What’s Working?

by Lisa Hansel
March 24th, 2015

Slowly, steadily building the knowledge and capacity of administrators and teachers—that’s what’s working in school systems around the world. As explained in a report by Geoff Masters, a leading researcher in Australia, the educational systems that are improving have invested in educator capacity, while those that are not improving (or are declining) have been tinkering with accountability and incentives (as US policymakers have been, with poor results for reading).

Before those who oppose accountability and market-based reforms declare victory, they’ll need to take a careful look at what Masters means by building capacity. The sad fact is, very few school systems, and few very reformers, in the US are doing the things Masters identifies as essential to increasing student achievement. What he describes is not your typical professional development—it’s a more fundamental commitment to quality and equity:

In some countries, reform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system. In other countries, including a number of English-speaking countries, greater reliance has been placed on using systems of accountability and incentives to drive improvement….

Table 1 Two general approaches to school reform
[Reformatted for blog]

Improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve (rewards, sanctions, having to compete for students).
- stronger performance cultures
- better measures of outcomes
- personal accountability for improvement
- performance pay linked to test scores
- greater public transparency
- financial rewards for school improvement
- sanctions for failure to improve
- increased competition for students
- greater autonomy to compete
- more parental choice

Improvement will occur by building the capacity of teachers and school leaders and by ensuring high quality practice throughout the system.
- attract more able people into teaching
- train approximately the number of teachers required
- place a high priority on building teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge
- develop school leaders’ capacities to build and lead cultures of continual improvement in teaching and learning
- ensure that high-quality teaching and leadership are equitably distributed across all schools

There has been growing recognition that more effective than setting ambitious targets for improved student performance, or attaching money or other consequences to student test results, is to work directly on developing the teaching and leadership practices that result in improved student outcomes….

Systematic studies of what school leaders do to achieve whole-school improvement reveal a high degree of consistency in the priorities set by leaders of turn-around schools. These priorities are summarised in the National School Improvement Tool (Masters, 2012) and can be thought of as a set of micro-strategies for whole-school reform. They include:

- setting an explicit school improvement agenda;
- systematically monitoring progress in achieving desired improvements;
- establishing and sustaining a culture of support and high expectations;
- targeting the use of school resources to address student needs;
- encouraging teachers to work as a team to improve teaching and learning;
- establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum;
- sustaining a strong focus on addressing individual learning needs;
- implementing effective pedagogical practices including diagnostic practices; and
- using local community resources to better meet student needs.

Reading down this list, these strategies seem like common sense—which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not common practices.

The only suggestion I’ll make is to put “establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum” at the top of the list. Almost all of the other strategies require a shared curriculum as their foundation—you can’t set expectations, monitor progress, address needs, or work as a team without a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject map of the specific content and skills students must master.


Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Thanks to Marc Tucker for drawing attention to this report. I admire Tucker—if we’d been listening to him for the past few decades, we’d have one of the world’s best, most equitable school systems. So, when Tucker wrote that Masters has “written a paper you need to read,” I started reading (you should too).






Raising Readers—Not Test Takers

by Lisa Hansel
March 18th, 2015

In recent months, Teach Plus had over 1,000 teachers review sample items from PARCC, one of the two testing consortia trying to create assessments aligned to the Common Core standards.

I say “trying” because in reading, the task is pretty much impossible. The standards specify things students should be able to do, but they contain almost no content. Thankfully, they do call for content-rich curriculum and explain that comprehension depends on broad knowledge, but they don’t provide the content-specificity needed to guide instruction or assessment.

Thousands of different curricula and assessments could be aligned to the standards, which would be fine if teachers were trusted to develop both. But teachers are not allowed to create the assessments—at least the ones that count. So it is entirely possible for a teacher to develop an “aligned” curriculum that does not prepare students for the content that shows up on the “aligned” assessment.

The result is an unfair assessment.

Test developers acknowledge as much, creating guidelines for item development that minimize knowledge as a source of “bias.”

