Making College a Genuine Choice: Michael Shaughnessy Interviews Lisa Hansel

by Guest Blogger
April 22nd, 2013

Michael F. Shaughnessy’s interview with Lisa Hansel was originally posted on April 16, 2013, in Education News.

Michael F. Shaughnessy:

1) Lisa, tell us exactly what your position is currently and what you are trying to do.

In March, I became the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Before that I was the editor of American Educator, the education research and ideas magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. As I explained in my first blog post for Core Knowledge, it was hard to leave that position; I joined Core Knowledge because its approach is really well aligned with research on learning and it has the best curriculum I have ever seen. I would love for more of the national school improvement discussion to be focused on curriculum. For achievement, what could be more important than what gets taught? Bill Schmidt and Russ Whitehurst are both persuasive on this.

2) Now, you recently indicated in a blog that a very low-achieving 8th grader in a high-poverty school has only about a 3 percent chance of “getting ready for college.” What exactly do you mean by “getting ready” for college?

That is drawn from research by ACT, which has a long history of developing tests that assess the extent to which students are ready for college. ACT has figured out what “ready for college” means in terms of essential academic knowledge and skills by doing longitudinal studies; students who attain the “college ready” benchmark score are more likely to get decent grades in credit-bearing college courses and to earn college degrees than students who do not attain the benchmark score. Everyone is familiar with the ACT exams that millions of students take near the end of high school.

ACT also has benchmarks and tests for 8th graders and it is developing an aligned set of tests for elementary school through high school. Instead of doing so much high-stakes testing for accountability, it would be great if states used these as low-stakes tests to find out where students are on the path to college. That would be information schools could use.

3) I think you and I both understand that high school instructors are really not all that keen on doing remedial work with students who are 2-3 grade levels behind. On the other hand SHOULD an algebra teacher be going back and teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division?

I am not qualified to answer that question, so I’ll offer an opinion and then point to an expert. Teachers have to meet students where they are and bring them as far along as possible. So when high school students still need instruction in foundational elementary mathematics, someone must deliver it. But should that class be called algebra? Probably not. To find out how to prevent high school students from being so far behind, please read two articles by Hung-Hsi Wu that I had the pleasure of publishing in American Educator: “What’s Sophisticated about Elementary Mathematics?” and “Phoenix Rising: Bringing the Common Core Mathematics Standards to Life

4) I am going to use a nasty word—retention—should schools be retaining more students so that we don’t have this “achievement gap”?

I would not entirely rule out retaining students, but I think that strategy is used far too often. Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal study clearly showed that the achievement gap starts at home, and research on the “summer slide” shows that it continues to grow at home after children enter school. I think our only hope is to prevent the achievement gap from opening. We have to address child poverty by, among other things, developing better health care, housing, and child care options for low-income families. At the same time, we need to educate parents on the importance of talking to and reading with their children—which is why initiatives like Providence Talks and First Book are so exciting. We also need to rethink early childhood education.

The Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction because they emphasize the need to build children’s knowledge and vocabulary. Relevant background knowledge is essential to comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving. That knowledge can’t just be at your fingertips; it has to be in your long-term memory.

Learning enough to be able to read and think about a broad array of topics is a huge endeavor that must begin as early as possible. For advantaged children, it begins as birth. So in school, including in preschool, building knowledge must become a much greater focus of elementary education.

5) In your blog, you state the obvious that “schools need to get better at closing the gap.” What if I counter that with “schools need to get better at identifying children with learning disabilities and remediating them”?

I agree with you. But I also have to point out that many children who are behind do not have learning disabilities. They simply have not had as many opportunities to learn (in school and/or at home) as their on-grade-level peers. A few years ago Charles Payne of the University of Chicago told me about an important study done by his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. When teachers really challenged students academically and offered lots of social support, students made about two years’ worth of growth in one school year. In contrast, children with teachers who were low on academic pressure and social support made just half a year’s growth. Just as you would guess, schools serving high-income students were far more likely to offer this mix of challenge and support than were schools serving low-income students. What really frustrated Professor Payne was that this study—despite the striking results—is among the least requested from the consortium.

6) There seems to be this emphasis on all students going to college. In your mind is there anything wrong with a student graduating from high school and joining the army, navy, air force, marines, coast guard or becoming a manager at McDonalds?

I often emphasize preparation for college because I want that door to be open to all students (without taking any remedial, noncredit-bearing courses). But it really is not about going to college; it is about making sure that going or not going is a choice. Many students who do not want to go to college do not realize that they still need to be in college-prep classes. For example, a student who wants to become an electrician needs to be really good at algebra. Research by Achieve has shown that employers and colleges are looking for the same things. So if we prepare all students for college, then all students will have lots of great options.

7) We seem to have great research, but no implementation. Any insights?

There are many reasons why research fails to affect practice. I’ll mention three.

