An Unclaimed Lottery Ticket

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 17th, 2013

Inspired by Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, which lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, I have a new article in City Journal: “A Wealth of Words.” I hope you’ll find time for the whole article, but here’s my CliffsNotes version.

With the decline of the middle class, the aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded. But there is a road back to the City upon a Hill.

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

The correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

The sociologist Donald Hayes, following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

The context for an unfamiliar word isn’t just the other words surrounding it in a text but also the situation referred to by those words. Familiarity with the relevant subject matter ensures that a student’s unconscious meaning-guesses are likely to be right.

So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. There are so many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000—that a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from systematically acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.

The idea is to immerse students in a domain long enough to make them familiar with the context—and thus able to learn words faster. For the purposes of teaching vocabulary, a “domain” could be defined as a sphere of knowledge in which concepts and words are repeated over the course of two or three weeks. Such repetition happens automatically in a classroom unit on, say, plants and photosynthesis.

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically. But the new Common Core State Standards for language arts, now adopted by more than 40 states, may offer a ray of hope (see “The Curriculum Reformation”). One statement in the new standards reads: “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.” A second encouraging passage: “The Common Core 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.”

These two statements are big steps forward from the failed how-to approaches of the recent past. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of one major urban district could transform practice throughout the nation.

Poking the Sacred Cow

by Guest Blogger
December 30th, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

It’s day six of my holiday break and I have finally acknowledged the large stack of paper on the floor next to my desk. I had been ignoring it, hoping it would magically grade itself, but alas, this has not been the case. It’s still there, still huge, still daunting. In the meantime, I have cleaned the entire house, gone to the dump twice, moved our furniture around, stacked another cord of wood, winterized the chicken tractor, and killed seven mice in the attic, but now, it’s time. Time to grade the mid-year writing assessments.

While I was completing all of these other acts of procrastination, I was mentally composing another essay for an upcoming deadline, a piece has been freaking me out, both as a writer and a teacher. In order to be successful in this piece, I must come clean about my homework practices. For non-teachers, that may sound like an easy task, but it’s not. Homework is a time-honored tradition among teachers, a sacred cow best left undisturbed to chew its cud in the median. We go about our daily business in its shadow, so used to its presence right there in the middle of things that we don’t even see it anymore. Even discussed delicately, teacher-to-teacher, it elicits fight-or-flight defensiveness in some and outright anger in others.

But it’s good to sharpen your Ticonderoga #2 and poke that cow from time to time, isn’t it? Otherwise, how  do you know if it’s just resting or if it’s been dead for a while and you just had not noticed?

As I am writing about homework elsewhere, I am taking on another sacred cow at my school over here – the writing assessment. These assessments make up the giant pile of menace stacked next to my desk, and as I don’t want to get around to grading them, I thought I’d spend some time poking them with a proverbial stick.

Twice a year, we give the students a prompt, two days to prepare an outline, two class periods to write a four-paragraph essay. Based on the responses I have read so far, this year’s questions went fairly well, and I actually like reading these essays once I am into the groove, but it’s an endless task. So, if I have to question why I give homework, I also have to question why I spend four full days a year of class time and hours at home spent grading on these writing assessments.

The students don’t enjoy writing them, I hate grading them…so what’s the point?

In order to answer that question, I went over to my office and pulled out a couple of my student’s files. Because we give these assessments every year from the third grade on up, I can spread a students’ entire writing education out in one place. I can see how handwriting, vocabulary, and syntax evolve over the entire length of one student’s education. Most importantly, I can see their individual voices evolve as thinking becomes more complex, more sophisticated. It’s fun to pull these files out when a student is frustrated with the slow pace of his or her learning, or an apparent backsliding in skills, and show them how far they have come in such a short time.

One of my favorite things about my job is the strategizing I get to do behind the scenes. As I teach my students for three straight years in Latin and/or English, I have the opportunity to do some real long-term planning for the future. I taught high school English before I moved to middle school, so I know what will be expected of them in a few short years. Many of them will go on to attend the very school I used to teach in, so I have very specific goals about where they need to be in terms of independence, organization and self-advocacy by the time they head off to high school.

In sixth grade, we coddle them as we ease them into the relative chaos of middle school class transitions and increased homework load. In seventh grade, however, I ease off a bit. I give them a little bit more rope and see what happens when they are expected to plan ahead or stay on top of a long-range assignment. In eighth grade, I really let them have their heads, and expect that they will know how to take charge of their education when no one else is looking out for them. Writing assessments are part of that process. I hand them the prompt and directions, and they are expected to prepare their notes or outline, find supporting evidence and plan their writing. I give them no other guidance than the prompt itself. Timed writing assignments will become a fact of life for them in the coming years, and it’s fascinating to see their progress as they master the task.

