Why My Brother’s Keeper Should Look to ACT and Common Core

by Lisa Hansel
June 3rd, 2014

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The Task Force’s 90-day report is impressive in terms of breadth and focus. At its heart are “six universal milestones” that “serve as the basis for the Task Force’s work and recommendations:”

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

One of the report’s best features is an explicit rejection of any silver-bullet solutions. As we all know, far too many of America’s boys of color face multi-faceted, severe challenges. Thankfully, the Task Force recognizes that viable solutions must be comprehensive, coordinated, and long term. Its recommendations reflect as much, and also a desire to “continue to listen, gather input, engage experts and stakeholders, [and] develop additional recommendations.”

Great! I have a recommendation: Learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, realize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood.

shutterstock_41669881

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to Common Core, which—if properly understood—offers sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are behind academically to catch up—and therefore how crucial it is to intervene early.

In his most recent brief, Dougherty shows that at least half of fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic and African American students in the states whose data he analyzed are not doing well in reading—and almost none who are doing poorly catch up by the end of high school. Using longitudinal student outcome data, ACT has established benchmark scores that indicate college readiness (or, for younger students, being on a trajectory to end high school college ready). Students who score at or above those benchmarks are “on track,” while students who score more than one standard deviation below them are “far off track.”

Drawing data from Dougherty’s new brief, let’s look at fourth-to-eighth-grade results in reading on ACT Explore.

Fourth graders
who are
“far off track”:

“Far off track” fourth graders who caught up by eight grade:

Non-low income:

29%

10%

Low income:

53%

6%

Hispanic:

56%

5%

African American:

64%

3%

Note: These data are from Arkansas and Kentucky; see the brief for details.

As Dougherty shows, the data tracking students from eighth grade to the end of high school are just as depressing. Worse, keep in mind that these results are for all students, boys and girls. Girls tend to do better in reading than boys. In draft working papers, Dougherty and his colleagues have broken out results by gender, finding an even great challenge for My Brother’s Keeper (and all of us).

Knowing that being ready for college means having acquired an enormous store of academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills, Dougherty’s first recommendation for school and district leaders is to:

Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. Ensure that all students receive a content- and vocabulary-rich curriculum beginning in the early years, spanning a range of subject areas including not only English language arts and mathematics, but also science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts…. Such a curriculum—the basis for preparing students long term for college, careers, and informed citizenship—is valuable for all students but is likely to be especially beneficial for students from at-risk demographic groups, who are more likely to arrive from home with limited knowledge and vocabulary.

Let’s assume the Task Force heeds Dougherty’s advice and adds “Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades” to its list of recommendations. Where could it find out what that looks like? The Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy. Not in the individual standards, but in the narrative that accompanies the standards. There, the Task Force will find something absolutely essential, but so far missing from its report: an understanding that reading comprehension comes not just from mastering reading skills, but also from learning a great deal of academic subject matter and vocabulary.

The Task Force emphasizes having parents talk to their children more (and in more encouraging ways), improving reading skills instruction, and having children read more. These are necessary but insufficient recommendations. To accelerate knowledge and vocabulary acquisition, which will greatly increase the odds of meeting the Task Force’s milestones, parents and educators need to be as efficient as possible and start as early as possible.

The Common Core explains how. Start with the standards’ research appendix:

Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks.

Then, take a look at Common Core’s blueprint for a coherent course of study in K–5, where we learn that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period.” Even better, we learn how to build knowledge before children can read: “Children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing.”

Everyone on the Task Force is busy, so I’ll boil it down. Parents shouldn’t just talk more; they should also read aloud more. And parents and teachers shouldn’t read aloud just one book on a topic; they should pick a topic and spend a couple of weeks reading aloud and discussing several books on that topic. If they do, many more boys of color will enter school ready to learn and will read at grade level.

 

Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Lisa Hansel
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.

 

Policymakers: Stop Being Agnostic about Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 29th, 2014

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch, a blog by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

 

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give you all the guidance you need. Between the model on page 33 and the research summary in Appendix A, there’s a clear vision for creating a curriculum that systematically builds knowledge.

Knowledge-driven careers courtesy of Shutterstock.

