Life Is a High-Stakes Reading Test

by Lisa Hansel
July 2nd, 2015

Life is a high-stakes reading test. Those who pass gain entry to the best humanity has to offer—great literature, active and effective citizenship, fascinating dinner debates, meaningful connections with people across time and space, jobs that are both interesting and high paying, genuine capacity for self-directed learning, etc.

The key to passing is broad knowledge.


Knowledge enables comprehension and creates opportunities (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

That fact is the driver behind the Common Core standards’ requirement that K–12 schooling include dramatically more nonfiction reading, reaching 70% by twelfth grade. I’ve never understood the backlash against this mandate. There is no call for 70% of the reading assigned in English courses to be nonfiction. If students are taking English, history, and science, then two-thirds of their reading should already be nonfiction. Add in some biographies of artists and musicians (in art and music classes) and the 70% requirement is easily met. High schools with solid electives would likely have most students reading 80% nonfiction.

Nonetheless, many English teachers seem to be trying to draw far more nonfiction into their courses. Why? Do they not know that the 70% requirement applies to the whole day? Do they know that their colleagues in other disciplines are not assigning enough reading, so they are trying to fill the gap? Do they fear that whatever their colleagues are doing, they must do more to prepare for the high-stakes tests (since accountability policies unfairly attribute reading scores to ELA teachers alone)? Do they simply not know what their colleagues are assigning because they don’t have time to collaborate?

If only schools would see the 70% mandate as a call for collaboration: English and history teachers could pair great novels and poetry with studies of particular time periods, giving students an understanding of the author’s worldview. English and science teachers could pair science-fiction stories with analyses of the accuracy and potential of the scientific ideas they contain.

If a recent New York Times article is at all representative, such pairings are rare. Working alone, some English teachers seem to be struggling to effectively incorporate nonfiction. One assigned the G.I. Bill along with The Odyssey, which might inspire an interesting discussion, but would likely be based more on opinion than expertise. Others have turned to short pieces on banal topics like cell phones and cheerleading. These anecdotes indicate that teachers are trying to build some set of nonfiction comprehension skills—under the mistaken belief that they could be applied to any nonfiction text—instead of building the knowledge that would make comprehension effortless.

Faith in comprehension strategies is so strong that some teachers don’t seem to have broadening students’ horizons as a goal at all. As the Times reported:

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn … some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.

But there was one glimmer of hope in the article:

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

These two examples are promising because they reveal a dedication to building knowledge of important topics. But they are not as coherent as I’d like. Refugees and women’s rights are very broad themes; there’s a risk of exposure to a great deal and retention of very little. Focusing on a narrower topic, such as the Vietnam War or Sojourner Truth, might give students a more meaningful opportunity to build vocabulary and knowledge. Indeed, the need for background knowledge is likely why students found the unit on women’s rights—a familiar topic anchored with a sports star—more interesting than the unit on Vietnam and refugees.

Knowledge increases curiosity, enables comprehension and other forms of critical thinking, and ensures students pass life’s most important high-stakes tests.

Tapas-Style Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
June 29th, 2015

Education Week noted recently that there’s an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to coherent programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to … mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials on each topic that best meet their students’ needs. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such a curriculum. In schools that aim to instill skills, without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate skills, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. Whether teachers or students are choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.


This just isn’t what kids need (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet. Kids get plenty of fried cheese outside of school. In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Marc Tucker wrote:

The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days.  But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly.  We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.  The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge.  But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level.  As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them.  Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

In short, cognitive science tells us that broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are necessary for learning and thinking. And both science and common sense tell us that shared knowledge is necessary for effective communication. A tapas-style education might get us there, but only if we remove the fried cheese from the menu and agree to a content-specific plan to guide and balance our selections.


DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.


Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.


A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2015

“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!


A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Knowledge Equalizer: Jeff Litt

by Lisa Hansel
June 15th, 2015

In my last post, I called for knowledge equality. My hope is all educators and concerned citizens—and policymakers with counter-productive, curriculum-narrowing mandates—will see that broad, shared knowledge is essential to equality of opportunity.

Today I have the great pleasure of highlighting an educator who truly is a knowledge equalizer: Jeff Litt. Litt spent over 30 years in the traditional public schools, but he’s far from a traditional leader. He transformed P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx from a graffiti-covered nightmare into a loving, high-achieving community of learners. The Core Knowledge Sequence provided a platform for the change, but the heart of it was Litt’s vision for what all schools should be: rigorous and nurturing. As the Chicago Consortium on School Research showed years ago, the combination of high “academic press” with social support  yields striking gains in achievement among disadvantaged youth.

After his success at P.S. 67, Litt launched the Icahn Charter Schools, which is now the second-highest-achieving network in New York City—even though it welcomes new students in the upper grades who are far behind and has almost no suspensions. But neither Litt nor the Icahn schools are famous; they eschew the spotlight to stay focused on their students.

With a terrific video and article, Reason magazine gives us a rare look at Litt’s extraordinary work. Here are just a few highlights:

“These kids are like my flesh and blood, and I would do anything for them,” says Litt, who walks the halls of his schools reminding students with motherly consternation to take off their warm coats, tie their shoes, and not to come to school without socks to avoid blisters….

One reason Icahn gets so little attention in the press is that it has been overshadowed by Success Academy…. But while Icahn’s scores are not as good as Success’, the comparison between the two organizations gets hazier when you take into account what’s known as “backfilling.”

When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn’s overall scores….

“I think it’s no fluke that they’re the two highest performing charter networks in New York City,” says Charles Sahm, who’s the education policy director at the Manhattan Institute. Sahm has been researching and writing about both Success Academy and Icahn, and he says the reason they’ve done so well is sort of a no-brainer: It’s their rich curricula. “Success and Icahn both focus like a laser beam on what kids are being taught and how,” says Sahm. “It sounds very simple, but actually doing it is quite difficult.”

Reason video

Don’t miss Reason’s terrific, 8-minute video, highlighting Litt’s dedication to finding successful, experienced leaders.

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.



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.


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.”


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.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.