Miracle on High Street

by Lisa Hansel
December 19th, 2013

2013 has been a miraculous year for the folks at 801 E. High Street, the beautiful old house that the Core Knowledge Foundation calls home.

Core Knowledge Language Arts went from a pilot program to a major model for Common Core implementation. E. D. Hirsch’s ideas—and, more importantly, the research supporting them—earned a new audience. Plus, the need to close the vocabulary gap gained a prominent champion (as well as several close allies).

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, last week was phenomenal. I can’t rank order the events, so I’ll go in chronological order.

First, the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a forum on “The Word Gap & the Common Core” in which Susan Neuman hammered home the need to systematically build knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood. As I wrote over at the Shanker Blog, Neuman kicked off with the perfect metaphor: Words are just the tip of the iceberg. The concepts and knowledge—and the opportunities to acquire them—are underneath the words. In just 15 minutes (which you can watch online), Neuman explained that the vocabulary gap is actually a knowledge gap and set forth a clear path for closing it. Spoiler alert: the research only provides one way to do it—grouping challenging texts by topic and immersing young children in those texts though read-alouds and meaningful conversations. Sounds familiar.

Second, Michael Petrilli went for the hard sell on Core Knowledge in the New York Daily News. Writing to NYC’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Petrilli was blissfully blunt:

As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for 30 years — and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed — knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know….

The job of elementary schools, then, should be to systematically build students’ content knowledge in important areas like history, geography, civics, science, art, music and literature. Yet most elementary schools (nationwide — not just in New York) are content-free wastelands….

Bloomberg’s Department of Education has listed Core Knowledge as one of the model curricula for New York City teachers to consider as they transition to the new standards.

De Blasio should go even further. If he wants to be bold, he might urge all city elementary schools to adopt Core Knowledge.

Third—proof that good things come in threes—Joel Klein said that “The best parts of the Common Core are tethered to Core Knowledge.” (See for yourself!) Speaking with David Steiner in a forum at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, Klein was candid about his tenure as NYC schools chancellor. He regrets that at the beginning, he did not know how important it is to build knowledge and vocabulary in the early grades. But after doing some reading, especially Sol Stern’s powerful critiques, Klein said he reached out to E. D. Hirsch. Klein’s pilot study of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) was soon underway, with the CKLA schools consistently outperforming the comparison schools. CKLA is now being recognized as a model for the type of curriculum called for by the Common Core standards: one that “is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Klein expects that to have a “national impact.” We’ll keep working to make sure his words ring true in 2014.


Strategies for Third Graders, Theories for Graduate Students

by Guest Blogger
December 16th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

The over-reliance on reading comprehension strategies in primary and secondary education has been a consistent theme at Core Knowledge for several years, but nevertheless people may not realize that reading strategies have a remarkable counterpart in higher education.  You may assume that schools of education are the issue, and certainly they favor “strategies” approaches to reading instruction.  But I have in mind another institution, the teaching of interpretation in graduate and undergraduate literature courses.  The seminar transpires far from the 3rd-grade classroom, to be sure, but one particular development in literary studies over the last half-century parallels closely the focus on strategies, and its future may prove a lesson in the effectiveness of the latter.

The development is this: roughly, during the second half of the 20th century, literary studies transferred focus from literary-historical knowledge to what we might call “performance facility.”  While most teachers in 1950 aimed to instill in students disciplinary content—languages, philology, bibliography, rhetoric, and poetic tradition from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot (or another national lineage)—teachers in 1990 aimed to plant the capacity to perform an astute interpretation of manifold texts.  The former tied his tools to literary-historical truth—textual criticism of a Shakespeare play required technical editing skills, but they proceeded in light of Shakespeare’s biography, the linguistics of Early Modern English, the record of Shakespeare editions, etc.  The latter tied her tools to concepts and strategies—interpretation of a Shakespeare play presumed a critical approach (New Critical, feminist, psychoanalytical, etc.) that she could wield without knowing very much about the writer and the historical context of the play.  It was more important to understand, for instance, Freud’s concept of repression or the New Critic’s key concepts the “intentional fallacy” and the “heresy of paraphrase” than it was the physical structure of the Globe theater or the make-up of London audiences.  You didn’t need that knowledge to write an essay about Hamlet.  All you needed were the critical concepts.  A student of the former ended up knowledgeable, one of the latter capable (and perhaps knowledgeable, or perhaps not).  The one knows, the other performs.