But if you are a state-level policymaker or district superintendent, the path forward is murkier. You don’t want to mandate a curriculum, but you do need to encourage all schools to adopt, adapt, or create more rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curricula. What to do? Four models are worth considering—two at the state level and two at the district level.

Focus on Alignment: Massachusetts

Starting in the 1990s, Massachusetts began taking the whole idea of a standards-based education system very seriously. The Bay State created instructional frameworks that were (relative to other states, if not to many other nations) very content specific. What students had to learn was clear, which enabled teachers to collaborate on a much deeper level. Policymakers got three big things right: First, they did not mandate pedagogy. Second, they actually based the MCAS exams on the instructional frameworks. (Many other states had standards and assessments, but the standards were so vague that virtually any assessments could claim to be aligned with them. As a result, the standards did not truly guide instruction, setting up an assessment-based guessing game for teachers.) Third, they stayed the course for many years—standing firm against allegations that the standards were too high and the tests too hard and, crucially, being far more supportive than punitive. For many years, the emphasis was on framework-based teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. The results (nationally and internationally) have been spectacular.

Provide a Model: New York

While I can empathize with educators who feel that New York is moving too fast with the Common Core, I must also credit the state for heading in the right direction. New York realized that the standards would mean major instructional shifts, and has been working to provide—but not mandate—curricular resources to help teachers make those shifts. The EngageNY website is a rich resource; teachers throughout the Empire State and far beyond are using it to better understand the Common Core. (Full disclosure: Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen by New York as the model ELA curriculum for preschool–second grade implementation of the standards.) Massachusetts took about a decade to fully implement its standards-based system; I predict that New York will figure out ways to heed educators’ concerns while staying the course.

Build Your Own: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, the District of Columbia realized that the Common Core requires a content-rich curriculum. It also saw many benefits for students and teachers when a district has a shared, specific, curricular plan: Students endure fewer gaps and repetitions when they change schools and teachers are able to learn more from each other. Being large enough to have adequate resources and small enough to engage in district-wide initiatives, the District of Columbia Public Schools has gotten teachers involved in writing Common Core–aligned Scope and Sequence guides for each grade. This is especially important because of the city’s high rates of teacher turnover and student mobility. States that don’t want to follow New York’s path could incentivize districts to follow D.C.’s path. Even a small initiative, such as funding three to five districts, would help the whole state by creating multiple curricular models for other districts to adopt or adapt.

Invest in R&D: New York City

A few years before the Common Core, New York City tiptoed into analyzing the efficacy of different curricula. This is worth mentioning not because of the quality of the study (a small pilot) and not because of the programs being tested (Core Knowledge Language Arts was one), but because comparisons of curricula are desperately needed. As Brookings scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos have explained, instructional materials can have as large an impact on learning as teacher quality—and programs are much easier to change than people—yet little is known about various materials’ relative effectiveness. Large districts like NYC—and all districts with state support—have the capacity to conduct more and better research. To make the most of the Common Core, we need to create content-rich curricula and commit to an ongoing R&D process that drives continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum alone, no matter how good, is no silver bullet. But it should be the foundation for all other education work. From teacher preparation and professional development to assessment and accountability to student remediation and enrichment, the education enterprise is more effective and efficient when it rests on a clear statement of what students are to learn in each grade.

 

Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Lisa Hansel
November 18th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Test of the Common Core

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 6th, 2013

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.

 

Here’s the follow-up post to “Why I’m For the Common Core.” It explains why we should be leery of the forthcoming “core-aligned” tests—especially those in English Language Arts that people are rightly anxious about. These tests could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB for neediest students was vitiated when test-prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In a still earlier HuffPost blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.
The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. The value-added approach to teacher evaluation in reading is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data are modestly stable for math, but are fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It cannot be otherwise, because of the underlying realities. Math tests are based on the school curriculum. What a teacher does in the math classroom affects student test scores. But reading comprehension tests are not based on the school curriculum. (How could they be if there’s no set curriculum?) Rather, they are based on the general knowledge that students have gained over their life span from all sources—most of them outside the school. That’s why reading tests in the early grades are so reliably and unfairly correlated with parental education and income.

