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.

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.)

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.

 

Reading Herman Melville Made Me a Better Teacher

by Guest Blogger
July 29th, 2014

By David O’Shell

David O’Shell is a middle school teacher in Maryland.

I have always wanted my students to be able to solve real problems in the world by relying on the abstract knowledge they have learned from me. I think this is central to what it means to be an educated person. It always has been. And I think no other writer has developed this notion of combining the ideal with the mundane in order to produce a complete individual more than Herman Melville. And this week, with Melville’s 195th birthday on Friday, I’m reminded that when I look out on my classroom, I see Melville and his world.

I see this in White Jacket, kind of an overture to Moby Dick, where Melville reveals this completed person to us in his lovely description of the Man of the Mast, as innocence and experience united: “You would almost think this old mastman had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of this old man’s mother when first she cried for the babe to be laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile immortality within” (649). Melville’s complete (or mostly complete) individual, Ishmael, Ahab, Bartleby, Israel Potter, will always have scars or wrinkles, a sunburn of the soul. But he will have these marks of experience in combination with a small candle within, by the light of which he can read these experiences.

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Being a teacher will mean that you meet some rough salts. I’ve taught kids without a home, who have attempted suicide, who are cruel or out of control. Other teachers have had much worse. How do you teach people like this? This is where teachers who work with tough kids scoff at tough standards.

Melville’s answer is to work with these people, as in work alongside them. This is Melville’s contribution of ideas to literature I find useful. His ideas are different from someone like Tolstoy, whose characters find enlightenment through a kind of volunteerism and cutting grass. Melville in democratic America had the opportunity to mix more evenly with people at the bottom. He comes through these experiences without sentimentalizing. Some of them are good fellows; some aren’t. It is in these situations, surrounded by the core of humanity in a microcosm, where we find ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This is what Melville’s books are made of.

Melville is unique in this way among writers in that he is both at the bottom and at the top. His aristocratic family lost everything, he worked on merchant, whaling, and navy ships, became a famous author, married wealth, and ran out of money and fame once again. As a teacher I have to find myself in the same place, as being both on the bottom with those I am working with and at the same time being of a tradition of high culture.

That’s why I am glad I had so many terrible jobs before I became a teacher. Working at Pittsburgh’s Original Hot Dog Shop and in roofing gave me the experience of being in the trenches with the kinds of people I help as a teacher. Having to defend myself rhetorically against three other roofers 90 feet in the air on a 15 degree pitch on why I believed “humans came from monkeys” well prepared me to face a group of 30 struggling students alone in a cramped classroom. Some of these experiences were good and some were bad, but I was able to take the most educative of them and read them by my inner candle.

Melville’s educated individual is one who has merged experience with what is native, innocent. Queequeg from Moby Dick thus typifies the Melvillian student: “Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (691). For Melville, man at his best is a book to be read, reread, and puzzled over: “Seat yourself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (670). Here you see the problem that the mass of mankind presents to us. From our experience with the mass, we can come back to our fire within and come to a better understanding of our own book. And as teachers we can see each student as an unread book.

I am one of those teachers to whom principals assign the difficult kids. It has been a surprise to me that over the years I have shown skill in working with the tough ones. I was never particularly popular in school. I certainly do not have charisma like Mr. Keating. I’m the kind of person you grow to like after a few months. Years. But I can be real with you when it is necessary. Any person who is interested in becoming a teacher should first go for being real. Melville and a sunburn are a good place to start.

Follow Dave O’Shell on Twitter @DavidJOShell.

Quotations from Moby Dick are from the 1992 Modern Library Edition. All other quotations are from the 3 vol. Library of America Melville collection.

Why My Brother’s Keeper Should Look to ACT and Common Core

by Lisa Hansel
June 3rd, 2014

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The Task Force’s 90-day report is impressive in terms of breadth and focus. At its heart are “six universal milestones” that “serve as the basis for the Task Force’s work and recommendations:”

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

One of the report’s best features is an explicit rejection of any silver-bullet solutions. As we all know, far too many of America’s boys of color face multi-faceted, severe challenges. Thankfully, the Task Force recognizes that viable solutions must be comprehensive, coordinated, and long term. Its recommendations reflect as much, and also a desire to “continue to listen, gather input, engage experts and stakeholders, [and] develop additional recommendations.”

