The Best of the Common Core: Shifting from Skills to Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
December 11th, 2014

You already know that the Common Core English language arts and literacy standards call for building knowledge with a content-rich curriculum. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen evidence of that call’s impact.

Last week, Fordham had a conference on Upward Mobility. Most of the day was depressing—the odds are so severely stacked against our neediest students—but there were just enough bright spots keep us going. The papers are going to be published as a book next year, but right now you can read the drafts for free.

Not surprisingly, Robert Pondiscio’s paper is excellent, reminding us that even the brightest, hardest-working students struggle when they are not given the opportunity to learn essential knowledge:

In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C. who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.

There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”

Because of his lack of background knowledge, Cedric is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep in class. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”

The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits. But he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of his education, but in spite of it. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children.

Now the bright spot. In commenting on Pondiscio’s paper, Dacia Toll of Achievement First explained that the because of the Common Core—and her new understanding of the importance of knowledge—Achievement First schools are radically altering their literacy instruction. While the full panel (panel III) is worth watching, if you only have a few minutes, jump up to Toll’s comments, which begin 38 minutes in.

Because of the Common Core, Toll says, Achievement First’s leaders have realized that “the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was.” She continues, “The more you look at the English language arts gaps in particular, the more you come back to background knowledge and vocabulary.” Toll is honest about Achievement First’s previous mistakes. To increase reading, they used to do more reading—and they made time for that by taking time away from other subjects. They now see how misguided that was, and are dedicated to a content-rich curriculum.

Hoping to help educators across the country come to the same realization, Student Achievement Partners and the Council for Great City Schools have started a “Text Set Project.” The project is based on research (explained in the CCSS’s appendix A) that children acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they focus on one topic for several weeks. Each text set covers one topic, contains roughly 6-10 readings, may be supplemented by a video, and has simple activities to help students extract key points and vocabulary. SAP and CGCS is hosting text set workshops all across the US to immerse educators in the research on reading comprehension—especially why knowledge is key—and to show how to build text sets. I had the pleasure of attending this week in Baltimore.

Core Knowledge educators already know about immersing students in domains of study. Here’s one activity I learned about at the workshop that seems like a great way to boost student learning. It’s called a Rolling Knowledge Journal. Students complete the journal as they work their way through the text set. The Journal is a three-column worksheet in which they fill in the title of the text, list the new and important things they learned from that text, and then explain how this new text adds to what they already knew. It’s a great tool not only for students, but teachers too. One teacher uses the Rolling Knowledge Journal to make sure her texts are well sequenced before she gives the text set to students.

We’ve all heard plenty of examples of the Common Core being misinterpreted. The standards will be what we make of them. In these cases, at least, educators are making them into a great opportunity to learn.

Children Don’t Know How to Close the Vocabulary Gap

by Lisa Hansel
December 3rd, 2014

Most children don’t even know there is a vocabulary gap. They don’t know that reading about a wide variety of topics is the best way to acquire new vocabulary. They don’t know that books (even children’s books) use a wider variety of vocabulary than adults’ conversation. They don’t know that reading several texts on the same topic—and thus staying focused on that topic for two to three weeks—can make vocabulary learning up to four times faster.

Nor do they know what they need to learn. They don’t know what science, history, geography, civics, art, and music content they will be asked to master in later years (if they are lucky enough to attend schools that have a rich curriculum). They don’t know how much more fulfilling their lives would be if they “had a dream” or asked “What’s in a name?” or grasped “one giant leap for mankind.”

What children know is what they’ve been taught—at home, by commercials, at school, by neighbors…. Fortunately, virtually all children do share a wonderful quality that makes them eager to learn: curiosity.

To close the vocabulary gap, adults must do a better job of capitalizing on that curiosity to broaden children’s knowledge. And we must do it early, while the curiosity is so strong and the vocabulary gap is relatively small.

Since you’re reading the Core Knowledge blog, you already know that the first thing to do is write a content-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum for preschool through at least the elementary grades. What else can we do? One thing I think teachers and parents should consider is more carefully curating the books that children have to choose from. With a little gentle guidance, children can become curious about a great variety of topics. Take archeology for example. What kid would not be fascinated by digging in dirt and excavating tombs to find ancient people, stories, and treasures?