Since the results on reading comprehension tests are not chiefly based on what a teacher has done in a single school year, why would any sensible person try to judge teacher effectiveness by changes in reading comprehension scores in a single year? The whole project is unfair to teachers, ill-conceived, and educationally disastrous. The teacher-rating scheme has usurped huge amounts of teaching time in anxious test-prep. Paradoxically, the evidence shows that test-prep ceases to be effective after about six lessons. So most of that test-prep time is wasted even as test prep. It’s time in which teachers could be calmly pursuing real education—teaching students fascinating subjects in literature, history, civics, science and the arts, the general knowledge that is the true foundation of improved reading comprehension.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

The villains in this story are not the well-meaning economists who developed the value-added idea, but the inadequate theories of reading comprehension that have dominated the schools—mainly the unfounded theory that, when students reach a certain level of “reading skill,” they can read anything at that level. We know now that reading skill—especially in the early grades—varies wildly depending on the subject matter of the text or the test passages.

The Common Core-aligned tests of reading comprehension will naturally contain text passages and questions about those passages. To the extent such tests claim to assess “critical thinking” and “general” reading-comprehension skill, we should hold on to our wallets. They will be only rough indexes of reading ability—probably no better than the perfectly adequate and well-validated reading tests they mean to replace. To continue using them as hickory sticks will distract teachers from their real job of enhancing students’ general knowledge, and will encourage teachers to continue doing the wasteful sorts of unsuccessful skill exercises that so many classrooms have already been engaged in.

The solution to the test-prep conundrum is this: First, institute in every participating state the specific and coherent curriculum that the Common Core Standards explicitly call for. (It’s passing odd to introduce “Common Core” tests before there’s an actual core to be tested.) Then base the reading-test passages on those knowledge domains covered in the curriculum. That would not only be fairer to teachers and students, it would encourage interesting, substantive teaching and would over time induce a big uptick in students’ knowledge—and hence in their reading comprehension skills. That kind of test would be well worth prepping for.

 

Why I’m for the Common Core: Teacher bashing and Common Core bashing are both uncalled for

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 4th, 2013

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post; a version also appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch.

 

When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K-5. They break the fearful silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” That principle of building coherent, cumulative content characterizes the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words in the CCSS which I’ve italicized don’t get down to defining the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did so no state would have adopted the standards, because specific content is a local prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity. Little can come from the current incorrect assumption that critical thinking skills or reading comprehension can be gained without a specific systematic buildup of knowledge.

Not even most prescient among us can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy. That will depend on what the states actually do about developing rich content knowledge “within and across grades.” To do so will take the courage to withstand the gripe-patrols that will complain about the inclusion of say Egypt, in the second grade. But who can be sure that the required political courage to withstand such gripes won’t be forthcoming once the absolute need for specific, cumulative content is understood. As Niels Bohr said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” If just one state or district shows the way, with big, unmistakable gains resulting, those results will influence many others.

Egyptian papyrus showing the Pharaoh Tutankhamen and gods courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Bohr principle ought to be the watchword in this debate over the Common Core. Those who confidently predict failure haven’t any more knowledge about what will really happen than I do. (Of course critics of CCSS are reasonably concerned about the tests that might go with the Common Core, which I’ll quickly discuss in another blog.) But unless the actual curricular plans of the critics (where are they?) also required coherent “content knowledge within and across grades,” their alternatives are not likely to be as effective as CCSS. And if critics do support the key principles of specificity and coherence—well then—why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states rather than get lost in details of who was or was not consulted?

*****

For many years my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K – 12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. It ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, his school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that Common Core will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge-based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. Hence in actual implementation, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does.

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “Oh my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. In them each topic is explained and instructional suggestions are provided. In addition, the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would be useful for the teacher to have by way of background are also laid out. The best sources for further relevant materials wrap up each section. Cleo was greatly relieved.

But what about all the other Cleo’s out there who are being thrown into these sink-or-swim situations in our public schools, sent into classrooms where it’s impossible to know what their students already know, and where teachers are given scant guidance about what they should be teaching—or worse—are asked to teach literacy classes based on the trivial and fragmented fictions found in the standard literacy textbooks?