First, the education field suffers from too many snake oil salesmen, too many well-intentioned people acting on nothing more than their instincts, and too few trustworthy places to turn to cut through the cacophony. The situation is so dire that Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a book about it: When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. Willingham also has called for a “What’s Known Clearinghouse” to complement the What Works Clearinghouse.

Since we don’t have a what’s known clearinghouse, I suggest everyone read another of Willingham’s books: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. If every educator, administrator, and policymaker studied that book, we could take a huge step forward in school improvement.

Second, far too few of our teacher preparation programs teach the research. On average, teacher candidates are not taught the cognitive science Willingham has written about, nor are they taught the very strong research on how to teach reading. Evaluations of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality are very depressing. While there are bright spots, they are few and far between.

Third, high-stakes accountability has become counterproductive. Meaningful learning is a long-term endeavor. Many of the tricks that quickly bump up test scores do not actually contribute to student learning—but they do take time away from effective instruction. I think testing is useful; we need objective (if imperfect) measures of what students know and can do. Without such measures, how can we close the achievement gap? But the current high-stakes environment is not helping.

More policymakers need to realize that the nation’s educators are already doing the best they can with the knowledge and resources they have. No high-performing organization ever punished its way to the top. In places where student achievement is lagging, we need to roll up our sleeves and offer assistance, including research-based curricula and professional development.

8) Where does Core Knowledge fit into this picture?

The Core Knowledge Foundation offers a wide variety of supports for increasing student achievement, including onsite and web-based professional development, teacher handbooks, and materials for parents. What makes Core Knowledge stand out is its research-based guide to what all students should learn in preschool through 8th grade: the Core Knowledge Sequence.

Cognitive scientists have found that knowledge and skills develop together; the higher-order skills that are most crucial—comprehension, critical thinking, writing, and problem solving—all depend on having relevant knowledge not at one’s fingertips, but already stored in one’s long-term memory. Any topic that student need to read or think about is a topic that they must know something about. They don’t need to know a lot about each topic, just enough to be able to make sense of new ideas and information.

We’ve all had experiences that make this clear: recall a time when you tried to read a text on a topic you know very little about—for me, it’s the physics textbook I occasionally try to study—progress is slow, you feel confused, and even if you get the gist, nuances are lost on you. Now contrast that with a more everyday experience—maybe reading a newspaper article about the renovation of your local library—you zip through the article, easily absorb new facts like the name of the architect and the timetable, and fully grasp the renovation plans. But imagine that you did not know anything about libraries, construction, or renovations—the article would be very confusing.

As a basic foundation for lifelong learning, the knowledge that all students need to acquire is the knowledge that is taken for granted in spoken and written language aimed at adults. Here’s a recent example from CNN Health:

It is a case at the intersection of science and finance, an evolving 21st century dispute that comes down to a simple question: Should the government allow patents for human genes?

The Supreme Court offered little other than confusion during oral arguments on Monday on nine patents held by a Utah biotech firm.

Myriad Genetics isolated two related types of biological material, BCRA-1 and BCRA-2, linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

To comprehend these three sentences, the reader must know about patents, genes, the Supreme Court, oral arguments, hereditary risk, cancer, and more. In short, the reader is assumed to have an enormous amount of knowledge.

The best way to ensure that all students learn the massive amount of knowledge they need to comprehend newspaper articles that cover everything from library renovations to patent disputes is to develop a carefully organized grade-by-grade sequence of knowledge for students to master. Such an approach does not ignore skills at all. It simply ensures that the reading, writing, analysis, and problem solving skills students need are developed and practiced through the acquisition and deepening of important knowledge.

This summer, the foundation will also begin offering Core Knowledge Language Arts, a comprehensive program for preschool through 3rd grade. CKLA teaches reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. It also has teacher read-alouds grouped into academic domains—such as fables from around the world, insects, early Asian civilizations, the five senses, mythology and more—that create interactive opportunities to question, discuss, and share ideas centered on the text. This domain-focused, coherent approach is the most efficient and effective way to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I hope Core Knowledge fits into the picture by ensuring that all children acquire the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to be on the path to college—even if they choose not to go.


Dear 8th Grader: You Have a 3% Chance of Getting Ready for College

by Guest Blogger
April 2nd, 2013

What are the odds that an eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind academically will catch up? You know the odds are low, but single-digit low? According to research from ACT, catching up in high school is rare—if by “catching up” we mean getting poorly prepared eighth graders ready for college by twelfth grade. An eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks has just a 6% chance of catching up in reading—in science and mathematics, that student has a mere 3% chance. What about catching up before high school? Not likely. A fourth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind has just a 7% chance of catching up in reading by eighth grade and an 8% chance in mathematics.

For some readers, the obvious conclusion is that the schools need to get better at closing the gap. But the ACT’s report also has findings for all schools, the top 10% of all schools, the top 10% of low-poverty schools, and the top 10% of high-poverty schools. All of the results on catching up are depressing.

Once gaps exist, we certainly have to do everything we can to close them. At the same time, we must start earlier to prevent these enormous gaps from opening up. The path to college begins in preschool.

