Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Guest Blogger
February 6th, 2014

It’s been a tremendous few weeks for those who love to read about building knowledge. Here are three great resources that are worth studying.

I. Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

This slim volume from the Fordham Institute has an agenda-setting introduction by Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, then several terrific essays:

  • “Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch” by Sol Stern
  • “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content Curriculum They Need?” by Ruth Wattenberg
  • “There Are No Shortcuts: Mending the Rift between Content Knowledge and Deeper Learning” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge” by the Farkas Duffett Research Group

Even better, there are three must-reads by Hirsch: “Sustaining the American Experiment,” “Romancing the Child,” and “Why I’m For the Common Core.”

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education (which will be published in the US in March), writes great blog posts all the time, but this one stands out. Christodoulou has a critical message for data-driven education reformers: “We can’t just predict using statistics alone. We need a theory.” She continues:

Without this theoretical understanding, we are more likely to conduct meaningless tests, mistake correlation for causation and confuse statistical significance with causal significance. This is something that E. D. Hirsch has written an absolutely brilliant article about…. Hirsch notes that we do have a strong theory from cognitive science about how pupils learn. We can use this theory to guide our teaching…. Here is his list of reliable general principles (in the article he discusses each at length).

• Prior knowledge as a prerequisite to effective learning.
• Meaningfulness.
• The right mix of generalization and example.
• Attention determines learning.
• Rehearsal (repetition) is usually necessary for retention.
• Automaticity (through rehearsal) is essential to higher skills.
• Implicit instruction of beginners is usually less effective.

It seems to me this is an excellent and easily accessible summary of what we know from cognitive science. If we used these as a basis for devising RCTs [randomized controlled trials] and as a starting point for discussing the findings we get from them, I think we would be doing well.

III. Why We All Have a Stake in the Common Core Standards

This brief essay by Mark Bauerlein drives home a key point for critics of the Common Core standards to consider: Most students are not well prepared for college. The standards alone won’t guarantee that more students are college ready, but they do nudge schools in the right direction. Writing for a higher education audience, Bauerlein argues:

When ACT, one of the best-known judges of college readiness, examined why so many first-year students end up in remedial courses and perform poorly, it identified one factor above all others: “Performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” Students three months out of high school enroll in freshman composition, a survey of U.S. history, and Econ 101 eager and hopeful, only to find that they can’t comprehend a Supreme Court opinion, 100-year-old oration, contemporary poem, and other texts.

Those pages prove too much for half of them (according to ACT), and colleges have insufficient resources to help…. To comprehend the texts they will face in college, students need general knowledge about science, math, history, civics, geography, arts and literature, religion, and technology….

Willy Loman, satire, and the poetry of King James stand proudly beside Gettysburg, separation of powers, and photosynthesis in the procession of cardinal things. The only adjustment English teachers need make is to add more literary nonfiction, which may include letters by Emily Dickinson, essays by Richard Rodriguez, chapters from Up From Slavery, and other unsurprising titles. Common Core readily admits them if they impart verbal facility and background knowledge that serve students well at the next level.

Critics of Common Core rightly worry, however, that curricula currently in development interpret “informational text” too nonliterarily and disregard cultural literacy. A troubling example comes from the National Council of Teachers of English, in a self-proclaimed guide to the standards. It declares, “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions.”

The authors mention “prior knowledge that gives context to the complexities of further reading,” but the “context texts” they recommend include film excerpts, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, and graphic novels, options often nonliterary and minimally fruitful for cultural literacy. Indeed, the choice of materials is secondary: “How the texts are used to scaffold the reading experience takes precedence over which texts are chosen.”

The burden, then, lies with college teachers to ensure that “which texts” does take precedence, specifically, that new informational texts in high school pay off in freshman year. They must be compellingly literary and rich in historical, social, psychological, or moral content. “Do not spend precious hours on media and topics that will not build familiarity that will be rewarded at the next level,” we must insist. Select informational texts that augment the knowledge base and enhance literary understanding.


David Coleman: “I’m Scared of Rewarding BS”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2012

Dana Goldstein’s profile of Common Core State Standards architect David Coleman is up at The Atlantic, and it’s a must-read.   For better or for worse, she writes, his ideas are transforming American education as we know it.  The money quote:  “I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman tells Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

“By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.”

It’s a very strong piece, full of insights on what makes Coleman tick.  Read Dana’s piece and then head over to Fordham for Checker Finn’s take.  The profile is “mostly on-target,” he writes, but he chastises Goldstein (rightly, I think) for failing to appreciate the distinction between standards and curriculum.

“She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.”

