Knowledge Needs Champions

by Guest Blogger
May 10th, 2016

By Lisa Hansel

Lisa Hansel is director of Knowledge Matters, a new campaign to restore wonder and excitement to the classroom by building broad knowledge in science, social studies, and the arts. Previously, she was the communications director for Core Knowledge and the editor of American Educator, the magazine of education research and ideas published by the American Federation of Teachers.

Harriet Tubman will grace the front of our $20 bill—a long overdue tribute to a woman who lived up to the best of American values. But do most Americans know who she was? Anecdotal evidence and test scores indicate that they don’t.

This is not some footnote figure that only historians should know. Tubman repeatedly displayed astounding courage—and achieved heroic successes—in two of our nation’s greatest fights for freedom and equality: ending slavery and giving women the right to vote.

But perhaps this widespread ignorance is not our fellow citizens’ fault. When would they have learned of Tubman? A nationally representative survey of elementary teachers shows that in K-6, an average of just 16–21 minutes a day are spent on social studies (and a mere 19–24 on science). Given students’ utter lack of preparation, our middle and high school teachers would find it challenging to engage students in meaningful or memorable studies in history, geography, and civics.

Knowledge Needs Champions Image

It’s tempting to blame the elementary teachers, but that’s simplistic at best. Elementary teachers are, by and large, doing what they have been taught are best practices and responding to the signals sent by federal and state accountability policies.

The heart of this problem is that, as a nation, we’ve ignored an overwhelming body of research showing the massive role that academic knowledge plays in reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and even curiosity. We’ve pursued short cuts, hoping to cultivate these abilities directly. It doesn’t, can’t, and won’t ever work.

Out of deference to the spirit of local control and in a misguided pursuit of equity, we’ve avoided establishing clear, shared outlines of the specific topics to teach in each grade. We assume that different children need to learn different things, despite the incontrovertible evidence that language comprehension is not possible without a shared base of knowledge. From “space shuttle” to “Supreme Court,” there are thousands of terms that literate American adults are presumed to know; these terms are used but not explained in the national conversation. To have any chance to grasp, much less influence, that conversation, each and every one of us must acquire the words and concepts that are taken for granted.

Because we refuse to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn that essential body of knowledge, we’re far behind by global standards, and we allow socioeconomic status to have an outsized influence on achievement.

I’ve always believed that life is a mix of luck and preparation (with luck having a huge influence on just how prepared you become)—and that with good fortune comes great responsibility.

Those of us fortunate enough to be in the know must rise to the challenge of equalizing opportunity to learn. We must ensure that everyone—from policymakers to educators to parents—understand that rich and rigorous studies in science, social studies, and the arts are essential to reading, critical thinking, and other supposed “skills.” We must not rest until all children receive a well-rounded education that provides the shared knowledge we all need as well as opportunities to pursue personal interests.

We must take Tubman as our guide and fight for what we know is right.

When you are ready to do your part, join Robert Pondiscio and me in the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Sign our credo—then send it to two friends. Dig into our resources—then select one to email to your local school board. Explore ways to seize the day, every day.

Knowledge needs champions. Our children need you.

Differentiation’s Dirty Little Secret

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2015

I’ve been visiting a lot of elementary schools lately, and I’ve noticed a dangerous pattern: instruction that’s called “differentiated” but looks an awful lot like tracking. To varying degrees, I’ve seen it in high- and low-scoring schools, some using Core Knowledge, some not.

Here’s a typical scenario (abstracted from my admittedly limited experience). The whole class is studying a topic such as the circulatory system. As an introduction, everyone gets to hear the teacher read aloud a short text about circulation, watch a video, and participate in a brief discussion. Then the differentiation begins. The class is broken into three (or more) groups, and different groups are given different projects to complete. The highest group may be given a set of texts and websites to use as reference material, a very detailed diagram of the human circulatory system that they have to fill in as a group, and then a writing prompt that each student has to respond to individually explaining how blood is pumped through the body. The lowest group may be given just one relatively easy text, a greatly simplified diagram to fill in as a group, and a group fill-in-the-blank worksheet on how blood is pumped through the body.