And, by the way, after preschool, children should go to kindergarten. Why do I state the obvious? While many of us have been chattering about Obama’s universal preschool plan, ECS has just reminded us that some kids do not have access to kindergarten. Across states, access to high-quality kindergarten is so unequal that it “perpetuates, if not exacerbates, the achievement gap.” While 15 states require children to attend kindergarten, five states do not even require school districts to offer kindergarten. (Those five are Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Four of them have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which begin in kindergarten. Are you scratching your head yet?)

Ultimately, the ECS report reminds us that we have a long, long way to go in developing a strong system of early childhood education in this country.

Silver lining time: The one benefit of having waited so long to get serious about early learning is that we have an enormous body of research to draw from. We have so much research that sorting through it is a challenge. For that, I’m turning to an unsung hero of the school improvement world: Chrys Dougherty. He is a senior research scientist with ACT and a former teacher. He knows the education and cognitive science research—and he gets kids and classrooms.

ACT recently published Dougherty’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning. Everyone involved in early childhood and early grades education should read it. For that matter, everyone interested in school improvement and closing the achievement gap should read it.

I’m assuming that you are going to read it—it’s only 8 pages! So, instead of offering a CliffsNotes version, I’m providing my favorite parts (you’ll have to go to the report for the endnotes):

Students who do not have a good start usually do not thrive later on. That is due not only to the fact that students in stressful environments with limited learning opportunities often remain in those environments, but also because early learning itself facilitates later learning—students who already know more about a topic often have an easier time learning additional information on the same topic, and early exposure to knowledge can stimulate students to want to learn more….

Educators have long emphasized the importance of learning to read well in the early grades, a belief supported by longitudinal research. Reading consists of two abilities: the ability to identify the words on the page (decoding), and the ability to understand the words once they are identified (comprehension)…. Ensuring that students learn to decode well depends, among other things, on using activities and methods in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade that develop children’s phonological (sound) awareness and their knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds. Meanwhile, children’s comprehension can be developed in the early grades by reading aloud to them from books that develop their knowledge and vocabulary….

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

Accountability systems have been designed to create a sense of urgency about improving test scores. However, this has often had the undesirable effect of shortening educators’ time horizons so that they emphasize changes aimed at improving accountability ratings over the short run. These changes can include narrowing the curriculum to deemphasize subjects not tested in the current grade, and spending inordinate amounts of time coaching students on how to answer sample test questions.

By contrast, many steps to improve academic learning and behaviors take time to bear fruit and may not immediately result in higher test scores. For example, implementing an excellent kindergarten and first-grade reading, mathematics, science, social studies, or fine arts program will not immediately affect test results in the older grades. Neither will field trips to science and art museums, nature areas, and historical sites—all of which develop knowledge of the world. Accountability incentives should be modified to recognize efforts that increase student learning over the longer run and promote learning in grades and subject areas not covered on state tests.

If we actually followed Dougherty’s advice, our students would have a great chance of getting ready for college.


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 4: Passing the Test

by Guest Blogger
March 22nd, 2013

So far this week E. D. Hirsch has taught us that higher-order thinking depends on knowledge, that highly mobile students suffer acutely from our national refusal to establish a core of common content, and that there is an identifiable body of specific knowledge that facilitates communication. Now, on Hirsch’s birthday, we examine his game-changing policy prescription: curriculum-based reading tests.

Turning to pages 153 – 162 of Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, we learn “How to Ace a Reading Test.”*

Reading tests are attacked for cultural bias and other faults, but such complaints are unfounded. The tests are fast and accurate indexes of real-world reading ability. They correlate extremely well with one another and with actual capacity to learn and communicate. They consist, after all, of written passages, which students are to read and then answer questions on; that is, students are asked to exercise the very skill at issue…. The much more reasonable complaint is that an emphasis on testing has caused schools to devote too much time to drills and test preparation, with a consequent narrowing of the curriculum….

Yet the fault lies not with the tests but with the school administrators who have been persuaded that it is possible to drill for a reading test—on the mistaken assumption that reading is a skill like typing and that once you know the right techniques you can read any text addressed to a general audience. The bulk of time in early language-arts program today is spent practicing these abstract strategies on an incoherent array of uninformative fictions. The opportunity costs have been enormous. Schools are wasting hours upon hours practicing drills that are supposed to improve reading but that are actually depriving students of knowledge that could enhance their reading comprehension….

Here is the beginning of an actual passage from a New York State reading test for fourth grade:

There is a path that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, 2,167 miles later. This path is called the Appalachian Trail. If you want, you can walk the whole way, although only some people who try to do this actually make it, because it is so far, and they get tired. The idea for the trail came from a man named Benton MacKaye. In 1921 he wrote an article about how people needed a nearby place where they could enjoy nature and take a break from work. He thought the Appalachian Mountains would be perfect for this.

The passage goes on for a while, and then come the questions. The first question, as usual, concerns the main idea:

This article is mostly about

1. how the Appalachian Trail came to exist.