Checker’s other criticism – whether or not Rhodes Scholar and classics enthusiast Coleman favors “college for all” concerns me less.  Make no mistake, it’s an important issue and worthy of debate.  But my enthusiasm for Common Core lies not at the end of the K-12 pipeline but at the start.  By championing from the first days of school a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” — even without specifying that body of knowledge – CCSS is a strikes a hammer blow for an indispensable, content-rich vision of literacy instruction.  Implemented thoughtfully and rigorously, that will get kids out the other end with a lot more opportunities and options that they have at present.

The Coleman profile is part of a terrific package of education pieces at The Atlantic.  While you’re there, don’t miss Peg Tyre’s outstanding piece about a New York City high school that pulled itself out of a steep decline with an aggressive and rigorous writing curriculum. More on that to come.

Report: U.S. Needs More “Exam Schools”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 31st, 2012

If selective admissions high schools, such as New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, Boston Latin, and Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, Virginia are “hothouses for incubating a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, entrepreneurship, and other sectors that bear on society’s long-term prosperity and well-being,  say Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett in a report in Education Next.  “We’d be better off as a country if we had more of them.”

Such schools, the pair say are a “unique and little-understood sector of the education landscape.”  As a group, the schools are “more racially diverse than is widely believed.”  Most of such schools’ teachers belong to unions and are paid accordingly.  Not surprisingly, nearly all of the 165 selective schools identified and surveyed by Finn and Hockett offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses or the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  “With rare exceptions (mainly in Louisiana), however, the schools are not charters,” they report.  “Although they’re ‘schools of choice,’ they are operated in more top-down fashion by districts, states, or sometimes universities rather than as freestanding and self-propelled institutions under their states’ charter laws.”

Yes, but are they any good?  By admitting high achieving students, exam schools are front loading high performance. Finn and Hockett are clear-eyed:  “Much like private schools, which are more apt to trade on their reputations and college-placement records than on hard evidence of what students learn in their classrooms, the schools on our list generally don’t know—in any rigorous, formal sense—how much their students learn or how much difference the school itself makes,” they write. “As one puzzled principal put it, ‘Do the kids do well because of us or in spite of us? We’re not sure.’”

The research base on selective schools’ performance is surprisingly thin (the report cites two studies).  Finn and Hockett note “the burden is shifting to the schools and their supporters to measure and make public whatever academic benefit they do bestow on their students versus what similar young people learn in other settings.”  But the “marketplace signals” are clear. “Far more youngsters want to attend these schools than they can accommodate,” the pair report.  Moreover, selective schools provide an essential and largely overlooked function:

“It’s evident from multiple studies that our K–12 education system overall is doing a mediocre job of serving its ‘gifted and talented’ youngsters and is paying too little attention to creating appealing and viable opportunities for advanced learning. What policymakers have seen as more urgent needs (for basic literacy, adequate teachers, sufficient skills to earn a living, for example) have generally prevailed. The argument for across-the-board talent development has been trumped by ‘closing the achievement gap’ and focusing on test scores at the low end.”

“A major push to strengthen the cultivation of future leaders is overdue, and any such push should include careful attention to the ‘whole school’ model,” conclude Finn and Hockett

More vs. More of the Same

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2010

While you were engaged in non-essential, non-education activities on Saturday such as grocery shopping, attending your kid’s little league game, or doing your part for the economy by hitting the mall, Fordham’s Checker Finn was on the job, asking why kids aren’t in school on Saturday.   His piece in the Wall Street Journal (which it should be noted, used to publish only Monday through Friday) argues Saturday morning shouldn’t be for cartoons.  It should be for school.

In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance. Schoolchildren in China attend school 41 days a year more than most young Americans—and receive 30% more hours of instruction. Schools in Singapore operate 40 weeks a year. Saturday classes are the norm in Korea and other Asian countries—and Japanese authorities are having second thoughts about their 1998 decision to cease Saturday-morning instruction. This additional time spent learning is one big reason that youngsters from many Asian nations routinely out-score their American counterparts on international tests of science and math.

His piece, “The Case for Saturday School,” points out that  an American kid at 18, “will have spent just 9% of his or her hours on this planet under the school roof (and that assumes full-day kindergarten and perfect attendance) versus 91% spent elsewhere.”

I appreciate the impulse, but the first question that I always ask about extended day and weekend classtime is what exactly will be going on that there’s no time for during regular school hours?   If it’s simply more of what’s not working during the week, well, no thanks.  I’ve banged on this drum endlessly over the years, but the real enemy of achievement in low-performing schools is the time lost to disruption and wasted on curriculum with no caloric content, problems which, to be fair, Finn alludes to.   Still, using Saturday to make up for time squandered Monday through Friday doesn’t strike me as wise, and you don’t have to be a unionista to suggest that a six-day work week for teachers might be a bridge too far. 