Teachers in a typical American classroom cannot rely on their students having acquired any specific item of knowledge. But effective classroom teaching depends on key prior knowledge being shared by all the members of the class. Without such shared knowledge, truly effective whole-class teaching cannot occur—no matter how potentially effective the teacher is. In today’s schools, teachers are compelled to overuse all sorts of individualizing strategies—at huge opportunity cost to the progress of the class as a whole. Individualized instruction is always important. But it is far more effective when students’ share prior academic knowledge, which alone enables the teacher to engage in varied instructional approaches.

That’s why I have become so impatient with the teacher bashing that has overtaken the education reform movement. The favored structural reforms haven’t worked very well. The new emphasis on “teacher quality” implies that the reforms haven’t worked because the teachers (rather than the reform principles themselves) are ineffective. A more reasonable interpretation is that reforms haven’t worked because on average they have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

The single most effective way to enhance teacher effectiveness is to create a more coherent multi-year curriculum, so that teachers at each level will know what students have already been taught. The Common Core State Standards offer a framework for any state or locality to create the curricular coherence that could lead to massive gains in student learning. It would improve teacher effectiveness on a large-scale if we created a more coherent school environment in which a teacher’s work in one year reliably builds on what has been taught in prior years. A conscientious and intelligent realization of the new Common Core Standards could achieve that essential element that has been missing in our schools for too many tragic decades.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 3

by Guest Blogger
August 20th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 2, he discusses the problems with placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.

 

Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Center

 

Mistake #3: Infantilizing teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet teachers are all too often managed as if it were a low-skill profession.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring, training, and retaining teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendancy. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children incapable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which the Common Core standards are currently getting rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than centering the hard work of implementation of the Common Core on teachers—the ones who will implement them and are ostensibly the most knowledgeable on matters of pedagogy and students’ needs—we instead see resources focused on external consultants and organizations who have a tendency to transmogrify the rich content and ideas of the standards into checklists and shallowly “aligned” materials. The end result is that schools and districts look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Such simplistic renderings effectively declaw the standards of any of their transformative power.

But none of this comes as a surprise: It parallels our decades-long push to infantilize our students by denying them access to real academic discipline and to systematic exposure to domain-specific knowledge. An unfortunate outcry against Common Core and the introduction of complex texts, such as we just witnessed in reactions to New York’s release of test scores, is that some students can’t possibly be expected to meet such rigorous standards. Students most desperately in need of access to knowledge and literature are too often denied that access, thus falling further and further behind. Those students need the Common Core—not some declawed facsimile.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in implementation in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good (check out EngageNY, LearnZillion, and TeachingChannel) but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence (even Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is content-rich and brings history and science into the ELA block, is not a complete curriculum). And those curricula that are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

If our teachers haven’t steeped themselves deeply in the study of the content and texts they are going to teach, how else are they supposed to transfer knowledge and skills to their students?

There’s one answer to those questions, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history.

It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not be created.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location-based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish a measure of coherency.

The best professional development I have experienced on Common Core has been with LearnZillion. At first glance, LearnZillion appears to be just another Gates Foundation-funded edtech startup. But dig a little deeper beyond the surface, and you will begin to notice that the folks who are making those video lessons are actual classroom teachers (full and happy disclosure: I am one of them). Earlier this year, LearnZillion gathered 200 educators from 41 different states to meet, learn from one another and from “experts,” and design Common Core aligned lessons together. In other words, LearnZillion is doing something that almost no district is seeking to do, and to do it at scale: invest in teacher scholarship, expertise, and interpretation of Common Core. Most of the materials these teachers are creating are freely available, and other teachers can utilize them as they deem fit.

This is the model that districts and schools need to adopt if we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned. Give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’s Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of curricular resources for the Common Core that can better refine and build our collective understanding of how it should be implemented. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be fully transparent and accessible to the public.

But such an investment in teacher expertise and scholarship is just the beginning. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t need guidance, support, and direction from researchers, professors, organizations, and practitioners in other fields. A great place to begin for guidance would be to sit down as a school and look at the Core Knowledge Sequence together, in addition to Common Core’s list of text exemplars in Appendix B. I have also created templates (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), based on PARCC’s suggestions for a curricular framework, that has the text suggestions from both at the bottom, as well as suggested authors and texts from Massachusetts’ ELA standards.

