Federal Policy, Teacher Effects

by Lisa Hansel
March 5th, 2014

My objective today is to put words in a few prominent researchers’ mouths—or better yet, their paper, “Learning that Lasts: Unpacking Variation in Teachers’ Effects on Students’ Long-Term Knowledge.” Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff have posted online a “preliminary draft,” which no one is supposed to cite. Blogging, I assume with all online content, is fair game. This paper is terrifically important. I just want to see a draft that more fully discusses the many factors that contribute to teacher effects.

Let’s start with why this paper is worth your time: It’s a blockbuster for those worried about the negative consequences of annual high-stakes test-based teacher evaluations. Looking at the long-term impact of teachers with high value added, the researchers conclude:

Evaluation and accountability systems may incentive educators to focus excessively on short-term tested outcomes in ways that are not ultimately beneficial for students…. Collectively, this body of evidence demonstrates that teachers’ instructional practices can influence their short-term value-added performance in ways that do not correspond with long-term success for students…. Overall, our results demonstrate that teachers’ effects on students’ long-term skills can vary substantially and systematically, in ways that are not fully captured by short-term value-added measures of instructional quality.

We clearly need education policy to incentivize (or at least not impede) meaningful educational gains, so I hope policymakers will heed this research.

To increase the odds that they will heed it, the paper needs one quick little addition: more forceful acknowledgement that teachers’ effects are influenced by many factors. Several federal and state policies could be explored as means of positively influencing curriculum and instruction. This is not simply a teacher issue. It is a standards, curriculum, assessment, accountability, teacher preparation, professional development, leadership, and resource-allocation issue.

Is it really these researchers’ job to remind readers of the broader context? No. It’s just something that, given the importance of the issue, I’m hoping they’ll want to note.


When it comes to teacher effects, context matters.

Reading this paper, it’s easy to get swept up in thinking the teacher makes all the difference. For example, the more academic knowledge teachers have, the more they seem to infuse that in their instruction, to great effect:

The within-subject value-added persistence of ELA teachers who attended a more competitive undergraduate institution is significantly and substantially higher than that of teachers who attended a less competitive institution…. Differences in persistence are similarly large when comparing teachers whose SAT Verbal exam scores or LAST licensure exam scores are in the top third of the teacher distribution, in comparison to lower-scoring teachers. In both cases, higher scoring teachers show greater persistence…. It is notable that our teacher ability characteristics predict large differences in ELA teachers’ value-added persistence, even though they are not themselves correlated with teachers’ short-term value-added effects.

One might be tempted to think these direct teacher effects are simply teacher-quality issues. But nothing in education is so simple. Ask yourself: what’s likely to make a person with the potential to have lasting effects want to be a teacher for years to come? Rigorous standards and engaging curriculum, meaningful assessments that support instruction, accountability policies that don’t incentivize test prep, academically demanding preparation programs, tailored professional development, helpful leaders, etc.

Much of the paper is devoted to examining potential student- vs. teacher-level drivers of the variation in teachers’ long-term impact. That, obviously, is a key question—I just want to see more acknowledgement that the “teacher effects” are federal-, state-, district-, and school-policy effects. Here’s the heart of the research:

Observable student characteristics related to their socio-economic status or prior ability also predict substantial variation in their ELA teachers’ value-added persistence. The persistence of achievement gains coming from having an effective teacher is far lower for students who are eligible for free lunch, are black or Hispanic, or whose twice-lagged ELA achievement scores are below the mean…. These students may be receiving ELA instruction that is less focused on long-term knowledge, or they may be less skilled at acquiring or retaining long-term knowledge.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude the primary issue is likely “instruction that is less focused on long-term knowledge”:

We see evidence of the importance of instruction in the positive association between teachers’ academic ability and their contributions to students’ long-term knowledge. Even more compelling, we find that schools that serve more disadvantaged students or that hire fewer of these high-ability teachers have lower value-added persistence in ELA for all of their students. Students, regardless of their prior test performance, who attend schools with many low-performing students demonstrate lower persistence of the learning gains they achieve from having a high value-added teacher. The persistence in low-achieving schools is less than half the rate of that in other schools. These findings provide evidence that instructional quality is a key driver of the variation that we observe in value-added persistence, and that school-level curriculum or instructional norms may foster differences in instructional quality. Unfortunately, we are unable to directly observe the instructional practices of teachers or schools in our sample. However, in light of prior research on educators’ responses to high stakes accountability pressures … one plausible explanation for our findings could be that schools serving lower performing students systematically prioritize gains in short-term tested achievement in ways that detract from teachers’ focus on long-term knowledge generation.