Make Saturday school voluntary and about “more” not “more of the same” and I’d start to get excited.  There has to be a bigger payoff than raising reading scores from “below dismal” to ”approaching minimally acceptable” on laughably low-bar state tests.   Maybe it would do more for national economic competitiveness (if one insists on making that the endgame of education) if we used afternoons and weekends to help low-SES kids who are already at or above grade level and capable of holding their own in elite educational settings a chance to close the knowledge gap with more privileged peers at high-achieving schools.  Those are the kind of kids who are starved for oxygen right now.

“No Daylight Between Us”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 3rd, 2010

Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has tongues wagging from one end of the edusphere to the other.  The New York Times’ Sam Dillon weighs in with a profile of Ravitch, which gives play to the overhyped “I was blind but now I see” angle that’s dominating reviews so far

Checker Finn files a review of the book over at, and he makes an important point about Ravitch’s putative reversals.  When it comes to curriculum, Ravitch’s views haven’t changed a bit:

Diane and I go back a very long way–three decades, give or take–and in addition to the personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what’s awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren’t learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.  That was true in 1981, when we jointly launched the Educational Excellence Network, and it’s still true today. Our view of the central problem needing to be solved has, I believe, remained constant, and there is no daylight between us on that score.

Where Finn parts company with his friend is on where we go from here.  “She has become more conservative,” Finn writes, “while I have become more radical.”

The Common Standards Mousetrap

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2010

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, said Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He did not say “states will not be considered for federal dollars for rodent extermination that have not pledged to follow common state standards for mousetraps.” 

Will the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) represent a better mousetrap?  Fordham’s Checker Finn is concerned that the initiative is already being laden with heavier and heavier burdens.  Only states that are on board are eligible for Race to the Top dollars.  Now President Obama now says he wants to link states’  Title I funding to the new standards and assessments.  Why are the DOE, the White House, the Gates Foundation and others  are “sounding and acting as if these standards and assessments had already proven themselves,” Finn wonders.  It’s “enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic,” he writes.

A little humility would seem to us to be in order. If these standards and assessments end up representing a huge improvement over those in use in most states today, then much that’s good may reasonably follow from their installation and use. But what if they don’t? And even if they do, what about those (few) states that have done a creditable job on their own and for which CCSSI may represent either a lateral move or a step backward? In any case, would it not be prudent to appraise their safety and efficacy before demanding that they become the center of America’s new education universe?

Race To The Trough

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

I was all set to post something about Checker Finn’s article in National Affairs on “the end of education reform,” when another piece bearing the byline of the head of the Fordham Institute caught my eye.  Writing in The American, Finn and Rick Hess first take pains to present their bona fides as “champions of entrepreneurs, for-profits, outsourcing, competition, deregulation, and kindred efforts to open public education to providers other than government and operators other than bureaucrats.”   Their credentials thus dispensed with, they then blast the “greedheads ” bellying up to the education trough to dine.   ”The whole ‘Race to the Top’ enterprise has become a red light district for lusty charlatans and randy peddlers,” say Finn and Hess.

Devising a competitive plan is thought by state officials to require the careful hanging of many glittery ornaments upon their proposals. Conveniently, the consultants (and states) are aided in this task by platoons of self-promoters who tout themselves as one-stop solutions—whether or not they’ve ever actually done successfully that which they’re now promising. “You need school turnarounds? We got turnarounds.” “You want Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics? Look no further.” Plenty of outfits will promise to build your data system, take care of school leadership, fix teacher quality, or whatever else you may need. They’re often non-profits but they get pretty nearly the same plush salaries and reputation-boosting meetings with state and federal honchos, opportunities to self-importantly Blackberry late into the night, and future security—as new connections set them up for future rounds of philanthropic and taxpayer largesse.

To their credit, Finn and Hess don’t portray schools as unwitting rubes in this dance. 

The burden is on them to demand value in return for the money they’re spending. And in schooling, too often, purchasers have been heedless, ill-informed, bureaucratic, or gullible. It’s the taxpayer’s money they spend, they’re not always sure how to judge quality, they lack measures of effectiveness or efficiency, and it’s tempting to avoid tough decisions or unpleasant conflict. Reformers and would-be watchdogs often allow state chiefs and local superintendents to excuse irresponsible fiscal stewardship with airy talk of closing achievement gaps and the nobility of the education mission—thus ensuring that the greedheads will prosper another day.

The marriage of greedy hucksters and undiscerning buyers is not a pretty picture.  “We continue to believe in education entrepreneurship, Hess and Finn wrap up. “But we’d be a lot happier if the officials charged with safeguarding school dollars would get wise to the greedheads.”

Sharpton’s Media Maven Takes an Ill-Advised Bow

by Robert Pondiscio
December 7th, 2009

It’s PR 101 that publicists should be seen and not heard.  And not even seen.  Feast your eyes, then, on this curious piece in the New York Daily News about Al Sharpton’s “media adviser” Rachel Noerdlinger. 