2. when people can visit the Appalachian Trail.

3. who hikes the most on the Appalachian Trail.

4. why people work together on the Appalachian Trail.

Many educators see this question as probing the general skill of “finding the main idea.” It does not. Try to put yourself in the position of a disadvantaged fourth grader who knows nothing of hiking, does not know the difference between an Appalachian-type mountain and a Himalayan-type mountain, does not know where Maine and Georgia are, and does not grasp what it means to “enjoy nature.” Such a child, though much trained in comprehension strategies, might answer the question incorrectly. The student’s more advantaged counterpart, not innately smarter, just happens to be familiar with hiking in the Appalachians, has been to Maine and Georgia, and has had a lot of experience “enjoying nature.” The second student easily answers the various questions correctly. But not because he or she practiced comprehension strategies; this student has the background knowledge to comprehend what the passage is saying….

It has been shown decisively that subject-matter knowledge trumps formal skill in reading and that proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another. Test makers implicitly acknowledge this by offering, in a typical reading test, as many as ten passages on varied topics. (If reading were a knowledge-independent skill, a single passage would suffice.)… Contrary to appearances and educators’ beliefs, these reading tests do not test comprehension strategies. There usually are questions like “What is the main idea of this passage?” but such a question probes ad hoc comprehension, not some general technique of finding the main idea. Reading comprehension is not a universal, repeatable skill like sounding out words or throwing a ball through a hoop. “Reading skill” is rather an overgeneralized abstraction that obscures what reading really is: an array of separate, content-constituted skills such as the ability to read about the Appalachian Mountains or the ability to read about the Civil War….

A reading test is inherently a knowledge test. Scoring well requires familiarity with the subjects of the test passages. Hence the tests are unfair to students who, through no fault of their own, have little general knowledge. Their homes have not provided it, and neither have the schools. This difference in knowledge, not any difference in ability, is the fundamental reason for the reading gap between white and minority students. We go to school for many years partly because it takes so long to build up the vast general knowledge and vocabulary we need to become mature readers.

Because this knowledge-gaining process is slow and cumulative, the type of general reading test now in use could be fair to all groups only above fifth or sixth grade, and only after good, coherent, content-based schooling in the previous grades. I therefore propose a policy change that would at one stroke raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. (As a side benefit, it would induce elementary schools to impart the general knowledge children need.) Let us institute curriculum-based reading tests in first, second, third, and fourth grades—that is to say, reading tests containing passages based on knowledge that children will have received directly from their schooling. In the early grades, when children are still gaining this knowledge slowly and in piecemeal fashion, it is impossible to give a fair test of any other sort….

We now have an answer to our question of how to enable all children to ace a reading test. We need to impart systematically—starting in the very earliest grades by reading aloud to students, then later in sequenced self-reading—the general knowledge that is taken for granted in writing addressed to a broad audience. If reading tests in early grades are based on a universe of pre-announced topics, general knowledge will assuredly be built up. By later grades, when the reading tests become the standard non-curriculum one, such as the NAEP tests, reading prowess will have risen dramatically.

Policy makers say they want to raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. But it seems doubtful that any state can now resist the anti-curriculum outcry that would result from actually putting curriculum-based testing into effect. Nonetheless, any state or district that courageously instituted knowledge- and curriculum-based early reading tests would see a very significant rise in students’ reading scores in later grades.

States would also see impressive results right away on the curriculum-based tests since the passages would be about content that all students had actually been taught. Just imagine: With curriculum-based tests, “test prep” would consist of studying literature, history, science, and the arts. Bringing that imaginary world to life relies on our leaders working together. So, this birthday retrospective ends with a call to the left and right, drawn from pages 186 – 187 of the Making of Americans.

One of the gravest disappointments I have felt in the twenty-fine years that I have been actively engaged in educational reform is the frustration of being warmly welcomed by conservatives but shunned by fellow liberals. The connection of the anti-curriculum movement with the Democratic Party is an accident of history, not a logical necessity. All the logic runs the other way. A dominant liberal aim is social justice, and a definite core curriculum in early grades is necessary to achieve it. Why should conservatives alone favor solid content while my fellow liberals buy into the rhetoric of the anti-curriculum theology that works against the liberal aims of community and equality? Practical improvement of our public education will require intellectual clarity and a depolarization of the issue. Left and right must get together on the principle of common content.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.


You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

by Guest Blogger
March 20th, 2013

While yesterday’s post came as a surprise, the birthday boy now knows what I’m up to, so allow me a quick personal message: Happy Birthday Professor Hirsch! No doubt you would like to give me a completely different reading list for the week (starting with William Bagley and ending with Orlando Patterson, perhaps?), but I beg to differ. At a time when the nation’s educators are grappling with the new Common Core State Standards, isn’t it appropriate to revisit the many benefits of a common core of content?

Today I’m focused on an undeniable fact that, to my way of thinking, trumps all arguments against common content: student mobility. The damage done to highly mobile students by our national (and state) refusal to specify any common content is, as E. D. Hirsch has pointed out, one of the worst forms of injustice—an avoidable injustice.