As I’ve said, there’s a whole lot beyond “school-level curriculum or instructional norms” that “may foster differences in instructional quality.” The authors of this paper know that—and it’s certainly not their fault that many policymakers need to be reminded. But they do. And if more policymakers get the message that we have a multifaceted, highly complex problem to address, perhaps more desperately needed research dollars will be provided and more varied policies will be piloted.

Policymakers: Stop Being Agnostic about Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 29th, 2014

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch, a blog by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) 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.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give you all the guidance you need. Between the model on page 33 and the research summary in Appendix A, there’s a clear vision for creating a curriculum that systematically builds knowledge.

Knowledge-driven careers courtesy of Shutterstock.

But if you are a state-level policymaker or district superintendent, the path forward is murkier. You don’t want to mandate a curriculum, but you do need to encourage all schools to adopt, adapt, or create more rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curricula. What to do? Four models are worth considering—two at the state level and two at the district level.

Focus on Alignment: Massachusetts

Starting in the 1990s, Massachusetts began taking the whole idea of a standards-based education system very seriously. The Bay State created instructional frameworks that were (relative to other states, if not to many other nations) very content specific. What students had to learn was clear, which enabled teachers to collaborate on a much deeper level. Policymakers got three big things right: First, they did not mandate pedagogy. Second, they actually based the MCAS exams on the instructional frameworks. (Many other states had standards and assessments, but the standards were so vague that virtually any assessments could claim to be aligned with them. As a result, the standards did not truly guide instruction, setting up an assessment-based guessing game for teachers.) Third, they stayed the course for many years—standing firm against allegations that the standards were too high and the tests too hard and, crucially, being far more supportive than punitive. For many years, the emphasis was on framework-based teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. The results (nationally and internationally) have been spectacular.

Provide a Model: New York

While I can empathize with educators who feel that New York is moving too fast with the Common Core, I must also credit the state for heading in the right direction. New York realized that the standards would mean major instructional shifts, and has been working to provide—but not mandate—curricular resources to help teachers make those shifts. The EngageNY website is a rich resource; teachers throughout the Empire State and far beyond are using it to better understand the Common Core. (Full disclosure: Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen by New York as the model ELA curriculum for preschool–second grade implementation of the standards.) Massachusetts took about a decade to fully implement its standards-based system; I predict that New York will figure out ways to heed educators’ concerns while staying the course.

Build Your Own: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, the District of Columbia realized that the Common Core requires a content-rich curriculum. It also saw many benefits for students and teachers when a district has a shared, specific, curricular plan: Students endure fewer gaps and repetitions when they change schools and teachers are able to learn more from each other. Being large enough to have adequate resources and small enough to engage in district-wide initiatives, the District of Columbia Public Schools has gotten teachers involved in writing Common Core–aligned Scope and Sequence guides for each grade. This is especially important because of the city’s high rates of teacher turnover and student mobility. States that don’t want to follow New York’s path could incentivize districts to follow D.C.’s path. Even a small initiative, such as funding three to five districts, would help the whole state by creating multiple curricular models for other districts to adopt or adapt.

Invest in R&D: New York City

A few years before the Common Core, New York City tiptoed into analyzing the efficacy of different curricula. This is worth mentioning not because of the quality of the study (a small pilot) and not because of the programs being tested (Core Knowledge Language Arts was one), but because comparisons of curricula are desperately needed. As Brookings scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos have explained, instructional materials can have as large an impact on learning as teacher quality—and programs are much easier to change than people—yet little is known about various materials’ relative effectiveness. Large districts like NYC—and all districts with state support—have the capacity to conduct more and better research. To make the most of the Common Core, we need to create content-rich curricula and commit to an ongoing R&D process that drives continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum alone, no matter how good, is no silver bullet. But it should be the foundation for all other education work. From teacher preparation and professional development to assessment and accountability to student remediation and enrichment, the education enterprise is more effective and efficient when it rests on a clear statement of what students are to learn in each grade.