The reasons for the performative turn include trends in enrollments, research productivity, the job market, the importation of European ideas and practices, and multiculturalism, but whatever their mixture at different times and places, they produced a different ideal.  Once it triumphed, the model literary student didn’t stand forth because he knew Elizabethan society and the Shakespeare corpus fact by fact and word by word.  She stood out because she could wield interpretative concepts dazzlingly and flexibly, consistent first with the grounds of the concepts, not with the literature and its context.  Yes, to understand the phonetics of Shakespearean English was impressive, but by 1990 it seemed a plodding endeavor when set alongside the ability to produce a clever feminist interpretation of Macbeth.

(Macbeth and witches courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

I saw the trend first-hand in the 1980s, when some of my fellow graduate students formulated dissertations on the interpretation model.  They chose one work as their topic, Heart of Darkness, for instance, and wrote six chapters on it, one a Neo-Aristotelian reading, one a psychological reading, a deconstructionist, a reader-response, and a colonialist reading, each one a distinct, unrelated performance.  To do so, they didn’t need much historical knowledge about late-19th-century Africa, Conrad’s life, the 19th-century British novel, European politics, or the ivory trade, merely some ideas from each critical approach and the novella itself.  Their efforts nicely tallied job skills in those years, too, the ability to handle different theories and practices usually counting for more than literary-historical knowledge. Those of us in graduate school and coming to maturity in the 1980s learned a clear lesson about the discipline: the center had shifted from the tradition and its contexts to interpretation and its varieties.

The trend drifted down into undergraduate classes as well.  Youths who took English classes in the 80s and 90s encountered sparkling interpretations by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Clifford Geertz, Shoshana Felman, and others that were admired not so much for the knowledge they imparted as the interpretative brilliance they displayed.  Articles and books followed the same method, skirting literary-historical backgrounds but enacting an adept application of theory.  Their proliferation resulted in a new epistemology for the field.  Much of the theory behind popular schools of interpretation explicitly denounced objective knowledge as an Enlightenment myth, a presumption of neutrality, a denial of interests and politics.  The success of that critique explains why, for instance, survey courses in English literature steadily dropped out as requirements for the major.

Similarly, one can attribute the absence of content in English language arts standards to performative goals.  After all, the emphasis on interpretive skills means that the texts interpreted needn’t be prescribed.  An expert interpreter can manage a 16th-century lyric as well as yesterday’s op-ed, right?  Anyone who insists on literary-historical knowledge clings to an exploded notion.  For people who embraced performance, the idea of a reading list isn’t just old-fashioned—it’s impertinent.

You can easily see how comprehension strategies complement this mode of interpretation.  Of course, the English graduate student possesses some literary-historical knowledge, while the typical 8th grader does not, but in their respective classrooms, what they learn has a common feature.  Both of them are taught to comprehend by applying abstract procedures to a text, for the one, “identify the main idea,” and for the other, “identify buried patriarchal norms” (to take one example).  Both classrooms emphasize the acts of the reader more than the content of the words read, putatively granting interpreters a mastery and liberation.  Know-how prevails over know-about.  Interpretation and comprehension abstract from the reading process discrete steps and ask students to practice them over and over.  (Many books in the 80s offered primer-like instructions in a deconstructive reading, a Freudian reading, etc.)  They also claim to be more advanced and au courant than old-fashioned exercises in memorization and general knowledge.  How much more 21st-century does a meta-cognitive exercise seem than knowing Pope’s versification?

The fate of interpretative performance in recent years, however, should give strategies enthusiasts pause.  Readers of this blog may have followed ongoing discussions in national periodicals of the deteriorating condition of the humanities in higher education. (See here and here and here.) Numerous reports, op-eds, essays, and books have noted that foreign language departments have closed, research funding has shrunk, sales of humanities monographs have slid into the low-hundreds, leisure literary reading among teens has plummeted, and humanities coursework has diminished in general education requirements.  Today, all of the humanities fields (including history) collect only one-eighth of four-year degrees.  Over the same period during which knowledge about literary history was displaced by application of interpretive strategies, literary study slipped from center stage of higher education to the wings.  Undergraduates just aren’t into it anymore.