When I was first hired at my school, I was informed that the writing assessment was simply a part of what I did in English class, and I was too overwhelmed with the details of a my new position (including my first year teaching Latin, twenty years since I last cracked open a Latin text) to question any reasoning behind the tradition. But now, long settled-in and armed with perspective and experience, I think it’s good to question what I do the things I do. This week’s re-evaluation of my homework practices has been really enlightening - I have dropped some of the less effective assignments and shored up my reasoning behind the better ones. So much of what I do, particularly the most subjective aspects such as grading and assessments, leave me feeling uneasy at times, unsure of my standards, perspective, or reasoning.

In the end, some of those cows were long dead and really needed to get rolled out of the road, but I am quite fond of the ones that remain. When I return to school in the New Year, the students will notice a change. I will be more confident in my choices, and the road ahead will be much less congested. True, the writing assessments will remain, lying placidly in the middle of that road, but at least I will be able to explain why they are there.

A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

On standardized high school English examinations in New York, students must write what is often called a “critical lens” essay. They are given a quotation (the “lens”) and must interpret it, state whether they agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their position with examples from literary texts of their choice. This task has logical flaws and encourages poor reasoning and writing. The problem is largely due to the lack of a literature curriculum; when there are no common texts, essay questions on state tests become vague and diffuse. The test question needs an overhaul, and New York State needs a literature curriculum with some common texts and ample room for choice.

One flaw of the “critical lens” task is that students must interpret the quotation out of context. Students may or may not have read the source of the quotation; they are allowed to make it mean whatever they want it to mean (within reason). The test-taker must provide a “valid” interpretation of the quote, but without a context, “valid” simply means free of egregious error. When it comes to analysis, this is not good practice; the student latches onto the interpretation that comes to mind instead of searching for the most fitting one.

A sample New York Regents English examination illustrates how this might play out. (I discuss this example in my book, Republic of Noise.)  Here the quotation is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” (See p. 21 of the PDF file.) This quotation can mean many things, but it has particular meaning in The Little Prince. It is the fox who speaks these words, after befriending the prince and being tamed by him. They have been meeting, day by day, at the same time and place; the regularity of the ritual allows the fox to prepare his heart for the prince’s arrival. Seeing with the heart in this case has to do with caring for another, spending time with another, honoring rituals together. But students are more likely to take the quotation as a comment on romantic attraction (and some of the sample responses do precisely that). Then they agree or disagree with the quotation on the basis of this incorrect interpretation.

Another flaw in the “critical lens” task is that it hinges on the student’s opinion (about a statement that may apply to a range of situations). The opinion may be hasty or superficial, yet it is unassailable. It would make more sense to ask the student to explain how a particular literary work affirms the quotation in some ways and negates it in others, and to decide whether the affirmation or the negation is ultimately stronger. That would require careful, thoughtful analysis and examination of a work and would leave room for the student’s ideas and judgment. At the very least, the prompt could ask the students to show how a literary work addresses or touches on the idea in the quotation. That runs the risk of reducing literature to ideas and themes, but at least it keeps the focus on the literature.

A third flaw is that students must cite examples from literature in support of their opinion. It is possible to do this, but one must do so cautiously. Literature is not a direct reflection of life; often its messages are oblique and contradictory. So, for instance, if one looks to Romeo and Juliet for examples of people blinded by love (not seeing rightly with the heart), one will find them, but one will also miss the point. In the play, love has both delusion and illumination and is part of a larger scheme. Help and harm intermingle, as Friar Laurence suggests in his monologue:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.


The play does not pass judgment on the lovers’ passion; rather, it shows the playing out of passions, feuds, and good intentions, where no one grasps the full situation until the end. But students who ignore this can get a high score on the essay. One can even ignore key details of plot and get a high score. A sample student response with the highest score (on p. 58) states that “if Romeo had not used his heart, he would have seen rightly. He could have stayed with Rosaline, and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless, love-inspired antics.” The student neglects the fact that Rosaline has sworn herself to chastity, that the Montagues and Capulets have antics of their own (the play begins with a fight that escalates), and that it is the lovers’ deaths that brings an end, finally, to the warring of the two families. This is at least partly the fault of the essay question; by requiring students to cite literary examples to support their opinion, it encourages (or at least does not penalize) shallow interpretations of these examples.

In short, the “critical lens” task rewards poor writing and thinking, precisely because it can rely on no common knowledge. There is no check on the student’s opinion; nothing  challenges the student to examine the quotation or the works closely. The student who follows the directions does well. He may provide a flawed interpretation of the literary examples and quotation, yet receive a top score. He may even get basic plot details wrong without losing any points. It would not be surprising if some students made up the details and still passed. To fight this absurdity, we should have a few texts—just a few—that everybody reads, including those scoring the tests. The essay question could then pertain to the works themselves. This would allow for coherent, probing essays and would take students out of opinion’s muddier puddles.