So while the highest group has to learn aorta, femoral artery, cephalic vein, superior vena cava, etc. and then actually explain how all those things work together, the lowest group just has to learn heart, artery, and vein and then use those same words to fill in the blanks. That’s not differentiation. It’s tracking—and it’s dimming the futures of all but our highest-group kids.

But it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s a systemic problem, and the system has tied teachers’ hands.

Differentiation is supposed to provide different learning paths to attain the same goal. In every classroom, some children are better prepared and able to attain that goal more quickly. The rest of the class is just as capable of meeting the goal—but they don’t have as much background knowledge. They have more to learn, and so they need more time. The catch is that the vast majority of schools aren’t able to vary learning time. The students who need more time don’t get it. They just learn what they can in the amount of time provided. So one group masters the basilar artery, and the other has a vague understanding of their heartbeat.

We put a man on the moon. Are we seriously not able to fix this?


Multiple paths, one goal (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

I wasn’t sure about airing these thoughts, but sadly, I just found confirmation that what I’ve seen is not an anomaly. Toward the end of Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective (hat tip to Susan Neuman for recommending it), Bruce Bradbury and his coauthors write:

There is … a good deal of research under way on using ability grouping … more effectively…. A key factor seems to be the role of aspirations and expectations. If the goal of ability grouping or other remedial programming is to help ensure that all children learn the age-appropriate material, then such programming can be very effective in reducing achievement gaps. This model is in contrast to one in which children in different groups are taught different material, which merely serves to reinforce or widen gaps; with this latter model, those who are lagging never catch up, and indeed, they often fall further behind.

In short, to close gaps, schools have to commit to teaching everyone the full curriculum, and they have to find ways to provide the additional instruction and time that some children need.

As Bradbury et al. point out, Finland is doing just that. It starts with family and early childhood policies that minimize the differences in children’s readiness for school. Then, once in school, “another key ingredient in the Finnish story is the fact that students are held to a uniformly high standard. All students are taught the same curriculum, even students who may require extra help to learn the material. (In fact, nearly half of Finnish students do receive extra help at some point during their school years.)”

A few months ago, I admitted that I’m afraid of personalized learning. Now I fear differentiation too. Without a specific, coherent, cumulative curriculum that all students must master, differentiation and personalization seem likely to increase achievement gaps. But with such a curriculum—and with extended day, week, and year options for students who need more time—differentiation and personalization could be our path to excellence and equity.

Dear Chiefs: This Is Your Chance to Close the Reading Achievement Gap

by Guest Blogger
December 1st, 2015

Assuming all goes as planned, we should have a new federal education law by the end of the year. Dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), this version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would greatly increase states’ options for evaluating schools and teachers. As this ESSA cheat sheet explains:

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

Or access to, support in, and success in a knowledge-rich, well-rounded elementary curriculum.

Under pressure from high-stakes accountability and as a result of misconceptions about the role of knowledge in developing skills, elementary schools have reduced science and social studies to just 16 to 24 minutes a day. That’s the average time allocation, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers, which means many schools spend even less time introducing children to our world. Worse, the kids who are least likely to have opportunities to learn science and social studies outside of school are the most likely to attend schools that narrowly focus on reading and math—with the bulk of the day devoted to language arts.

It is not working.

The notion that nothing is more important than reading is understandable, but it’s also self-defeating. Kids who don’t get to study science and social studies—especially in the early grades—don’t become great readers. They become, as Susan Neuman says, “word callers.” They learn to sound out words, but then they don’t know what those words mean. Science, history, geography, music, and art, if rigorously and enthusiastically taught throughout elementary school, are the cure. These are the subjects in which children acquire academic vocabulary, not to mention the essential conceptual knowledge that prepares children for more in-depth studies in later grades.