Given the performative turn, can you blame them?  If you were a 19-year-old signing up for next semester’s classes, which would attract you: one, learning about Achilles and Hector clashing on the plain, one a surly killing animal, the other a noble family man and virtuous warrior; or two, practicing theoretical readings of The Iliad?  The first underscores the content and context of the epic, the second the concepts and procedures theorists have devised to analyze it.  The second excites only professional interpreters of literature; a horde of laypersons love Homer, few of them love postcolonialism.

This is the steady truth that the performative turn in higher education forgot.  People love the humanities because of the content of them, not because of the interpretation of them.  They want to read about Satan spying on Eve in the Garden in Paradise Lost; Gray’s solemn lines in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”; Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia broke and hungry; the anguish of Conrad’s Kurtz . . .  The act of interpreting them pleases them less than the act of reading them.

The same may be said for “strategies” instruction in K-12.  What could be more tedious and uninspiring than efforts such as “Students are taught to generate their own questions” and “Students are taught to become aware of what they do not understand”?  These metacognitive strategies turn the reading experience into a stilted, halting activity, making the content students must learn a boring rehearsal.  Let us teach students those capacities, yes, but not in so labored and ponderous and lengthy a manner.  Scale reading comprehension strategies down to lesser occasions, and abandon the validation that seems to come from upper-crust interpretation theory.  Interpretative performance has had a half-century in higher education, and comprehensions strategies the same in K-12.  Neither one has lived up to the promise and it’s time to explode their presumption of supremacy.


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

by Lisa Hansel
December 10th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Knowledge Got to Do with It? A PISA Roundup

by Lisa Hansel
December 6th, 2013

We’ve all seen the PISA results this week: On reading, math, and science, our 15-year-olds have not made any improvements since 2009—but their peers in many other countries have. Some people question international assessments, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term assessment confirms PISA’s key finding: our teenagers are not improving.

In the chatter about PISA, there’s been a decent amount of good sense, but also a disturbing dance around the in-school factors that most affect what students know and are able to do: masterful teaching of a rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curriculum.

(Bright idea courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Dana Goldstein, writing for Slate, came close, noting that “out-of-school social supports matter, teachers should be empowered, and all kids ought to be exposed to the most challenging material.” And yet, she seemed to assume that America actually has a math curriculum: “Since the Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth in our currently rushed and overstuffed American math curriculum, it probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA.” Bill Schmidt’s research clearly showed that even math courses with the same name don’t teach the same content, so we’re far from an “American math curriculum.” Still, Goldstein’s key points, that all kids should get the same challenging material and that the Common Core could help nudge schools in that direction, ring true.

Adam Taylor, for Business Insider, boiled it down further and also hit on a nugget of truth: “the domination of PISA rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding all the top seven spaces in math, the top five in reading, and the top four in science. Ultimately, this success might come down to something simple and harder to imitate — hard work.” Hard work is part of the picture, and there is certainly a tendency among some American parents and students to prefer stress-free happiness over academic pressure. But hard work alone won’t increase achievement. The content of the instructional materials matters. Adults need to do their hard work—writing the content-rich curriculum that the Common Core standards call for is clearly necessary.

New research from ACT shows that writing a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum aligned with the Common Core would be wise. By having over 2,000 10th graders take PISA and PLAN, ACT’s college and career readiness assessment that is aligned with the Common Core, ACT found that those who meet PLAN/Common Core’s definition of college and career ready also perform quite well in comparison with their peers from around the world.

So, are there any concrete lessons we could take from those countries that perform well on, and are improving on, PISA? Marc Tucker of National Center on Education and the Economy thinks so. Here’s his too-rational-to-be-accepted-in-the-US summary of what the better-performing countries do:

The first thing they do is very simple: they carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.

Second, they provide more resources to the students who are harder to educate than to the students who are easier to educate.