Sharpton’s leadership role in the Education Equality Project has given pause to some who would otherwise be expected to support its strong accountability positions and efforts to close the achievement gap.  Fordham’s Checker Finn, most notably, described Sharpton as “one of America’s more unlovable figures, whose fingerprints can be found on an appalling list of divisive, racist, anti-Semitic, violent, and often bloody episodes over the past quarter century.”

The piece details the low-profile Noerdlinger’s work in helping “the oft-reviled Sharpton adopt a more mainstream image–witness his current national tour with former GOP Congressman Newt Gingrich in support of better education policies.”   What comes out of Noerdlinger’s mouth is eyebrow-raising:

Every day we see more acceptance of Rev. Sharpton by mainstream media, who used to see him as being opportunistic. Now he’s not as reactive. What we do now is much more strategic. We really think about what we’re doing before we do it now, because we impact so many people. I’d like to think I had something to do with that, but again, you can’t take credit for Rev. Sharpton. I like to think I am part of a well-oiled machine.”

So  is Sharpton pushing EEP because his heart is in the “new civil rights struggle” or because he’s cynically trying to “adopt a more mainstream image?”   If you want to change people’s perception, you change your act not your strategy.  People who were inclined to be skeptical about Sharpton will only be more so after reading this. 

Here’s another PR bromide:  Some of the best stories are the ones that never get written.  This should have been one of them.

Darkness Falls

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2009

The United States is in gradual decline, says Checker Finn matter of factly.  “Many people seem oblivious, going about their own affairs without reference to ominous but very gradual trends, rather like the frog that didn’t know it would be boiled because the water in that pot was warming so slowly,” writes the head of the Fordham Institute in his latest Education Gadfly column.

Among the “worrisome signs of national decay” Finn sees are America’s flat education results and sagging international performance:

Nearly all our major test-score trend lines have been horizontal for decades–the small upward and downward blips tend to balance out–and comparisons with other lands show us mediocre to woeful. We could once respond that the U.S. makes up in education “quantity” (e.g., graduation and matriculation rates) what we may lack in quality but that’s not true any longer. Half a dozen countries now best us on those measures, too.

In addition, there is decreasing demand for U.S. dollars overseas, a “staggering” debt burden being passed on to future generations, and a national government that can no longer make big decisions. “Whether the challenge at hand is immigration, excessive litigation, discrepant academic standards, swine flu, financial regulation, hurricane Katrina, mass transit, climate change, Afghanistan–pick your topic–Congress either avoids the problem altogether or kicks the can down the road for someone to worry about later,” writes Finn.  He also bemoans “our culture and our politics of polarization, selfishness, and bad manners.”

Finally, we’re giving up on too many of the great challenges and opportunities that we face, including realms where America was once terrific. NASA has pretty much abandoned space exploration, at least the manned kind. We don’t seem even to be trying very hard to extirpate nuclear weapons from Iran. China is turning into the next hegemon. My wife the doctor says that European and Asian countries are more adept and adventurous today in medical research than we are. Airbus is getting a lot more new planes into the air than Boeing. Our domestic auto industry is all but defunct.

Worst of all, Finn is not sure our national decline can be reversed.  “The cultural, behavioral, and attitudinal manifestations of declinism seem to me to go deeper than politics.”

Checker has been just a little ray of sunshine of late.  First there was his speech at Rice University wondering if it’s time to “throw in the towel on ed reform.”  Now this.  On the other hand, I haven’t heard anyone say he’s all wet.  Anyone?

Grading the Common Core Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2009

A new report from the Fordham Foundation gives a grade of “B” to the draft of the proposed “Common Core” standards in ELA and Math.

Fordham’s report, Stars by Which to Navigate: Scanning National and International Standards in 2009, asked subject-matter experts to review the “content, rigor, and clarity of the first public drafts of the ‘Common Core’ standards” as well as the reading, writing and mathematics frameworks of NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA.  How’d they do?

Common Core Reading/Writing/Speaking & Listening: B
Common Core Math: B
NAEP Reading/Writing: B
NAEP Math: C
PISA Reading: D
PISA Math: D

The executive summary (I have not read the full report, which was just released this morning) makes a couple of important points, explaining and justifying the “B” grade for the common standards:

The document properly acknowledges that essential communication skills must be embraced and addressed beyond the English classroom….These skill-centric standards do not, however, suffice to frame a complete English or language arts curriculum. Proper standards for English must also provide enough content guidance to help teachers instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage. Despite their many virtues, these skills-based competencies cannot serve as a strong framework for the robust liberal arts curricula that will prepare young Americans to thrive as citizens in a free society. States adopting these standards must, therefore, be very careful about how they supplement them so as to achieve that goal.

 Hard to disagree with any of that, and the B grade sounds fair.  “The Common Core standards are off to a good start,” says Fordham’s Checker Finn, “though there’s room for improvement—and a sound English curriculum will require plenty more than the valuable skills set forth here.”