For resistant readers, let’s get creative about branching out from their current interests (which, don’t forget, are rarely “natural”; they’re often induced by commercial enterprises). Star Wars could be a great invitation to some astronomy books. Perhaps Sponge Bob could lead to marine biology. Especially if these subjects are introduced with read-alouds by a parent or teacher, kids can get hooked—and get the crucial introduction to a topic that makes comprehension easier—before they try to read about these topics  on their own.

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Child in need of guidance courtesy of Shutterstock.

Susan Neuman and Donna Celano provide an excellent example of curated choice vs. free choice in their decade-long study of two Philadelphia libraries: Chestnut Hill, in a high-income area by the same name, and Lillian Marrero, in the low-income Badlands area.

In the Chestnut Hill library, children always seem to enter the preschool area accompanied by an adult—most often their mother but occasionally a father, a nanny, or a grandmother. In comparison, in the Badlands, young children almost always enter alone, sometimes with a sibling but very rarely with an adult. Occasionally, an older brother or cousin might help locate a book or read to them. But more often than not, we see short bursts of activity, almost frenetic in nature. With little to do, children wander in and out with relatively little focus. Rarely are books checked out.

For children in Chestnut Hill, the activities are highly routinized. Invariably, the accompanying parent takes charge, suggesting books, videos, or audio books to check out. Sometimes the parent might pull a book down and let the child examine it or ask a child what types of books to look for. But the parents are clearly in charge: in a very authoritative manner, they sometimes note, “That book is too hard for you,” “That is too easy,” or “This one might be better.” Parents steer children to challenging selections, sometimes appeasing them with a video selection as well. Visits are brief, highly focused, and without exception, end with checking out a slew of books and, often, DVDs.

Inside the spacious preschool area at Lillian Marrero, separated from the rest of the library by “castle walls,” we find bins and baskets, crates and shelves full of books, and small tables with computers…. A mother sits 10 feet away in a chair marking her book with a yellow highlighter while her 6-year-old son explores the stacks alone. He forays several times for books, returning with selections to show his mother for her approval. “No, we’ve already seen them,” she says, sending him back to find something new. He returns several minutes later. Collecting what appears to be one, two, or three items from him, the mother gathers the rest of her belongings. Before she heads for the door, she points to the librarian who is now sitting at her desk. “Say bye to the lady,” the mother says to the little boy. “Bye-bye, lady,” he dutifully responds….

For early literacy, these differences have profound implications. In the spirit of concerted cultivation, toddlers and preschoolers in Chestnut Hill appear to be carefully mentored in selecting challenging materials; in contrast, those who experience the process of natural growth in the Badlands receive little, if any, coaching. Left on their own, these children resort to playful activity of short bursts, picking books up and putting them down with little discrimination and involvement. In Chestnut Hill, activities are carefully orchestrated to encourage reading for individual growth and development; in the Badlands, no such mentoring is available—the children are on their own.

Killing Three Birds with One Stone

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2014

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill has an interesting new post weighing the merits of state-mandated testing in science and social studies. He notes the cons—like the minimal added information on school quality given the high correlations between scores on science and reading tests—and the pros—like reversing the narrowing of the curriculum driven by the high-stakes emphasis on reading and math. Then he sets forth four options (and ultimately recommends his third option):

1.) Keep the status quo. This would ensure that social studies and science are tested, but in non-consecutive years (e.g., science in grades 5 and 8). Yet the status quo still does not compel schools to treat these subjects as equal partners with ELA and math.

2.) Eliminate testing in social studies and science. This approach would reduce the cost of testing in these areas, which gives us little new information about student achievement for school-quality purposes. However, this option would likely encourage even more focus on ELA and math and would require a waiver from federal statute which presently requires science testing at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

3.) Increase testing in social studies and science to the same frequency as math and ELA (i.e., test these subjects annually in grades 3-8). This would balance schools’ incentives to treat each subject equally, but at the cost of more time and money. From an information perspective, although little additional information is yielded in terms of student proficiency, annual testing could help analysts construct growth (i.e., “value-added”) measures for these subjects.