What Really Matters Most?

by Lisa Hansel
January 23rd, 2014

This post originally appeared on Peter Meyer’s education policy blog IdeaLab, hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House.


When asked what matters most to me, I quickly answer: my family and friends. That’s appropriate, but if I were being accurate, I’d have to start with oxygen. That’s not what anyone wants to hear—but it is true.

I see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. In casual discussions and even serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, appropriate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Now, I’m not going to say these things are unimportant; just like my family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? I think there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.

My hunch is that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy wonks.

For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That’s so obvious that it’s assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what’s essential to a great school. Now, don’t get me wrong: the curriculum doesn’t make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes me live. Both are merely the necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a bad school with a great curriculum, it is no more possible to find a good school with a bad curriculum than a human being who can live without oxygen. When educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.

Many policy wonks, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don’t even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, I could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world I can’t. In the 100%-proficient-or-else era, what sane educator would encourage policymakers to mess with their oxygen? Unfortunately, omitting questions about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. Why is this?

It’s been almost five years since Russ Whitehurst wrote “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” noting that “policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.” Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: “Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”

This is why I am still trying to mess with the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.

Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matt Chingos published “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” This time, there was a cool graphic tightly focused on curriculum vs. teacher quality, the clear leader in appropriate-but-inaccurate discussions of what matters most:

Since curriculum matters, let’s start acting like it matters:

  • Researchers: do more longitudinal, well-designed studies that compare curricula.
  • Policy wonks: don’t mandate a curriculum, but support efforts—from the school level to the research university level—to constantly improve curricula.
  • Assessment developers: stop pretending like assessments are curriculum neutral. Each test question contains specific content and favors students who happened to be taught that content. So long as assessments are intentionally designed to have the content of the questions be unpredictable, the only way to prepare for them is to systematically and efficiently build broad knowledge.
  • Teacher-quality hawks: realize that sometimes good people are forced to use bad programs and practices. The surest path to better teaching is better curriculum. If a curriculum with strong evidence of effectiveness is not working in a particular classroom, that’s cause for investigation (but not for jumping to conclusions).
  • Educators: within schools, work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.
  • Parents: get a copy of your school’s curriculum and ask how you can supplement it at home.
  • Librarians: get copies of the curricula of the schools in your area and pull together supportive and supplemental resources.
  • Everyone: stop taking our oxygen for granted.

Everyone can and should be an oxygen hawk.

Miracle on High Street

by Lisa Hansel
December 19th, 2013

2013 has been a miraculous year for the folks at 801 E. High Street, the beautiful old house that the Core Knowledge Foundation calls home.

Core Knowledge Language Arts went from a pilot program to a major model for Common Core implementation. E. D. Hirsch’s ideas—and, more importantly, the research supporting them—earned a new audience. Plus, the need to close the vocabulary gap gained a prominent champion (as well as several close allies).

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, last week was phenomenal. I can’t rank order the events, so I’ll go in chronological order.

First, the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a forum on “The Word Gap & the Common Core” in which Susan Neuman hammered home the need to systematically build knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood. As I wrote over at the Shanker Blog, Neuman kicked off with the perfect metaphor: Words are just the tip of the iceberg. The concepts and knowledge—and the opportunities to acquire them—are underneath the words. In just 15 minutes (which you can watch online), Neuman explained that the vocabulary gap is actually a knowledge gap and set forth a clear path for closing it. Spoiler alert: the research only provides one way to do it—grouping challenging texts by topic and immersing young children in those texts though read-alouds and meaningful conversations. Sounds familiar.

Second, Michael Petrilli went for the hard sell on Core Knowledge in the New York Daily News. Writing to NYC’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Petrilli was blissfully blunt:

As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for 30 years — and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed — knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know….

The job of elementary schools, then, should be to systematically build students’ content knowledge in important areas like history, geography, civics, science, art, music and literature. Yet most elementary schools (nationwide — not just in New York) are content-free wastelands….

Bloomberg’s Department of Education has listed Core Knowledge as one of the model curricula for New York City teachers to consider as they transition to the new standards.

De Blasio should go even further. If he wants to be bold, he might urge all city elementary schools to adopt Core Knowledge.