In the preface to Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch wrote: “That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum.” In the 25 years since he wrote those words, education reformers have tried pretty much everything except fixing the fragmented curriculum. The Common Core Standards are a step in the right direction, but educational excellence and equity are still far in the distance. Today’s excerpt, from The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, reveals why common content—not merely common goals—is essential.*

The following selections on student mobility are from pages 109 – 120. As you read, keep in mind that what Hirsch is calling for is commonality, not uniformity; he is calling for about 50% of what schools teach in each grade to be specific, agreed upon, common content. The other 50% would be up to each school (or district), as would 100% of pedagogy.

The percentage of economically disadvantaged students who migrate during the school year is appallingly high, and the effects are dishearteningly severe. One study has analyzed those effects on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade. The researchers found that the adverse effects of such social and academic incoherence are greatly intensified when parents have low educational levels and when compensatory education is not available in the home. But this big fact of student mobility is generally ignored in discussions of school reform. It is as if that elephant in the middle of the parlor is less relevant or important than other concerns, such as the supposed dangers of encouraging uniformity or of allowing an “outsider” to decide what subjects are to be taught at which grade level.

The finding that our mobile students (who are preponderantly from low-income families) perform worse than stable ones does not mean that their lower performance is a consequence of poverty. That is to commit the fallacy of social determinism. Where there is greater commonality of the curriculum, the effects of mobility are less severe. In a summary of research on student mobility, Herbert Walberg states that “common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation) … alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.” The adverse effects of student mobility are much less severe in countries that use a nationwide core curriculum than in the United States, where no national guidelines alleviate the trauma and incoherence of the fragmented educational experience of the millions of students who change schools in the middle of the year….

The average mobility rates for the inner city lie routinely between 45 percent and 80 percent, with many suburban rates between 25 percent and 40 percent. Some schools in New York and other cities have mobility rates of over 100 percent—that is, the total number of students moving in and out during the year exceeds the total number of students attending the school.

Given the curricular incoherence in a typical American school even for those who stay at the same school, the education provided to frequently moving students is tragically fragmented. The high mobility of low-income parents guarantees that disadvantaged children will be most severely affected by the educational handicaps of changing schools, and that they will be the ones who are most adversely affected by the lack of commonality across schools….

As American students advance through the grades, their preparation levels become ever more diverse. This was a finding that Stevenson and Stigler emphasized in The Learning Gap, a superb comparative study of American and Asian schools. American teachers now take it as a matter of course that in the same classroom they must teach students who have gained and who have not gained the most basic knowledge they need to understand what is to be taught. Here we are speaking not about differences of ability but about huge differences in relevant preparation….

Stevenson and Stigler found that teachers have much greater job satisfaction when they can depend on one another in a supportive chain over the grade levels. Then all the students in a class can be counted on to have a reasonable level of preparation for the new grade level….

In the face of extensive student mobility, we need to reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon subject matter should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the Mayflower, then we have an obligation to decide when the Mayflower will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for the Mayflower. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age….

The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some disadvantaged students will never hear about the Mayflower while others will hear about the Mayflower ad nauseam, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.

As if that were not bad enough, our national refusal to do the hard work of devising a common core of content actually harms all children. Turning now to pages 71 – 74, Hirsch explains that whether or not our schools teach it, our nation does in fact have common content—it is used by highly literate adults every day.

Every newspaper and book editor and every producer for radio and TV is conscious of the need to distinguish what can be taken for granted from what must be explained. Learning the craft of writing is bound up with learning how to gauge what can be assumed versus what must be explained. The general reader that every journalist or TV newscaster must imagine is somebody whose relevant knowledge is assumed to lie between the total ignorance of a complete novice and the detailed knowledge of an expert…. Reading proficiency, listening proficiency, speaking proficiency, and writing proficiency all require possession of the broad knowledge that the general reader is assumed to have and also the understanding that others can be expected to possess that knowledge….

Most current reading programs talk about activating the reader’s background knowledge so she can comprehend a text. But in practice, they are only paying lip service to the well-known scientific finding that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Little attempt is made to enlarge the child’s background knowledge. The disjointed topics and stories that one finds in current reading programs seem designed mainly to appeal to the knowledge that young readers may already have, such as “Going to School” and “Jenny at the Supermarket.” The programs do not make a systematic effort to convey coherently, grade by grade, the knowledge that newspapers, magazines, and serious radio and TV programs assume American readers and listeners possess….

Here is the first paragraph of an article by Janet Maslin, taken at random from the books section of the New York Times on February 6, 2003. It is an example of writing addressed to a general reader that a literate American high school graduate would be expected to understand.

When Luca Turin was a boy growing up in Paris, according to Chandler Burr’s ebullient new book about him, “he was famous for boring everyone to death with useless, disconnected facts, like the distance between the earth and the moon in Egyptian cubits.” Mr. Burr sets out to explain how such obsessive curiosity turned Mr. Turin into a pioneering scientist who, in the author’s estimation, deserves a Nobel Prize.