My point is that the Common Core standards must be interpreted and understood by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

  • Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to work together to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or teacher-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we are already witnessing states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will learn from them and move forward with a focus on what will take our students and our system of public education to the next level.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 2

by Guest Blogger
August 15th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 3, he discusses the dangers of infantilizing teachers.

 

Prometheus statue, University of Minho

 

Mistake #2: Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA

As I noted in my last post, I believe the Common Core standards open a window of opportunity for systematically building students’ knowledge as teachers shift from “just-right texts” to complex texts. Another potentially transformative shift of the Common Core standards is the acknowledgment that literacy extends across all content areas. This is explicitly recognized by the standards in two ways: 1) the inclusion of literacy standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6 – 12; and 2) the demand for an increase in informational texts.

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

That domain-specific knowledge is essential to literacy is a point that has been already been made much more cogently by others—such as Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Robert Pondiscio—and that is apparent in research. In my personal experience, I frequently teach students who are quite familiar with the skill of “inferencing,” for example, yet display little ability to make an accurate inference.

During my first years of teaching at my former elementary school, we had noted from our students’ literacy assessment data that inferencing was a deficient skill across all tested grades. All of us set about diligently teaching the skill. After going through a cycle or two of grade-level team “inquiry” on this skill, something slowly became apparent to me: our students couldn’t make accurate inferences because they didn’t understand what they were reading. The problem wasn’t lack of inferencing skill, it was lack of knowledge. This is when I first realized that we were failing our students because we didn’t have a coherent curriculum. Forget inferencing. Before we could do inquiry on anything, we had to have a solid, structured curriculum in place to refer to so that we could align what we were teaching across our classrooms and grades, and therefore address gaps in students’ knowledge and skills.

In most elementary schools, ELA is given heavy prominence, often to the detriment of music, arts, social studies, and science, as ELA test scores weigh heavily on schools’ performance. Yet this establishes a demoralizing catch-22, in that the domain-specific knowledge necessary for reading comprehension is then unable to be acquired.

If the research foundation and intent of the Common Core—to build the broad knowledge that is essential to literacy—remains unrecognized, then a simple and devastating misunderstanding of Common Core’s emphasis on “informational” texts will occur: ELA will avoid most literature altogether and focus on disparate expository texts instead, leaving us back at square one—an utter lack of coherency or of a systematic accumulation of knowledge.

The burden for literacy cannot remain on the shoulders of ELA alone. Literature, including literary nonfiction, is essential for gaining an understanding of the world, but it must be backed by domain-specific knowledge in other content areas.

In elementary school, this means that administrators need to shift their focus from ELA to social studies, science, arts, and music, and ensure that 90-minute literacy blocks are used to build knowledge, not simply to conduct independent reading and writing. This can be done most strategically by selecting a coherent body of texts for teacher read-alouds and whole class or small group exploration. In middle and high school, this means that social studies, science, and technical content area teachers need to be on board with also being teachers of literacy, and must be trained on the selection and teaching of texts that will build content-specific knowledge.

At my middle school, my grade-level team began developing this understanding by exploring the Common Core standards together. We discovered that the expectation that students would be able to cite evidence, read and comprehend complex grade-level texts, and write arguments that exhibit logical reasoning and address counterclaims extended across ELA, social studies, and science. Not only that, we found that argumentative standards in literacy closely aligned with expectations for mathematical practice, in that students were expected to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Here is the initial document my team created to review and compare these argumentative standards.

Such an exploration, however, is only a foot in the door. Now we must consider how we can share strategies for teaching close reading, what qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to select grade-level complex texts, and in what way we can align these strategies across departments and grades. Furthermore, this also requires a shift on the part of us ELA teachers: we must be now be willing to consider how the texts and content we teach will align and build on the content taught in other classrooms.

While such an undertaking may appear daunting at first, the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary papers, projects, and tasks is invigorating both for teachers and for students. At the end of the last school year, my ELA department began working with our social studies department to consider how we could align our poetry units with their units. We discovered that all social studies units shared a common theme of warfare, so we began selecting poems on warfare that would build on this theme and extend and enrich student understanding of multiple perspectives on war. This ability to strategically build on student knowledge strengthened student engagement, as students were able dive deeper into poems such as “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen by drawing upon their knowledge of the experience of soldiers in traumatic modern wars.