Third—proof that good things come in threes—Joel Klein said that “The best parts of the Common Core are tethered to Core Knowledge.” (See for yourself!) Speaking with David Steiner in a forum at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, Klein was candid about his tenure as NYC schools chancellor. He regrets that at the beginning, he did not know how important it is to build knowledge and vocabulary in the early grades. But after doing some reading, especially Sol Stern’s powerful critiques, Klein said he reached out to E. D. Hirsch. Klein’s pilot study of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) was soon underway, with the CKLA schools consistently outperforming the comparison schools. CKLA is now being recognized as a model for the type of curriculum called for by the Common Core standards: one that “is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Klein expects that to have a “national impact.” We’ll keep working to make sure his words ring true in 2014.


Can Knowledge Level The Learning Field For Children?

by Guest Blogger
December 2nd, 2013

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

How much do preschoolers from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds know about the world and why does that matter? One recent study by Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan) provides some answers.

The researchers randomly selected children from preschool classrooms in two sites, one serving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the other serving middle-class kids. They then set about to answer three questions:

  1. Do poor and middle-class children possess different knowledge about the world?
  2. Do differences in knowledge influence the children’s ability to learn in the classroom?
  3. If differences in preexisting knowledge were neutralized, would the two groups of children learn similarly?

To answer the first question, the researchers determined how much children from both groups knew about birds and the extent to which they were able to make inferences about new words based on such knowledge.

Not surprisingly, lower-income children had significantly less knowledge about birds and bird behaviors than did their middle-class peers. To rule out the possibility that these differences were the result of disparities in language proficiency, Kaefer et al. measured the children’s receptive vocabularies. This way, they were able to establish that poor kids knew less about birds, not merely because they knew fewer words related to birds, but because they had less information about the domain in general.

To answer the second question — whether differences in knowledge influence the kids’ ability to learn in the classroom — a second study evaluated children’s ability to understand words out of context and to comprehend a story that was read to them. As predicted, children from middle-class backgrounds, who had greater knowledge about the domain category (i.e., birds), performed better in these two tasks than children with more limited knowledge about the domain.

It may not be obvious to adults, but learning words from books is not an automatic or straightforward task for young children. In fact, argue the authors of the paper, one of the factors influencing this process is children’s preexisting knowledge. Previous research (cited in the paper) has established that children with larger vocabularies acquire new words implicitly from storybooks more readily than children with smaller vocabularies. At least two mechanisms might explain the relationship between vocabulary and learning.

First, the authors note, one possible explanation is that metalinguistic factors (e.g., verbal IQ, working memory) explain the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and implicit word learning.

Alternatively, if children’s vocabulary is viewed as an indicator (or “reflection”) of their general background knowledge, it may be the breadth and depth of their preexisting knowledge that influences their implicit word learning.

The logic of the second mechanism is as follows: Children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot new information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

To recap, the first study discussed above established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about a topic (i.e., birds) than their middle-class peers. Next, in study two, the researchers showed that differences in domain knowledge influenced children’s ability to understand words out of context, and to comprehend a story. Moreover, poor kids—who also had more limited knowledge—perform worse on these tasks than did their middle-class peers. But could additional knowledge be used to level the playing field for children from less affluent backgrounds?

In study three, the researchers held the children’s prior knowledge constant by introducing a fictitious topic—i.e., a topic that was sure to be unknown to both groups. When the two groups of children were assessed on word learning and comprehension related to this new domain, the researchers found no significant differences in how poor and middle-class children learned words, comprehended a story or made inferences.

These results:

  • Add to the body of research showing that preexisting knowledge shapes incidental vocabulary learning and comprehension for children, and that this is true for children as young as preschool age;
  • Highlight the need to build children’s background knowledge more systematically and strategically, and suggest that procedures to activate children’s prior knowledge—e.g., storybook reading—may prove fruitless when such knowledge does not exist.

While this research, like all research, has limitations—see the paper for a discussion of these—the results taken together suggest that one powerful way to level the “learning field” for all children is to facilitate poor kids’ access to “taken for granted” knowledge that middle class children, on average, are more likely to possess, primarily because they have been exposed to it in the first place.

When poor and middle-class children are given the same opportunities to assimilate new knowledge, their subsequent learning is comparable. Of course this is only one study, but the main finding and its implications are extremely powerful. It suggests that if preschool programs are not making a difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it might be the case that the programs are not tackling an important but solvable problem: A deficit in knowledge.


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?


