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.

 

The Common Core Tests in Language Arts Will Soon Be Coming to Your Child’s School. Tell Your Local Superintendent: “Don’t Worry. Students Will Ace Those Tests If They Learn History, Civics, Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.”

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
August 5th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on July 30, 2013.

 

“A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.” 

This comment from an able and experienced teacher is one among several similar ones that teachers have recently posted on the Core Knowledge blog. Their worry is also mine.

The success of the Common Core Standards in Language Arts, adopted by more than 40 states, is supremely important for many reasons, not least because of the recent intensification of income inequality. Student scores on language arts tests are the single most reliable academic predictors of later income. The new language arts standards of the Common Core represent an historic opportunity for beneficial change in American schools—if they are put into effect intelligently.

But if you look at the data in Amazon books, you will see that the bestselling books about the Common Core are “skills-centric” ones that claim to prepare teachers for the new language arts standards by advocating techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity” as though such skills were the main ones for understanding a text no matter how unfamiliar a student might be with the topic of the text. The fact is, though, that students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

We need to learn from recent painful experience. The failure of No Child Left Behind in fostering advanced language ability can be traced to the skills-centric test-prepping that left little room for the systematic gaining of knowledge. Of course there is one facet of the skills-centric approach to reading that should be applauded, and which did improve under NCLB—the teaching of decoding. Learning to translate those symbols on the page into sounds and words is a skill that ought to be taught systematically between kindergarten and second grade, beginning with simple letter-sound correspondences and progressing step-by-step to complicated Greek-based spellings. More systematic instruction in phonics explains why test scores went up in the earliest grades under NCLB. But its neglect of knowledge building explains why student scores did not go up in later grades when tests emphasize comprehension.

Test anxiety was paradoxically the main reason that schools spent so much time on abstract skills like “comprehension strategies” and “inferencing.” My aim in this blog post addressed to parents is to explain why the best test prep for their child under the new Common Core standards will be a more systematic approach to imparting knowledge. My argument is simple: If understanding a text depends on some prior familiarity with the topic, then that will also be true of the passages on a language-arts test.

The more a student knows the better he or she will perform on any language-arts test—whether or not that test is said to be “aligned” with the new Common Core standards. If we take a step back from the details of the Common Core standards we can see why this claim necessarily must be true. Older language arts tests—such as Gates-Macginitie, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford 9, the Degrees of Reading Power, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the verbal sections of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—correlate well with each other, indicating that they are all accurately probing underlying competence in language. If the results of the Common Core tests are not strongly correlated with these well-validated ones, then the technical validity of the new tests would rightly be deemed unsatisfactory, and no state ought to adopt them. There is no reason to think that the top experts making the new Common Core tests are not well aware of this technical issue of correlation. It’s the schools, rather, that need to reconsider what will really prepare their students for the new tests—and a productive life.

One reason that the schools have been applying a skills-centric approach is that they have regarded reading as a uniform skill that develops in stages, rather than a highly variable skill which depends on a person’s topic knowledge. The schools cannot be blamed for this. The stage-by-stage conception of reading is the theory that even top experts held up to a few decades ago. The notion that any text on any topic at the right level would enhance reading ability has encouraged our schools to tolerate a topic-incoherent curriculum in language arts. This indifference to knowledge building is the chief reason the verbal scores of our school leavers have stayed flat and low.

Cognitive scientists have found, however, that a student’s average level of reading skill, which is reasonably accurately indicated by the standard tests, masks wide fluctuations depending on the test taker’s familiarity with the topic. That’s why reading tests typically use multiple passages on different topics—characteristically about ten—to try to capture that average. And even then, the passages are not random but have been filtered through the net of grade-level criteria like word rarity and sentence length. The whole system has conspired to make schools think that the topic knowledge is less important than “reading level.” But now we know that the topic of the passage is far more important than the level. The more students know about a topic, the further above their level they can read on that topic. This new understanding of reading ability demands nothing less than a revolution in language arts instruction, with less emphasis on technique and more emphasis on the systematic acquisition of knowledge.