This example shows that the background knowledge required to understand the general sections of the New York Times, such as the book review section, is not deep….

What do readers need to know in order to comprehend this passage? We need to know first that this is a book review, which aims to tell us what the book is about and whether it is worth reading. We need to understand that the reviewer is favorably disposed to the book, calling it “ebullient,” and that it is a nonfiction work about a scientist named Luca Turin. We need to have at least a vague semantic grasp of key words like ebullient, boring, obsessive, pioneering, estimation. We need to know some of the things mentioned with exactness, but not others. It’s not necessary to know how long a cubit is. Indeed, the text implies that this is an odd bit of information…. We need to know in general what Paris is, what the moon is and that it circles the earth, that it is not too far away in celestial terms, and we need to have some idea what a Nobel Prize is and that it is very prestigious. Consider the knowledge domains included in this list. Paris belongs to history and geography; so does Egypt. The moon belongs to astronomy and natural history. The Nobel Prize belongs to general history and science.

We may infer from this example that only a person with broad knowledge is capable of reading with understanding the New York Times and other newspapers. This fact has momentous implications for education, and for democracy as well…. Reading achievement will not advance significantly until schools recognize and act on the fact that it depends on the possession of a broad but definable range of diverse knowledge. The effective teaching of reading will require schools to teach the diverse, enabling knowledge that reading requires.

Ultimately, Hirsch concludes, “The only way to attain the long-desired educational goal of high achievement with fairness to all students is through a structure in which each grade, especially grades one through five, builds knowledge cumulatively (and without boring repetitions) upon the preceding grade” (p. xii). “Different schools can teach the same topics in various ways and still attain the degree of commonality we need to use school time productively and foster high literacy” (p. 124).

Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.  


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


You may also be interested in the other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

Part 4: Passing the Test




Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2011

The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker or a fellow educator. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth grader in my class during my second year of teaching in the South Bronx.

Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.

She also gets screwed.

Since she goes to a school where the majority of her classmates read and do math well below grade level, Tiffany is “not your problem,” as one of my administrators pointedly told me early in my teaching career. The message to a new teacher could not have been clearer: focus your efforts on the low achievers. Get them in the game. Tiffany will be fine.

Will she?

I thought of Tiffany Lopez, as I often do, while reading Rick Hess’s essay last week in National Affairs on “Achievement Gap Mania.” Nearly alone among edupundits, Hess has the standing—and frankly, the balls—to call into question the gap-closing orthodoxy, the de facto policy engine driving American education in the era of No Child Left Behind. Our focus on gap closing, Hess writes, “has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.”

“The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”

Hess couldn’t be more correct or on target. To this day, I worry about whether I was the teacher Tiffany Lopez needed me to be. In my post-classroom work I apply the “Tiffany Test” to any new reform, policy initiative or teaching idea that comes down the pike: will this make it more likely or less likely that kids like Tiffany will get what they need to reach their full academic and life potential? The answer rarely comes back in the affirmative. Indeed, the primary casualty of our achievement gap mania is what Hess describes as “the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential.”

Blame the teachers? Not this time. Hess cites a 2008 poll, which asked if it’s more important to focus equally on all students or disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. Eighty-six percent of teachers said all students and just 11% said disadvantaged students. “Yet education reformers are doing their very best to counter this healthy democratic impulse — and they have largely succeeded,” Hess observes.

“All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction.”

Frank C. Worrell of the University of California, Berkeley points out that the focus on bringing up the bottom means “we are not sparking the creativity of those who have the most potential to make outstanding contributions.” Hess is particularly strong on how a gap closing focus coupled with the orthodoxy of differentiated instruction is a double whammy for high-achieving (or potentially high achieving) students. Students like Tiffany Lopez.

“Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one.”

Tiffany Lopez had more “grit” at age 11 than the entire graduating class of any KIPP school. There was never a doubt in my mind that she would stay in school and go to college. This month, she began her freshman year at a four-year, in-state, public university in Pennsylvania, where she moved a few years after leaving my classroom. I’ve been waiting for this moment for seven years. I have long feared that at college she will find herself surrounded by students of lesser gifts who, though they lack her aptitude and character, will be better academically prepared. I hope I’m wrong. But if she succeeds, it will not be because of what I and other teachers did for her over the course of her public school education.

It will be in spite of it.

When you have a Tiffany in your class in the age of gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music. You understand that her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves drying on the vine. She is–maddeningly, damnably, undemocratically–”not your problem.”

There is a question that has gnawed at me ever since I was Tiffany Lopez’s 5th grade teacher in the South Bronx. If you are committed to equity and social justice, which is the more effective engine of change: giving every child a mediocre, minimum-competency education? Or giving the richest, most robust possible education to the most receptive and motivated? A focused, low-income kid with a superior education is on the time-honored path to upward mobility, virtually guaranteeing her children will not grow up in poverty. The same kid with a bland, good-enough education is prepared merely to march in place.

