Knowledge Equality

by Lisa Hansel
June 11th, 2015

I’m for knowledge equality. Most days, it seems about as popular as marriage equality was in the 1950s.

What I mean by knowledge equality is all children having equal opportunities to learn the academic knowledge that opens doors. The knowledge that really is power. The knowledge that represents the history of human accomplishment. The knowledge that stands the test of time because it is beautiful.

The knowledge that privileged children acquire at home, in libraries and museums, and in school.

Under the banners of local control, diversity, and individuality, we’ve spent decades pursuing universal skills while deemphasizing shared knowledge. But it isn’t working and it can’t work. Skills depend on knowledge, so knowledge equality is the only path to skill equality.

Fortunately, there is room for both knowledge equality and individuality: The well-educated mind is always open to learning more. There’s no reason why our schools could not all offer the same powerful foundation of knowledge and then also engage students in their passions (which would be quite broad thanks to the well-rounded foundation).

No reason except being afraid of having the discussion, of debating what constitutes the powerful foundation of knowledge. Thirty years ago E. D. Hirsch and colleagues took on that challenge as a research project. While that effort has been updated and is thriving through Core Knowledge, perhaps it is time for another effort. One that involves millions of teachers, parents, and concerned citizens—a crowdsourced outline of a well-rounded education.

It would be hard—but not as hard as allowing the achievement gap to persist. The achievement gap is a knowledge gap. Knowledge equality is the only way to close it.

 

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Aren’t both of these children equally deserving of a rich, well-rounded education? Don’t both need to be immersed in the sciences and arts, US and world history, music, civics, and more? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Spend the Summer Reading (Aloud)

by Lisa Hansel
June 9th, 2015

Of all the things I want to thank my mother for, the time she devoted to reading aloud to me as a child is at the top of the list. She didn’t just tuck my sister and me into bed with a little story; she climbed in an hour before bedtime and read aloud full novels in just a few weeks.

Years ago, my mother was in a car accident; we knew she would be okay, but we had some rough times to get through. The hospital room didn’t allow for snuggling up, but as my sister and I took turns reading aloud Jane Austen in Boca, we recaptured that bedtime story feeling. I’ve wondered ever since how I could get the three of us to read aloud to each other, even if just once a year.

So a recent blog post by Deb Werrlein brought a big smile to my face—she’s still reading aloud to her teenagers!

Reading aloud to little kids is common (and should be universal); it develops language, vocabulary, and knowledge—and makes for great family time. But not long after children learn to read, most parents stop reading aloud. That’s a shame. As Thomas Sticht has found, listening comprehension typically outstrips reading comprehension until age 13. Through middle school, teachers and parents could boost learning by reading texts that are too challenging for children to tackle on their own.

That should be plenty of inducement, but that’s not what kept Deb going. She’s made reading aloud part of her family life for pure enjoyment—the reading itself and the rich conversations that ensue:

Before the days of radio, television and the Xbox, families often gathered to listen as someone read aloud for entertainment. This communal activity prompted discussion, speculation, and debate.

In our modern day, reading together can generate common ground for parents and teens who might otherwise find their interests diverging. Reading with my kids has spurred lively discussions about war, pride, racism, greed, capitalism, and addiction. Of course, we also spend plenty of time soaking in the suspense of what will happen next. For my kids, it’s pure entertainment. For me, it’s rare quiet time spent together and the opportunity to connect. Whatever our motivations, this pleasure and bonding has kept us reading together for years….

On some nights, we read during chores—where one of us washes dishes while the other reads out loud. Other times, we read on vacation. When my husband, the kids, and I drove to Florida this past Christmas, we listened to “The Help” on CD for 18 hours, bringing our family together around one story in the car….

The novel my son and I just finished is one of many Stephen King books we have read together. When I gave it to him for his birthday last June, I knew the 842-page tome might be the last we’d have time to read together. It took us almost a year to get through it, but at least that gave us months to talk about the book. We speculated all winter about whether the time-traveling protagonist could save President Kennedy, and if he did, what sinister repercussions Stephen King might have in store this time.

When we finally turned the last page, I was sad for the end of an era. My son will graduate this June and leave for college in August. But I’m so grateful for the stacks of books and memories we’ve made over the years.

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Teens reading to each other courtesy of Shutterstock.

Does Class Trump Ability?

by Lisa Hansel
June 5th, 2015

“A 13-year study that tracked students of different socioeconomic status found that ‘class trumps ability’ most times when it comes to college graduation, including when comparing top-achieving poor teenagers with top-achieving affluent teenagers.”