“Democracy” is relatively easy to sound out, but relatively difficult to understand. To develop real readers, in the early grades we must teach science, social studies, the arts, and how to sound out words. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

With ESSA, states could strategically develop indicators that incentivize building knowledge and vocabulary. Even a simple indicator—such as requiring at least 150 minutes per week on science, another 150 on history and geography, plus 60 on music and art—could send a strong signal on priorities. That signal would be even stronger if schools had to ensure that all students met these minimal time requirements. Right now, far too many schools pull students out of science, social studies, and arts classes for remedial reading and math.

States that want to go further could specify a grade-by-grade core of topics to be taught in elementary school, and then ensure that the passages on the reading comprehension tests in grades 3–5 were on those topics—and only those topics. Radical though that sounds, it’s actually pretty similar to what happens in our most revered tests, Advanced Placement, in which detailed course syllabi leave no guessing as to what will be tested. That’s inherently fairer than the current state assessment regime, in which the topics of reading passages are a complete mystery, thereby privileging the children with the broadest background knowledge.

It’s also more likely to narrow the knowledge gap, which ought to be the number one goal of America’s elementary schools. But even mandating and testing a rich array of topics won’t get the job done. States and schools must do far more to address disparities in opportunities to learn outside of school. Every single day, some kids get an extra dose of academic knowledge and vocabulary at home; others don’t. To actually close the gap, the further behind a child is, the more time he needs in school and the more access he needs to weekend and summer enrichment. Wise states would offer preschool for three and four year olds, require full-day kindergarten, and extend the school day, week, and year for our neediest children. They would also increase funding for libraries, museums, book mobiles, and programs that encourage parents to read to their children every day.

For far too long, our neediest youth have not found out how far behind they are until they are pushed into remedial courses in community colleges or turned down for apprenticeships. This must stop. In the elementary years, the gaps are still small enough to tackle. ESSA gives states the flexibility needed to show real courage—or cowardice. How many will step up?


The High-Tech Road to Literacy

by Guest Blogger
October 27th, 2015

Every time I see a toddler with an iPad, I cringe just a little. I try to hide it. I know I’m supposed to be amazed at the little genius.

I also know that the device could be useful, especially as the toddler becomes a preschooler and starts learning letters and numbers. Still, beyond a few apps for those (very important) basics, I typically see the iPad as more opiate than education. But we can’t just say no. iPads and similar devices are ubiquitous and revered. We must co-opt them. But how?

Lisa Guernsey of New America and Michael Levine of Sesame Workshop provide the first really compelling answer I’ve seen. Their new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, is a rare gem. It’s written in a way that parents will find accessible and it offers a combination of research, initiatives (with videos), and insights that even the most expert decision makers will find useful.

Rather than a summary, I’ll offer a few samples of Lisa and Michael’s findings and trust that you’ll be motivated to dive into the whole book.

On literacy:

Literacy in the younger years is not, and never has been, solely about reading print. Walk into a children’s library and what do you see everywhere? Picture books, some with no print at all. Nor is early literacy only about reading books. Literacy has always involved speaking, listening, and writing.

On literacy apps:

Our analysis can be summed up as follows: kids’ literacy apps are abundant within the marketplace, but they have not been designed or distributed in any coherent fashion, and the vast majority are not oriented to help bridge the gulf of literacy problems faced by some families…. Meanwhile, however, we see hope in the growing number of curators popping up, a few of whom are trying to bring in a lens on learning in the early years.

On the future of literacy apps:

To give you a sense of the type of research likely to come, consider the case of the app-based learning system called Learn with Homer…. It brings a mix of proven early learning techniques—story time, rich vocabulary and background knowledge, and skills practice—together in one app…. Kids are not only learning what the letter A sounds like and that “alligator” starts with A, but also taking virtual “field trips” to the zoo, where they learn about alligators.