A false dichotomy. We should do both, of course. But as Hess has amply demonstrated, it’s not working out that way.

Knowledge Compensates for Five Years of Reading Ability

by Robert Pondiscio
March 2nd, 2011

One of the principal arguments for a coherent, content-rich curriculum is that background knowledge — knowing something about the topic you’re reading about – compensates for weak reading ability.  But how great is the effect?  A tantalizing article by reading researcher Tom Sticht on suggests that in adult readers background knowledge can close a gap of five grade levels of general reading ability. 

If you want to test what someone knows about a subject, Sticht writes, “you might give them a simple multiple choice test in a written format, and then ask questions about the subject matter of interest.”  However this “confounds the assessment of the person’s knowledge about the subject with their ability to read.”  In other words, it’s difficult to tell whether a person taking a reading test doesn’t know the meaning of a word, for example, can’t decode a word, or lacks the background knowledge of the subject needed for adequate comprehension.   As Sticht puts it, we risk confusing ignorance with illiteracy.  “Generally there is no attempt to separately determine a student’s knowledge in the content area separately from the person’s ability to read in the content area in an unskilled or skilled manner,” Sticht observes.  

Sticht uncoupled reading ability from subject knowledge in work that he and colleagues performed for the U.S. Navy several years ago.  They developed “a 45 hour reading development program to help sailors improve their reading ability while increasing their knowledge needed for upward mobility in their career progression…In assessing learning outcomes in this course we considered both improvements in Navy career progression knowledge and increases in reading skill,” he writes.

They designed two separate assessments–one on the Navy-specific learning taught in the course; the other a more general reading assessment.   By comparing the two “we could determine separately the extent to which personnel had increased their Navy knowledge as well as their reading skill for incrementing their long term knowledge store using an external knowledge store,” Sticht says.

In additional work for the U.S. Navy we developed separate readability formula for determining how much general reading ability as measured by a standardized, normed reading test a person needed to be able to comprehend Navy material with 70 percent accuracy. We developed formulas for those with high and low prior knowledge about the Navy. We found that with low background Navy knowledge, a person needed a general reading ability of about the eleventh grade to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy. But highly knowledgeable personnel needed only a sixth grade level of general reading to comprehend Navy-related material with 70 percent accuracy. In this case, then, high levels of background knowledge substituted for some five grade levels of general reading ability.

The Armed Services, Sticht says ”have long understood the difference between general reading ability and specialized bodies of knowledge.”  When selecting people for service,” he points out, “lower general reading ability scores may be offset by higher scores in specialized bodies of knowledge.”  Confusing ignorance with illiteracy “contributes to a serious underestimation of the intellectual abilities of America’s children, youth, and adults,” he concludes.

Sticht’s eye-opening work validates a content-rich approach to K-12 education and once again demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of treating reading as an all-purpose, transferable skill, which it clearly is not.   Sticht’s point that we confuse ignorance with illiteracy has two big takeaways for educators:  the achievement gap is mostly a knowledge gap; if a “poor reader” and a “good reader” take a reading test where both share the same background knowledge, the perceived differences in their reading ability will likely narrow or disappear (this is also an argument for reading tests that are based on curriculum taught, not randomly chosen subjects). Secondly, if we know that knowledge correlates with general reading ability, then the best strategy for raising achievement across the board is with a rich and rigorous curriculum from the first days of school.  Teaching content IS teaching reading

“By not talking about the knowledge needed by the workforce people think they can teach any content and thereby improve the skill needed for workingi n a broad set of occupations,” Sticht wrote to me in an email. ”Failure to focus on knowledge leads to inefficient and too often ineffective career education or job training or retraining that many out of work people need,” he concludes.

The Achievement Gap Is Worse Than You Think

by Robert Pondiscio
November 9th, 2010

The achievement gap is worse than generally known–and poverty alone does not explain the difference, according to a report out today from the Council of Great City Schools.  The New York Times gets early word on the report, which says only 12 percent of black 4th grade boys are proficient in reading, compared to 38 percent of white boys. The same percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.  The report is based on NAEP figures.

“Poverty alone does not seem to explain the differences,” the Times reports.  “Poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches.” 

The report’s authors say the figures should “spark a new sense of urgency.”  However, the most provocative comments in the Times piece come from Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson who points to accumulating evidence of “racial differences in what kids experience” before they even enter school. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces,” Ferguson says. “In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.” 

That includes “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” says Ferguson.  “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

Here’s one way to get that difficult conversation started.

One Laptop Per Child? Er…Maybe Not.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 1st, 2010

Here’s an eyebrow-raiser:  Reading and math scores of middle-school students, especially those from disadvantaged homes, tend to decline once a computer arrives in their homes, according to a study by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.  Say what?!?  Isn’t putting a laptop with high-speed Internet access into every low-income child’s home supposed to close the gap between technology haves and have-nots and boost achievement?  Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd say “such efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading” according to a post on

“And it isn’t because they are spending less time on computers, it is that they have not been a generation raised to regard it as a productivity tool and instead see it as a social one.   The results might be even more dramatic today, because the cutoff for the study was before Facebook and Twitter took hold.”

