Netflix Academy: A Magical Introduction to Core Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
September 16th, 2013

You might know the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli as a thought-provoking policy wonk and influential writer, but that’s not what makes him stand out. Above all else, Mike’s a great dad—one who struggles with making the best decisions for his kids and with helping all kids have similar educational opportunities.

Now, he needs your help.

Using the Core Knowledge Sequence as a guide to essential content, Petrilli has started a yearlong project to identify the best scientific, historical, and literary videos for kids. Set aside your favorite expensive or hard-to-find videos; Petrilli’s “Netflix Academy” is all about widely accessible works—those that, as he writes, “anyone with an $8/month Netflix subscription, or a $79/year Amazon Prime subscription, could instantaneously stream.”

(Young boy’s virtual safari courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Petrilli got the idea over the summer while watching the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons (ages five and three). He explains:

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years. This is why the Common Core State Standards call for a rigorous, coherent curriculum that offers a healthy diet of content knowledge—that’s the key to becoming a great reader, and an enthusiastic learner.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, for instance, my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.)….

Of course, five-year-olds have loved dinosaurs for decades, Netflix or not, but the power of cinematography to bring the subject alive is just this side of magic.

Watching with dad is magic too. But far too many dads (and moms and teachers) don’t have time to research how to make the best use of their kids’ screen time. We can all help.

Take a look at Petrilli’s posts thus far, and please use the comments section (here and/or on Petrilli’s site) to add your favorite videos:

Introduction and selected topics:


America’s founders and founding ideas:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Common Core standards have recognized this research finding. They state that these standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” And they add: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Well said! And we have to take care that the schools and the experts hear and act on that truth. Parents and concerned citizens should make sure that they do.

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

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

Talk to Me Baby

by Lisa Hansel
April 11th, 2013

“Annette, you make sure you talk to that baby.” Annette is my mother, and the quote is from my step-grandmother, Eva. Neither one had ever heard of any language or literacy research, but they shared essential wisdom about how to raise children. My mother knew the importance not just of talking to her children, but of reading aloud to them. Having educated herself by reading the canon, she also had good taste in books.

The first book I can distinctly recall her reading to me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I was six and we had recently moved. I don’t know how many weeks of bedtime reading it took, but I know that by the end I did not find my new room so scary. If you’re wondering: no, I did not understand every scene in the book. But that did not matter; I had a wonderful (if partially made up) storyline running in my mind and I enjoyed the time snuggled up to mom. And yes, there were hundreds of children’s books in the house—but, for the most part, I had to read them to myself.

All that Little Women did for me came to mind as I eagerly read Tina Rosenberg’s piece on yesterday’s New York Times Opinionater. She provides a must-read look at a new program designed to minimize the achievement gap between poor and privileged children. Called Providence Talks, it sounds very promising:

The city plans to begin enrolling families in January, 2014, and hopes to eventually reach about 2,000 new families each year, said Mayor Angel Taveras. It will most likely work with proven home-visitation programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership. The visitors will show poor families with very young children how to use the recorders, and ask them to record one 16-hour day each month.

Every month they will return to share information about the results and specific strategies for talking more: how do you tell your baby about your day? What’s the best way to read to your toddler? They will also talk about community resources, like read-aloud day at the library. And they will work with the family to set goals for next month. The city also hopes to recruit some of the mothers and fathers as peer educators.

Providence Talks is designed to prevent the 30-million word gap identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their seminal study:

Our ambition was to record “everything” that went on in children’s homes—everything that was done by the children, to them, and around them…. We decided to start when the children were 7-9 months old so we would have time for the families to adapt to observation before the children actually began talking. We followed the children until they turned three years old…. Our final sample consisted of 42 families who remained in the study from beginning to end. From each of these families, we have almost 2 1/2 years or more of sequential monthly hour-long observations. On the basis of occupation, 13 of the families were upper socioeconomic status (SES), 10 were middle SES, 13 were lower SES, and six were on welfare.

After six years of transcribing and analyzing the results, they found astounding differences in toddlers’ opportunities to learn language. “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour).” By the end of the study, the children in professional families had larger recorded vocabularies than the parents in the families on welfare (1,116 vs. 974 different words). Not surprisingly, the recorded vocabularies of the children in professional families were more than double that of the children in families on welfare (1,116 vs. 525 different words).

Even if these children ended up in equally high-quality preschools (which we know they don’t), the children with small vocabularies would struggle to understand their teachers, while their peers with large vocabularies would not only understand their teachers, but converse with and question them.

As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary grows bit by bit, through multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts. The more words you know, the more context you grasp and the more quickly you learn new words. The larger your early childhood vocabulary, the easier your path to college or a good career.