Here’s one short-term measure we could take to ensure that the burden for teaching literacy does not fall only on the shoulders of ELA teachers:

  • Common Core-aligned literacy assessments should hold all the teachers for a grade level accountable.

Wait, what? You read that right. Make all the teachers on a grade level accountable for student performance on literacy tests. It might sound crazy, and I’m sure it will complicate the pristine “value-added” formulas that have been cooked up to evaluate individual teachers, but it’s the most effective means to ensure that schools actualize the teaching of knowledge as the key to literacy. So long as the burden of accountability for literacy tests falls solely to the domain of ELA, then the teaching of literacy will fall solely on the backs of ELA teachers, and the other content areas will therefore continue to be treated as secondary as testing hysteria arises during the year.

In the schools I have worked in, this hysteria is the inevitable accompaniment to high stakes testing. Teachers, despite themselves, begin referencing “the test” as a raison d’être of lessons. During this run up to testing, roughly December through May, a school’s frenetic focus is on ELA and math, with extra weekend and afterschool sessions piled on to reinforce all those isolated skills for good measure.

But now imagine if literacy were acknowledged as a grade-level team’s main objective. All hands would be on deck to ensure that content—across all domains—would be systematically taught and reinforced. In other words, we’d be doing what we should have been doing all along.

Longer term measures we could take to ensure that teaching literacy extends across content areas:

  • Schedule time each week for grade-level teacher teams to meet and collaborate on curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Include a focus on selecting and teaching complex texts in content-specific teacher training.

 

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 1

by Guest Blogger
August 12th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core

 

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817

 

As a special education teacher in the Bronx, I have worked in self-contained and inclusive settings, first in an elementary, and now, in a middle school. I welcome the Common Core standards as beneficial to transforming practice in my school and classroom, and have worked to interpret them as a NYC Common Core ELA Fellow, as well as create curriculum and materials aligned to them within my own school, and with other teachers across the nation as part of the 2013 LearnZillion “Dream Team.”

I believe that the adoption of the Common Core standards has provided us with a golden window of opportunity for engaging and challenging our students with rich content, empowering teachers as scholars and content experts, and establishing a modicum of academic coherency in classrooms across our nation.

Here’s how we can all too easily squander this great opportunity:

  • Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant.
  • Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.
  • Infantilizing teachers.

If we perpetuate these three practices, then the Common Core will do little to transform much of anything.

Right now the Common Core standards stand at a pivotal moment, as they move from grand vision into the classroom and from rhetoric into curriculum. In this and two blog posts to follow, let’s examine the three missteps noted above in greater depth, and consider how we can correct them before it is too late.

Mistake #1: Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant

By political necessity, the Common Core generally avoid specifying what content should be taught in literacy, beyond providing a general directive to teach “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.” However, the great shift that the standards make is that they put a strong focus on what they term “text complexity.”

Appendix A of the Common Core literacy standards is integral to understanding this shift, and well worth analyzing. In an outline of research supporting a call for complex text, for example, the authors note that “what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who [scored well on ACT tests] from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts.”

So, big surprise: skills—such as inferencing, using context clues, or finding the main idea—are secondary to a student’s ability to deeply comprehend the content of what is read.

Where does such deep comprehension of a complex text arise? Again, let’s turn to Appendix A on this:

A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself. This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas. (Bold added)

Eloquently put. Deep comprehension of complex texts arises from knowledge. What is powerful about such a focus on knowledge-rich complex texts is that this represents a major shift in current teaching practice. In many elementary schools across our nation, teachers train their students to select “just right” books for independent reading each day. A “just right” book is a book that a child can read on his or her own with relative ease. When a book is selected by the teacher for sharing with the whole class, it is often simply as a prop for the demonstration and modeling of a given skill. Students are mostly expected to utilize class time reading books at their independent reading level.