Great! I have a recommendation: Learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, realize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to Common Core, which—if properly understood—offers sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are behind academically to catch up—and therefore how crucial it is to intervene early.

In his most recent brief, Dougherty shows that at least half of fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic and African American students in the states whose data he analyzed are not doing well in reading—and almost none who are doing poorly catch up by the end of high school. Using longitudinal student outcome data, ACT has established benchmark scores that indicate college readiness (or, for younger students, being on a trajectory to end high school college ready). Students who score at or above those benchmarks are “on track,” while students who score more than one standard deviation below them are “far off track.”

Drawing data from Dougherty’s new brief, let’s look at fourth-to-eighth-grade results in reading on ACT Explore.

Fourth graders
who are
“far off track”:

“Far off track” fourth graders who caught up by eight grade:

Non-low income:

29%

10%

Low income:

53%

6%

Hispanic:

56%

5%

African American:

64%

3%

Note: These data are from Arkansas and Kentucky; see the brief for details.

As Dougherty shows, the data tracking students from eighth grade to the end of high school are just as depressing. Worse, keep in mind that these results are for all students, boys and girls. Girls tend to do better in reading than boys. In draft working papers, Dougherty and his colleagues have broken out results by gender, finding an even great challenge for My Brother’s Keeper (and all of us).

Knowing that being ready for college means having acquired an enormous store of academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills, Dougherty’s first recommendation for school and district leaders is to:

Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. Ensure that all students receive a content- and vocabulary-rich curriculum beginning in the early years, spanning a range of subject areas including not only English language arts and mathematics, but also science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts…. Such a curriculum—the basis for preparing students long term for college, careers, and informed citizenship—is valuable for all students but is likely to be especially beneficial for students from at-risk demographic groups, who are more likely to arrive from home with limited knowledge and vocabulary.

Let’s assume the Task Force heeds Dougherty’s advice and adds “Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades” to its list of recommendations. Where could it find out what that looks like? The Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy. Not in the individual standards, but in the narrative that accompanies the standards. There, the Task Force will find something absolutely essential, but so far missing from its report: an understanding that reading comprehension comes not just from mastering reading skills, but also from learning a great deal of academic subject matter and vocabulary.

The Task Force emphasizes having parents talk to their children more (and in more encouraging ways), improving reading skills instruction, and having children read more. These are necessary but insufficient recommendations. To accelerate knowledge and vocabulary acquisition, which will greatly increase the odds of meeting the Task Force’s milestones, parents and educators need to be as efficient as possible and start as early as possible.

The Common Core explains how. Start with the standards’ research appendix:

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…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks.

Then, take a look at Common Core’s blueprint for a coherent course of study in K–5, where we learn that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period.” Even better, we learn how to build knowledge before children can read: “Children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing.”

Everyone on the Task Force is busy, so I’ll boil it down. Parents shouldn’t just talk more; they should also read aloud more. And parents and teachers shouldn’t read aloud just one book on a topic; they should pick a topic and spend a couple of weeks reading aloud and discussing several books on that topic. If they do, many more boys of color will enter school ready to learn and will read at grade level.

 

Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

by Guest Blogger
March 11th, 2014

By Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher in California. This post originally appeared on his blog: www.paul-bruno.com.

There is a famous joke about the way economists often undermine the usefulness of their conclusions by making too many simplifying assumptions. Here’s one of the older formulations:

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!

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(Imaginary can opener courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s probably not fair to pick on economists in this way when the abuse of simplifying assumptions is at least as widespread in education.

For instance, arguably the trendiest thing going in education today is ‘grit‘: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”.

We all agree, I suspect, that a tendency to persevere is desirable, and that we should prefer that students have more of that tendency than less of it. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the term was popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth many teachers and schools have begun reorganizing their work to better promote and instill ‘grit’ in their students.

And yet, here’s Duckworth being interviewed by Alexander Russo last month:

Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
AI don’t know that anybody’s totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That’s why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we’re organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It’s not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world’s leading expert on grit is saying that educators who are substantially altering their work to better teach grit are doing so without much in the way of scientific backing or guidance.

In other words, in their excitement over grit many teachers and school leaders have simply assumed – without justification – that it is a trait that can be taught and that they know how to teach it.