Well, the 1,000 teachers who just reviewed PARCC think the stripping of knowledge did not go far enough:

Nearly all participants found that the PARCC passages were better quality than the passages in state tests, as they are previously published pieces (indicating that they are complex and demonstrate expertise in nonfiction). However, there was some concern students did not have “background knowledge, nor the vocabulary to understand” vocabulary within the texts. Their comments suggest that to assess students as accurately as possible, some portions may need to be edited for diverse learners, or those with limited background knowledge of certain content areas.

I understand why teachers would call for reducing the prior knowledge demands of the test—they are stuck in this crazy world of being measured with content that no one told them to teach. But let’s be honest: reducing the knowledge demand makes the test a little fairer; it does not make the education students are getting any better.

The knowledge bias can’t be avoided with tests that are not explicitly aligned to the curriculum. Without a curriculum that specifies what has been taught—and therefore what it is fair to expect students to know—test writers are reduced to a narrow band of banal topics (but even “Jenny goes to the market” demands some prior, unequally distributed knowledge).

The less the knowledge bias, the less the test reflects real-world comprehension. Outside testlandia, comprehension is not isolated from knowledge. An adult who can’t comprehend a newspaper is not considered literate. Broad knowledge is inherent in literacy. If we care about reading, as opposed to testing, we shouldn’t be creating tests that minimize knowledge demands. We should be developing a coherent instruction, assessment, and accountability system that builds broad knowledge and is fair because it tests what is taught.

Clearly, our nation’s policymakers need a crash course in reading. Once they understand that there is no such thing as general comprehension ability, maybe they’ll stop trying to hold schools accountable for developing it.

Fortunately, a great crash course is now available: Daniel Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. If policymakers read between the lines, they’ll see an awful lot they can do too.

As with Willingham’s previous books, this one is engaging, easy to read, and super informative. Here’s just a taste:

Most parents want their children to be solid general readers. They aren’t worried about their kids reading professional journals for butterfly collectors, but they expect their kids to be able to read the New York Times, National Geographic, or other materials written for the thoughtful layperson. A writer for the New York Times will not assume deep knowledge about postage stamps, or African geography, or Elizabethan playwrights— but she will assume some knowledge about each. To be a good general reader, your child needs knowledge of the world that’s a million miles wide and an inch deep—wide enough to recognize the titles The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, for example, but not that the former may have inspired the latter. Enough to know that rare stamps can be very valuable, but not the going price of the rare Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918.

If being a “good reader” actually means “knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff,” then reading tests don’t work quite the way most people think they do. Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text , because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

There is reason to think that’s true. In one study, researchers measured the reading ability of eleventh graders with a standard reading test and also administered tests of what they called “cultural literacy”—students’ knowledge of mainstream culture. There were tests of the names of artists, entertainers, military leaders, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, as well as separate tests of factual knowledge of science, history, and literature. The researchers found robust correlations between scores on the reading test and scores on the various cultural literacy tests—correlations between 0.55 and 0.90.

If we are to increase reading ability, policymakers will have to accept that it takes many years to develop the breadth of knowledge needed for tests that are not based on a specific curriculum. We shouldn’t be stripping the knowledge demands out of our tests; we should be stripping the unreasonable mandates from our accountability policies. If we all focused on raising readers, we would spend far less time on testing and far more on building broad knowledge.


Young reader, building knowledge and comprehension, courtesy of Shutterstock.

New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

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

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

“Just the facts, ma’am”

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

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

ACT 7-22-14 A

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

ACT 7-22-14 B

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

ACT 7-22-14 C

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

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

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

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

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

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

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

“May the Force be with you”

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

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping



Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently


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

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


Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math


Advanced math


Basic reading


Advanced reading


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

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

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

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

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math


Lessons on reading


Lessons on science


Lessons on social studies


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

Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

by Guest Blogger
June 30th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas.” The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

In fact, the idea of teaching “literacy” versus teaching “science” constitutes an unnecessary dichotomy and perhaps not the most useful lens to understand what is needed in early childhood education. Children need challenging content in every domain — be it science, math, English language arts, social studies, music, or the fine arts. Unfortunately, the ECS report notes, “very little science happens in early care settings, and what does happen tends to consist of single activities, disconnected from what came before and what will come next.”