The new Common Core standards have recognized this research finding. They state that these standards “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.” And they add: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Well said! And we have to take care that the schools and the experts hear and act on that truth. Parents and concerned citizens should make sure that they do.

If any school wants to see a model for what this means in actual practice, there are a couple of resources on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website that should be useful. Here is a grade-by-grade content sequence for all subjects in preschool through eighth grade that is downloadable for free. This sequence takes into account the knowledge that is most needed and used in written language in the United States—imparting topic familiarity as well as deeper insight across the topics that are most enabling for written communication. When schools use this sequence to write a rigorous curriculum, their students do well on language tests. Second, here is an early reading program—preschool through third grade—that systematically brings many history, science, and literary topics into the language arts classroom in sufficient depth so that the student becomes familiar with them. This pre-k – 3 program will be downloadable for free soon. For now, here’s the list of topics, with each taking about 2-3 weeks to teach. Each has about 10-12 teacher read-alouds and related class discussions and extension activities.

The coming of the Common Core standards and tests need not be a new, harrowing imposition on already besieged schools. Rather they are an historic opportunity—a new slate on which schools can write either a topic-indifferent, fragmented curriculum similar to what has failed before, or a new, exciting and successful orientation to knowledge. That’s what the top experts – the cognitive scientists—are telling us, and it’s a message that all parents, educators, and concerned citizens need to act upon.

Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information

by Lisa Hansel
July 29th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

In the article, we read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inching Toward Equity: What Should Schools Do to Increase Social Mobility?

by Lisa Hansel
July 24th, 2013

The great equalizer. It’s what public education is supposed to be. It’s what draws many of us to the field of educational improvement. And it’s what drew me to Core Knowledge. Taking the knowledge and skills that have long been exclusively in the minds of the educational elite and spelling out a grade-by-grade plan for that same knowledge and skill set to take root in all minds—that’s the great equalizing force of the Core Knowledge approach.

I was reminded of that today while reading, and reading about, a new study on social mobility. With data from across the United States, researchers asked questions like this: Of children born into families in the lowest income quintile, what percent are in the highest income quintile in their early 30s? The answer depends largely on where those children grow up.

For a quick summary, let’s turn to the New York Times:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest,… with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Want to explore social mobility in your area? Take a look at the two addictive, interactive graphics that the New York Times created. In one, you scroll over an area to see answers to the question of what percent moves from the bottom to the top income quintile:

In the other graphic, you can select an area on the map and slide up and down the parents’ income percentile to see where, on average, children end up:

Even if you only play with these graphics for a few minutes, stark differences in social mobility—in the extent to which America is the land of opportunity—are apparent.

Why? For that, let’s turn to the researchers’ summary of their findings:

To understand what is driving this variation…, we considered other sets of factors that have been proposed in prior work. Here, we found significant correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, economic and racial residential segregation, measures of K-12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area). In particular, areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility. In contrast, a high concentration of income in the top 1% was not highly correlated with mobility patterns. Areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were also particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility. The quality of the K-12 school system also appears to be correlated with mobility: areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels), lower dropout rates, and higher spending per student in schools had higher rates of upward mobility. Finally, some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital and family structure. For instance, high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents. Each of these correlations remained strong even after controlling for measures of tax expenditures. Likewise, local tax policies remain correlated with mobility after controlling for these other factors.

In my mind, these findings boil down to this: communities have choices to make. If you are lucky enough to be on the upper end of the spectrum, you can choose to go bowling alone in your gated community. But if you are concerned about the American experiment, you might want to start asking yourself whether or not your choices add to or subtract from equality of opportunity.

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.

I’m not going to pretend to have any advice or expertise on the matter. I will, however, point to someone who does: Richard D. Kahlenberg. Kahlenberg is a lot like E. D. Hirsch. He’s an independent-minded scholar with a brilliant idea and the research to back it up—and he’ll stick with it no matter how loud the naysayers’ cries grow.