The Online Dictionary Is No Dwelling

by Guest Blogger
November 8th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

Abandon hope for meaning, all ye who enter here. The online dictionary gives you quick definitions; you take one and run. What do you find when you look up a word? A flashy, crowded page; words corseted and adorned with videos, jingles, links. Which definition do you grab? The most popular one, the most convenient one, the one that fits the shopper’s purposes.

A dictionary should tell you words’ common and uncommon meanings, their history, their occurrences in literature and speech. It should be a place that stays relatively still, with updates from time to time—where meaning exists, where the less popular meanings have a place, and where one can wander, pause, explore, and think. As the Internet changes our conception of dictionaries, it changes our language as well.

Let us see what happens when I look up the word “dwell” by typing “dwell definition” (without the quotes) in Google. The first hit gives a single definition for the verb (“Live in or at a specified place”) and for the noun (“A slight regular pause in the motion of a machine”). Right below these definitions, there are links to,, Merriam-Webster, and The Free Dictionary. The page for “dwell” has an animated banner, followed by several ads, including “1 trick of a tiny belly”—all of this before the actual definitions. (The ads here and elsewhere may change from visit to visit.) The page on starts out with a link to and the description, “Unique, Modern Baby, Kids and Home Decor. Bedding, Bath, Table & More.” Merriam-Webster sometimes takes you to an advertisement page before loading the actual page; on the advertisement page, only the first definition for “dwell” (“to remain for a time”) appears. The Free Dictionary assembles definitions and examples from various sources but also has animated ads and commercial links.

Isn’t this typical of services on the Internet? Yes, but a dictionary has traditionally been a sanctuary for words (a messy one, granted), and now it is not. In a dictionary without distractions, one can read a definition slowly, peruse the surrounding words, and follow trails from synonym to synonym, from cognate to cognate. Online dictionaries emphasize functionality and commerce—get your meaning and move on (and buy some bedding while you’re at it). There are rare exceptions, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, which attracts those who are interested in words in the first place (and is funded by donations). Certain subscription-only dictionaries, such as the online Oxford English Dictionary, offer rich definitions without ads, but even the OED gives quick definitions at the outset, and the user has to click further to see the full array.

Over the long term, people may lose a sense of words’ secondary, tertiary, and rare or archaic meanings. Let’s come back to “dwell.” The lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld posits a Proto-Indo-European root *dwal-, meaning “obscure, dark,” which over the centuries evolved into Norse and Old English words meaning “to delay” and “to hinder.” This in turn evolved into the meanings “to wander” and “to abide.” Thus “dwell” (as I hear it) has a sense of straying and restraint, of willing and unwilling lingering. It carries hints of some sort of spell or force; to dwell in a house is not only to live in it but to have some bond with it, brief or long. The Oxford English Dictionary gives numerous definitions of “dwell”—not only the ones mentioned so far, but also “to persist,” “to remain,” and “to pause,” among others. To dwell on a subject is to will oneself to it or be willed by it. Likewise, if something dwells in you, then it isn’t just a bone or nerve; it is a spirit too. Satan cries out in John Milton’s Paradise Lost,

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

One hears not only the suggestion of “dwell” in the rhyming “Hell” but also its absence. Hell is emphatically not a dwelling, not a home, and Satan knows perfectly well that he cannot make it a heaven, not even in his mind.

Stop complaining, says the pragmatic citizen of the 21st century. Just buy your own print dictionary and be done with it. Make a Heaven of Hell, relatively speaking. Yes, indeed, and I have done so, relatively speaking. Oh, relative hell! But like the vegetarian who eats meat when served by carnivore hosts, I use the online dictionary when it’s all I have before me, as do millions of others. People click for meanings in the office, at home, in school, and on the road. At this point online dictionaries have the run of the land and air. Given their ubiquity, we should insist that they make room for words and minds. Perhaps a publisher will step forward and give us a free online dictionary without ads or abridgements. That would be a worthy deed—and profitable over the long haul, too, as it would keep minds fed and good books in circulation. But maybe the long haul is slipping out of our view—precisely because words themselves have become quick fixes.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.

Evidence Isn’t Everything or Everywhere

by Guest Blogger
October 5th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

I have nothing against evidence but am wary of the ascendant “evidence state.” I have seen nonfiction vigilantes marching around, asking, “where’s your evidence? where’s your evidence?” Those who question its rule get sneered out of town, if not steeply fined. This is not right. Evidence has its place, but it cannot and should not dominate everything. Even in the best arguments, evidence (strictly defined) is only one way of substantiating a point.