Third, we see that all the top performers have invested heavily in the skills of their teachers.  Some have focused on sourcing their teachers from much higher quality high school graduates, insisting that their teachers have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they will teach (including their elementary school teachers) and insisting as well on solid preparation in the craft of teaching (they do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step).  Some, most notably Shanghai, have worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Fourth, they have all put a lot of effort into building internationally competitive academic standards, intellectually demanding curriculum and examinations built on the curriculum that are designed to measure the full range of complex thinking skills on which their standards are based.

The top performers have all found ways to give very young children and their parents a lot of support before the children first show up for school.  They pay a lot of attention to vocational education and training and to school to work transition.  Not least important they work hard to build effective systems, the parts and pieces of which are designed to support one another and rely—gasp!—on government to implement those systems well.


Can Knowledge Level The Learning Field For Children?

by Guest Blogger
December 2nd, 2013

By Esther Quintero

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

How much do preschoolers from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds know about the world and why does that matter? One recent study by Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan) provides some answers.

The researchers randomly selected children from preschool classrooms in two sites, one serving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the other serving middle-class kids. They then set about to answer three questions:

  1. Do poor and middle-class children possess different knowledge about the world?
  2. Do differences in knowledge influence the children’s ability to learn in the classroom?
  3. If differences in preexisting knowledge were neutralized, would the two groups of children learn similarly?

To answer the first question, the researchers determined how much children from both groups knew about birds and the extent to which they were able to make inferences about new words based on such knowledge.

Not surprisingly, lower-income children had significantly less knowledge about birds and bird behaviors than did their middle-class peers. To rule out the possibility that these differences were the result of disparities in language proficiency, Kaefer et al. measured the children’s receptive vocabularies. This way, they were able to establish that poor kids knew less about birds, not merely because they knew fewer words related to birds, but because they had less information about the domain in general.

To answer the second question — whether differences in knowledge influence the kids’ ability to learn in the classroom — a second study evaluated children’s ability to understand words out of context and to comprehend a story that was read to them. As predicted, children from middle-class backgrounds, who had greater knowledge about the domain category (i.e., birds), performed better in these two tasks than children with more limited knowledge about the domain.

It may not be obvious to adults, but learning words from books is not an automatic or straightforward task for young children. In fact, argue the authors of the paper, one of the factors influencing this process is children’s preexisting knowledge. Previous research (cited in the paper) has established that children with larger vocabularies acquire new words implicitly from storybooks more readily than children with smaller vocabularies. At least two mechanisms might explain the relationship between vocabulary and learning.

First, the authors note, one possible explanation is that metalinguistic factors (e.g., verbal IQ, working memory) explain the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and implicit word learning.

Alternatively, if children’s vocabulary is viewed as an indicator (or “reflection”) of their general background knowledge, it may be the breadth and depth of their preexisting knowledge that influences their implicit word learning.

The logic of the second mechanism is as follows: 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 new information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

To recap, the first study discussed above established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about a topic (i.e., birds) than their middle-class peers. Next, in study two, the researchers showed that differences in domain knowledge influenced children’s ability to understand words out of context, and to comprehend a story. Moreover, poor kids—who also had more limited knowledge—perform worse on these tasks than did their middle-class peers. But could additional knowledge be used to level the playing field for children from less affluent backgrounds?

In study three, the researchers held the children’s prior knowledge constant by introducing a fictitious topic—i.e., a topic that was sure to be unknown to both groups. When the two groups of children were assessed on word learning and comprehension related to this new domain, the researchers found no significant differences in how poor and middle-class children learned words, comprehended a story or made inferences.

These results:

  • Add to the body of research showing that preexisting knowledge shapes incidental vocabulary learning and comprehension for children, and that this is true for children as young as preschool age;
  • Highlight the need to build children’s background knowledge more systematically and strategically, and suggest that procedures to activate children’s prior knowledge—e.g., storybook reading—may prove fruitless when such knowledge does not exist.

While this research, like all research, has limitations—see the paper for a discussion of these—the results taken together suggest that one powerful way to level the “learning field” for all children is to facilitate poor kids’ access to “taken for granted” knowledge that middle class children, on average, are more likely to possess, primarily because they have been exposed to it in the first place.