Here’s his brilliant plan: do whatever it takes to integrate schools by socioeconomic status. Kahlenberg, along with a team of researchers, has explored every facet of the benefits, costs, and feasibility of such integration. For all the details, see The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy. For an essay that sums up the work (and is free online), check out Kahlenberg’s recent article in American Educator. Noting that socioeconomic integration of schools is “a very old and profoundly American idea and, at the same time, novel and mostly unexplored in practice,” he writes:

On the one hand, the idea of economically integrated schools runs deep in American history. In 1837, Horace Mann, who famously argued that public education should be “the great equalizer,” wrote that in order to serve that role, public schools had to be “common schools,” by which he meant institutions in which “the children of all classes, rich and poor, should partake as equally as possible in the privileges” of the enterprise. The idea of socioeconomic integration received a big boost more than 100 years later with the publication of the 1966 Coleman Report. Coleman’s analysis—examining 600,000 students in 4,000 schools—found that the socioeconomic status of your classmates mattered a great deal to your academic performance. The report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

On the other hand, in 1996, when I began researching the topic of socioeconomic integration, almost no American school districts explicitly sought an economically integrated student body. Racial integration was a widely recognized goal, but racial desegregation was seen mostly as a legal remedy for the crime of de jure segregation and as a desirable social goal for society at large.

Racial integration is a very important aim that I fully support, but if one’s goal is boosting academic achievement, the research from Coleman (and subsequent studies) found that what really matters is economic integration….

The research is clear. Low-income students in middle-class schools (in which less than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) are surrounded by: (1) peers who, on average, are more academically engaged and less likely to act out than those in high-poverty schools (in which at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch); (2) a community of parents who are able to be more actively involved in school affairs and know how to hold school officials accountable; and (3) stronger teachers who have higher expectations for students.

In the wealthiest nation, we have schools with and without science labs, theaters, fast computers and internet connections, musical instruments, libraries, gymnasiums, and more. Is such blatant inequity in keeping with our character? I hope not.

Core Knowledge’s contribution is a curriculum that provides intellectual equality of opportunity. That is essential to increasing social mobility, but it is not sufficient. Excellent curricula in socioeconomically integrated schools probably would not be sufficient either—but research shows that it would help.

Upward spiral of knowledge, skills, and social mobility courtesy of Shutterstock.

Ask Not What Our Schools Can Do for You

by Lisa Hansel
July 19th, 2013

I’m not the spa vacation type—I can’t get through a 30-minute massage without mentally creating a to-do list. But spending the past several days in a workshop on the democratic purposes of education was, for me, just as relaxing an invigorating as others claim a spa retreat can be.

Discussions started where you would expect, considering the foundational historical and civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for responsible, active citizenship. Much to my delight, those discussions expanded to include wonder, humility, virtue, craftsmanship, voice, and compromise. We spent time thinking about using Greek myths to question the relative worthiness of courageous acts, exploring humanity’s drive for freedom as depicted in works of art from around the world, and devising simple ways to incentivize student participation in community service. For large chunks of each day, we tuned out the rest of the world and focused on each other’s ideas.

We also focused on ideas from the past. I am especially grateful for this because it filled a large hole in my knowledge of civically minded education: Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech on April 30, 1930, titled Good Citizenship: The Purpose of an Education. Her speech is well worth reading; hopefully these highlights will draw you into the full piece:

What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women. The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books, and the learning of facts. Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that “the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.”

If this is the goal—and in a democracy it would seem at least an important part of the ultimate achievement—then we must examine our educational system from a new point of view….

Theodore Roosevelt was teaching by precept and example that men owed something at all times, whether in peace or in war, for the privilege of citizenship and that the burden rested equally on rich and poor. He was saying that, no matter what conditions existed, the blame lay no more heavily on the politician and his machine controlling city, State, or nation, than on the shoulders of the average citizen who concerned himself so little with his government that he allowed men to stay in power in spite of his dissatisfaction because he was too indifferent to exert himself to get better men in office.