This lack of curricular sequence and coherence is a problem because children learn faster and more independently when they are taught concepts that are related. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they do not understand their relationships and tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. By contrast, as Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright have argued in All About Words:

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference.

For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

Then when children are introduced to a new wild animal, they already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it.


Polar bears courtesy of Shutterstock.

A recent paper by Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth (2014) from Northwestern University adds to this discussion in several ways. The authors looked at whether the inherent attraction of causal information could be used to motivate preschoolers’ task engagement. The researchers conducted an experiment where they looked at whether children would persist in a boring task for longer if they were assigned to different experimental conditions: children were given causally rich information as a reward, causally weak information as a reward, stickers, or no reward at all.

Results revealed a powerful influence of causally rich rewards on the number of times children were willing to complete the boring task.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “providing new knowledge per se as a reward was not enough to sustain children’s engagement.” Recall how ECS report pointed the disconnected nature of science activities in many early childhood settings. In these classrooms, children are probably receiving information that is new but not the kind of information that, according to the Alvarez and Booth study, would promote persistence and engagement.

According to the authors, this research “reveals the viability of causally rich knowledge-infused reward as an effective tool for enhancing task engagement in preschool-aged children,” “reinforces long-standing views of children as hungry to acquire causally rich information,” and “suggests a new approach to rewarding young children that has the potential to encourage (rather than detract from) a mind-set that embraces the pleasure and challenges of learning.”

My take away from this paper is that perhaps we should not think about academic content and student rewards separately. Wouldn’t an age-appropriate curriculum that is rich, challenging and carefully sequenced be a ‘rewards embedded curriculum’?

Another recent study supports the idea that exposing young children (in this case kindergartners) to more advanced rather than basic content “might promote the skills of all children and has the potential to sustain the benefits of preschool attendance.”

Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Amy Claessens (University of Chicago) Mimi Engel (Vanderbilt University) and Chris Curran (Vanderbilt University) explored “whether the reading and mathematics content taught in kindergarten might help to sustain the gains acquired through preschool participation.” The authors found “a consistent and positive effect of exposure to advanced content for all children in both reading and mathematics” and “a negative or, in the case of reading, often null effects of exposure to basic content.”

Although the researchers had predicted that children who did not attend preschool might benefit from receiving instruction that focused on basic content, the data did not support this hypothesis. Conversely, they found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, “likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.”

The authors concluded by noting that:

Shifting to more advanced academic content coverage in kindergarten classrooms is a potentially low-cost means for helping preschoolers sustain the academic benefits they acquired through preschool attendance while simultaneously garnering positive effects for children who begin kindergarten without that advantage.

In sum, teaching children interesting “stuff” that is challenging and coherently presented:

  • Sets the foundation for reading with understanding;
  • Supports children’s ability to learn faster and independently;
  • May make children more perseverant and more engaged in their learning;
  • May benefit all children, while also helping to sustain the benefits of pre-k into elementary school.

So, what’s not to love about a fun, challenging, well thought out and well taught curriculum in the early years?


Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2014

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


Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

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


“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

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

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

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

Can Early Language Development Promote Children’s Psychological Wellbeing?

by Guest Blogger
May 28th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?

A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions.

Bornstein, Hahn, and Suwalsky examined several competing explanations using path analysis, a statistical method used to determine whether or not a data set fits well with a previously specified causal model. Path analysis is not intended to prove a causal relationship (although it can disprove one), but it illuminates chains of influence (or the sequence in which several dependent variables may shape a dependent measure).

The study analyzed two longitudinal cohorts of children looking at developmental pathways between children’s language skills and their behavioral adjustment in terms of internalizing (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, self-consciousness, shyness) and externalizing (e.g., defiance, impulsivity, disruptiveness, aggression) behavior problems. The authors found strong evidence that weak early childhood language skills can predict later internalizing behavior problems.