This is by no means a problem limited to grit. Before grit it was “21st century skills“, “social-emotional learning”, “critical thinking”, or “scientific thinking”. What unites these fads is that they all, to varying degrees, suffer from a lack of rigorous scientific evidence indicating that they can be taught at all, let alone that we have reliable ways of teaching them in schools. (“Fluid intelligence” may be next.)

Meanwhile, we have good evidence indicating that schools today are reasonably – if imperfectly – effective at teaching kids the less-glamorous knowledge and skills – e.g., in math, science, and history – that we associate with “traditional” education.

So while it’s a good idea for researchers and educators to experiment with methods for teaching other, “higher-order” or “non-cognitive” abilities, it’s also important to remember that it is probably premature to ask schools to move away from their core competencies if we can’t also give them a clear alternate path forward.

 

Must-Read: Sol Stern’s Quest to Improve His Sons’ Education

by Lisa Hansel
December 10th, 2013

Over at City Journal, Sol Stern has yet another terrific article—perhaps his best—on the importance of a content-rich, coherent education. Here are some of my favorite passages:

E. D. Hirsch is the most important education reformer of the past half-century. I came to this conclusion after writing about schools, teachers, and education policy for almost two decades. But the truth is, I first turned to Hirsch’s writing for practical and personal reasons. I was baffled by the educational practices I witnessed at PS 87, the famous New York City public school my sons attended from 1987 to 1997….

Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, PS 87 is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side…. I soon received a crash course in educational progressivism….

The most troubling thing I discovered was that PS 87’s children were taught almost nothing about such foundational subjects as the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and the Civil War. I can still vividly recall a conversation with my younger son and several of his classmates when they were in the fourth grade. I innocently asked what, if anything, they knew about the famous Union commander for whom their school was named. They gave me blank stares. After more inquiry, I realized that not only hadn’t the children been taught about the brave soldier who delivered the final blow to the slaveholders’ empire; they also knew almost nothing about the Civil War.

More disturbing was what PS 87’s principal said when I informed him of my conversation with my son and his classmates. “It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” he granted, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”…

Tired of the self-serving rationalizations offered by the school principal, I was desperate for an independent explanation of what was happening in PS 87’s classrooms. I found it in Hirsch’s first two education books, published during that period. After reading Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), I felt that Hirsch was accurately describing PS 87’s instructional culture, without ever having stepped foot in the school. Hirsch convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good….

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading. In The Schools We Need, Hirsch suggested that the education reform he advocated—a content-rich curriculum—had become the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before politicians of both parties began using that phrase….

“American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world,” Hirsch wrote in 1989. “But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above all, elementary schooling.” This was Hirsch’s portrait of American K-12 education almost a quarter-century ago. Remarkably, that grim assessment remains true today. According to a recent report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year [1971].” There have been some improvements in reading and math scores in the lower grades, but these gains aren’t significant if they disappear in high school and if students entering college or the workforce—the end product of the public school system—need remediation in reading and writing.

Reading as a Second Life: Why Classic Lit Matters for Teachers

by Guest Blogger
September 10th, 2013

By Dave O’Shell

Dave O’Shell is a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Wood Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. He has been teaching for seven years and blogs about education at thelivingteacher.com.

Artwork courtesy of Shutterstock.

At 32 I am finding that I am really only good at one thing. I can teach early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better. That’s it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now in a middle school outside of D.C., teaching at a suburban school that is actually pretty diverse. My school is a lot of rich and poor, kids of parents with PhD’s and kids whose parents don’t speak English. And I want to argue that there are some classic works of fiction that can help a developing teacher connect with his or her students and with the world of learning.

Classic literature is crucial to growing an individual. Certain texts have not only inspired hundreds of thousands of fortunate readers to grow, they have grown with humanity; they have been read, reread, and reevaluated.

I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics. This is a problem because a grounding in classic works in the humanities is essential for success in teaching. Teaching is the most human profession; no other occupation involves such a basic I-thou relationship on a day to day basis.