With the emphasis on “informational text” in the Common Core State Standards, students will be told, again and again, that they must back up their arguments with evidence. This is an important skill but only one of many. Some arguments use illustrative examples; some, reasoning; some, eloquence; and many, a mixture of all of these.

Arguments with evidence exist, of course, and can be quite convincing indeed. For instance, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s argument in the Declaration of Independence:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

And so on. Jefferson offers fact after fact to demonstrate the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of King George III. In this case, evidence makes all the difference, since those considering revolt would want to be convinced that the King has indeed established absolute tyranny.

Some arguments use examples that illustrate rather than prove the point. In his letter “On the Shortness of Life,” Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.–65 A.D.) posits that our lives are long but that we make them short through “idle busyness”—that is, by occupying ourselves with empty activities. Here’s one example he provides:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

This is not “evidence”; rather, it shows vividly how the waste of time might play out. Anyone in his day might have complained that he exaggerated—that no one spent that much time at the barber’s or gave that much attention to their locks of hair. But that isn’t the point. This vivid hyperbole (if it is hyperbole) is there to convey the nature of the problem, not to prove its existence or extent. Beyond that, it’s just plain funny.

Then there’s argument with reasoning: for instance, in G. K. Chesterton’s essay “On Turnpikes and Mediævalism” (in All I Survey, 1933). Chesterton refutes a newspaper article’s assertion that a turnpike-gate with a toll is a relic of medievalism.

If we were really relics of mediævalism–that is, if we had really been taught to think–we should have put that question first, and discussed whether a thing is bad or good before discussing whether it is modern or mediæval. There is no space to discuss it here at length, but a very simple test in the matter may be made. The aim and effect of tolls is simply this:  that those who use the roads shall pay for the roads.  As it is, the poor people of a district, including those who never stir from their villages, and hardly from their firesides, pay to maintain roads which are ploughed up and torn to pieces by the cars and lorries of rich men and big businesses, coming from London and the distant cities. It is not self-evident that this is a more just arrangement than that by which wayfarers pay to keep up the way, even if that arrangement were a relic of mediævalism.

The logic is as follows: instead of fretting over whether a thing is modern or medieval, let us consider its merit. In this case, it seems fairer to have the roads maintained by those who ride than by those who cannot afford a car. Thus a turnpike-gate is more reasonable than the absence thereof, even if it is a relic of medievalism. Of course the reasoning is only part of the essay; the rest is wit and soul and a gift for putting nonsense in its place.

Eloquence, or compelling language, is its own kind of persuasion, usually but not always mixed with other kinds. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1892 speech “Solitude of Self” stirs some kind of recognition and awe in the reader, through the very language.

And yet, there is a solitude, which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.

The speech employs reasoning and example along the way; it argues that women need education equal to that of men, precisely because they must face so much of life alone. But the description of solitude, the core of her argument, has no evidence to prove it; it persuades through its starkness and beauty. If such argument were not permitted, simply because it lacked evidence, then we would lose a great deal of our nonfiction and fiction.

Each of these ways of substantiating argument has many variations, and they appear in combination more often than not. If schools are to give more attention to nonfiction (and to argument in particular), then they should acknowledge argument’s richness. If we assume that all good arguments must have evidence, then we narrow our view at great cost. This narrowness threatens even freedom of speech, as anything without evidence (or the appearance thereof) will be dismissed. We should resist such limitation. Argument thrives not only on statistics and facts, but also on uncertainties, questions, and risks; reasoning that startles you out of your assumptions; examples that make you laugh or shudder; and language that persists in the mind.

Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012. She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

“An Immodest Proposal–Or, Rather, a Done Deal”

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

It is a melancholic experience to leave the comfort of one’s own Neighborhood and wander through beer-sticky streets, ears aching from the wails of illiterate and impoverished adults and babes, and to apprehend, as one strides past the grim Institutions with their barred windows and metal detectors, that behind those walls pace Bad Teachers who impoverish our Culture, Spirit, and Economy as they turn out tender ignorami no better prepared for the merciless World and Workplace than a suckling babe is prepared to navigate the Skies.

And yet, we stand on the brink of a golden realm—one of unforeseen fortune and fortunetelling—the realm of Science, the power and speed of Value-Added Assessments. Not since Herbert Spencer published his great Principles of Psychology have we been so close to unlocking a Science of Mind. We can calculate in an instant whether a Teacher is good or bad, and then use such calculations to build better Teachers and thus a better World. No one knows better than the ordinary man or woman how vexing the Problems of Life can be; therefore I, who speak on behalf of all of you, offer my gratitude to Science for plowing through the Muck and showing us the way to Success, to which each of us has a Right.