On wise use:

We cannot afford to ignore the affordances of technology, especially for disadvantaged children and families of many different backgrounds and circumstances who may not otherwise have access to information and learning opportunities. And yet to leave the fate of these children to technology alone would be a big mistake…. Children who interact with technology while working with adults who can set good examples and guide them to new heights are receiving tremendous advantages. If only the privileged few have the opportunity for that kind of tech-assisted but human-powered learning, divides will only grow wider.


To be educational, iPad time needs to be quality time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

On knowledge and comprehension:

One recent day in California, a six-year-old boy named Brandon was … watching one of Disney’s Ice Age movies, when he saw a scene that captivated him. On the screen were the lovable animations of Ice Age’s prehistoric beasts, loping along the barren, icy terrain. Brandon turned to his father: “Papi, at that time, what was it like? There weren’t any buses?” Smiling, his father, José Rubén, saw this as a teachable moment. He went to his computer, pulled up YouTube, and searched for videos that would show his son more about what life was like during that time…. Brandon was engaged in building his knowledge base, getting an introduction to concepts and ideas that not only gave him a little more understanding of the Ice Age, but also helped him put the Ice Age into context of other periods in history and start to gain a framework for thinking about how time passes and how change happens….

When most people talk about the troubling state of children’s reading in the United States, the untapped power of these kinds of learning moments are not likely on their minds. Instead they may think our country’s problems are simply a function of whether children ever learned how to decode words on a page or read sentences with fluency. But the root of the problem may be in children’s abilities to comprehend and make sense of the ideas that are built by those words and sentences. Recent vocabulary scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, showed that American children are making few if any significant gains in understanding the meaning of complex words, with a wide gulf between white students and … Hispanic and African American students. So if there are ways to build that word learning and even more importantly build a deeper knowledge base that enables comprehension in today’s children, don’t we have a moral obligation to seize it?

The Triumph of Training over Education

by Guest Blogger
October 14th, 2015

Not all that long ago, college followed a predictable pattern: two years of general education requirements followed by two years of courses in the chosen major. No longer. As this review of course requirements shows, even some of the liberal arts colleges have minimized requirements outside the major.

Of all the potential causes for the disappearance of general ed, two seem lost likely to me (though this is pure conjecture). One is the commodification of higher education, in which climbing walls, dorm-suites with pools, and emphasis on career-focused courses are necessary to compete for students. The is that many faculty members are unaware that a shared body of knowledge is necessary for active citizenship (or effective communication or even on-the-job critical thinking).

Regardless, creating general education requirements is so rare these days that it’s newsworthy. Students seem oblivious to the notion that education could have more than one purpose. As a freshman at Boston University said, “I feel like, if you know you want to be an engineer, you shouldn’t have to spend your time doing things that aren’t really going to apply to you.”


Engineering may make for a good career, but there’s far more to a good life (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Of course, this isn’t the students’ fault. The real problem is with the adults who have abdicated their duty to define and protect the very notion of an education. Marc Tucker tackled this recently, asking “What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Person Today?

One of the most influential—and, I think it is fair to say, thoughtful—statements on what it might mean to be an educated person … was the Harvard University report on General Education in a Free Society, released in 1945.  It addressed both the schools and higher education, offering the view that social and moral development is no less important than academic learning. It argued that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is positively dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility, that a democracy likes ours cannot survive if serious learning is monopolized only by our elites. For all these reasons, it said, the modern university had an obligation to require all students to take at least a third of their course selections from courses specially designed by teams of top faculty not to advance students in their march toward specialization but rather to involve them in the study of complex issues, systems, big ideas from the full realm of human experience … to help them lead the good life as the Greeks would have understood that phrase—to be decent, capable, concerned, involved contributors and thoughtful citizens.  They proposed, in other words, what amounted to a common curriculum, with some choice, that would be designed to enable all students to achieve goals that the Harvard task force had thought long and hard about.

