attention to literary devices such as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, and onomatopoeia.

Now, let’s take a look at some ways teachers could apply this to our excerpt of chapter 3:

Text from Student Reader: James Madison had to decide whether to side with the War Hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the War Hawks.

  • Vocabulary: side with to take sides; agree with
  • Text-Dependent Question: In the end, who did Madison agree with – the War Hawks or the merchants?
  • Response: Madison sided with the War Hawks in the end.

Text from Student Reader: The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans.

  • Vocabulary: troops – soldiers
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why were the British able to only send some of their troops to fight the Americans?
  • Response: The British were fighting another war with France.

Text from Student Reader: Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win.

  • Vocabulary: imagine – think; believe (Note the multiple meanings of imagine. Here is a slightly different meaning: it was a cold, winter day, but I imagined I was at the pool in the summer; dreamed, pretended.)
  • Syntax: not a lot of people…could imagine that the U.S. could win = a lot of people could not imagine that the U.S. could  win
  • Text-Dependent Question: Were there many people who thought the U.S. could win?
  • Response: No, not a lot of people could imagine that the U.S. could win.

Text from Student Reader: The United States was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for four years. Then, the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.

  • Vocabulary: serve to work for a certain period of time in government or in the military (Note the multiple meanings of serve. The waitress served our dessert; delivered or brought to the table.); step down – to stop doing a job; resign; retire
  • Syntax: Who or what is it in the sentence, “Instead, it had a president?” (the United States)

Text from Student Reader: In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not sure that the system would last and that the United States would be able to survive.

  • Vocabulary: the system the American way of government in which the people voted for a president
  • Syntax: What does this refer to in the sentence, “In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things?” (choosing a president by voting)
  • Text-Dependent Question: Why did most people in the world think the United States would not be able to survive?
  • Response: They were not sure that the system of government in the United States would last.

To practice close reading, the student workbook sends children back to the text. In the examples below, CKLA second graders must write “true” or “false” and provide the page numbers on which they found evidence for their answers:

1. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. __________

Page _________

2. In 1812, the British were already at war with France, so they could only send some of their troops to fight the United States. __________

Page _________

3. At the start of the war, most people thought the United States would defeat the British easily. __________

Page _________

4. A monarchy is a nation that is ruled by a king. __________

Page _________

5. In 1812, the United States was a monarchy. __________

Page _________

6. In 1812, most of the nations of Europe were ruled by presidents who were elected and served for four years. __________

Page _________

Some second graders will be able to do this independently; others will need lots of support. (And don’t forget—the Skills strand offers many options for differentiation, so no one expects the whole second grade to tackle this in the same way at the same time.) I think we can confidently say that all will be learning a great deal.


Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information

by Lisa Hansel
July 29th, 2013

Here’s a question I’m often asked: Now that we have Google and smartphones are becoming less expensive, isn’t the Core Knowledge approach obsolete?

For anyone who knows that (1) cognitive science shows that having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory is essential to reading comprehension and critical thinking and (2) Core Knowledge is about providing a broad base of skill-enabling knowledge in preschool through eighth grade, the answer is obviously “No.” If anything, Google makes the Core Knowledge approach even more essential. In a sea of information, young people need a lifeboat.

(Lifeboat in the sea of digital information courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Fortunately, at least some of those who are up on smartphones and down on memorization are realizing that knowledge is necessary. Take, for example, a July 25th article on Scientific American’s website: “Smart Phones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts.” It starts with a bit of a straw man about memorizing the presidents. Do you need to be able to rattle off the presidents? Probably not. But can you really grasp US history without solid factual, contextual, and conceptual knowledge stored in your long-term memory about Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, etc.? No.

What I find most interesting about this Scientific American article is that it greatly downplays the need for memorization—but then in a sidebar it highlights the need to commit to memory pretty much everything in the Core Knowledge Sequence! I think we have a simple case of the author, a knowledgeable adult, taking the broad knowledge he learned early in life for granted.

In the article, we read:

Maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary—and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).