This new Science of Value-Added Assessments (that is, of evaluating Teachers by their students’ test scores) has been maligned, transmogrified, mocked, even criticized, by a full host of well-meaning but overly thoughtful Thinkers—Economists, Historians, Journalists, and, to no one’s surprise, Teachers themselves. The Los Angeles Times made the tragic mistake of exposing this tender Science before it was fully on its feet—by publishing the names and ratings of Los Angeles public school Teachers. Even ardent value-added proponents were saddened by this act. I, too, wept over the LA Times’ injustice and ineptitude—but not because I doubted the virtue of Value-Added Assessment, public or private. Rather, it distressed me that our Science was being offered up for Inspection—nay, poking and cutting— while it was still learning to walk. When you learn of its true Purposes and Destiny (which I have gleaned from secret interviews with Experts who requested Anonymity) you will surely agree that no better and firmer Science could possibly have graced our Land.

Value-Added Assessments offer only limited benefits to existing Teachers. When a new Teacher enters the classroom, her fate is 65 percent sealed, according to a Statistician. Oh, I have heard of the promises of Professional Development, but whoever has visited one of those Professional Development sessions knows that such promise resides largely in the Imagination. They are filled with Nonsense, I regret to say. I have heard that Teachers make Improvements over time, but many of them leave before they have a chance to improve, and those who do improve would have done so anyway, with or without Value-Added Formulas. Teachers leave or stay, improve or don’t, in accordance with their own Efforts, Education, Inclinations, and Abilities, not to mention the Conditions in which they work and the Quality of the Curriculum. In addition, we know that Human Nature left to its own Devices contains many Flaws. Each of us consists of many parts, some excellent, some not. Unless we have millions of Dollars and a willing Surgeon, we are unable to mix and match our pieces.

Therefore, the future of Value-Added Assessments lies not in rating the whole Teacher, but in rating her individual Parts. Should we determine that a certain part is effective in the classroom, we will recruit new Teachers with a matching Part—or, better still, the Part itself. Compiling successful characteristics, we will ultimately compose the Perfect Teacher. Such efforts are already underway. Teach for America has Formulas that identify successful Personality Traits; Doug Lemov has assembled a Catalogue of successful Classroom Practices. Yet Body Parts play a much larger role in Teacher Effectiveness than has been suspected; an education CEO told me recently, “It is the Body that we tend to disregard, yet even the Greeks were aware of its Importance.” Let me begin with one overlooked example: the Chin.

You may have assumed, dear public, that all Chins are equally successful in the classroom; with our abundance of Data we have found this not to be so. Pointed, protruding Chins, especially those that tremble, produce significantly lower student test scores than rounded but defined Chins, raised upward slightly and held still. Non-Chins and hidden Chins, surprisingly, have mixed results, but when they are lifted to about 15 degrees past horizontal, they tend to correlate with a slight improvement in Test Scores (in Mathematics, but not in Reading). Astonishing as this may seem, it is not the only Discovery of its kind.

Like Chin shapes, Nose shapes are associated with Effectiveness of Teaching. A sharply upturned Nose has been found to correlate with low Test Scores, but not the the very lowest (these are reserved for the Running Nose). A large Crescent Nose correlates with slightly improved Test Scores, though Results fluctuate and depend on the Subject. Noses that honk when they blow tend to provoke Laughter in the Classroom but not higher Scores, except in AP Physics. The best of all Noses—the Nose of the Highly Effective Teacher—is triangular, with modest Nostrils, and not especially large. Incidentally, a Doctor has disclosed that those who undergo “Nose Jobs” do not experience a change in their Teaching Effectiveness. It is their natal Nose—the Nose that rode with them into the World—that tells the Truth about how they will teach.

I am not authorized to divulge the nature of the secret Negotiations between Value-Added Scientists and Facebook, if they are indeed in progress, but I will hint that perhaps—just perhaps—Facebook with its vast trove of personal Data can help us find the best Chins and Noses for the classroom—and from there, Elbows, Fingernails, and Livers. Face recognition technology allows us to peruse millions of photographs in a very short time, and Facebook Users are already sharing Pictures of other Body Parts. You may object that Noses and Chins and such have little to do with Mathematics or Grammar, but I assure you that schools no longer teach Mathematics or Grammar. They teach Success. To this end, you will agree, we need successful Teachers—or, rather, Parts of Teachers. But how, you may ask, can a Part of a Teacher Teach? It is not in vain that a great Futurologist said, “Virtual Schools are the Future.” Virtual Schools allow us to take a Chin, Nose, Liver, Knuckle, Lock of Hair, Tone of Voice, Assertive Attitude, and Proven Technique, put them together, and make an Ideal Teacher.