Grant Wiggins Doesn’t Quite Understand E. D. Hirsch

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2013

By Harry Webb

This post originally appeared on Webs of Substance, a blog on educational research.

In his latest blog post, Grant Wiggins expresses his frustration at the recent writings of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. It is unsurprising that Wiggins would be irritated by Hirsch: Since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987, Hirsch has been an annoyance to the education establishment, particularly in the US. And now, with the adoption of the Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum by many new charter schools, American education can no longer marginalize Hirsch’s message. His star is in the ascendant.

Of all the logical fallacies, the Straw Man seems to be Wiggins’ favorite. He mentions it three times in the blog post and again in response to comments. The Straw Man that Wiggins thinks he has detected is the idea that there are people who will deny the role of factual knowledge in reading comprehension. Indeed, Wiggins asks, “Would Hirsch please quote someone who does deny it, instead of setting up his straw man?”

A Straw Man

A Straw Man

I have said before that I don’t know of anyone who would outright condemn the acquisition of all forms of knowledge. The game is played much more subtly than that. Instead, the role of knowledge acquisition is diminished. It is made to seem inferior to other goals of education such as training in skills of various forms. It is this that I understand Hirsch to be unhappy about.

Wiggins targets Hirsch’s use of assertions. However, Hirsch does draw upon some evidence to support his claims. The amount of time, for instance, that has been given over to English Language Arts instruction increased with the introduction the NCLB act and without a transformative effect on reading proficiency. And this increase has come at the cost of subjects such as social studies, science, art and music. Hirsch’s view is that instruction in specific reading skills and strategies has limited effect on improving reading. He views the acquisition of broad background knowledge is far more important and this view certainly has some support from the realm of cognitive science.

This means that, according to Hirsch, the NCLB-led distortion of the curriculum is doubly dangerous. Not only is it likely to lead to redundant skill-based reading instruction in those additional English Language Arts lessons, it will also cut the exposure to content knowledge in social studies, science, art and music. So, you see, I think that Hirsch has a point.

I have read The Knowledge Deficit by Hirsch and I am attracted to his thesis on how we have arrived at this point. To paraphrase, Hirsch thinks that the educational establishment decided that the mere transmission of knowledge was not a suitable goal of education. However, once this goal is removed then another has to be found. Hirsch views this as the reason for a focus on transferable skills such as reading comprehension skills or higher-order thinking skills. If these skills can be identified and taught then we have a new role for education.

I am attracted to Hirsch’s thesis because it chimes with my own experience. In the very first lecture at my school of education, I was introduced to a misreading of Plutarch, the gist of which was to warn us all that we were not to see our role as to fill-up students with knowledge. Ever since, this has been reinforced in many and varied ways; I have even attended an education research conference where speaker after speaker derided  ”transmission” teaching as if we would all accept this perspective without question. No, you will not find anyone who will completely deny the role of factual knowledge in reading or any other endeavor; to do so would be absurd. However, you will find plenty who will downplay it.

In fact, this is exactly what Wiggins and his co-author Jay McTighe do in their book, Understanding by Design.

“To know which fact to use when requires more than another fact. It requires understanding – insight into essentials, purposes, audience, strategy, and tactics. Drill and direct instruction can develop discrete skills and facts into automaticity (knowing “by heart”), but they cannot make us truly able.”

There is much to unpack here. Knowledge is reduced to facts and facts, by definition, have to be disconnected and known “by heart” or without understanding. Understanding comes not from acquiring more knowledge – the facts that link the facts – but by some spookier kind of thing; insight. Finally, drill and direct instruction cannot make us truly able.

The first thing to note is that this is a string of assertions. I have not removed the footnotes when quoting this passage; there simply aren’t any. At a minimum, the point about direct instruction requires support. I am aware of no evidence that direct instruction leads to an inferior form of learning than any other approach, despite the many researchers who would like to demonstrate it. I suspect that the evidence is not quoted because there is no evidence.

In the same chapter, Wiggins and McTighe go on to draw-up a table to distinguish “knowledge” from “understanding,” just in case we were not clear. Knowledge is “the facts” whereas understanding is “the meaning of the facts.” This is a little odd; can we not know the meaning of the facts? Further, knowledge is, “a body of coherent facts” whereas understanding is, “the ‘theory’ that provides coherence and meaning to those facts.” The coup de grace is in the final pair of statements; knowledge is, “I respond on cue with what I know” whereas understanding is, “I judge when to and when not to use what I know.”