Just a few years ago, another Harvard president called a subsequent Harvard task force together to update General Education in a Free Society. It failed to come to a consensus on a common, coherent undergraduate curriculum. Little wonder. In the intervening years, the university had become a vast holding company of faculty entrepreneurs and specialists and the student body had come to build and hone the specialist skills and faculty and student connections that would give them an edge in a highly competitive job market.

With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature…. We need to turn off the autopilot. We need to examine the technological, political, social and moral challenges we face and ask ourselves how and for what purpose we should be educating—not training—our young adults.  If it were ever the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is the case now.

While there are still some institutions teaching the liberal arts, I don’t see most colleges escaping from a narrow concept of career preparation. But since most students don’t complete college, perhaps our focus should be on K–12. With Core Knowledge and other rigorous curricula, shouldn’t our goal be for high school graduates to be well educated, ready to lead good lives?

Stop Reforming, Start Improving

by Guest Blogger
September 10th, 2015

This post first appeared on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

“Programmatic series of studies”—that’s how one of my psychology professors described research on learning and memory around twenty years ago. Do a study, tweak it, try again. Persist.

I was reminded of that while reading Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk and colleagues. After thirty years of constant reform and little improvement, it’s clear that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the education field goes about effecting change. Quick fixes, sweeping transformations, and mandates aren’t working. Ongoing professional development isn’t working either.

What might work much better is a sustained, systemic commitment to improvement—and a willingness to start with a series of small pilots instead of leaping into large-scale implementation. Guided by “improvement science” pioneered in the medical field, Learning to Improve shows how education could finally stop its reform churn. As Bryk et al. write:

All activity in improvement science is disciplined by three deceptively simple questions:

1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
2. What change might we introduce and why?
3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?…

A set of general principles guides the approach: (1) wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply; (2) be minimally intrusive—some changes will fail, and we want to limit negative consequences on individuals’ time and personal lives; and (3) develop empirical evidence at every step to guide subsequent improvement cycles.

That sounds an awful lot like schools across the country engaging in a programmatic series of studies—a change that likely would result in huge improvements. Even better, the book explains how educators can form networks to grow together. Progress is much faster with pilots in multiple locations, as adaptations for each context generate ideas for further tests.

This application of improvement science seems to be the best possible path forward. But it still suffers from a (perhaps inevitable) problem—you don’t know what you don’t know. An example of this problem is sprinkled throughout the book: The Literacy Collaborative is profiled as a network of educators improving their reading instruction. I don’t doubt that their instruction is improving and student achievement is increasing. I also don’t doubt that even better results could be attained with an entirely different approach.

The Literacy Collaborative is dedicated to guided reading, which begins with the teacher selecting a leveled text. As Tim Shanahan has explained, there’s no real research base for leveled readers. The whole notion of assessing a child’s reading level and then selecting (or letting the child select) a text at that level is essentially a farce. Once children are fluent in sounding out words, their reading level primarily depends on their knowledge level, which means it varies by topic.

Neither today nor in the future called for by Learning to Improve is there a way to guarantee that the improvement process begins with the best possible ideas. But improvement science may still be our last best hope. The type of slow, steady progress that would result from widespread application seems to characterize the few examples we have of sustained and, eventually, dramatic improvement, such as in Massachusetts, Finland, and Singapore:

Think of a future in which practical knowledge is growing in a disciplined fashion every day, in thousands of settings, as hundreds of thousands of educators and educational leaders continuously learn to improve. Rather than a small collection of disconnected research centers, we could have an immense networked learning community.

The book’s vision is ambitious—and far more likely to succeed than the reform churn we’ve tolerated for decades.


Lots of churning makes good butter, not good schools (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Mississippi: Common Core Lite

by Guest Blogger
August 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Note on range and content of student reading

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

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

[W]hile the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.

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

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

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

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

Math and Science Increase Wages–Even Without College

by Guest Blogger
July 31st, 2015

In my last post, I mentioned a couple of reports showing huge disparities in the courses offered by high schools, with especially serious problems in access to advanced math, chemistry, and physics. I think such inequities are an embarrassment to the very idea of America. But I’ve met people who disagree. They see alternative courses in things like forensics and general science to be a practical means of engaging kids who aren’t going to college in the sciences.