Once the Ideal Teachers have been Data-determined and assembled from Ideal Parts, we will fill our Virtual Schools with them. At that point we will fire all of the imperfect Teachers—in other words, everyone. We will announce our great appreciation for the Humans who have toiled year after year, with great heart and spirit, under difficult Conditions. We will explain to them that while we do not fault them for being human, we cannot afford Humanity any more. Humanity simply does not make enough progress or stand up to global Competition. We will roll out our new composite Teacher—an unprecedented specimen of Perfection, a melding of Looks and Career. All test scores will soar through the Roof, but we will have no more need for said Roof or for human Structures in general. We will find ourselves whisked up to a new plateau of High Online Performance Everywhere (HOPE), where it never rains and Scores never go down. Just what that World will look like, we do not know, but it will be devoid of Complications, Gradations, Melancholy, Joy, Love, Challenge, Modesty, and Discernment, all codewords for the decrepit old Land in which we lived (or through which we wandered from time to time). You will not miss Humanity’s wending Ways. We promise you this. As a New Breed, you will not realize they are gone.

Diana Senechal, a former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

Talking Fast, Not Sensibly

by Robert Pondiscio
March 24th, 2010

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”  Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I was reminded of the above quote from Walden while reading Diana Senechal’s thrilling cover story in the new issue of the American Educator.  Diana is a familiar figure to readers of this blog, but she arrives on the broader stage of education thought with her essay, “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.”  At one level, it is a skeptical look at the “clamor for newness” that marks education reform generally and the specific focus on “21st century skills.”   

           Far too often, the 21st century skills argument carries a tone of urgency, even emergency: We no longer live in a world of books, paper, and pen. Children grow up surrounded by digital media. They can communicate with peers around the world; they can find obscure information in seconds. Yet they are unprepared for the jobs of today. We still treat them as passive recipients of knowledge; we still drill them on facts that they could just as easily Google. If we do not act now, we will lose our global competitiveness—so everyone who cares about our future should jump on board. Employers need people who can create, solve problems, work together, use technology, and think critically. We must make our students critics, innovators, and team players; we should teach them to communicate in the broad sense of the word by infusing their coursework with blogging, recording, filming, texting, collaborating, and tweeting.

But Senechal’s purpose is larger, and she’s not merely raging against the schlock of the new.  The root of generations of ed reform fads is the assumption that schools’ primary objective is “to meet the demands of the day,” she writes.  And that assumption must be questioned.   

          At its fullest and best, education prepares us to be with others and apart, to enjoy the life of the mind, to survive and prosper, to bring up new generations, to act with integrity and conscience, to pursue useful and interesting work, and to participate in civic and cultural action and thought. If schools try to be up to date all the time, then they are reduced to chasing fads and obeying the whims of the market. Part of the schools’ work is to help prepare students for their future occupations, but they do not achieve this by scurrying to meet employers’ demands.

Critics will be tempted to dismiss much of what Senechal has to say as a mere defense of traditional curriculum and teaching.  But they do so at their own peril.  Creativity and innovation, the oft-cited goals of contemporary education require knowledge and practice, she observes. “When we take them too lightly, we encourage and even celebrate shoddiness.  Mediocre creation abounds, as does false innovation,” Senechal writes.  She illustrates this with a particularly pointed anecdote:

          Once I attended a professional development session where we were told about the power of the Internet as motivator for students. The speaker cited the example of a student who, as a result of a blogging project, had become excited about poetry and started posting her own poems on the school blog. I took a look at the poems that evening, Googled a few lines, and saw that all but one were plagiarized—not from first-rate poets, but from websites that featured sentimental and inspirational verse. Why was this not caught earlier? Anyone paying close attention to the poems themselves would likely have suspected that they weren’t hers (the language was an adult’s, and hackneyed at that). The presenters were genuinely excited that the Internet had motivated a student to write; perhaps they chose not to judge the poems lest they interfere with her creative process. This is the danger: when we value creativity (and technology) above the actual quality of the things created, we lose sight of what we are doing and why.

Diana’s piece reminds me that education, and especially education reform, tends to be thick with people that – there’s no nice way to say this—simply don’t much care for education.  It is a means to an end, something to serve the “larger” goals of economic, political, or social progress.  Senechal reminds us that not only is this a dispiriting way to view education, but ultimately, it’s a self-defeating one.

                When the frenzy over 21st century skills passes—and it will—students will see that their opportunities depend largely on their knowledge. Many will graduate with blogging experience, but those who can write a strong essay on a Supreme Court case will be better prepared to enter the fields of history, law, or journalism. Many will have online science portfolios, but those who have studied calculus, read parts of Newton’s Principia, and can prove Kepler’s second law (for example) will be much better prepared to study physics at an advanced level. …The ability to make a YouTube video or podcast will mean little in the long run, if the other things are absent. Moreover, those technologies may be obsolete in another few years, but literature, science, languages, mathematics, history, music, art, and drama will stay.