Clearly, understanding is a superior kind of thing to knowledge. Knowledge just consists of a discrete series of facts that children bark on cue, probably in the context of some dismal drill- or direct-instruction-based lesson. It is easy to see why teachers would not want to focus on the acquisition of knowledge if we are going to define it in these terms.

Of course, Wiggins is not alone in these views. Even back in 1916, Cubberley made a similar contrast in “Public School Administration.” According to Diane Ravitch:

“When it came to the curriculum, he authoritatively contrasted two approaches: One was ‘the knowledge curriculum’ which he described in highly pejorative terms: ‘Facts, often of no particular importance themselves, are taught, memorized and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.’ The opposite of this dreary approach was ‘the development type of course,’ in which ‘knowledge is conceived of as a life experience and inner conviction and not as the memorization of the accumulated knowledge of the past,’ Using the latter approach, school would change from a place in which children prepare for life by learning traditional subjects to one in which children live life.”

So, you see, the tradition of devaluing knowledge, of denying that understanding is a form of knowledge, of linking knowledge to pure rote learning; this is an old tradition.

In this context, I am glad that there is someone like Hirsch out there, arguing for the value of content knowledge. His is a perfectly valid argument that needs to be more widely heard.


The Test of the Common Core

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 6th, 2013

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


Here’s the follow-up post to “Why I’m For the Common Core.” It explains why we should be leery of the forthcoming “core-aligned” tests—especially those in English Language Arts that people are rightly anxious about. These tests could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB for neediest students was vitiated when test-prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In a still earlier HuffPost blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.
The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. The value-added approach to teacher evaluation in reading is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data are modestly stable for math, but are fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It cannot be otherwise, because of the underlying realities. Math tests are based on the school curriculum. What a teacher does in the math classroom affects student test scores. But reading comprehension tests are not based on the school curriculum. (How could they be if there’s no set curriculum?) Rather, they are based on the general knowledge that students have gained over their life span from all sources—most of them outside the school. That’s why reading tests in the early grades are so reliably and unfairly correlated with parental education and income.

Since the results on reading comprehension tests are not chiefly based on what a teacher has done in a single school year, why would any sensible person try to judge teacher effectiveness by changes in reading comprehension scores in a single year? The whole project is unfair to teachers, ill-conceived, and educationally disastrous. The teacher-rating scheme has usurped huge amounts of teaching time in anxious test-prep. Paradoxically, the evidence shows that test-prep ceases to be effective after about six lessons. So most of that test-prep time is wasted even as test prep. It’s time in which teachers could be calmly pursuing real education—teaching students fascinating subjects in literature, history, civics, science and the arts, the general knowledge that is the true foundation of improved reading comprehension.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


The villains in this story are not the well-meaning economists who developed the value-added idea, but the inadequate theories of reading comprehension that have dominated the schools—mainly the unfounded theory that, when students reach a certain level of “reading skill,” they can read anything at that level. We know now that reading skill—especially in the early grades—varies wildly depending on the subject matter of the text or the test passages.

The Common Core-aligned tests of reading comprehension will naturally contain text passages and questions about those passages. To the extent such tests claim to assess “critical thinking” and “general” reading-comprehension skill, we should hold on to our wallets. They will be only rough indexes of reading ability—probably no better than the perfectly adequate and well-validated reading tests they mean to replace. To continue using them as hickory sticks will distract teachers from their real job of enhancing students’ general knowledge, and will encourage teachers to continue doing the wasteful sorts of unsuccessful skill exercises that so many classrooms have already been engaged in.

The solution to the test-prep conundrum is this: First, institute in every participating state the specific and coherent curriculum that the Common Core Standards explicitly call for. (It’s passing odd to introduce “Common Core” tests before there’s an actual core to be tested.) Then base the reading-test passages on those knowledge domains covered in the curriculum. That would not only be fairer to teachers and students, it would encourage interesting, substantive teaching and would over time induce a big uptick in students’ knowledge—and hence in their reading comprehension skills. That kind of test would be well worth prepping for.


Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 3

by Guest Blogger
August 20th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 2, he discusses the problems with placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.


Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Center


Mistake #3: Infantilizing teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet teachers are all too often managed as if it were a low-skill profession.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring, training, and retaining teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendancy. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children incapable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which the Common Core standards are currently getting rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than centering the hard work of implementation of the Common Core on teachers—the ones who will implement them and are ostensibly the most knowledgeable on matters of pedagogy and students’ needs—we instead see resources focused on external consultants and organizations who have a tendency to transmogrify the rich content and ideas of the standards into checklists and shallowly “aligned” materials. The end result is that schools and districts look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Such simplistic renderings effectively declaw the standards of any of their transformative power.

But none of this comes as a surprise: It parallels our decades-long push to infantilize our students by denying them access to real academic discipline and to systematic exposure to domain-specific knowledge. An unfortunate outcry against Common Core and the introduction of complex texts, such as we just witnessed in reactions to New York’s release of test scores, is that some students can’t possibly be expected to meet such rigorous standards. Students most desperately in need of access to knowledge and literature are too often denied that access, thus falling further and further behind. Those students need the Common Core—not some declawed facsimile.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in implementation in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good (check out EngageNY, LearnZillion, and TeachingChannel) but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence (even Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is content-rich and brings history and science into the ELA block, is not a complete curriculum). And those curricula that are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

If our teachers haven’t steeped themselves deeply in the study of the content and texts they are going to teach, how else are they supposed to transfer knowledge and skills to their students?

There’s one answer to those questions, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history.

It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not be created.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location-based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish a measure of coherency.

The best professional development I have experienced on Common Core has been with LearnZillion. At first glance, LearnZillion appears to be just another Gates Foundation-funded edtech startup. But dig a little deeper beyond the surface, and you will begin to notice that the folks who are making those video lessons are actual classroom teachers (full and happy disclosure: I am one of them). Earlier this year, LearnZillion gathered 200 educators from 41 different states to meet, learn from one another and from “experts,” and design Common Core aligned lessons together. In other words, LearnZillion is doing something that almost no district is seeking to do, and to do it at scale: invest in teacher scholarship, expertise, and interpretation of Common Core. Most of the materials these teachers are creating are freely available, and other teachers can utilize them as they deem fit.

This is the model that districts and schools need to adopt if we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned. Give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’s Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of curricular resources for the Common Core that can better refine and build our collective understanding of how it should be implemented. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be fully transparent and accessible to the public.

But such an investment in teacher expertise and scholarship is just the beginning. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t need guidance, support, and direction from researchers, professors, organizations, and practitioners in other fields. A great place to begin for guidance would be to sit down as a school and look at the Core Knowledge Sequence together, in addition to Common Core’s list of text exemplars in Appendix B. I have also created templates (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), based on PARCC’s suggestions for a curricular framework, that has the text suggestions from both at the bottom, as well as suggested authors and texts from Massachusetts’ ELA standards.

My point is that the Common Core standards must be interpreted and understood by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

  • Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to work together to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or teacher-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we are already witnessing states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will learn from them and move forward with a focus on what will take our students and our system of public education to the next level.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.


Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 2

by Guest Blogger
August 15th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 3, he discusses the dangers of infantilizing teachers.


Prometheus statue, University of Minho


Mistake #2: Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA

As I noted in my last post, I believe the Common Core standards open a window of opportunity for systematically building students’ knowledge as teachers shift from “just-right texts” to complex texts. Another potentially transformative shift of the Common Core standards is the acknowledgment that literacy extends across all content areas. This is explicitly recognized by the standards in two ways: 1) the inclusion of literacy standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6 – 12; and 2) the demand for an increase in informational texts.

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

That domain-specific knowledge is essential to literacy is a point that has been already been made much more cogently by others—such as Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Robert Pondiscio—and that is apparent in research. In my personal experience, I frequently teach students who are quite familiar with the skill of “inferencing,” for example, yet display little ability to make an accurate inference.

During my first years of teaching at my former elementary school, we had noted from our students’ literacy assessment data that inferencing was a deficient skill across all tested grades. All of us set about diligently teaching the skill. After going through a cycle or two of grade-level team “inquiry” on this skill, something slowly became apparent to me: our students couldn’t make accurate inferences because they didn’t understand what they were reading. The problem wasn’t lack of inferencing skill, it was lack of knowledge. This is when I first realized that we were failing our students because we didn’t have a coherent curriculum. Forget inferencing. Before we could do inquiry on anything, we had to have a solid, structured curriculum in place to refer to so that we could align what we were teaching across our classrooms and grades, and therefore address gaps in students’ knowledge and skills.