The general cascading pattern observed in both cohorts indicated that language proficiency in early childhood affected behavioral adjustment in late childhood, which in turn contributed to behavioral adjustment in early adolescence. Framed in the positive, young children who are more competent verbally have fewer internalizing behavior problems later.

Links between language skills and behavior issues were documented, even after controlling for broad individual and family characteristics (i.e. poverty, nonverbal intelligence, aspects of mothers’ and children’s environments).

Importantly, “internalizing and externalizing behavior problems never predicted language.” The latter is interesting because we often talk about how children’s social-emotional development prepares them to be “ready to learn.” These findings, however, suggest that learning itself – i.e., oral language development – helps to strengthen young children’s socio-emotional development.

“But what is it about language that keeps some behavioral adjustment problems at bay?” – the authors ask.

Language is multidimensional, with receptive and expressive phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic components. We do not know exactly which language competencies or what about language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay. This is a question for future research.

Finally, some of the study’s limitations: (1) a small sample size; (2) some generalizability concerns due to the characteristics of the sample and; (3) the possibility that relevant child characteristics (such as temperament) were not considered by the models.

The study is important because it suggests that “programs aimed at improving child language may also promote their psychological wellbeing” and that “an early focus on language may therefore yield a high return on investment in strategically timed and targeted interventions designed to ameliorate or obviate behavioral problems.”

Testing: From the Mouths of Babes

by Lisa Hansel
May 8th, 2014

“No one learns from state tests. It’s testing what you know. You’re not learning anything from it.”

 —12th grader

“I like math or spelling tests better [than state accountability tests] because you can study for them. For the [state accountability tests], I wonder what will be on them this time.”

 —5th grader

“I like pre- and post-tests because you get to see the progress you’ve made.”

—4th grader

Is it just me, or do these kids know a whole lot more about assessment and increasing educational achievement than most state and national policymakers? Far too many policymakers seem to have lost sight of the most important goal of assessment and accountability: increasing learning. They seem stuck on accountability for the sake of accountability, unwilling to ask whether assessment dollars could be used more effectively.

I’m not against accountability—and I think assessment is necessary—but I am for allocating time and money in the most effective ways. So I find these students’ thoughts, and the new study in which they appear, pretty compelling. The study is Make Assessment Matter, by the Northwest Evaluation Association in cooperation with Grunwald Associates LLC. It explores students’ (4th – 12th graders), teachers’, and administrators’ views on all sorts of testing—from classroom quizzes to state accountability tests. Conclusion: “There is an urgency felt on the part of students, teachers and district administrators to emphasize assessment for learning rather than for accountability. The overwhelming preference for all parties is that assessment results be used to inform learning.” Sadly, today’s state tests not only don’t inform learning, they seem to be impeding it: “teachers (70 percent) and district administrators (55 percent) … [say] that the focus on state accountability tests takes too much time away from learning.”

Think about the weeks that are lost to state accountability tests each year as you absorb these key findings:

On the one hand, the vast majority of students, boys and girls, say they try hard on most tests and care about doing well on tests, among other findings that indicate how seriously they take tests and learning. On the other hand, some boys (46 percent) and girls (39 percent) say that tests are a waste of time.

It’s clear that students feel that certain kinds of tests are not very relevant to their learning, and so it’s not surprising to hear some students identify tests as a waste of time. In tandem with other findings, the message is clear: students want high-quality, engaging assessments that are tightly connected to learning….

Like students, teachers and district administrators would prefer to focus on tests that inform student learning. Most teachers (54 percent), and the vast majority of district administrators (89 percent), say that the ideal focus of assessments should be frequently tracking student performance and providing daily or weekly feedback in the classroom. This sentiment tracks with students’ attitudes about tests. Students express overwhelming agreement that tests are important for helping them and their teachers know if they are making progress in their learning and for understanding what they are learning.