While the idea that students pick and read books that match their interest and ability sounds like good practice, in reality, what is lost over the long-term is the cultivation of a coherent body of knowledge, in addition to academic discipline. Given the great weight of English Language Arts (ELA) in elementary school, and the time thus allotted to skills-based reading, students end up getting passed from grade to grade without any sort of cumulative base of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, too many students arrive at our middle schools, high schools, and colleges with little understanding of literature, their nation and its place in the world, or the historical context of scientific discovery.

That the Common Core standards are now asking teachers to make more careful and rigorous text selections based on complexity and knowledge is therefore momentous. That this is even momentous, however, is disheartening, as even this shift remains a half-measure.

Appendix A outlines factors that must be considered in the selection of a complex text for a given grade level: qualitative factors, quantitative factors, and reader and task considerations. The reality, however, is that texts that will build student knowledge and understanding of literature and of the world are more than a set of qualitative and quantitative factors. A literary text should be selected with an eye toward its place in literary history.

It should be obvious, however, that for the Common Core standards to specify what texts or authors should be foundational or essential to a given literary or historical epoch, beyond its already vague gestures at classic myths and Shakespeare, would be political suicide. The writers of Common Core acknowledged this limitation when they cautioned that the standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.” It is therefore up to teachers and curriculum designers to select texts that they believe will cumulatively build student understanding of literary history and domain-specific knowledge.

This is where effective implementation of the Common Core is in most danger. Most teachers, schools, and the consultants who support them are accustomed to skills-based teaching. Furthermore, the development or adoption of a coherent, thoughtfully sequenced curriculum is unfortunately not a priority in most American public schools.

The writers of the standards made it clear that curriculum is the key to effective implementation when they stated that the standards must “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document” (bold added).

They furthermore note that a foundation of knowledge across different domains is required to become strong readers, and that “students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (bold added).

Such a curricular foundation is not haphazard. According to the standards, “Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students” (bold added).

This careful selection of rich texts that will systematically build student knowledge within specific domains thus requires a momentous shift in practice for classroom teachers and their schools.

Here is one simple short-term measure we could take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not retain its dominance in the classroom:

  • Common Core-aligned assessments should select texts that explicitly demand knowledge of literature and of the world.

Test makers could broadcast the pool of texts that might be selected for a given test a year before the tests would be administered. For example, if a 6th grade teacher knew that students might be tested on passages from Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the United States Constitution, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then chances are probably much greater that the teacher will spend time studying those works, the historical epochs in which they were written, and the authors who wrote them, as opposed to teaching isolated skills such as how to find the main idea or how to make an inference.

One long-term measure we can take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not remain predominant:

  • Assess curriculum and consultancy programs by how well they build domain-specific knowledge both horizontally (across content areas by grade level) and vertically (sequentially by grade).

Curriculum programs and consultants to schools have been given a free pass in this area for far too long. If we know that “knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability,” then it is unconscionable that we should allow the cultivation of knowledge to continue to be treated haphazardly, or as a consideration of secondary importance, by any school curriculum.

In my next two posts, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the two other mistakes—placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA and infantilizing teachers.

The Common Core Tests in Language Arts Will Soon Be Coming to Your Child’s School. Tell Your Local Superintendent: “Don’t Worry. Students Will Ace Those Tests If They Learn History, Civics, Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.”

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
August 5th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on July 30, 2013.

 

“A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.” 

This comment from an able and experienced teacher is one among several similar ones that teachers have recently posted on the Core Knowledge blog. Their worry is also mine.

The success of the Common Core Standards in Language Arts, adopted by more than 40 states, is supremely important for many reasons, not least because of the recent intensification of income inequality. Student scores on language arts tests are the single most reliable academic predictors of later income. The new language arts standards of the Common Core represent an historic opportunity for beneficial change in American schools—if they are put into effect intelligently.