Now, teaching in a middle school is a fairly grounding experience. There is no forgetting that you are in the world, living among people. You’re not among the celestial spheres. Yet there is no text that comes to mind more often in my everyday experience as a middle school English teacher than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central theme in the novel is the dynamic between one’s inner life (peace) and one’s relation to the rest of the world (war). The characters in the novel, particularly Andrei and Pierre, develop as individuals by wrestling with their inner and outer worlds. Andrei is steeped in the bureaucracy of the military. He struggles to put forward his battle plans to General Kutuzov, only to find scores of others like him with equally ingenious battle plans equally useless in the chaos of war. His outer life is stopped suddenly on the battlefield (a famous scene in the novel) when he has a quiet moment—really a near-death experience—contemplating the sky as he is surrounded by smoke, gunfire, and shouting. These kinds of moments abound in Tolstoy’s works, where characters’ inner lives are suddenly and profoundly confronted with the world.

A teacher will inevitably face these same moments on the battlefield, these experiences where strategy meets the human heart.

William James calls this a mystical experience, essential for real change in an individual. I saw this last year in one of my students, we’ll call him Brian, whom I was working with and cleaning out the nightmare that was his school binder. I was lecturing him on throwing away papers he didn’t need, like the Edgar Allan Poe packet we finished last quarter. Throw it away!  “Oh,” he said, “I keep that in there ‘cause I like to read some of the poems to my sister before she goes to bed.” Suddenly your student’s humanity becomes so real before you. He stops becoming these lists of issues for you to solve, test scores and observable behaviors. He becomes real in his beauty and limitations. Teaching is filled with these kinds of Tolstoy moments, these dialectics of care and ambition.

Hamlet is essential reading in contemplating the limitations of our own intellect. This model of education is useful to the teacher. It isn’t so much that we must see in the mundane aspects of managing a classroom a direct relationship between Hamlet and teaching. There is no bard in signing a pass for the nurse. It is rather that we are able to maintain our why in teaching. In the guidance I give to my students in their reading and writing, in the conferences I give surrounding the work in their portfolios, Hamlet is present. He is present because I see that students have a desire to become educated. What does this mean? It means, for them, becoming an Odysseus, always having an answer, not being the fool Hamlet pretends at being (“I’m reading words,” a student with might say to me with a sneer); it means not being a pedantic nerd like Polonius who can’t get through a sentence without commenting on his own phrasing. Hamlet’s tragedy, like the tragedy of many of our students who (wrongly) believe that hard work will not increase their intelligence, is that learning cannot make an individual perfect. There is only so much we can promise our students they will get from schooling. It’s up to them to eventually make their schooling count toward something meaningful.

The third book I would put into the hands of an aspiring teacher, if I were limited to only three, would be Don Quixote. The relation between Sancho and the Knight of the Sad Face mirrors the student-teacher dynamic better than any other model. Quixote demands that his world adhere to the laws of chivalry. When he sets out in seek of adventure, an adventure must present itself within a few pages or else. Or else windmills will become giants, flocks of sheep will become warring armies, and a traveling lady will become a kidnapped princess. And when it becomes clear that the windmills are not giants, then a magician must be invented to explain their transformation.

Sancho is the real and Quixote is the imagined. Sancho is also a student and Quixote is his teacher. A teacher wants the world to fit into his notion of the law of meritocracy. The teacher’s job is to dream for the student. Just as Quixote knows Sancho cannot buy fully into the dream of chivalry, he must promise Sancho an island. We as teachers promise our students an island named College, though how they will govern this island will be up to them to learn. We dream for them and they return reality for us to modify our dream.

I would argue that any text that can best grow us is best in preparing those whose job will be to create future heroes. Melville’s radical individual, Ahab, has a lot to teach us. John Milton was at heart a great teacher, a schoolmaster of the world, and reminds us that the world and its inhabitants need fixing. James Joyce, great hero of learnedness and great reader of Dante, demonstrated how the world is united in history and language in every moment of every uttered word. Joyce is a good conveyance to talking about the oral tradition in non-Western cultures and how their narratives unite them with the world. And finally I will pass over in silence the Koran, the Thousand and One Nights, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other non-Western texts I have not yet mastered and which perhaps constitute further reaches of the teacher’s stars to steer by.