When poor and middle-class children are given the same opportunities to assimilate new knowledge, their subsequent learning is comparable. Of course this is only one study, but the main finding and its implications are extremely powerful. It suggests that if preschool programs are not making a difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it might be the case that the programs are not tackling an important but solvable problem: A deficit in knowledge.


Culture Trip

by EmmaEarnst
November 26th, 2013

Lucky me! I just checked off an item on my bucket list—a trip to Altun-Ha, a Mayan city in Belize. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading about early American history. Actually walking through the ruins—and learning yet more from an incredible tour guide with Mayan roots—gave me even greater perspective and insight. Most importantly, it left me eager to study even more.

Returning to work here at Core Knowledge, I’ve been considering how to give students similar experiences. Certainly, most students are not going to take a trip to a Mayan, Aztec, Incan, or other early American site because they happen to be learning about it in school. Most are not even going to see less exotic places like the Statue of Liberty, Angel Island, the White House, or the Alamo before they graduate. (I graduated long ago and have still only seen one of those four!)

It’s important to realize, though, that every location—whether the farmlands of Nebraska or the urban epicenter of New York City—has historic and cultural experiences we can offer our students. Through careful choice, planning, and collaboration, we can give our students a sampling of such opportunities. A recent (in fact, the first major) study on the effects of field trips on students has shown what many have long taken for granted: field trips offer measureable learning benefits to students, including an increased retention of factual knowledge pertaining to their visit, developing understandings based on that knowledge, historical empathy, tolerance, and a higher interest in returning to museums. These effects, moreover, are generally much larger for students from less-advantaged backgrounds.

The significance of offering our students such cultural experiences is obvious, and yet the field trip is becoming less and less common in our schools. As the study documents, the trips that are happening are often not learning-based, “enrichment” trips, but “reward” trips to movie theaters, sporting events, and amusement parks that offer little educational value. With what small budget a school may have for field trips, it can make the most of those dollars—instructionally speaking—through careful planning: teaching students (and getting them excited) about the place in advance, visiting it to contextualize and deepen that knowledge, and then learning yet more about it after the trip.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

I once worked for a historical society in Charlottesville, VA, where I would occasionally lead groups of youngsters from local elementary and middle schools through a particular exhibit in our museum or a place in our town. Wanting to create a meaningful experience, I sent teachers pre-visit materials containing (among other things) background information on the place, ideas, and/or people we’d be learning more about during their visit. When students arrived, I would pre-assess (through a lively conversation) to determine what they’d retained so far and tailor my presentation and activities (as much as I could) to their knowledge level. I even created “Students will be able to…” goals for the day and designed my plans around them. At the end of our day, I would tie what the class had just learned with what they already knew, and—whenever I had an enthusiastic teacher committed to following up—what they were going to be learning in the future. Occasionally, I’d even hear from teachers about how they discussed their museum trip later in the year to tie in another concept or figure.

By setting such outings in the context of larger learning goals, field trips don’t even need to take students to new or extraordinary places. I once led a group of fifth-graders to the Downtown Mall here in Charlottesville—a commercial space that most, if not all, had visited before. But by learning about the history of the pedestrian street, and then looking for and talking about specific, historic parts of the mall that the students would never notice on a normal visit, they saw it in a completely new way. Likewise, kindergarten students at Brevard Academy CFA recently visited an orchard to support the Plants and Farms domains in the Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Visiting a place that may have seemed ordinary to adults offered these little ones the opportunity to witness and better understand farm animals, how a farm works, and the lifecycle of an apple tree.

By giving students the proper framework for a field trip—even to a not-so-unusual place, students will get the maximum benefit from their trip: retention, understanding, empathy, and a desire to visit and understand other cultural institutions in the future. Certainly, my experience at Altun-Ha is a testament to this—without the same, now automatic framework for learning and exploration, I’d never have been compelled to sojourn there or so enjoy doing so.

Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies

by Lisa Hansel
November 21st, 2013

One thing I’ve seen in too many schools is a willy-nilly approach to selecting texts for English language arts instruction. I’ve long suspected that it is a wide-spread problem, and now a new survey confirms my fear. In a Fordham Institute report by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett, over 1,000 teachers were asked whether texts or strategies came first. Strategies, hands down. (For more from this report, see my last post.)