The study looked at test scores for more than 150,000 students in North Carolina from 2000 to 2005. “The data allowed researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer, to compare those scores to those of peers who had a home computer by fifth grade and to test scores of students who never acquire a home computer,” notes the report. “The negative effects on reading and math scores were ‘modest but significant,’ they found.”

Predictably, the study found middle school students mostly used their home computers for socializing and games, and that productive use of computers was higher in homes where Mom and Dad monitored their use.  ”In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes,” the study notes.

The study, titled “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Update:  Common sense on this from Larry Ferlazzo.

Stuart Buck: Make School More Like Sports

by Robert Pondiscio
June 3rd, 2010

In his second and final post on his book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Stuart Buck looks at the differing attitudes toward academics and athletics, and suggests that de-emphasizing individual grades might be an effective approach. — rp

What then, you might ask?  If the “acting white” charge arose with desegregation, am I arguing that segregation was better?

Not at all. Segregation was like a cancer.  When you have cancer, you’ll take almost any drug to block it.  But a powerful anti-cancer drug may have side effects — such as crippling nausea. You have to try to address the side effects, not sweep them under the carpet simply on the ground that anything is worth it to fight cancer.

The same is true with segregation.  Segregation was worth fighting.  Still, the way that desegregation occurred led to side effects that should not be ignored.

What can we do now?  I have no magic bullet or panacea to offer here. Changing cultural attitudes is hard work, and one of the main points of my book is that the best-intentioned governmental efforts may affect cultural attitudes in ways that no one anticipated.   

Still, I do suggest one idea that I think has some promise: eliminate individual grades, and let students compete against other schools in academic competitions. 

This idea is far from original.  Rather, it comes from the eminent sociologist James Coleman. Coleman observed the striking fact that while students regularly cheer for their school’s football or basketball team, they will poke fun or jeer at other students who study too hard or who are too eager in class: “the boy who goes all-out scholastically is scorned and rebuked for working too hard; the athlete who fails to go all-out is scorned and rebuked for not giving his all.”

But this is odd, is it not?  Why are attitudes toward academics and athletics so different?  Sports are more fun than classwork, of course, but that does not explain why success would actually be discouraged in class.

Coleman’s explanation was disarmingly simple: The students on the athletic teams are not competing against other students from their own school.  Instead, they are competing against another school.  And when they win a game, they bring glory to their fellow students, who get to feel like they too are victors, if only vicariously. 

But the students in the same class are competing against each other for grades and for the teacher’s attention.  Naturally, that competition gives rise to resentment against other children who are too successful (just as students will hate the football team from a cross-town rival).  In Coleman’s words, the scholar’s “victories are purely personal ones, often at the expense of his classmates, who are forced to work harder to keep up with him.  Small wonder that his accomplishments gain little reward, and are often met by such ridicule as ‘curve raiser’ or ‘grind,’ terms of disapprobation having no analogues in athletics.”  

Indeed, in the first study that found the “acting white” criticism, sociologists pointed out that “athletes are exempt from the ‘Uncle Tom’ label because athletic achievement brings credit to the whole group while intellectual achievement does not.”

Coleman’s suggestion, therefore, was that if you want the students’ attitudes towards their studies to resemble their attitudes toward sports, you should minimize the role of grades — which involve competition against one’s classmates.  In his words, we need to get rid of the “notion that each student’s achievement must be continually evaluated or ‘graded’ in every subject.”  

Instead, such grades should be “infrequent or absent,” and should be replaced by “contests and games” between schools, such as “debate teams, music contests, drama contests, science fairs, . . . math tournaments, speaking contests,” etc. Then, the students in any one class or school would have a greater incentive to encourage their fellow students to study hard, and to take pride in their fellow students’ success.  In Coleman’s words, “I suspect that the impact upon student motivation would be remarkably great — an impact due to the fact that the informal social rewards from community and fellow-students would reinforce rather than conflict with achievement.”

 Stuart Buck is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, he has published scholarly articles in Phi Delta Kappan, Harvard Law Review, and elsewhere.

Berkeley Proves Jay Mathews’ Case

by Robert Pondiscio
December 28th, 2009

A few weeks ago the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews complained that focusing on eliminating the goal of achievement gap is ”useless” as a measure of school improvement.   “Our gap fixation puts us in a very awkward position,” he wrote, since “it forces us to hope that white kids, or middle class kids, or high achieving kids, don’t improve.”   As if to demonstrate Mathews’ case, California’s Berkeley High School is considering a plan to eliminate science labs and five science teachers to free up more resources to help struggling students.  Information presented at the school’s governance council meetings reportedly suggested that the science labs were “largely classes for white students.”

(H/T: Joanne Jacobs)