That’s the summary by Chalkbeat New York (which is an excellent source of info on NYC schools). It links to a New York Times article with some not-very-surprising findings: “A low-income college student with top math scores has the same chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree (41 percent) as a rich student with mediocre scores.”

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The interesting question is why. It isn’t really the case that “class trumps ability.” What’s really going on is that class contributes to ability in ways that our standardized tests don’t capture. There are plenty of obvious ways that money makes college easier: wealthier students don’t need jobs, have time for study groups, can afford all of the books, have their own computers so they don’t have to trek to campus, can hire tutors, etc.

There may also be more subtle ways that class impacts ability. For example, research with elementary-grades students conducted by Jessica Calarco found that wealthier students are more likely to seek clarifications, ask for help, and generally demand what they need to be able to learn:

Compared to working-class students, middle-class children ask for more help from teachers, and approach these interactions more assertively, even calling out or getting up to make requests. Because teachers are more responsive to these proactive strategies, they become a form of cultural capital that yields meaningful but stratified social profits.

The working-class children Calarco observed learned less not because they were less able in the academic sense, but because they didn’t feel comfortable making demands on their teachers. Instead of making their needs known, often they waited for the teacher to be free to help them (or to notice they needed help).

Elementary teachers are generally quite attentive to children’s needs, so this is yet another example of small differences having a big impact over time. Now imagine this same class-based difference on a college campus. In my experience, college professors were not attentive. They expected their adult students be proactive and assertive. I’d love to see Calarco’s work replicated with college students—perhaps colleges could devise a support structure to help some students become more proactive.

Another way that class impacts ability is, of course, cultural literacy. Standardized tests are far from adequate in capturing the full range of knowledge that affects the daily interactions on college campuses. As Karin Chenoweth has noted, even the brightest of students can feel out of place in college if they lack the broad knowledge that wealthy students take for granted. In her autobiography, Sonia Sotomayor explains that despite her dedication as a student and top scores, “there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

The toughest thing about such differences in knowledge is that far too many students misinterpret them as differences in innate ability or potential. They aren’t. We may not be able to remediate all of the obvious differences between or more- and less-advantaged students, but we can narrow the knowledge gap by giving everyone a rich, well-rounded, cumulative education. For our most determined students, we may be able to close the cultural literacy and assertiveness gaps, which may greatly increase their odds of graduating from college.

Solving the Grit Problem

by Lisa Hansel
June 2nd, 2015

Thanks to a new friend, I just read an interesting little article on the struggle to name the set of skills and traits that most successful people exhibit: grit, critical thinking, persistence, optimism, self-control, curiosity, soft skills, etc. The naming part is merely amusing—but the comments surrounding the naming debate offer insights into the skills dilemma. The target is ambiguous, the key factors are slippery, and many of the current names are misleading because they obscure the real key: being immersed in a knowledge-rich environment that provides the best of our human heritage. From critical thinking to character, pretty much all of this slippery stuff is actually cultivated by rigorous pursuit of the liberal arts.

Reading the naming debate, it struck me as a sad sign of how narrow and sickly the typical school curriculum has become.

Go ask a successful coach how to teach things like optimism and grit: Set a really ambitious goal, work incredibly hard to accomplish it, provide honest feedback, figure out what each kid’s best is and settle for nothing less, and celebrate the small victories along the way. In the end, you really did win if everyone gave 100%.

I’m simplifying, but you get the idea. Now compare that competitive coach to what’s happening during the school day. According to nationally representative data analyzed by the Center for American Progress:

  • In math, 37% of fourth graders, 29% of eighth graders, and 21% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.
  • In history, 57% of eighth graders and 55% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.
  • In civics, 51% of eighth graders and 56% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.

Have you ever heard a teenager say football practice was too easy?

This brings me to my very unscientific theory: Thanks to the self-esteem movement, the narrowing of the curriculum, and test-prep drills that focus more on strategies than on content, we now have a grit, character, team work, self-discipline, call-it-whatever-you-want problem.

The solution to this problem is not to try to directly teach these skills and traits—it is to develop a rigorous, knowledge-rich, well-rounded curriculum that demands such abilities be developed in order to get the work done.

I had some easy history classes in middle school. Then I had a high school US history class with fact- and concept-heavy exams, quarterly debates, and a college-quality term paper (that was spread across the entire year so we were taught each step of the research and writing process). The class was not easy. It was also one of the best I ever took. Grit was necessary, but not the goal. We were given a goal that made us want to develop knowledge, skills, and grit: understanding America’s past and present so that we would be capable of helping shape a better tomorrow.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

On Blooming

by EmmaEarnst
May 26th, 2015

As a member of the team of educators and editors developing Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), I’m continually proud of and impressed by the understandings, connections, and accomplishments that students reach when their incredible teachers use the CKLA program to guide instruction.