Ultimately, Diana’s piece is not a rebuke, but a challenge to rise above mindless fealty to the “claims of the present” and “seek out excellence, nurture it, defend it, and live up to it.”  To make change, but to do so  thoughtfully, she concludes, “may be the most daring education reform of all.”

Brilliant stuff.  On a day when most of the education world will be examining the latest NAEP scores, and using the data — the data! — to defend or decry various policies, programs and “theories of action” it is good to be reminded why we get out of bed in the morning.  Or why we should.

Lies, Damned Lies and Science

by Robert Pondiscio
January 8th, 2010

Let’s face it, writes Stephen Battersby at the New Scientist, science is boring.  Discoveries of new planets, medical advances and potential environmental disasters leave the impression that science is exciting and cutting edge.  Not so. 

It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is… well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee.

Science may be boring, but Batterby’s essay is a hoot.  Especially his description of his own inglorious research career, which involved months of sifting data from a telescope and finding…nothing.

I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist‘s San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. “It achieved little,” he confesses, “apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine.” And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of “I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards,” he says. “It was about that time that I decided I didn’t want to be a working scientist.”

Let’s keep this to ourselves and not mention it to the children, shall we?  After all, our economy and national security are at stake.

Update:  Not bored yet?  Joanne Jacobs asks “Do children need to be bored?”  Insightful Willingham response in the comments.

Darkness Falls

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2009

The United States is in gradual decline, says Checker Finn matter of factly.  “Many people seem oblivious, going about their own affairs without reference to ominous but very gradual trends, rather like the frog that didn’t know it would be boiled because the water in that pot was warming so slowly,” writes the head of the Fordham Institute in his latest Education Gadfly column.

Among the “worrisome signs of national decay” Finn sees are America’s flat education results and sagging international performance:

Nearly all our major test-score trend lines have been horizontal for decades–the small upward and downward blips tend to balance out–and comparisons with other lands show us mediocre to woeful. We could once respond that the U.S. makes up in education “quantity” (e.g., graduation and matriculation rates) what we may lack in quality but that’s not true any longer. Half a dozen countries now best us on those measures, too.

In addition, there is decreasing demand for U.S. dollars overseas, a “staggering” debt burden being passed on to future generations, and a national government that can no longer make big decisions. “Whether the challenge at hand is immigration, excessive litigation, discrepant academic standards, swine flu, financial regulation, hurricane Katrina, mass transit, climate change, Afghanistan–pick your topic–Congress either avoids the problem altogether or kicks the can down the road for someone to worry about later,” writes Finn.  He also bemoans “our culture and our politics of polarization, selfishness, and bad manners.”

Finally, we’re giving up on too many of the great challenges and opportunities that we face, including realms where America was once terrific. NASA has pretty much abandoned space exploration, at least the manned kind. We don’t seem even to be trying very hard to extirpate nuclear weapons from Iran. China is turning into the next hegemon. My wife the doctor says that European and Asian countries are more adept and adventurous today in medical research than we are. Airbus is getting a lot more new planes into the air than Boeing. Our domestic auto industry is all but defunct.

Worst of all, Finn is not sure our national decline can be reversed.  “The cultural, behavioral, and attitudinal manifestations of declinism seem to me to go deeper than politics.”

Checker has been just a little ray of sunshine of late.  First there was his speech at Rice University wondering if it’s time to “throw in the towel on ed reform.”  Now this.  On the other hand, I haven’t heard anyone say he’s all wet.  Anyone?

A Measure of Privacy

by Guest Blogger
February 11th, 2009

Shhh…. Stop thinking, spout out some keywords, earn us some points, and be done with it! What are you waiting for? You have been sitting there for like a minute saying nothing! Say something, anything, just get some words out there for the group! Hello? Hello? What are you, a mummy or something? Come on, it’s so easy, just read these words! That’s it, we’re getting a new group member. You’re bringing down our stats! Oh, look, Miss Cameron’s coming our way! She’s onto you!

Recently Robert Pondiscio sent me a link to an article about new software enabling teachers to monitor small-group online discussion in the classroom. Developed by European and Israeli researchers involved in the “Argunaut project,” this software offers real-time statistics on students’ patterns of conversation during class. Teachers can view instantaneous data on groupwork and receive automated alerts. The new software can:

… alert the teacher when one student is not contributing, or is being ignored, or is dominating the conversation. It also renders exchanges in a graphic manner, readily describing the ongoing discussion at a glance. And teachers can program the software to signal when certain keywords occur, such as when Napoleon appears in a conversation about the French revolution.

