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.


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:



Low income:






African American:



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”!


(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


Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader?

by Lisa Hansel
March 25th, 2013

It’s all hands on deck right now at the Core Knowledge Foundation, where we are putting the final touches on the third-grade materials for the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. So, I spent the weekend helping in the one way I can—last-minute proofing of the teacher read-alouds that are the heart of the Listening and Learning strand. (There are two strands in CKLA: Skills, with decoding, encoding, grammar, etc., and Listening and Learning, with knowledge- and vocabulary-building read-alouds, discussions, activities, etc.).

I learned about gills, Hernando de Soto, light waves, Mississippian Mound Builders, the cerebellum, Leif Eriksson, why Mr. Toad of Toad Hall really should not have a motorcar, and more.

That may sound like too much for third graders—and it was a bit much for the weekend. But the program is so well organized, with one idea building on another, that it clearly would not be too much for a school year. (You don’t have to trust me on that; pilots of CKLA went very well.)

You see, the read-alouds are grouped into domains, so I got to stay on a topic for a while. Third graders get about 10 to 15 days of instruction for each domain, and they enjoy a series of 10 or so read-alouds in each domain. Lesson by lesson, the read-alouds slowly become more complex. I only got about 2 to 3 hours to read each domain, which is not ideal for actually learning the material—but it was ideal for noticing the many, many ways that the read-alouds build on each other within and across domains.

Here’s the list of third-grade domains:

1. Classic Tales: The Wind in the Willows

2. Classification of Animals

3. The Human Body: Systems and Senses

4. The Ancient Roman Civilization

5. Light and Sound

6. The Viking Age

7. Astronomy: Our Solar System and Beyond

8. Native Americans: Regions and Cultures

9. European Exploration of North America

10. Colonial America

11. Ecology

I won’t go through all the ways the read-alouds in these domains build on each other; that would take, well, days. But here’s an example. In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary. As E. D. Hirsch explained recently in City Journal, vocabulary (and the concepts the words represent) is best learned by inferring meanings through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

Kids really do have an extraordinary ability to learn—so please, let’s stop mistaking ignorant for incapable. In an article on developmentally appropriate practice, Daniel Willingham explained that even very young children can handle academic content—if it is presented in a way that respects where they are starting from and builds the knowledge they need. He wrote, “Recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate. If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of background knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children.” In CKLA, no academic content is off limits—but it is very carefully broken down and sequenced so that children can absorb it.

So, are you smarter than a CKLA third grader? Probably. But does your (or your children’s) third-grade education compare favorably with the one offered by CKLA? Probably not. That’s why I’m so excited about this program becoming available this summer. It will be posted online for free, and those who want it professionally printed will be able to buy it.

As a final thought, I have to say that “smarter” is the right word in the question “Are you smarter than a third grader?” In my last issue of American Educator, I published an article by Richard Nisbett, a leading intelligence researcher, who explained that when you know more, you really are smarter. Wrapping up a summary of the research on increases in IQ scores over the past several decades, he wrote: “A child who can tell you why houses are numbered consecutively, or why doctors go back and get more education, is smarter than a child who can’t tell you these things. A child with a bigger vocabulary is a child with more concepts to work with—and therefore really is smarter.”

Glad to have spent my weekend growing smarter—and taking a step toward all children having the opportunity to do the same.


Connecting the Dots on Equity

by Lisa Hansel
March 13th, 2013

As a young child, I loved those connect-the-dots coloring books. Searching for the next number was sometimes tough (but not too tough) and it was fun to watch the picture emerge from what was, just a few minutes before, a messy array dots.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently as I’ve read, and read the buzz about, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” a.k.a. the equity commission report. The dots are there—but they aren’t connected. They aren’t even numbered. And there sure isn’t a full-color picture of equity and excellence.

The report does highlight serious problems. One in particular—the lack of common curriculum—caught my attention: “unlike in America, teachers in high-performing countries can draw on common instructional materials aligned with rigorous, national curriculum frameworks that all students are expected to master and that form the basis of teacher development and training” (p. 22). A crucial difference between these national curriculum frameworks and the Common Core State Standards is that the frameworks specify lots of academic content knowledge that students must acquire. This content adds depth to teacher training and enables more meaningful teacher collaboration (Japanese lesson study comes to mind).

The members of the equity commission are obviously sympathetic to the benefits of common core curriculum, yet our tradition of local control seems to make enacting such a thing, even on the state level, unthinkable.

Still, the report makes plenty of solid recommendations (i.e., gap-closing early childhood education, the steps necessary to mitigate the effects of poverty, and more). It just doesn’t help us figure out where to start or offer a picture of our destination.

But Jeffrey Litt does.

In an Education Trust webinar yesterday, Jeffrey Litt explained how he turned around P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx, and then went on to help create and lead the highly successful Icahn Charter Schools, also in the Bronx.

When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:

The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.

Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:

The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.

Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Litt may call Core Knowledge the equalizer, but in fact it’s Core Knowledge in the hands of dedicated, collaborative educators that connects the dots on equity and excellence. Just in case your picture isn’t colored in yet, here’s one more lesson from Litt:

Many people say all children can learn. Well that’s true. But a parakeet can learn too. We look for people who believe that children can excel.