In most elementary schools, ELA is given heavy prominence, often to the detriment of music, arts, social studies, and science, as ELA test scores weigh heavily on schools’ performance. Yet this establishes a demoralizing catch-22, in that the domain-specific knowledge necessary for reading comprehension is then unable to be acquired.

If the research foundation and intent of the Common Core—to build the broad knowledge that is essential to literacy—remains unrecognized, then a simple and devastating misunderstanding of Common Core’s emphasis on “informational” texts will occur: ELA will avoid most literature altogether and focus on disparate expository texts instead, leaving us back at square one—an utter lack of coherency or of a systematic accumulation of knowledge.

The burden for literacy cannot remain on the shoulders of ELA alone. Literature, including literary nonfiction, is essential for gaining an understanding of the world, but it must be backed by domain-specific knowledge in other content areas.

In elementary school, this means that administrators need to shift their focus from ELA to social studies, science, arts, and music, and ensure that 90-minute literacy blocks are used to build knowledge, not simply to conduct independent reading and writing. This can be done most strategically by selecting a coherent body of texts for teacher read-alouds and whole class or small group exploration. In middle and high school, this means that social studies, science, and technical content area teachers need to be on board with also being teachers of literacy, and must be trained on the selection and teaching of texts that will build content-specific knowledge.

At my middle school, my grade-level team began developing this understanding by exploring the Common Core standards together. We discovered that the expectation that students would be able to cite evidence, read and comprehend complex grade-level texts, and write arguments that exhibit logical reasoning and address counterclaims extended across ELA, social studies, and science. Not only that, we found that argumentative standards in literacy closely aligned with expectations for mathematical practice, in that students were expected to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Here is the initial document my team created to review and compare these argumentative standards.

Such an exploration, however, is only a foot in the door. Now we must consider how we can share strategies for teaching close reading, what qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to select grade-level complex texts, and in what way we can align these strategies across departments and grades. Furthermore, this also requires a shift on the part of us ELA teachers: we must be now be willing to consider how the texts and content we teach will align and build on the content taught in other classrooms.

While such an undertaking may appear daunting at first, the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary papers, projects, and tasks is invigorating both for teachers and for students. At the end of the last school year, my ELA department began working with our social studies department to consider how we could align our poetry units with their units. We discovered that all social studies units shared a common theme of warfare, so we began selecting poems on warfare that would build on this theme and extend and enrich student understanding of multiple perspectives on war. This ability to strategically build on student knowledge strengthened student engagement, as students were able dive deeper into poems such as “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen by drawing upon their knowledge of the experience of soldiers in traumatic modern wars.

Here’s one short-term measure we could take to ensure that the burden for teaching literacy does not fall only on the shoulders of ELA teachers:

  • Common Core-aligned literacy assessments should hold all the teachers for a grade level accountable.

Wait, what? You read that right. Make all the teachers on a grade level accountable for student performance on literacy tests. It might sound crazy, and I’m sure it will complicate the pristine “value-added” formulas that have been cooked up to evaluate individual teachers, but it’s the most effective means to ensure that schools actualize the teaching of knowledge as the key to literacy. So long as the burden of accountability for literacy tests falls solely to the domain of ELA, then the teaching of literacy will fall solely on the backs of ELA teachers, and the other content areas will therefore continue to be treated as secondary as testing hysteria arises during the year.

In the schools I have worked in, this hysteria is the inevitable accompaniment to high stakes testing. Teachers, despite themselves, begin referencing “the test” as a raison d’être of lessons. During this run up to testing, roughly December through May, a school’s frenetic focus is on ELA and math, with extra weekend and afterschool sessions piled on to reinforce all those isolated skills for good measure.

But now imagine if literacy were acknowledged as a grade-level team’s main objective. All hands would be on deck to ensure that content—across all domains—would be systematically taught and reinforced. In other words, we’d be doing what we should have been doing all along.

Longer term measures we could take to ensure that teaching literacy extends across content areas:

  • Schedule time each week for grade-level teacher teams to meet and collaborate on curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Include a focus on selecting and teaching complex texts in content-specific teacher training.