I will leave aside the implications for the future. The present is grim enough. The software casts light on conditions in our classrooms today, for instance: (a) the emphasis on process over content; (b) the changes to the teachers’ role; and (c) the influence of technology on curriculum. All of these merit analysis, but I will focus on a problem rarely discussed: (d) the erosion of privacy in the classroom. It is not that the teachers can read students’ thoughts, but rather that students are prevented from thinking privately in the first place.

The problem of lost privacy is elusive and rampant. We have become more isolated and less private at once. On the train we are treated to rude and raging cell phone conversations. On internet networks like Facebook, users keep their “friends” informed of their latest actions: taking a sip of coffee, confronting an employee, patching a leak in the ceiling, or calling an ex-spouse. We must step back from this revelatory muddle in order to keep something to ourselves. We must teach children to do the same.

Can schools teach privacy or even honor it? For the most part, a school is not a private place, nor can it be. Students regularly submit their work to their teachers. Administrators visit classrooms and observe lessons in progress. Visitors come to evaluate schools. Schools send reports to their districts. Adults must look out for the welfare of the children; nothing should escape their eye. Yet much learning takes place in the seclusion of the mind. To think independently and well, we must think alone, removing ourselves from distractions and passing influences. We do this when solving a math problem, pondering a historical question, or memorizing a poem. Schools may have forgotten the importance of this. In their mania for “student engagement,” they blithely discard private thought with no regard for consequences.

Classrooms around the country, from kindergarten into college, have replaced teacher-led instruction with the “workshop model,” typically a short lesson followed by small-group activity in which each group member has a specific task. One member may be the note-taker, another the timer, another the spokesperson, and another the moderator. As the group busies itself, the teacher actively monitors the groups and records their behavior on forms and checklists. Is everyone engaged? Are they practicing Accountable Talk®? Does everyone have a specific role? Are they producing evidence of their work?

Teachers must submit to the same model in their professional development sessions. In a typical PD, teachers are placed in small groups with chart paper and a task to complete. The facilitator moves from group to group, looking over teachers’ shoulders and making sure they are working. The session is supposed to serve as a model for the teachers’ own classroom processes. Everyone is supposed to be active all the time; everyone is accountable to the task.

When I was growing up, teachers did not peer over our shoulders or take notes on our behaviors. We were expected to participate, but we had the option of retreating into our minds. The subject was the main focus. Class time was not task-heavy; it was mainly devoted to the learning of new concepts and information. If, on a given day, we chose to stay silent, we could. Even if the teacher called on us, that would only last a few minutes, and then we could return to our thoughts. Certain classes (such as language classes) demanded more active participation, but others let us stay quiet for stretches of time.

Of course this had its own drawbacks: some students would participate much more than others. Some might make the most of their mental autonomy; others might doodle, pass notes, or hold back from asking questions. In a large class it is hard for the teacher to call on everyone or keep track of everyone’s understanding. Some students slip behind and then have difficulty catching up. Others pull through but with little interest.

For these reasons, some believe that the “workshop model” offers something that the “traditional” classroom cannot. It promises to involve all children in the lesson and to bring out those who rarely speak. Proponents of the workshop model sincerely believe that children will come to a better understanding of the subject through small-group discussion and activity. Not only that, but they see the model improving with technology. Soon teachers will be able to keep track of everyone at all times!

This is already happening. M.I.T. has abandoned introductory physics lectures in favor of Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL), a variant of the workshop model combined with technology. According to a New York Times article, TEAL relies heavily on handheld gadgets:

One of the newer professors, Gabriella Sciolla, who arrived in 2003, was teaching a TEAL class on circuits recently. She gauged the level of understanding in the room by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions. The students “voted” with their wireless “personal response clickers” – the clickers are essential to TEAL – which transmitted the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

If any students value the life of the mind, M.I.T. students likely do. Do M.I.T. students regard these clickers lovingly? The article sings only praises of the program, but some comments clang dissent. One student scoffs: “‘Personal response clickers’? Ask any student how they feel about them and discover that they’d much rather hurl them into the Charles than actually use them, if not for the fact that participation points are oftentimes given out as inducements for clicking.” Another student observes: “The clickers, which have receivers positioned around the room on the ceiling, distract students from the physics concepts themselves.”

Ah, the concepts themselves! Students of all ages need privacy of mind. It may vary by grade, subject, or student, but it should not go away. Workshops and gadgets must not take over education, even if they have a modest role in it. If privacy of mind brings some risk of failure, we need that risk. Otherwise we give up the sanctuary of thought: the slow struggle with a problem, the frustrations and breakthroughs, the questions and insights, the romance with the subject. This is too great a loss. In the classroom we need just a measure of privacy, but that measure we must defend.

Diana Senechal teaches theatre and ESL at P.S. 108, an official Core Knowledge school in New York City.  She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale. Her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of Tomas Venclova appeared last fall in a new volume, The Junction.