Research Revolution

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
March 6th, 2013

In the spirit of blogdom, I’ll try to make this one as reader-friendly as I can—even though it’s going to deal with research on raising language abilities.

My chief gripe with a lot of educational research is its lack of coordination with cognitive science taken as a whole. For instance, in my last blog, which suggested that we spend more time learning about specific domains of knowledge (and the Tier 3 words that go with them) and less time learning domain-general words, I deliberately refrained from criticizing the research that has persuaded so many textbooks and teachers and to focus on Tier 2, domain-general words. My main criticism of that research is that it doesn’t fit with the totality of what other researchers—mainly cognitive scientists—have learned about language growth. I didn’t stress that critique. I did not want to attack the work of serious scholars whom I like and respect.

But what the heck; a lot is at stake in the way English language arts (ELA) teachers spend their classroom time, especially in the critical early years, and when so much class time—two hours a day in many schools—is being devoted to ELA.


Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written an exemplary book about the skeptical ways teachers should look at research claims.  I wish all teachers and administrators would read it. It would save them a lot of wasted energy and disappointments. But there’s another kind of skepticism that only experts in a field are able to muster, and that’s when some research findings don’t quite fit the body of relevant research taken as a whole. That is what’s wrong with the current widespread emphasis on the explicit study of Tier 2 words. Research does show that students learn more of such words when they study them. (Surprise?) But that research hasn’t answered one obvious question: Could even more progress be made by spending class time in quite a different way? Being in my ninth decade, and having been interested in this topic for at least six of those decades, I have studied a wide range of psycholinguistic research. My hunch about the answer to that question is: Yes, there are far better and faster ways to induce language growth in our students.

In this blog, I want to discuss three kinds of research from the field of psycholinguistics that elevate my hunch to a good bet. There probably are methods that promise much faster growth than focusing too much on Tier 2 words and other aspects of language that are not specific to any particular domain.


(1) Pride of place should go to the work of John Guthrie at the University of Maryland. For many years he and his colleagues have sponsored studies of a method he calls “Concept Oriented Reading Instruction”—CORI for short—whose methods have shown outstanding language gains by focusing ELA classes on academic subject matter for extended periods of time. Using control groups, and rather high experimental standards, he has shown that focusing on actual knowledge domains increases student interest, motivation, general vocabulary, and ability to read strategically.

Guthrie and his work are highly respected among educational researchers, but have had little widespread impact on textbooks or classroom practice. Here’s an early study showing CORI to be superior to traditional instruction and a later one showing CORI to be superior to both strategy instruction and traditional instruction.

(2) Another important line of research in the same vein has been led by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. They have been interested, like Guthrie, in how a durable focus on specific domains of knowledge can increase language growth across domains, especially when developed through computer-assisted “knowledge communities.” Their work has emphasized listening and speaking as much as reading (which is important because research has shown that listening and speaking have significant educative value). One study, in which students studied several topics (including plants, light, and medieval times) over four semesters in grades 3 and 4, found an impressive pattern of vocabulary growth. As the chart below shows, not only were students using lots of new words, in the 3rd and 4th semesters—when the students were in 4th grade—more than half of their new words were above grade level:

(3)  For my last example, I cite a recent research report from Diana AryaElfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson—all distinguished scholars. I mention it last, not just because it’s the most recent, but also because it helps put the other research findings in a larger context. What was most impressive about this research was that it surprised the researchers—often a mark of significant work. Here’s how the researchers summarized their hypotheses and results:

The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.

Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….

Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs. A possible explanation is that prior knowledge of vocabulary, rather than any established index of word frequency, determines how difficult a lexically complex text will be for a student.

These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the “right” reading level of a text for a child.

On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out. It fits with findings by researchers such as Walter KintschThomas LandauerDonna Recht, and Wolfgang Schneider that prior knowledge of and familiarity with a topic, as well as context, trump vocabulary level and verbal strategies in language comprehension.

Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.

This kind of finding further fits with the student progress reported by Guthrie, Scardamalia, and their colleagues, for it suggests that when students stay on a specific domain long enough to become familiar with it, then their domain-general language abilities increase remarkably. They correctly guess the meanings of words they have not seen before; they disentangle complicated syntax much more readily, and thus learn its more general conventions. In short, the study by Arya, et al., strongly reinforces the general principle that the way to make fast progress in language growth is to study specific domains and thus their words more than domain-general words. (Of course, language is a domain highly worthy of study, too.)

Needless to say, the implications of these studies reach well beyond my prior blog about preferring instruction in domain-specific Tier 3 words. That was another way of preferring the study of specific domains; there’s no good way of learning a domain without learning its terms, and vice versa.

Taken as a whole, the three lines of research I just summarized recommend a revolution in the way we try to foster language growth. The language class needs to become a knowledge class, and it needs to stay on topic long enough to induce domain familiarity. There’s no inherent reason why all 3rd and 4th graders should not experience the rapid, above grade level vocabulary growth reflected in the chart above, which, best of all, includes kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, if you stay on a topic long enough, disadvantaged children will gain topic familiarity also, and begin to catch up.