Those of us raised in language-rich homes were born on third—and more of us should realize that we did not hit a triple. Far too often, we mistake the lack of opportunity to learn for lack of ability to learn. The Matthew Effect is real—the more you know, the faster you learn. But instead of focusing on the power of today’s learning to accelerate tomorrow’s learning, when we encounter a “slow” child we too often think that slowness is immutable. Richard Nisbett, a prominent cognitive scientist, has explained that learning makes you smarter. His book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count is well worth reading, but here’s a recent article he wrote that covers a lot of the same ground.

Appreciating that research, and my own good fortune (thanks mom!), I have high hopes for Providence Talks. But I have to say that it really must be followed by language-rich, knowledge-building preschool and K – 12 experiences. Children in wealthy families keep learning every day at school and at home, and their college-educated parents have the capacity to help with homework, construct enriching summer activities, buy hundreds of books and educational games, etc. If schools are to build on the strong start created by Providence Talks, they will have to be far more purposeful and organized in their efforts to increase students’ vocabularies, knowledge, and skills—especially in the early grades.


Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

by Robert Pondiscio
May 7th, 2012

“As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students,” writes Scott Joftus in Education Next. “As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.”

“Over more than 20 years in the field of education—including two with Teach For America—I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father.”

Joftus’s wonk side believes “student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds.”  However, as a Dad, he admits to getting angry when a troubled kindergartener disrupts his daughter’s class and forces the “talented, but inexperienced” teacher to spend more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

“I feel for children like him; my company works with schools and districts to improve outcomes for these kids. But I was angry. The other children were clearly uncomfortable. His disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school.”

Commenters on the Ed Next blog offer both praise and criticism for Joftus.  “Teachers have been fighting policy wonks who have been destroying the happy learning environment for decades,” writes one.  “But you don’t listen, it is only when it becomes personal that you reconsider your opinions and admit the possibility that teachers have been right all along.”  “Had you guys listened twenty years ago, and respected our wisdom on safe and orderly schools, this educational civil war would not have had to happen,” observes veteran teacher and ed blogger John Thompson.

Rocketship schools CEO John Danner admits to similar cognitive dissonance when sending his kids to school.  “However, I would challenge you as your kids grow to think more about how those skills jibe with rigor,” he writes. “Rigor is actually a form of compassion. A teacher who expects a lot of their students prevents them from feeling the frustration your children feel now, but much later in their school career.  The real problem you are seeing is that your child’s teacher has high expectations but doesn’t understand how to differentiate.

Loftus’ tale serves to illustrate how regrettably wide the gulf can be between policy ideals and classroom realities.  The policies Loftus has worked to support–standards, improved teacher quality, enhanced learning time for strugglers, et al. –  are laudable, but risk melting into insignificance in the face of teachers overwhelmed with a critical mass of disruptive children in her room.  I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect that far fewer parents than wonks tend to lay the problem of learning time lost to disruption at the feet of teachers.  It is easy to say, as Danner does “differentiate.”  It is difficult, and always will be, to expect every teacher in every classroom to have the training, expertise and experience to handle every challenge offered up by 25 free agents in their classrooms every day.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Love a Book? Don’t Tell Your Kids!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 3rd, 2012

When you were a kid, did you ever read a book that changed your life?  Well, don’t tell your kids if you want it to have the same effect on them. “Remember how a parental recommendation was the kiss of death when you were a kid?” asks legendary children’s author Judy Blume. “That hasn’t changed — no matter how well-deserved the kudos are.”

Blume made the comment at the recent LA Times Festival of Books.  I’m mightily inclined to agree.  One of my teaching pet peeves has always been the tendency to wax rhapsodic over books and make our kids feel that they are somehow missing out–if not outright defective–if they aren’t as enraptured by a well-loved book as we are.  In a world in which kids can immerse themselves in “Call of Duty” and “Halo,” telling them “reading is magical” like telling them they should love spinach.  Don’t tell them. Show them.  Class readalouds of a compelling book have probably done more to spread the notion that reading is enjoyable than any earnest talk about the power of books to take us on journeys in our minds.

Other bits of advice on engaging readers from Blume, per the Huffington Post.

“As great as you think those nostalgic old book covers are, get your kids the new editions. The covers will draw them in. They want the new stuff.”

“Before you give your child the beloved book, leave it lying around the house, preferably on your nightstand. Then, when your daughter asks about the book, tell her that you picked it up for her, but now you’re not sure she’s old enough for it.”

“Try not to be judgmental of what your child is reading and don’t censor their book selection.”

Blume “hates it when books list what age reader the book is for.” She remembers pulling an illustrated copy of Lysistrata off the shelves when she was about 12, notes HuffPo. “She was very curious about the adult world and books gave her a look into that world.”