I could argue endlessly about who might go to college if such inequities did not exist, but let’s skip that. Let’s just focus on this idea of different courses for those who are not going. Do they benefit from advanced math and science courses—traditional, rigorous, college-prep courses? Yes.

A broad, rigorous education—with advanced math and science—is critical, even for those who do not want to go to college. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

They benefit not only from the inherent value of better understanding their universe, but in wages and job satisfaction, as a new report from the National School Boards Association shows. The report defines non-college goers as those who had not enrolled in college (two or four year) by age 26. These days, that’s just 12% of high school graduates. The results were striking:

What students do in high school is as important for non-college goers as it is for college goers. For on-time graduates who did not go to college, we found that they did much better in the labor market if they had completed high-level math and science courses; earned higher grades; completed multiple vocational courses focusing on a specific labor market area (occupational concentration); and obtained a professional certification or license. While each of these factors had a positive effect most of the time, they were especially powerful in combination. Compared to their peers who lacked any of these characteristics, the “high credentialed” non-college goers were:

• More likely to have a full-time job.
• Less likely to be unemployed.
• Less likely to be unemployed for more than six months.
• More likely to work for an employer that offers medical insurance.
• More likely to have a retirement fund.
• More likely to supervise other employees.
• Less likely to receive public assistance.

At 26, these high-credentialed non-college goers were also doing well compared with their college-going peers (though other data on college completers still show that earning a college degree is the best route—the problem is that so many college goers get trapped in remedial courses and never graduate). Here are a few of the highlights:

26-year-olds who reported they…

No college; low credentials

No college; high credentials

College goers

Had a full-time job (at least 35 hrs/wk)




Hourly wage at most recent job




Current employer offers medical insurance




Had a retirement plan in 2012




Organizations like Achieve have long claimed that college and career both require the same rigorous, academic K–12 education. While some dispute the idea, evidence continues to mount. Equalizing opportunity to learn—to acquire academic knowledge—is morally, economically, and civically the right thing to do.


The (Knowledge) Rich Get Richer

by Guest Blogger
July 28th, 2015

If I could accomplish just one thing in my career, it would be to have all leaders take equalizing opportunity to learn seriously. If knowledge equality were a top priority, much would change from early childhood through college.

One thing that would no longer be tolerated is denying access to essential courses. According to a 2014 report from the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “Nationwide, only 50% of high schools offer calculus, and only 63% offer physics…. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.”


Can you imagine sending your child to a school that does not offer chemistry? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Of those schools offering courses called physics and chemistry, students may not have a real opportunity to learn. As Bill Schmidt has shown, even courses that seem well defined like Algebra I cover very different content.

Now, a new report shows huge disparities in course access in New York City:

Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science….

Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics….

Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, “living environment”—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.

Replacing biology, chemistry, and physics with living environment, forensics, and general science is an outrage. But no one seems to care. Do they believe the myth that science skills can be developed equally well with chemistry or forensics? Do they care more about engagement than knowledge? Do they think some kids can’t do physics?

Do those who shrug off this outrage not know that the traditional, academic math and science classes are essential for a wide range of occupations? Drawing from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report lists courses required for some popular careers:

Accountant: pre-calculus
Architect: pre-calculus, physics
Dental hygienist: biology and chemistry
Electrician: algebra 1
Emergency medical technician: biology, chemistry
HVAC mechanic: physics
Lab technician: chemistry and biology
MRI technician: biology, chemistry, physics
Registered nurse: biology, chemistry

Fortunately, this is a problem that at least some leaders are trying to solve. The Foundation for Excellence in Education highlights 10 districts and charters in seven states that are working to expand course access. Working in rural and urban areas, they are creating new venues for high-quality online, blended, and in-person courses.

Seeking Confirmation

by Guest Blogger
July 9th, 2015

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

The whole system has to improve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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