Indifference on the part of many Americans, rich and poor, is still a large problem. So is a lack of sense of efficacy. Logical arguments have been made by both economists and weary single mothers about the futility of voting. For those of us who value voice and participation, perhaps our best arguments for civic activism rest on responsibility. And perhaps our educational focus should be on both the duties of citizenship and on showing how leadership and governance work. With such knowledge, more of us could engage in creative problem solving, which could be energizing enough to lessen indifference and increase efficacy.

Eleanor Roosevelt began with the basics of such an education, then revealed the civic value of the whole schooling enterprise:

In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective—informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.

How shall we arrive at these objectives? We think of course of history as a first means of information. Not the history which is a mere recital of facts, dates, wars, and kings, but a study of the life and growth of other nations, in which we follow the general moral, intellectual, and economic development through the ages, noting what brought about the rise and fall of nations and what were the lasting contributions of peoples now passed away to the development of the human family and the world as a whole.

Then we come down to our own history, observing the characteristics and the backgrounds of the people who founded our nation and those who have come to us since; the circumstances of pioneer life and the rapid industrial development. We trace the reasons for present-day attitudes of mind and for the establishment of customs and points of view which make up the rather elusive and yet unmistakable thing known as the “American spirit.” We study the men in our history who have really made a constructive contribution, and those who have held us back, in order that we may know what qualities of mind and heart formed the characters which have left a mark on their time….

I would have our children visit national shrines, know why we love and respect certain men of the past. I would have them see how government departments are run and what are their duties, how courts function, what juries are, what a legislative body is and what it does. I would have them learn how we conduct our relationships with the rest of the world and what are our contacts with other nations. The child seeing and understanding these things will begin to envisage the varied pattern of the life of a great nation such as ours and how his own life and environment fit into the pattern and where his own usefulness may lie.

Contrast Roosevelt’s vision with our typical approach to elementary social studies. If the early years are spent on families, neighborhoods, communities, states, regions, and then the nation, how will we have time to get to the far more interesting and important knowledge and character-building studies she recommends? As most schools implement the Common Core standards, bringing far more informational text into the elementary grades, perhaps this is the moment to rethink what our young students are capable of learning. Ancient civilizations, America’s founding, the very concepts of representational government and the freedom for direct, nonviolent action—these things are within the reach of young children if we construct our units carefully.

Roosevelt sees opportunities to teach responsible citizenship throughout the school day:

It is not, however, only in the courses bearing directly on history and government that citizenship can be taught. The child taking Latin and mathematics is also learning invaluable lessons in citizenship. The power of concentration and accuracy which these studies develop will later mean a man or woman able to understand and analyze a difficult situation. For example, arithmetic is necessary to a later understanding of economic questions….

Mathematics and humanity are strangely intertwined, and an ability to understand both is essential to well-balanced decisions in questions of this kind. From the point of view of character-building, the harder these subjects are to master the greater will be the sense of self-mastery and perseverance developed.

The other school contacts—social activities and athletics—develop team play, cooperation, and thought and consideration for others. These are all essentials in good citizenship….

Learning to be a good citizen is learning to live to the maximum of one’s abilities and opportunities, and every subject should be taught every child with this in view.

“Every subject should be taught to every child.” While other lines have more poetry, this one is my favorite. In schools that seize the early grades as an opportunity to introduce students to the beauty and wonder of our world in scientific, artistic, historical, and literary ways, a strong foundation is built for children maximizing their abilities, finding their strengths (and working on their weaknesses), and opening up new opportunities by seeing what others have done.

Of course, to be effective, this needs to happen in all schools—most especially the schools that our least advantaged children attend. As Roosevelt said:

As the great majority of our children are being educated in public schools, it is all-important that the standards of citizenship should be of the best. Whether we send our children to private school or public school we should take a constant interest in all educational institutions and remember that on the public school largely depends the success or the failure of our great experiment in government “by the people, for the people.”

Our collective success does indeed rest largely on our public schools. Yet our collective reaction to that fact is usually to blame our schools for our shared failures. So, even though it sounds corny, here’s a plea for my fellow citizens in the school reform movement: Ask not what our public schools can do for you—ask what you can do for (not to!) our public schools.