4.) Decrease testing in math and ELA to non-consecutive grades to match the frequency of social studies and science (e.g., test math and ELA in grades 4 and 6, not consecutively in grades 3-8). This would also balance schools’ incentives to treat subjects equally, but at the cost of less information and accountability. It would also require federal action to grant Ohio relief from consecutive-year-testing mandates in math and ELA in grades 3–8, or more likely, a rewritten federal law that governs state accountability (No Child Left Behind).

I’d like to offer a fifth option that assesses science and social studies yet has fewer tests: Draw the topics for the reading comprehension tests from the science and social studies standards. This blog recently explored the many drawbacks of current reading comprehension tests. In short, they contain a random smattering of “common” topics and topics that ought to be taught in school, but since they are not tied to any specific content that we can be certain has been taught, they inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home).

The only way to construct truly fair reading comprehension tests is to ensure that the passages are on topics that have been taught in school. Since states’ English language arts standards usually do not specify which books, poems, short stories, etc. to teach in each grade, ELA standards are a poor guide for test developers concerned with equity. But states’ science and social studies standards usually do specify some core content to be taught in each grade. The obvious path forward is to construct reading comprehension tests that assess language arts skills using the science and social studies content specified in the standards. After all, skills depend on relevant prior knowledge, so such tests would give a more accurate picture of schools’ impact on students’ language abilities than our current random-content tests. And for the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects.

Even better would be to draw the topics for passages on reading comprehension tests from science, social studies, art, music, geography, and civics standards. Such tests would (1) induce schools to develop a broad, content-rich curriculum and support teacher collaboration, (2) reduce the impact of the home on students’ scores, (3) build the knowledge and vocabulary that is essential to literacy, and (4) be the foundation for an accountability system that requires fewer tests yet still ensures that standards are being met.

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Reading tests with science and social studies content that had been taught would be more equitable and more interesting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Exceeding Expectations in Louisiana

by Guest Blogger
October 31st, 2014

By Debbie Jenkins

Debbie Jenkins is the elementary curriculum and instruction supervisor of Bogalusa City Schools in Louisiana. This post originally appeared on Amplify’s Viewpoints

Learn more about Bogalusa City Schools’ use of Core Knowledge in this video.

There’s an old Barbara Mandrell song that goes, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” Similarly, I like to say, “E. D. Hirsch was Common Core before Common Core was cool.”

For those who don’t know who E. D. Hirsch is, he is the chief architect of Core Knowledge Language Arts, the reading and language arts program for K-3 that we are using in our two elementary schools. The gains our students have made in just one year with CKLA are just beyond belief. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it.

At our two rural elementary schools, 93 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Many of our kids don’t have much of a chance to leave our city of Bogalusa. Their parents would love to give them the opportunity to see more of the world, but it’s just not possible.

As a result, our students have had issues with comprehension because they don’t have a lot of background knowledge or world knowledge to help them. So as they get to the upper grades, they know how to read the words but they don’t understand their meaning.

I’ve been following the work of Hirsch for many, many years, and as he says, a comprehension problem is a knowledge problem. We needed a program to help build knowledge around topics, and so I took a leap of faith by bringing in CKLA. Other than a few charter schools, we were the only public school district in the state of Louisiana to use CKLA, so it was a risk. But it totally paid off.

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95% of Bogalusa’s students now meet reading benchmarks.

With CKLA, our students are learning to decode words through the curriculum’s Skills strand, but they’re also learning about topics like the human digestive system and ancient civilizations, as early as kindergarten, through the Listening and Learning strand. Each year, the curriculum builds on what they learned the previous year. So we’re building a foundation of knowledge at the youngest age. You’d think kindergartners wouldn’t be interested in Mesopotamia, but they love it, all of it. They’re just like sponges, taking all of this information and absorbing it.

The progress our students have made in language arts is unbelievable. The year before we had CKLA, 88 to 89 percent of our students hit the reading benchmark. After CKLA, that number jumped to 95 percent. Our teachers had said our kids would never be able to read the readers that come with CKLA. But you see, it’s the Common Core State Standards and you need to raise the bar, and we did, and our kids rose to the occasion. They did read those readers by the end of the year.

Now the state of Louisiana has put CKLA on its “Tier 1” list of curricular resources for ELA and literacy. So we know we took the right leap of faith, and now other schools in our state will benefit from CKLA, too.

My hunch was right: You can’t go wrong with a curriculum that has E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation behind it. I continue to be one of his biggest fans.