Here are the options on the survey: do you “Teach particular books, short stories, essays, and poems that you think students should read and then organize instruction around them, teaching a variety of reading skills and strategies as tools for students to understand the texts”? Or, do you “Focus instruction on reading skills and strategies first, e.g., main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose, and then organize teaching around them, so that students will apply these skills and strategies to any book, short story, essay, or poem they read”?

Only 22% of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies. The remaining 5% focus on something else or both. Things improve a bit in later grades; 56% of middle-grades and 46% of ninth- and tenth-grade teachers focus on strategies.

This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach to me. Strategies like “main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose” and others can be used with thousands of different texts. But essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts. Strategies are not learning objectives in and of themselves; they are tools for gaining access to the knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts in the texts.

This idea seems to have gotten lost. I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed. One of these books is has earned canon status through literary brilliance. One of these books pulls students into some of the most difficult, painful, and important (yes, to this day) issues in our nation. The other dabbles with some important concepts, but is not extraordinary or even enlightening. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Or, to ask the question more productively, what can happen when knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts come first; texts are selected that draw students into wrestling with the content; and strategies are rightly seen as mere tools? Diana Senechal answers:

Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

All true. But strategies don’t have to interfere with teaching and learning; they don’t have to dominate Common Core implementation. They can be put in their rightful place as tools for exploring subject matter. Indeed, the standards themselves call for the content-rich curriculum to take center stage. Teachers that follow Senechal’s lead will exceed the standards—in their own “intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic” ways.


Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Lisa Hansel
November 18th, 2013

Here’s a far too common sight in middle schools with lots of students from low-income families: adolescents bored with and discouraged by books for elementary students. Bored because the content is simplistic; discouraged because even these kids’ books contain vocabulary they don’t know.

Some school systems assume that students this far behind are “slow” and that this is the best they can do; but very often, the only thing these students lack is the opportunity—not the capacity—to be on grade level.

To understand this, you need to know about two things: the vocabulary demands of written texts and the limitations inherent in typical elementary-grades reading instruction.

As for the vocabulary in texts, it is far more sophisticated than the vocabulary in spoken language. One study comparing spoken and written language found that, “Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the richness and complexity of the words used in the oral language samples paled in comparison with the written texts. Indeed, of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was expert witness testimony.”

This has obvious implications for instruction: To build vocabulary, students must be immersed in texts. Studying vocabulary lists can help a little, but as E. D. Hirsch has explained, the tens of thousands of words that need to be learned must be absorbed bit by bit, through multiple exposures in multiple texts.

I don’t think you’ll find many teachers arguing against a print-rich environment. You will, sadly, find many who have been trained—through teacher preparation programs and mandated professional development—in instructional methods that prevent children from developing large vocabularies.

The culprit is the notion of the “just-right” book. A book that is not too easy and not too hard, a book that a child can read independently. Sounds good. But what happens when a child who is not learning much vocabulary at home is in a classroom where all of his texts are matched to his current level? Growth, but at a glacial pace. Blink and these kids are in eighth grade reading “just-right” third grade books.

The path to college is paved with challenging texts. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

One of the most important instructional shifts embedded in the Common Core standards is to accelerate growth by immersing students in grade-level books. I’ve seen many descriptions and misunderstandings of this. Finally, a clear, concise explanation is provided in a terrific report that Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett published with the Fordham Institute last month:

The CCSS seek to challenge students with texts that are grade-appropriate (on a K-12 trajectory to college- and career-readiness), rather than those that are only as challenging as students can read on their own.

American schools have long attempted to differentiate instruction to meet individual students’ learning needs. In reading, this has often meant selecting texts not according to whether they are appropriately rigorous for the grade, in terms of both content and complexity, but rather according to how well a student could read the text by himself at that point in time. In many classrooms and for many students, this has meant assigning texts to struggling readers, the content and complexity of which are more appropriate to lower grade levels. Done this way, the goal is to assign books that students will be able to read with high degrees of both accuracy (recognizing 95 percent of the words) and comprehension (answering 75-90 percent of the questions). Materials that students can read this well are said to be at their “instructional level,” and materials that are harder are deemed to be at a “frustration level.”