There’s Olivia, the darling girl on this Amplify Learning video, who discovers her ability, and love for, reading. There are the scores of children we see and hear during school visits who are using academic and domain vocabulary (tiers 2 and 3) as they make cross-curricular connections.

And then there are the writers. Being a writer myself, seeing students use writing as a means of expressing themselves is one of my favorite rewards.

Acting as “Kate,” I have the opportunity to see students blossom in just this way every year.

You see, every spring as the daffodils, tulips, and peonies lift their heads in succession to greet us, something else magical happens as well: Kate Skipper letters come pouring in!

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As part of CKLA’s Skills strand, first graders read Kate’s Book during the fifth of seven units. Depending on various factors like school schedules and student progression, this typically falls between the months of March and May. After reading Kate’s Book and learning about opinion writing, students write a letter to Kate Skipper, the main character and “author” of their reader. Kate explains it best in her introductory letter to the book:

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Students read the thirteen stories that make up Kate’s Book over the course of a 23-day unit. While reading the book, students simultaneously develop and then publish an opinion letter to Kate. At the end of the book and unit, students are offered the chance to send their letters to Kate Skipper care of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hundreds of letters pour in and I, as Kate, write back. First-grade teachers: Keep them coming!

As explained in the recent post by Debbie Reynolds, a teacher in Nevada, CKLA develops writing ability by supporting students to use their background knowledge, build new knowledge orally, and organize their thoughts before tackling any larger writing project. First graders’ letter to Kate is the culmination of exposure and study throughout the year; students’ growth, enthusiasm, and attitudes are clearly reflected in their letters.

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The most common response from students follows along these lines: “Loved your book, Kate! When will you write another?”

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Notice Linsey’s opinion “I like Max” is backed up with reason: “because he has a hat.”

 

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Likewise, Samuel explains that he likes the books because Kate and her friend, Max, find a T. rex bone.

This year, we got a special surprise as just before the letters to Kate Skipper began rolling in: We received a letter from Olivia (not the same Olivia in the Amplify video), a second grader, that reflects not just her heart-felt opinion, but also showcases her reasoning. Olivia, described by her teacher as “the premier animal lover and animal expert in [her] classroom,” disagreed with the portrayal of snakes and spiders in the CKLA book Sir Gus. Olivia’s teacher used this as an opportunity for enrichment, and suggested that Olivia write to us at the Foundation respectfully explaining her position.

Olivia took up on her teacher’s suggestion, and wrote us the following letter:

bear CKLA,

My name is Olivia and I am second grader….I am reading Sir Guse I like it but Sir Gus is a skardy cat. I noticed a big problem….You making a bad impreshen to make kids skarde of spiders and snakes you know you should relley study an animal before you guge it.

Sinserely,

Olivia

Olivia clearly displays the tenets of persuasive writing she learned from CKLA (argument, reasoning, and personal connection), and uses them to make her opinions known and potentially improve how CKLA represents animals. I am—we are—enormously proud of her!

By learning about and practicing persuasive writing in CKLA, and building a base of knowledge, Olivia was prepared for this unique opportunity to make her voice heard—and that will serve her well throughout her life.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

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The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.

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* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.

A Successful Formula: Shared Curriculum + Shared Responsibility

by Lisa Hansel
May 12th, 2015

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Like pretty much everyone who is passionate about closing the achievement gap, I’m interested in Success Academies. I’ve read Eva Moskowitz’s book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School, and watched the videos that come with it. But I’m still not sure what to think. The extraordinary results might be due to creaming motivated families or not backfilling after the early grades or too much test prep. These questions will likely be answered over the next several years.

Still, it seems clear that lots of students are getting a good education in Success Academies. If there were no test prep (or any manipulations of the student body), then I think the test scores would still be impressive, if not extraordinary.

So, what are they doing? Charles Sahm’s recent article in Education Next provides some answers. Having visited four Success Academies and interviewed staff, supporters, and critics, he presents a richer picture of the schools than previous accounts.

Without detracting from the complex array of supports needed to attain strong results, I think two of Success Academies’ focal points anchor the whole endeavor: a shared curriculum and a shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm reaches a very similar conclusion, “What separates Success, in my opinion, is a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.” But I’d like to highlight a small difference that, in my opinion, has a huge impact. It’s the sharing.