Blame the Tests

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 15th, 2013

In Praise of Samuel Messick 1931–1998, Part III

The chief practical impact of NCLB has been its principle of accountability. Adequate yearly progress, the law stated, must be determined by test scores in reading and math—not just for the school as a whole, but for key groups of students.

Now, a decade later, the result of the law, as many have complained, has been a narrowing of the school curriculum. In far too many schools,  the arts and humanities, and even science and civics, have been neglected—sacrificed on the altar of tests  without any substantial progress nationwide on the tests themselves. It is hard to decide whether to call NCLB a disaster or a catastrophe.

But I disagree with those who blame this failure on the accountability principle of NCLB. The law did not specify what tests in reading and math the schools were to use. If the states had responded with valid tests—defined by Messick as tests that are both accurate and have a productive effect on practice—the past decade would have seen much more progress.

Since NCLB, NAEP’s long-term trend assessment shows substantial increases in reading among the lowest-performing 9-year-olds—but nothing comparable in later grades. It also shows moderate increases in math among 9- and 13-year-olds.

So, it seems that a chief educational defect of the NCLB era lay in the later-grades reading tests; they simply do not have the same educational validity of the tests in early grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math.


It’s not very hard to make a verbal test that predicts how well a person will be able to read. One accurate method used by the military is the two-part verbal section of the multiple-choice Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which is known for its success in accurately predicting real-world competence. One section of the AFQT Verbal consists of 15 items based on short paragraphs on different subjects and in different styles to be completed in 13 minutes.  The other section of the AFQT Verbal is a vocabulary test with 35 items to be completed in 11 minutes. This 24-minute test predicts as well as any verbal test the range of your verbal abilities, your probable job competence and your future income level. It is a short, cheap and technically valid test. Some version of it could even serve as a school-leaving test.

Educators would certainly protest if that were done—if only because such a test would give very little guidance for classroom practice or curriculum. And this is the nub of the defects in the reading tests used during the era of NCLB: They did not adequately support curriculum and classroom practice. The tests in early-grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math did a better job of inducing productive classroom practice, and their results show it.

Early-grades reading tests, as Joseph Torgesen and his colleagues showed, probe chiefly phonics and fluency, not comprehension. Schools are now aware that students will be tested on phonics and fluency in early grades. In fact, these crucial early reading skills are among the few topics for which recent (pre-Common Core) state standards had begun to be highly specific. These more successful early reading tests were thus different from later ones in a critical respect:  They actually tested what students were supposed to be taught.

Hence in early reading, to its credit, NCLB induced a much greater correlation than before between standards, curriculum, teaching and tests. The tests became more valid in practice because they induced teachers to teach to a test based on a highly specific subject matter—phonics and fluency. Educators and policymakers recognized that teaching swift decoding was essential in the early grades, tests assessed swift decoding, and—mirabile dictu—there was an uptick in scores on those tests.

Since the improvements were impressive, let’s take a look at what has happened in over the past decade among the lowest performing 9-year-olds on NAEP’s long-term trend assessment in reading.

Note that there is little to no growth among higher-performing 9-year-olds, presumably because they had already mastered phonics and fluency.

Similarly, early- and middle-grades math tests probed substantive grade-by-grade math knowledge, as the state standards had become ever more specific in math. You can see where I’m going: Early reading and math improved because teachers typically teach to the tests (especially under NCLB-type accountability pressures), and the subject matter of these tests began to be more and more defined and predictable, causing a collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice.

In later-grades reading tests, where we have failed to improve, the tests have not been based on any clear, specific subject matter, so it has been impossible to teach to the tests in a productive way. (The lack of alignment between math course taking and the NAEP math assessment for 17-year-olds is similarly problematic.) Of course, there are many reasons why achievement might not rise. But specific subject matter, both taught and tested, is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for test scores to rise.

In the absence of any specific subject matter for language arts, teachers, textbook makers, and test makers have conceived of reading comprehension as a strategy rather than as a side effect of broad knowledge. This inadequate strategy approach to language arts is reflected in the tests themselves. I have read many of them.  An inevitable question is something like this: “The main idea of this passage is….” And the theory behind such a question is that what is being tested is the ability of the student to strategize the meaning by “questioning the author” and performing other puzzle-solving techniques to get the right answer. But, as readers of this blog know, that is not what is being tested. The subject matter of the passage is.

This mistaken strategy-focused structure has made these tests not only valueless educationally, but worse—positively harmful. Such tests send out the misleading message that reading comprehension is chiefly strategizing. That idea has dominated language arts instruction in the past decade, which means that a great deal of time has been misspent on fruitless test-taking activities. Tragically, that time could have been spent on science, humanities and the arts—subjects that would have actually increased reading abilities (and been far more interesting).

The only way that later-grades reading tests can be made educationally valid is by adopting the more successful structure followed in early reading and math. An educationally valid test must be based on the specific substance that is taught at the grade level being tested (possibly with some sampling of specifics from previous and later grades for remediation and acceleration purposes). Testing what has been taught is the only way to foster collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice. An educationally valid reading test requires a specific curriculum—a subject of further conversations, no doubt.