But if you look at the data in Amazon books, you will see that the bestselling books about the Common Core are “skills-centric” ones that claim to prepare teachers for the new language arts standards by advocating techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity” as though such skills were the main ones for understanding a text no matter how unfamiliar a student might be with the topic of the text. The fact is, though, that students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

We need to learn from recent painful experience. The failure of No Child Left Behind in fostering advanced language ability can be traced to the skills-centric test-prepping that left little room for the systematic gaining of knowledge. Of course there is one facet of the skills-centric approach to reading that should be applauded, and which did improve under NCLB—the teaching of decoding. Learning to translate those symbols on the page into sounds and words is a skill that ought to be taught systematically between kindergarten and second grade, beginning with simple letter-sound correspondences and progressing step-by-step to complicated Greek-based spellings. More systematic instruction in phonics explains why test scores went up in the earliest grades under NCLB. But its neglect of knowledge building explains why student scores did not go up in later grades when tests emphasize comprehension.

Test anxiety was paradoxically the main reason that schools spent so much time on abstract skills like “comprehension strategies” and “inferencing.” My aim in this blog post addressed to parents is to explain why the best test prep for their child under the new Common Core standards will be a more systematic approach to imparting knowledge. My argument is simple: If understanding a text depends on some prior familiarity with the topic, then that will also be true of the passages on a language-arts test.

The more a student knows the better he or she will perform on any language-arts test—whether or not that test is said to be “aligned” with the new Common Core standards. If we take a step back from the details of the Common Core standards we can see why this claim necessarily must be true. Older language arts tests—such as Gates-Macginitie, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford 9, the Degrees of Reading Power, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the verbal sections of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—correlate well with each other, indicating that they are all accurately probing underlying competence in language. If the results of the Common Core tests are not strongly correlated with these well-validated ones, then the technical validity of the new tests would rightly be deemed unsatisfactory, and no state ought to adopt them. There is no reason to think that the top experts making the new Common Core tests are not well aware of this technical issue of correlation. It’s the schools, rather, that need to reconsider what will really prepare their students for the new tests—and a productive life.

One reason that the schools have been applying a skills-centric approach is that they have regarded reading as a uniform skill that develops in stages, rather than a highly variable skill which depends on a person’s topic knowledge. The schools cannot be blamed for this. The stage-by-stage conception of reading is the theory that even top experts held up to a few decades ago. The notion that any text on any topic at the right level would enhance reading ability has encouraged our schools to tolerate a topic-incoherent curriculum in language arts. This indifference to knowledge building is the chief reason the verbal scores of our school leavers have stayed flat and low.

Cognitive scientists have found, however, that a student’s average level of reading skill, which is reasonably accurately indicated by the standard tests, masks wide fluctuations depending on the test taker’s familiarity with the topic. That’s why reading tests typically use multiple passages on different topics—characteristically about ten—to try to capture that average. And even then, the passages are not random but have been filtered through the net of grade-level criteria like word rarity and sentence length. The whole system has conspired to make schools think that the topic knowledge is less important than “reading level.” But now we know that the topic of the passage is far more important than the level. The more students know about a topic, the further above their level they can read on that topic. This new understanding of reading ability demands nothing less than a revolution in language arts instruction, with less emphasis on technique and more emphasis on the systematic acquisition of knowledge.

The new Common Core standards have recognized this research finding. They state that these standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” And they add: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Well said! And we have to take care that the schools and the experts hear and act on that truth. Parents and concerned citizens should make sure that they do.

If any school wants to see a model for what this means in actual practice, there are a couple of resources on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website that should be useful. Here is a grade-by-grade content sequence for all subjects in preschool through eighth grade that is downloadable for free. This sequence takes into account the knowledge that is most needed and used in written language in the United States—imparting topic familiarity as well as deeper insight across the topics that are most enabling for written communication. When schools use this sequence to write a rigorous curriculum, their students do well on language tests. Second, here is an early reading program—preschool through third grade—that systematically brings many history, science, and literary topics into the language arts classroom in sufficient depth so that the student becomes familiar with them. This pre-k – 3 program will be downloadable for free soon. For now, here’s the list of topics, with each taking about 2-3 weeks to teach. Each has about 10-12 teacher read-alouds and related class discussions and extension activities.

The coming of the Common Core standards and tests need not be a new, harrowing imposition on already besieged schools. Rather they are an historic opportunity—a new slate on which schools can write either a topic-indifferent, fragmented curriculum similar to what has failed before, or a new, exciting and successful orientation to knowledge. That’s what the top experts – the cognitive scientists—are telling us, and it’s a message that all parents, educators, and concerned citizens need to act upon.