In an unrelated post, Dan Willingham notes that teachers are avid readers who “love books not only for the purpose of reading them, but as physical objects.”  He links to a section of Reddit called BookPorn.  Amazing pictures.  Enjoy.  But don’t tell the kids.

Mères Tigre? Non!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 5th, 2012

Expat mom Pamela Druckerman wondered why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts.  In a Wall Street Journal essay, she credits French parenting techniques, which she says are marked by an “an easy, calm authority with their children.”  French children don’t run off, talk back or engage in prolonged negotiations with their parents, she notes.  Like Americans, French parents talk to their kids, read to them, take them to sports, music lessons and museums.  But helicopter parenting?  Non!  Says Druckerman:

“The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother told me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”

How do they get their children to behave?  When she asked French parents how they disciplined their children, Druckerman found they were often nonplussed.

“’Ah, you mean how do we educate them?’ they asked. ‘Discipline,’ I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas ‘educating’ (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.”

An essential part of this education, “is the simple act of learning how to wait,” writes Druckerman.  And it explains, in her view, why French babies sleep through the night while toddlers sit quietly in French restaurants as their parents eat dinner. Unlike American kids who snack all day, French kids have three meals a day and one snack around 4 pm, according to Druckeman.

“American parents want their kids to be patient, of course. We encourage our kids to share, to wait their turn, to set the table and to practice the piano. But patience isn’t a skill that we hone quite as assiduously as French parents do. We tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.”

Druckerman is painting with a pretty broad brush here in her characterization of American and (one assumes) French parenting practices.  Indeed, Druckerman’s observation that “middle-class America has a parenting problem” effectively translates to “affluent America has a parenting problem.”  A more authoritative brand of parenting never went out of style in many U.S. families.  Druckerman describes her “strategy” of finishing restaurant meals quickly to keep her daughter from being “kicked by a waiter or lost at sea” after refusing to sit still in her high chair.  “We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table,” she writes.  No doubt there are many families with a very different “strategy” for dealing with children who can’t behave themselves in restaurants.  It’s called “staying home.”

I’d like to see some data before I conclude that all American parents are Velveeta-eating surrender monkeys who cater to their children’s every whim.  But this is to quibble.  Druckerman’s observations are from her upcoming book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I suspect that like last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it will set American tongues to wagging anew over how we raise our children.

The Quality of Homework is Not Weighed

by Robert Pondiscio
September 12th, 2011

The perennial debate over whether U.S. students get too much homework or too little misses the point. The question is not quantity, but the quality of the assignments, says science writer Annie Murphy Paul. Writing in the New York Times, Paul says what should matter is how effectively homework assignments advance learning. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists “have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns,” she writes. “They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.”

“But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.”

Paul offers several examples. As its name implies, “spaced repetition” means exposing students to the same material in shorter sessions over a longer period of time. “Instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do — reading about, say, the Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next,” she writes, “students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.”

Another technique, “retrieval practice,” suggests using tests “not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it.”

“We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.”

According to Paul one experiment showed that students using retrieval practice remembered 80% of the vocabulary words they studied, compared to one-third for those using conventional methods. She also describes a technique called “interleaving” which mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. “When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly,” observes Paul. Each of these concepts, she concludes, are untapped opportunities to improve student achievement.

Paul’s article is unlikely to be persuasive to anti-homework dead-enders. But she offers a fresh way of considering one of education’s thorniest debates. It’s a must-read for teachers and parents. Paul herself is someone to watch. She is at work on a book titled Brilliant: The New Science of Learning. More importantly she’s proving to be a savvy chronicler of cognitive science and its lessons for educators–of critical importance in a field where “brain-based” is tossed around by hucksters as casually as “new and improved.”

Guest Post: Politics Driving Math Classes

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2011

Today’s post is by Laurie H. Rogers, a member of the executive committee for Where’s the Math? and author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do About It.”  She blogs at Betrayed ( where this post also appears.

Several days ago, someone sent me an article on “teaching math for social justice.” I actually hit my desk while reading it, narrowly missing the cat. I shouldn’t read things like that first thing in the morning. It raises my blood pressure and gets the next 12 hours off to a bad start.

In the article, teaching math for social justice isn’t about math or justice; it’s about pursuing a narrow political agenda in the classroom, through the children. Math is relegated to the wings, used as a vehicle through which the agenda is delivered.

The article was in a 2010 special edition of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics’ Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). This issue is dedicated to “equity” in math instruction, “with a focus on power and identity.” After years of advocacy, I shouldn’t be surprised by what comes out of the NCTM, but this special edition still was a cold shock.