New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)

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Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)

Reading Test Developers Call Knowledge a Source of Bias

by Lisa Hansel
October 1st, 2014

You might expect to see a headline like this in the Onion, but you won’t. The Onion can’t run it because it isn’t just ironic—it’s 100% true.

A few years ago, a researcher at one of the big testing companies told me that when developing a reading comprehension test, knowledge is a source of bias. He did not mean the obvious stuff like knowledge of a yacht’s anemometer. He meant typical K–12 subject matter.

Since reading comprehension depends chiefly on knowledge of the topic (including the vocabulary) in the passage, the student with that knowledge has a large advantage over the student without it. And since there have always been great educational inequities in the United States, students’ knowledge—acquired both at home and at school—is very strongly correlated with socioeconomic status.

A logical solution would be to test reading comprehension using only those topics that students have been taught. Teachers can do this, but testing companies can’t—how would they have any idea what topics have been taught in each grade? It’s rare for districts, much less states, to indicate what or when specific books, people, ideas, and events should be taught.

Without a curriculum on which to base their assessments, testing companies have devised their own logic—which is sound given the bind they’re in. They distinguish between common and specialized knowledge, and then they select or write test passages that only have common knowledge. In essence, they’ve defined “reading comprehension skill” as including broad common knowledge. This is perfectly reasonable. When educators, parents, etc. think about reading comprehension ability, they do not think of the ability to read about trains or dolphins or lightning. They expect the ability to read about pretty much anything one encounters in daily life (including the news).

I already had this basic understanding, but still I found the “ETS Guidelines for Fairness Review of Assessments” eye opening. Guideline 1 is to “avoid cognitive sources of construct-irrelevant variance…. If construct-irrelevant knowledge or skill is required to answer an item and the knowledge or skill is not equally distributed across groups, then the fairness of the item is diminished” (p. 8). It continues, growing murkier:

Avoid unnecessarily difficult language. Use the most accessible level of language that is consistent with valid measurement…. Difficult words and language structures may be used if they are important for validity. For example, difficult words may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure depth of general vocabulary or specialized terminology within a subject-matter area. It may be appropriate to use a difficult word if the word is defined in the test or its meaning is made clear by context. Complicated language structures may be appropriate if the purpose of the test is to measure the ability to read challenging material.

Avoid unnecessarily specialized vocabulary unless such vocabulary is important to the construct being assessed. What is considered unnecessarily specialized requires judgment. Take into account the maturity and educational level of the test takers in deciding which words are too specialized.

On page 10, it offers this handy table that “provides examples of common words that are generally acceptable and examples of specialized words that should be avoided…. The words are within several content areas known to be likely sources of construct-irrelevant knowledge”:

ETS table 1

Since having good reading comprehension means being able to read about a wide variety of common topics, table 1 seems just fine. But testing companies’ silence about what their reading comprehension tests actually measure is not. They say they are measuring “reading comprehension skill,” but their guidelines show that they are measuring a vaguely defined body of “common knowledge.”

Common words are not common to all. Even “common” knowledge is knowledge that must be taught, and right now—at home and at school—far too many children from low-income homes don’t have an opportunity to learn that knowledge (which is common to youth from middle-class and wealthy homes). That’s why reading comprehension scores are so strongly and stubbornly correlated with socioeconomic status.

These tests of “common” knowledge are accurate assessments and predictors of reading comprehension ability; but they are not fair or productive tests for holding children (and their teachers) accountable before an opportunity to learn has been provided.

If all testing companies would clearly explain that their reading comprehension tests are tests of knowledge, and if they would explain—as the ACT’s Chrys Dougherty does—that the only way to prepare for them is to build broad knowledge, then we could begin to create a fair and productive assessment and accountability system. Before the end of high school, all students should have broad enough knowledge to perform well on a reading comprehension test. But what about in third, fourth, or even seventh grade? In the early and middle grades, is a test drawn only from topics that have been taught in school the only fair way to test reading comprehension? How many years of systematically teaching “common” knowledge are needed before a reading comprehension test that is not tied to the curriculum is fair, especially for a student whose opportunities to learn outside of school are minimal?

