Is Your School Increasing the Achievement Gap?

by Lisa Hansel
October 7th, 2015

I have a very simple proposition: The more we teach, the more students learn—but some students get taught more than others.

There’s plenty of evidence to back me up, so I’ll just go with the most recent study I’ve seen that make this point. Bill Schmidt and his research team found that all around the world, schools are increasing the achievement gap by providing low-income students less opportunity to learn mathematics. Using PISA data, they “found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality.” Across the 62 countries in the study, unequal math content accounted for 32% of the achievement gap, on average. In the US, it accounted for 37%.


Student who deserves an equal opportunity to learn courtesy of Shutterstock.

This isn’t a simple story of good and bad schools. Most of the variation in opportunity to learn math was within schools, not between them. As Schmidt’s previous research has found, the inequity is often hidden because schools will offer a range of math courses with very similar names—but very different content.

Sadly, other research indicates that systematic inequities in opportunity to learn have a snowballing effect. As Dan Willingham explains, schooling increases IQ by increasing your store of knowledge:

[Research shows that] schooling makes you smarter, but is there evidence that the stuff you remember from school is what’s making you smarter? Maybe going to school exercises your brain, so to speak, so you get smarter, but the specifics of that exercise don’t matter. We have some tentative (but probably not conclusive) research suggesting that the specifics do matter…. Two factors contribute to IQ: the breadth and depth of what you have in memory, and the speed with which you can process what you know…. Researchers have shown that although years of education is associated with IQ, it’s not associated with processing speed. That finding suggests that education increases IQ by increasing the breadth and depth of what you know, which runs counter to the idea that school is like mental exercise, and that the content of the exercise doesn’t matter.

Given such evidence, and common sense, why do low-income students tend to get lesser academics?

Let’s dispense with notions of teachers who are lazy or don’t believe low-income students can learn. Other than a tiny fraction of the profession (recall that all professions have their bad apples), I see no evidence of either. Those who buy into such ideas are being intellectually lazy themselves.

Clearly, much of the achievement gap is caused by low-income students, on average, arriving at kindergarten with lower levels of knowledge and skill, and sliding backwards each summer. But that doesn’t account for why schools are making the problem worse.

My guess is that lesser academic content is, in part, an unintended consequence of the focus on student engagement.

It’s true that some aspect of the educational enterprise has to be engaging. When I found a class boring, I knew that I had a reward coming: I was very fortunate in knowing that I would be able to go to college—if I kept my grades up. That was enough for me to stay engaged. I suspect the same is true of many students in middle- and higher-income families.

But relatively few students so fortunate. When students don’t see a connection between challenging academics, high grades, and their futures, what can teachers do? Revising the curriculum to be more engaging (i.e., based on students’ current interests), which in my experience almost always results in easier texts and assignments, seems like the right choice—at least students will learn something. But is there another way to make education engaging? Is there a way to change the class environment without changing the curriculum? Research in Chicago schools indicates there is. It boils down to two essential ingredients: very rigorous content and high social support.

Summarizing this research, Charles Payne characterized it as “Authoritative-Supportive Teaching” that consisted of a:

  • High level of intellectual/academic demand
  • High level of social demand
  • Holistic concern for children and their future; sense of a larger mission
  • Strong sense of teacher efficacy and legitimacy

Rigorous content tells students we believe in them. Social support shows that we mean it.

Policymakers take note: This type of teaching—gap-closing teaching—is exhausting when the educational system is not set up to support it. Across the country, schools with the neediest students often have the fewest resources. To equalize opportunity to learn, policymakers will have to create the conditions for rigor, and teachers will have to embrace it.

Stop Reforming, Start Improving

by Lisa Hansel
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).

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

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Mississippi: Common Core Lite

by Lisa Hansel
August 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Note on range and content of student reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valid, Reliable, and Unfair

by Lisa Hansel
August 4th, 2015

As schools across the country anxiously await the results of their new Common Core–aligned assessments, there’s one thing I wish all policy makers understood: The reading comprehension tests are valid, reliable, and unfair.

Standards-based assessments mean very different things in reading and math. The math standards include mathematics content—they clearly specify what math knowledge and skills students are supposed to master in each grade. That is not true in reading. The English language arts and literacy standards only specify the skills students are to master. They implore schools to build broad knowledge, but other than a few foundational texts in high school, they don’t indicate what knowledge students need to learn.

In brief, reading comprehension tests primarily assess decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and knowledge. A child who answers a question wrong might be struggling with decoding, or might be a fluent reader who lacks knowledge of the topic in the passage.

Reading comprehension is widely misunderstood as a skill that depends on applying strategies like finding the main idea (assuming fluent decoding). Cognitive science (and common sense) has established that comprehension actually depends on knowledge and vocabulary. If you know about dinosaurs, you can read about them. If you don’t know about a topic and haven’t learned vocabulary related to that topic, you will have to learn about it before comprehending a text on it (e.g., “Chirality plays a fundamental part in the activity of biological molecules and broad classes of chemical reactions, but detecting and quantifying it remains challenging. The spectroscopic methods of choice are usually circular dichroism…”).

If the standards specified what topics children should read about in each grade—and thus what topics may appear in the passages on the reading comprehension tests—then aligned assessments would be better measures of both how the students are progressing and the quality of the instruction they received. Because the standards offer no indication of which topics ought to be studied and thus no indication of which topics might be tested, the assessments are very blunt measures of students’ progress and teachers’ abilities. They are valid and reliable—they do indicate students’ general reading comprehension ability—but they conflate what’s been learned inside and outside school. They’re unfair.

That’s why reading comprehension scores are so strongly correlated with socioeconomic status and so difficult to improve. Comprehension depends on knowledge and vocabulary, but the topics on the test are unpredictable. So, the only way to be well prepared is to have very broad knowledge and a massive vocabulary. From birth, some children are in vocabulary- and knowledge-rich homes, while others are not. Making matters worse, only some children have access to high-quality early childhood education programs and K–12 schools.

Life is unfair, but these tests need not be. States could specify what topics are to be taught across subject areas in each grade and they could mandate that the passages on the reading comprehension assessments draw from those specified topics. In short, states could work toward knowledge equality.


Teach broad knowledge and test what’s been taught. Is that really too much to ask? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Math and Science Increase Wages–Even Without College

by Lisa Hansel
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 Lisa Hansel
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 Lisa Hansel
July 9th, 2015

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

The whole system has to improve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.


Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.


A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).