The NCTM, you’ll recall, is responsible for the current incarnation of “fuzzy” math, born in the depths of hell in the 1980s. Many NCTM presidents and officers have their name on, and fingers in, today’s “reform” math curricula (including the curricula still sucking the lifeblood out of children in Spokane). Unhappily for this author, some now are involved in federal initiatives related to the Common Core State Standards and assessment consortia.

After decades of abject failure of the fuzzy approach, you’d think the NCTM would reject anything that further detracts from learning math. Instead, this trend to teach math through “equity and social justice” is gathering steam, fostered by social activists, self-interested groups like the NCTM – and well-meaning people who don’t realize the intent. For social activists, the agenda isn’t about “equity of opportunity” or justice under the law. It’s political, sociological activism, designed to move students in a specific political direction based on a particular world view. This activism, masquerading as math, is inappropriate and unhelpful. Read the rest of this entry »

Weary Tiger, Hidden Dilemma

by Robert Pondiscio
August 24th, 2011

Samantha Bee is on vacation with her three children, and she’s exhausted.  The Daily Show correspondent writes in the Wall Street Journal that she is a “tiger mother” to her three children, but the kind of tiger “who lays there helplessly in the sun as her tiger babies climb all over her, tugging on her fur and generally having their way with her.”  A self-described child of the ‘70s, Bee remembers spending her summers in front of the TV and wandering around aimlessly.  “Nobody cared if I read. Nobody cared if I wore sunscreen, or pants. I was like a house cat; my parents barely even knew if I was still living with them or whether I had moved in with the old lady down the street who would put out a bowl of food for me,” she writes.

“Thus, this emphasis on summer enrichment activities and exercise and fresh air and learning today feels unfamiliar to me. Whatever happened to letting kids’ IQs backslide for three months, all the way back to March? I can’t be the only one who wants to sit on a lawn chair parked in a kiddie pool all day while my children gently splash me with cool water, can I? I mean, isn’t it good for the brain to “cocoon” or something, to spin itself into some kind of intellectual chrysalis—to “hibernate” for a few months so that it can get hungry again and mate in the fall? That is a proven fact from a scientific study that I just conducted in my brain.”

Bee’s humorous piece is not intended to be a commentary on education, but the reader comments on the Journal’s site read like Meg Ryan’s deli scene in When Harry Met Sally (“Oh, yes…Yes!…Yes!!”) Clearly there are a lot of parents out there who, like Bee, have little interest in turning concerted cultivation into a blood sport.

The piece, and the chorus of tired Tiger Moms shouting their agreement, present a bit of a dilemma for those of us worried about low-income kids, low student achievement, and the general plight of academic have-nots.  For Bee’s kids, lying around all summer is not the cognitive equivalent of Malik and Jose lying around their apartment in the South Bronx.  Bee’s kids have literate, verbal parents, who stimulate their kids just by talking to them, and a steady level of interaction with educated adults.  They’re not even lying around.  They experience different environments (two weeks in the country, farmer’s markets, the lake) and probably spend a lot of time engaging in self-directed creative play with other kids.  They run around with friends outside and probably, when bored, end up inside watching Animal Planet or Arthur on PBS Kids.  It’s highly unlikely Bee is letting them hang out playing Mortal Kombat all day.  Her piece notwithstanding, the standards of even laissez faire middle class parenting make it equally unlikely that she’s going to completely disregard their health and nutrition.  The Bee kids in short, are growing up in a well-resourced, culturally rich and literate community among similarly literate kids and verbal, well-educated adults.  They practically absorb cognitive benefits through their pores. 

Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parents loom large in the public imagination, and there can be little doubt that standards of middle class parenting have become far more aggressive since the 1970s.  But I suspect that most parents, consciously or unconsciously, do the cost-benefit analysis that Bee’s piece implies.  “My childhood summer vacations were spent languishing in front of the TV watching Phil Donahue and eating Boo Berry until my skin turned purple. Nobody cared if I read,” she writes, without completing the thought:  And I turned out just fine.  The upside of all the additional enrichment she lampoons is unclear, and (many parents surely suspect) not even unambiguously positive.  “OK,” you might think, “My kid isn’t a piano prodigy and it would be cool if she were doing science camp at MIT at age 10.  But she seems happy enough.  She’s well-rounded, interested in different things and gets along with other kids. And she’s still doing pretty well in school. That’s probably enough.”

And it almost certainly is enough for Bee’s kids and many, many others.  They may not end up running Google or winning the Intel Science talent search, but you could safely bet real money they end up doing just fine, thanks.  Cognitively speaking, they’re already on third base.

Summer slump?  Low educational productivity?  Year round schooling?  Forget it.  Other nations may be outeducating us, sending their children to school for 200+ days every year, but I suspect it will never happen here.  Affluent parents will never accept it.  The imperative of economic competitiveness is a non-starter among the parents of those who were born economically competitive.