But the Common Core discourages teachers from doing this out-of-level teaching. Instead, the standards demand regular practice with grade-appropriate texts, regardless of the independent or instructional reading level of the student. The idea is that teacher support and explanation, not text difficulty, is what should be differentiated to meet the needs of struggling readers.

Some may question the wisdom of teaching students with texts that they’re unlikely to understand without help. But research suggests teachers can’t pinpoint students’ reading levels with great precision.18 Even if they could, students can learn effectively from a broad range of text levels and giving them a steady diet of relatively easy texts doesn’t support learning effectively.19 In fact, some studies have reported greater learning gains when students were taught with markedly more challenging texts.20 Still, there is a long history of encouraging instructional-level teaching in U.S. schools.21

Shifting from assigning books that students can read independently to works that require more deliberate teacher guidance and support changes the instructional focus of reading class. The time that teachers once spent trying to pinpoint individual student reading levels and match books to them should instead now be focused on providing greater support for students who are struggling to read these texts, including more explanations and rereading.

According to Fordham’s report, nearly two-thirds of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers select texts based on students’ reading level—not their grade level. Even if this one instructional shift is the only thing accomplished by the Common Core, then all the effort will be richly rewarded.


When Old Is New: Lessons from China

by Lisa Hansel
November 13th, 2013

Working with E. D. Hirsch has many perks. The best is that he’s a very generous teacher. His remarks are peppered with cultural references, and he seems happiest when I ask about one (or many) that I don’t quite get.

The second-best perk is that he is asked to speak at far too many events, leaving me as the occasional surrogate. It’s an impossible—and incredibly fun—task, especially the one-week adventure I just had in China.

Thanks to Professor Wenfan Yan of University of Massachusetts Boston, China’s New Education Association (a group of reform-oriented teachers, administrators, and professors) is interested in developing a Core Knowledge Sequence for China. I had the great pleasure of giving a couple of presentations at its International Summit on New Education in Chengdu.

Like the sign in the Beijing airport that reads “Generic Shop,” I’m sure much was lost in translation. But the ideas and initiatives that came through are remarkable.

Like the Core Knowledge Foundation, the New Education Association is dedicated to reducing inequities in children’s educational opportunities, both at school and at home. Everyone interested in school improvement is aware of Shanghai’s spectacular results, and the fact that those results are far from typical. There are enormous disparities between the high-income urban centers and the low-income rural areas. The New Education Association is trying to develop approaches that will help all students.

Their plan: get everyone reading. Get teachers reading to improve their content and pedagogical knowledge. Get parents reading for their own sake and to act as role models for their children. Get children reading at least 30 minutes each day.

Seems pretty simple, until you understand just how severe the resource deprivation is in many rural areas. Small farming villages tend not to have libraries; in some areas, books are downright scarce. But the New Education Association is not merely lamenting the problem. It has opened more than 40 libraries so far, and has a goal of opening 81 in the near future. Meanwhile, it has started a mobile book program, led book drives to give thousands of books to farmers’ children, and encouraged schools to put far more of their resources into their libraries.

In a visit to Chengdu Jinli Primary School, I saw the fruits of this effort. The principal, Li Tong, pointed out that the library is the biggest room in the school. It’s also the warmest and most welcoming. After school, students waiting to be picked up could play outside or head to the library; there were almost as many reading as running around.

Reading is great. Having access to a wide assortment of books is critical. Still, I was hoping for more.

Throughout the summit, I fidgeted about trying to find a polite way to ask what, exactly, children are being encouraged to read. At the very end of the summit, I got an answer—in Mandarin. Two booklets were placed in my hands: One recommends 100 books that all primary school students (grades 1 – 6, ages 7 – 12) should read; the other is a guide for parents to encourage and support their children as they read.

Fortunately, many of the book covers are shown. Even though I can only read a fraction of the titles, I’m delighted with what I see:

  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio
  • The Magic School Bus
  • Chinese Fairy Tales
  • The Secret of the Magic Gourd
  • Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales
  • The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland
  • Peter Pan
  • Greek Fairy Tales
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • A Journey to the Center of the Earth

From the cover art, I can say with confidence that there are also books on science experiments, earthquakes, insects, and pandas.