Teachers say that teacher-developed classroom tests, performance tasks and formative assessment practice work best for supporting student learning in their classrooms, while state accountability tests are the least effective.

For an assessment to matter, it has to be directly tied to what is being studied in the classroom. For students to care about it, they need to be able to study for it and use the results in meaningful ways.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

That sounds perfectly reasonable to me. So, what are the logical implications for states? I see two options. One is to use Advanced Placement as a model: create detailed, content-specific courses and develop tests that only assess material in the course. I know it’s unheard of in state accountability testing, but I am actually being so crazy as to say that states should test students on the topics, books, people, ideas, events, etc. that they have been taught.

If state policymakers can’t stomach the idea of specifying the content to teach and test—if they can’t honor students’ desire to be tested in ways that inform learning—then they must honor students’ desire to not have their time wasted: make the tests zero stakes with zero test prep (like NAEP). Any test that is not tied to the specific content being studied in the classroom is a test of general knowledge and skills. Such a test can provide an informative snapshot of students’ and schools’ relative performance (and thus which schools and communities are in need of added supports). It can’t, however, indicate how any one student acquired her knowledge and skills (could be the teacher, the tutor that mom hired in October, the soccer coach who demands higher grades, the new librarian in town, finally being given eyeglasses, etc.). And therefore it can’t offer any precise indication of either teacher quality or how the student could improve. If a state wants to give a test that measures general abilities and provides nothing more than a snapshot and a trend line, that’s fine—provided the stakes and the prep time are minimized.

My preference, obviously, is for option one—especially if states would have the good sense to involve hundreds of educators in developing the specific content to be taught and assessed. Not only would the state-controlled, culminating test be useful for learning, in preparing for it teachers could use effective practices like frequent quizzing on essential content.


Making the Most of Kids’ “Why?” Phase

by Lisa Hansel
April 16th, 2014

“If you finish your peas, I’ll tell you why the sky is blue.”

“If you put your toys in the bin, I’ll explain why kangaroos have pouches.”

“If you brush your teeth, I’ll tell you why some Native Americans used to move frequently instead of building permanent homes.”

Win-win. Sounds too great to be true—but it might not be. A recent study finds that young children will voluntarily do a boring task if they are rewarded with “causally rich knowledge.”

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Young children are delightfully infamous for asking why over and over. Long ago, a walk along a river bank with one of my nieces became downright existential within 20 minutes. The sun, the moon, the water, the frogs, the people—why do they shine, sparkle, jump, talk … why are we all here…. I answered as best I could, took mental notes on books to buy, picked one topic to research together when we got home, and suggested we make dandelion bracelets.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Even if you’re not surprised by the main finding, this study is still worth a quick read. Why? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Because the researchers tease out exactly what is motivating the three- and four-year-olds to persist with the boring task (putting 25 pegs in a peg board). The four conditions tested—no reward, stickers, causally rich information, and causally weak information—offer some interesting nuances. Stickers worked, of course, but not as well as you might guess. Being rewarded with causally rich knowledge was the only condition that significantly increased children’s persistence. (I’m dreaming of this headline: Sticker Sales Plummet: Teachers Say Rewarding Curiosity Is More Powerful than Gold Stars.)

Strikingly, causally weak information had no effect—the results were the same as in the no reward condition. Motivation came specifically from being told why—not merely being told that. To ensure that causal richness was the only distinguishing factor in the two knowledge conditions, the researchers created images of several animals and artifacts to show to the children and then carefully crafted descriptions. Here are two of the items invented for the study:

Knoweldge Reward

We shouldn’t ever make too much of one study, but this one does give teachers and caregivers some ideas to play with harmlessly. If you can get in the habit of focusing on causation while presenting information, you just might have a powerful tool. Among potential benefits, the researchers note that causally rich information might be useful as a reward for necessary-but-not-so-interesting tasks like “practicing penmanship or math facts” (of course, this study would have to be repeated to see if older children perceive such information as a reward). And, using information as a reward may help avoid the detriments to internal motivation that can arise with tangible rewards.