Of course, it’s a spectrum. We’ll always need to memorize information that would be too clumsy or time-consuming to look up daily: simple arithmetic, common spellings, the layout of our hometown. Without those, we won’t be of much use in our jobs, relationships or conversations.

Then in the sidebar, “6 Reasons Smartphones Won’t Replace Our Brains,” we read:

We’ll never consult our phones for everything. Some things are so important we’ll have to commit them to memory even if we reach the age of universal digital retrieval. Here are a few of the life categories where memory will always beat digital lookups….

  • The Cultural Factor: You can’t function for long in society without some basic grounding in history and culture. Without knowing these references you won’t have the context to comprehend current events—or even know what you’re missing or what questions to ask. You won’t understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles. And you won’t get anybody’s jokes. You’ll be unemployable and undatable….
  • The Productivity Factor: Even if your daily work requires something you could easily look up, like molecular weights, stock symbols or commonly prescribed drugs, your work would bog down to a halt if you had to interrupt your flow every few minutes for a lookup. You need fluency in your own career facts to operate effectively.
  • The Lookup Factor: Our gadgets may always be able to call up information on demand—but only if you know how and where to look for it. You still have to know how to use the tools of modern up-lookings: like Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, or—What’s the other one? Oh, yeah—Google.

What does a “basic grounding in history and culture” consist of? What knowledge is needed to “understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles”? Those are questions E. D. Hirsch asked three decades ago. His research—and that of many cognitive scientists—found that a great deal of content knowledge was needed in long-term memory to function as a literate adult. Through a series of studies Hirsch and his colleagues identified the specific knowledge that is most essential—and then that became the Sequence.

For a well-researched and thoughtful look at the impact of Google on education, let’s turn to “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” an article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer that was recently published in Educational Psychologist:

[One] legend has it that all that one needs to know and learn is “out there on the web” and that there is, thus, no need to teach and/or acquire such knowledge any more. This has led, for example, to the demotion of the teacher from someone whose job it was to combine her/his knowledge within a domain combined with her/his pedagogical content knowledge so as to teach those lacking this knowledge to someone whose role is standing on the sidelines and guiding and/or coaxing a breed of self-educators. These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning, seeking, finding, and making use of all of the information sources that are freely available to them….

The premises underlying the idea of substituting information seeking for teaching is that the half-life of information is getting smaller every day, making knowledge rapidly obsolete, and because it is all out there on the web, we should not teach knowledge but should instead let kids look for it themselves….

The idea that the present body of knowledge is rapidly becoming out of date or obsolete is far from true. First, a distinction needs to be made with respect to the difference between knowledge obsolescence and information growth…. The fact is that much of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful. What is true is that there is an increasing amount of new information becoming available, some of it trustworthy, some not….

Although students are often thought of as being competent or even expert in information problem solving (i.e., that they are information and digitally literate) because they are seen searching the web daily, research reveals that solving information problems is for most students a major if not insurmountable cognitive endeavor…. Learners not only have problems finding the information that they are seeking but also often trust the first thing they see, making them prone to “the pitfalls of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams”….

Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web…. Unfortunately, in most cases students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter is minimal. From research, it is known that low prior knowledge negatively influences the search process….

This leads to essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Since research clearly shows that effectively using the internet requires knowledge, does that mean students should be kept offline when they are first learning about a topic? I don’t think so. Later in their article, Kirschner and van Merriënboer discuss ways teachers can direct and support students’ learning online and offline. The key takeaway is pretty simple: don’t expect students (of any age) to be able to Google effectively about topics that are new to them. One obvious option appears: limit their research to a small pool of trusted sources.

Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions have been particularly great about making online collections teachers can draw from for engaging, but appropriately limited, online research. I couldn’t possibly list even a small fraction of the good ones, so I’ll close by noting one I recently learned about: the Primary Source Sets created by the Library of Congress. There are more than two dozen sets, designed for classroom use, on topics ranging from baseball to women’s suffrage.