The answer depends not so much on the test as on what is done with the scores. If we accepted the fact that reading comprehension depends on broad knowledge, we would radically alter our accountability policies. Scores on “common knowledge” reading comprehension tests would be recognized as useful indicators of where students are in their journey toward broad knowledge—they would not be mistaken for indicators of teaching quality or children’s capacity. Instead of holding schools accountable for scores on tests with content that is not tied to the curriculum, we would hold them accountable for creating a content-rich, comprehensive, well-sequenced curriculum and delivering it in a manner that ensures equal opportunity to learn. To narrow the inevitable gaps caused by differences in out-of-school experiences, we would dramatically increase free weekend and summer enrichment opportunities (for toddlers to teenagers) in lower-income neighborhoods. (We would also address a range of health-related disparities, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In sum, reading comprehension really does rely on having a great deal of common knowledge, so our current reading comprehension tests really are valid and reliable. To make them fair and productive, children from lower-income families must be given an equal opportunity to learn the knowledge that is “common” to children from higher-income homes.

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Reading is always a test of knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

The Importance of Teaching Content

by Guest Blogger
August 6th, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth 

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful — and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China — the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna — in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn’t necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that’s when I knew why the school’s third-grade reading improvement hadn’t translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.

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TV brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the “fourth-grade slump” of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother’s education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn’t so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it’s so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a “myth of education,” is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning.

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program — she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving — many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they’re looking for in Christodoulou’s article and book.

 

“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.

It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Cold, hard facts are what we get from ACT and Mathematica Policy Research. We learn (yet again) that there are massive disparities in preparation for college and kindergarten.

ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:

ACT 7-22-14 A

Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.

ACT 7-22-14 B

That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:

ACT 7-22-14 C

Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”

You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)

If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.

“May the Force be with you”

Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping

 

 

Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently

Vocabulary

That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.

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Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math

9.79

Advanced math

6.46

Basic reading

18.06

Advanced reading

11.41

To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math

186.18

Lessons on reading

292.33

Lessons on science

68.11

Lessons on social studies

74.74

You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.

Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2014

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.

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Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

For example, playing outside is the top priority: “By a wide margin, parents of 5-11 year olds identify playing outside (49%) as the most important activity they want their child to do this summer. Reading books (17%) takes second place, followed by: relax and take it easy (13%), improve athletic skills (10%), travel (4%), work at a summer job (1%), and other activities (6%).” If forced to choose, I would also rank playing outside #1 and reading #2; I was lucky enough to do both pretty much every day as a kid. But reality settles in when we look at how kids are actually spending their time: “Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer. This is lower than the time spent playing outdoors (16.7 hours), watching TV (10.8 hours), or playing video games (6.6 hours).” There’s a curmudgeonly voice in my head wondering how many of those outdoor hours were spent like this:

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“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

Six hours a week is definitely not enough time reading. Sadly, I think it shows how few children are finding books they love and having that magical experience of being absorbed in another world. With the right book, six hours a day doesn’t feel like enough. But according to the survey, I’m in the minority here: “Nearly six in ten parents of children age 5-11 say their child does just the right amount of reading during the summer (59%).”

But wait; it gets worse. There’s a 7% gap in what parents most want their sons and daughters to do over the summer. The number jumped out at me because 7% is the spread between female and male college degree attainment (i.e., in 2013, among 25- to 29-year-olds, 37% of females but only 30% of males had a bachelor’s). In this survey of parents, 7% is the pro-reading bias of parents for daughters (i.e., 21% of parents said reading was the most important activity for their daughters, but only 14% said as much for their sons). Coincidence? Only kinda sorta. There are stark differences in girls’ and boys’ summer activities: “Girls … spent an average of 6.6 hours per week reading books last summer, significantly higher than the average time spent by boys (5.2 hours). By contrast, boys spent an average of 8.0 hours per week playing video games last summer, compared to just 5.2 hours among girls.”

In discussions of the summer slide, most emphasis seems to be on the disparities between more- and less-advantaged children. That emphasis is necessary: while advantaged children tend to make gains in reading each summer, disadvantaged children tend to fall behind. Research shows these disparities to be due not just to differences in parenting, but also differences in the libraries and book stores available in different communities. What this parent survey shows is a need to also emphasize disparities between boys and girls. Hour after hour, summer after summer, boys are falling behind.