Curriculum itself matters, of course, shared or not. And Success Academies are driven to improve what they teach. I was overjoyed to read that they find Core Knowledge helpful:

This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

I hope that this endorsement gets more reformers thinking about content-specific, rich, cumulative curriculum. School choice and teacher evaluation might be sexier topics, but curriculum is a primary factor in opportunity to learn. Perhaps that fact that New York City’s top two charter networks look to E. D. Hirsch will get them thinking. As Sahm writes:

New York’s second-highest performing charter network, the seven Icahn schools in the Bronx, uses the content-rich Core Knowledge ELA curriculum, which is well aligned with the Common Core—further evidence that curriculum counts.

Many teachers outside these charter networks see the value of their school having a strong curriculum; Sahm quotes one, who says “What each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.”

That would be a step forward for the vast majority of schools. It worked well for PS 124, a neighborhood school in Queens that greatly increased student achievement over 15 years under the leadership of Valarie Lewis. Lewis, who is now a Core Knowledge Fellow, implemented the Core Knowledge Sequence starting in 1999. By 2007, she won a Dispelling the Myth Award from the Education Trust. To get there, she made tough choices, including forgoing two assistant principals to fund extra learning time. In 2014, when Lewis retired, PS 124’s economically disadvantaged students significantly outperformed the city; their percentage proficient was 8 points higher in reading and math. But I am convinced that PS 124 could have done even better if it had the support of a network of schools all using the same curriculum.

When several schools work together on a shared curriculum, great benefits become possible. Sahm offers a powerful example:

Shortly before a lesson is taught across the network, an experienced teacher delivers (and video-records) the lesson early to her students, and shares the recording with other teachers.

Here’s the result:

All the teachers I spoke with agree that Success prepares its teachers well. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated.

And the kicker:

Even critical former teachers credited the network with having improved their craft.

Which brings me to the other focal point: shared responsibility for teaching quality. Once you have a shared curriculum, you have a platform for helping teachers improve. You have a reasonable basis for comparing performance and figuring out what’s more and less effective. Comparing one teacher’s lesson on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to another’s on Esperanza Rising really is comparing apples to oranges. In contrast, shared curriculum leads to shared knowledge and shared pedagogical content knowledge.

Of course, the curriculum alone does not do this; the system has to believe in shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm quotes Moskowitz as saying, “It really is the level of preparation of the teacher and the teacher really understanding the book, the poem, the read-aloud…how much feedback the teacher gets.” Novice teachers and principals are placed in apprenticeship-type positions and given lots of time and feedback to hone their craft. Expert teachers and leaders are responsible for supporting others.

In all, Sahm has given us a valuable look inside Success Academies. He remains duly skeptical, but impressed. The one spot where I think he stumbles is in wondering, “If tests are high quality and well aligned with a high-quality curriculum, is ‘teaching to the test’ necessarily bad?” He continues:

I visited a 4th-grade English class where a boy was asked to identify the main idea from a short story. He started to retell the story. The teacher corrected him, and, with gentle prodding, he identified the author’s central point. Some might call that “test prep” because there are main-idea questions on the state exam. But it’s also a skill that’ll make that boy a better reader and communicator.

The problem is that the test is not aligned to the curriculum. To be aligned, the test would have to sample the knowledge in the curriculum, not just the skills. In math, the tests are aligned—the Common Core standards clearly state what math knowledge and skills students must acquire each year, and the tests cover both. But in language arts and literacy, the Common Core standards only state the skills—they do not say what knowledge students must acquire. Finding the main idea is a skill—and it depends on having knowledge of the topic in the text.

The fact that the actual knowledge needed for the reading tests is unpredictable is the reason why Success Academies get much better results in math than in reading. In math, it is possible to fully prepare for the test by teaching all of the required knowledge and skills. But in reading, the best one can do is to have students practice the skills while acquiring broad knowledge. The broader the students’ knowledge, the higher the odds that they’ll have the knowledge needed for whatever passages are on the test. This is why there is such a strong correlation between reading scores and socioeconomic status. Kids with better-educated parents tend to have broader knowledge.

According to Sahm, Success Academies have a broad, rich, specific, shared curriculum. Their reading achievement leads me to believe that’s true. And, their professed love of E. D. Hirsch is a good sign too! Which leaves just one question: Will the Success Academy network release its curriculum? The Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts are online for free. From the beginning, Hirsch has hoped for another Sequence—another specific, rich, broad approach to educating children. Success Academies seem to have it, so I hope they’ll share.

From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing

by Guest Blogger
April 30th, 2015

By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).

DR8

Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.

DR2

The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.

DR1

Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.

DR4

Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.

DR6

DR5

For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.

DR Directions for journey west Narrative

 

Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!

DRS1

DRS2

 

DRS4

DRS3

DRS5

An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

shutterstock_59517607

Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.