My students do not wrestle with these great works in sixth grade, it’s more of a thumb war with some Shakespeare right now, but I hope that when they become grown men and women that they will see these works as mysteries, as a kind of mystery that is not solved, but lived. Thus we gain a kind of second life from books. It is knowing many lives and worlds through reading, combined with authentic life experiences (falling in love, having a child, failing, succeeding) that make us fuller persons. The work of a teacher is to grow young people. Pedagogy, methods, observation, reflection, and all of the practices in place are important to becoming a teacher. But it is personal growth in one’s life and one’s second life through literature that makes a great teacher, because teaching results from living.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 1

by Guest Blogger
August 12th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

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

 

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817

 

As a special education teacher in the Bronx, I have worked in self-contained and inclusive settings, first in an elementary, and now, in a middle school. I welcome the Common Core standards as beneficial to transforming practice in my school and classroom, and have worked to interpret them as a NYC Common Core ELA Fellow, as well as create curriculum and materials aligned to them within my own school, and with other teachers across the nation as part of the 2013 LearnZillion “Dream Team.”

I believe that the adoption of the Common Core standards has provided us with a golden window of opportunity for engaging and challenging our students with rich content, empowering teachers as scholars and content experts, and establishing a modicum of academic coherency in classrooms across our nation.

Here’s how we can all too easily squander this great opportunity:

  • Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant.
  • Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.
  • Infantilizing teachers.

If we perpetuate these three practices, then the Common Core will do little to transform much of anything.

Right now the Common Core standards stand at a pivotal moment, as they move from grand vision into the classroom and from rhetoric into curriculum. In this and two blog posts to follow, let’s examine the three missteps noted above in greater depth, and consider how we can correct them before it is too late.

Mistake #1: Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant

By political necessity, the Common Core generally avoid specifying what content should be taught in literacy, beyond providing a general directive to teach “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.” However, the great shift that the standards make is that they put a strong focus on what they term “text complexity.”

Appendix A of the Common Core literacy standards is integral to understanding this shift, and well worth analyzing. In an outline of research supporting a call for complex text, for example, the authors note that “what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who [scored well on ACT tests] from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts.”

So, big surprise: skills—such as inferencing, using context clues, or finding the main idea—are secondary to a student’s ability to deeply comprehend the content of what is read.

Where does such deep comprehension of a complex text arise? Again, let’s turn to Appendix A on this:

A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself. This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas. (Bold added)

Eloquently put. Deep comprehension of complex texts arises from knowledge. What is powerful about such a focus on knowledge-rich complex texts is that this represents a major shift in current teaching practice. In many elementary schools across our nation, teachers train their students to select “just right” books for independent reading each day. A “just right” book is a book that a child can read on his or her own with relative ease. When a book is selected by the teacher for sharing with the whole class, it is often simply as a prop for the demonstration and modeling of a given skill. Students are mostly expected to utilize class time reading books at their independent reading level.

While the idea that students pick and read books that match their interest and ability sounds like good practice, in reality, what is lost over the long-term is the cultivation of a coherent body of knowledge, in addition to academic discipline. Given the great weight of English Language Arts (ELA) in elementary school, and the time thus allotted to skills-based reading, students end up getting passed from grade to grade without any sort of cumulative base of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, too many students arrive at our middle schools, high schools, and colleges with little understanding of literature, their nation and its place in the world, or the historical context of scientific discovery.

That the Common Core standards are now asking teachers to make more careful and rigorous text selections based on complexity and knowledge is therefore momentous. That this is even momentous, however, is disheartening, as even this shift remains a half-measure.

Appendix A outlines factors that must be considered in the selection of a complex text for a given grade level: qualitative factors, quantitative factors, and reader and task considerations. The reality, however, is that texts that will build student knowledge and understanding of literature and of the world are more than a set of qualitative and quantitative factors. A literary text should be selected with an eye toward its place in literary history.

It should be obvious, however, that for the Common Core standards to specify what texts or authors should be foundational or essential to a given literary or historical epoch, beyond its already vague gestures at classic myths and Shakespeare, would be political suicide. The writers of Common Core acknowledged this limitation when they cautioned that the standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.” It is therefore up to teachers and curriculum designers to select texts that they believe will cumulatively build student understanding of literary history and domain-specific knowledge.

This is where effective implementation of the Common Core is in most danger. Most teachers, schools, and the consultants who support them are accustomed to skills-based teaching. Furthermore, the development or adoption of a coherent, thoughtfully sequenced curriculum is unfortunately not a priority in most American public schools.