Many of the covers have beautiful, traditional Chinese brush paintings. I’m told that these books contain older Chinese works—many of which were passed down orally for generations—and that a big part of this effort is to ensure widespread, shared knowledge of China’s cultural heritage. More than a few of the group’s leaders mentioned their appreciation for Hirsch’s The Making of Americans. I think we can expect The Making of the Chinese soon.

At Chengdu Jinli Primary School, there are 42 students squeezed into each class; teachers make do with old furniture and technology (middle). The library, in contrast, is bright and cheerful, with an inviting tree at the entrance (top). At Chengdu Zongbei Middle School, the library spills into open walkways (bottom). Round bookshelves and seats have been built around several massive columns; they not only invite reading, the posters covering the seat backs have short biographies of great writers, including Miguel de Cervantes, Ernest Hemingway, and Hans Christian Andersen.

World Studies Could Make a World of Difference

by Lisa Hansel
November 5th, 2013

In my last post, I tossed out a not-quite-baked idea for a new academic major for elementary teachers: World Studies. That major would ensure teachers have the broad range of knowledge they need to introduce our students to the world via literature, history, geography, science, mathematics, and the arts.

One point that is obvious to the Core Knowledge community—yet somehow shocking and mysterious to most of the education world—is that before we could decide what academics future teachers need to study in their prep programs, we need to decide what all elementary students must learn. Drum roll: We need a core K-5 curriculum.


Refusing to identify and teach essential knowledge has consequences. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Some people might think we kinda sorta have a core curriculum with the Common Core standards. In math, I would agree—the actual math that has to be mastered each year is specified. It’s far from a full-blown curriculum, but it does provide concrete guidance on what math to teach. However, the Common Core ELA standards are nearly content free. They indicate the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills students need to develop, but they do not outline content to be taught grade by grade. Instead, the ELA standards call on schools to create content-rich curricula infused with nonfiction texts, thereby systematically building broad knowledge across academic subjects.

I am grateful that the Common Core ELA standards explain the benefits of building knowledge. In implementation, schools need to realize that when they forge ahead without any shared core of content for each grade, they miss out on the many benefits of a coherent educational system. I’ve written about the problems with student mobility; today I want to share a terrific, little-known article by education professor David Cohen. In “Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular,” he explains the massive leaps forward we could make in student and teacher evaluation if only we specified what students are supposed to know:

Because local control and weak government were the foundations of U.S. public education, most of our school systems never developed the common instruments that are found in many national school systems…. These include a common curriculum or curriculum frameworks, common examinations tied to the curriculum, teacher education grounded in learning to teach the curriculum that students are to learn, and a teaching force whose members succeeded in those curriculum-based exams as students, among other things. Teachers who work with such infrastructure have instruments that they can use to set academic tasks tied to curriculum and assessment. They have a common vocabulary with which they can work together to identify, investigate, discuss, and solve problems of teaching and learning. Hence, they can have professional knowledge and skill, held in common….

Because there is no common infrastructure for U.S. public education, it has developed several anomalous features. One of the most important concerns testing: because there is no common curriculum, it is impossible to devise tests that assess the extent of students’ mastery of that curriculum. So, even though we’ve been testing student learning for nearly 100 years, only isolated programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate) have tested whether students learned what they were supposed to have been taught. In the early 1900s, when E. L. Thorndike and his colleagues and students invented tests of students’ academic performance, they devised tests that were designed to be independent of any particular curriculum. Nonetheless, those tests, and more recently developed similar tests, were and are used to assess students’ progress in learning. That has to rank as one of the strangest creations in the history of education.

Teacher education is a second anomaly: absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects….

Absent a common curriculum, common assessments, common measures of performance, and teacher education tied to these things, it will be terribly difficult to devise technically valid and educationally usable means to judge and act on teaching performance. Building a coherent educational system would be a large task, but not nearly as daunting as trying to solve our educational problems without building such a system. Without standards and measures of quality practice—grounded in linked curriculum, assessments, and teacher education—it will be impossible to build a knowledgeable occupation of teaching, and a knowledgeable occupation is the only durable solution to the problem of quality in teaching.