The writers of the standards made it clear that curriculum is the key to effective implementation when they stated that the standards must “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document” (bold added).

They furthermore note that a foundation of knowledge across different domains is required to become strong readers, and that “students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (bold added).

Such a curricular foundation is not haphazard. According to the standards, “Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students” (bold added).

This careful selection of rich texts that will systematically build student knowledge within specific domains thus requires a momentous shift in practice for classroom teachers and their schools.

Here is one simple short-term measure we could take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not retain its dominance in the classroom:

  • Common Core-aligned assessments should select texts that explicitly demand knowledge of literature and of the world.

Test makers could broadcast the pool of texts that might be selected for a given test a year before the tests would be administered. For example, if a 6th grade teacher knew that students might be tested on passages from Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the United States Constitution, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then chances are probably much greater that the teacher will spend time studying those works, the historical epochs in which they were written, and the authors who wrote them, as opposed to teaching isolated skills such as how to find the main idea or how to make an inference.

One long-term measure we can take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not remain predominant:

  • Assess curriculum and consultancy programs by how well they build domain-specific knowledge both horizontally (across content areas by grade level) and vertically (sequentially by grade).

Curriculum programs and consultants to schools have been given a free pass in this area for far too long. If we know that “knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability,” then it is unconscionable that we should allow the cultivation of knowledge to continue to be treated haphazardly, or as a consideration of secondary importance, by any school curriculum.

In my next two posts, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the two other mistakes—placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA and infantilizing teachers.

Teaching with Informational Text: Historic Newspapers from the Library of Congress

by Guest Blogger
August 1st, 2013

By Stephen Wesson

Earlier this week, the Core Knowledge Blog explained the need to guide students’ online research and highlighted the Library of Congress’s Primary Source Sets. In this post, which originally appeared on Teaching with the Library of Congress, Stephen Wesson offers ideas for engaging, Common Core-aligned lessons based on historical newspapers. Stephen Wesson is an educational resource specialist at the Library of Congress with extensive experience in education media. 

 

The St. Paul Daily Globe, November 11, 1887

 

Here’s a question for anyone teaching with informational text, including teachers working to meet Common Core State Standards:

Where can you find a wide range of authors writing from varied points of view, making arguments with appeals to evidence, rich with rhetorical strategies and figurative language, often using a number of different media, all in one package? In historic newspapers, that’s where.

Newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries are rich sources of informational text in a dizzying array of formats. In a typical paper from 1900, you might find factual reporting, fire-breathing editorials, biographical profiles, literary nonfiction, weather reports, box scores, charts, graphs, maps, cartoons, and a poem about current events—maybe even all on the same page! The subjects covered allow for connections across the curriculum, and the stories can prompt explorations of point of view, interpretation of language, analysis of an argument, and textual structure.

An easy way to dive deep into historic newspapers is to explore Chronicling America on the Library’s Web site, where you’ll find free access to millions of historic American newspaper pages from 1836-1922. (The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog has written about Chronicling America in a previous post.)

The Topics in Chronicling America list lets teachers quickly find a number of articles on a single topic, such as the Haymarket Affair of 1886, and make comparisons between coverage in a number of papers from around the country, or even within a single newspaper.

  • Ask students to select an article that makes a strong argument, such as “Chicago’s Wild Mobs” or “A Human Tiger.” Challenge students to identify the specific claims the article makes, and to see if each claim is backed by at least one piece of evidence. How does the amount of evidence cited change students’ ideas of a particular article’s authority?
  • Find two articles from different newspapers that express very different points of view on a single issue or event, like “Great Day for Labor” and “Mob Violence Feared.” Encourage your students to compare and contrast the methods used by the two writers to make their case. Do they cite different evidence? Or do they use different persuasive techniques?
  • Newspapers of 100 years ago were full of cartoons, maps, portraits, and other visual elements. Select a visual, and ask students to compare it with a newspaper text account of the same event. (For Haymarket, they might compare “The First Dynamite Bomb Thrown in America” with “The Anarchists’ Lives.”) What does each medium do better than the other? How much more convincing do your students find one or the other?

How have you used historic newspapers to help your students explore informational text?

 

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette, November 12, 1887