Can Knowledge Level The Learning Field For Children?

by Guest Blogger
December 2nd, 2013

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

How much do preschoolers from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds know about the world and why does that matter? One recent study by Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan) provides some answers.

The researchers randomly selected children from preschool classrooms in two sites, one serving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the other serving middle-class kids. They then set about to answer three questions:

  1. Do poor and middle-class children possess different knowledge about the world?
  2. Do differences in knowledge influence the children’s ability to learn in the classroom?
  3. If differences in preexisting knowledge were neutralized, would the two groups of children learn similarly?

To answer the first question, the researchers determined how much children from both groups knew about birds and the extent to which they were able to make inferences about new words based on such knowledge.

Not surprisingly, lower-income children had significantly less knowledge about birds and bird behaviors than did their middle-class peers. To rule out the possibility that these differences were the result of disparities in language proficiency, Kaefer et al. measured the children’s receptive vocabularies. This way, they were able to establish that poor kids knew less about birds, not merely because they knew fewer words related to birds, but because they had less information about the domain in general.

To answer the second question — whether differences in knowledge influence the kids’ ability to learn in the classroom — a second study evaluated children’s ability to understand words out of context and to comprehend a story that was read to them. As predicted, children from middle-class backgrounds, who had greater knowledge about the domain category (i.e., birds), performed better in these two tasks than children with more limited knowledge about the domain.

It may not be obvious to adults, but learning words from books is not an automatic or straightforward task for young children. In fact, argue the authors of the paper, one of the factors influencing this process is children’s preexisting knowledge. Previous research (cited in the paper) has established that children with larger vocabularies acquire new words implicitly from storybooks more readily than children with smaller vocabularies. At least two mechanisms might explain the relationship between vocabulary and learning.

First, the authors note, one possible explanation is that metalinguistic factors (e.g., verbal IQ, working memory) explain the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and implicit word learning.

Alternatively, if children’s vocabulary is viewed as an indicator (or “reflection”) of their general background knowledge, it may be the breadth and depth of their preexisting knowledge that influences their implicit word learning.

The logic of the second mechanism is as follows: Children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot new information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

To recap, the first study discussed above established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about a topic (i.e., birds) than their middle-class peers. Next, in study two, the researchers showed that differences in domain knowledge influenced children’s ability to understand words out of context, and to comprehend a story. Moreover, poor kids—who also had more limited knowledge—perform worse on these tasks than did their middle-class peers. But could additional knowledge be used to level the playing field for children from less affluent backgrounds?

In study three, the researchers held the children’s prior knowledge constant by introducing a fictitious topic—i.e., a topic that was sure to be unknown to both groups. When the two groups of children were assessed on word learning and comprehension related to this new domain, the researchers found no significant differences in how poor and middle-class children learned words, comprehended a story or made inferences.

These results:

  • Add to the body of research showing that preexisting knowledge shapes incidental vocabulary learning and comprehension for children, and that this is true for children as young as preschool age;
  • Highlight the need to build children’s background knowledge more systematically and strategically, and suggest that procedures to activate children’s prior knowledge—e.g., storybook reading—may prove fruitless when such knowledge does not exist.

While this research, like all research, has limitations—see the paper for a discussion of these—the results taken together suggest that one powerful way to level the “learning field” for all children is to facilitate poor kids’ access to “taken for granted” knowledge that middle class children, on average, are more likely to possess, primarily because they have been exposed to it in the first place.

When poor and middle-class children are given the same opportunities to assimilate new knowledge, their subsequent learning is comparable. Of course this is only one study, but the main finding and its implications are extremely powerful. It suggests that if preschool programs are not making a difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it might be the case that the programs are not tackling an important but solvable problem: A deficit in knowledge.

 

Making College a Genuine Choice: Michael Shaughnessy Interviews Lisa Hansel

by Lisa Hansel
April 22nd, 2013

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

Michael F. Shaughnessy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Where does Core Knowledge fit into this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

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

This essay was published on The Atlantic’s website on March 29, 2013; it is reposted here with permission.

Right now, roughly 1,000 schools—public, private, rural, urban, and suburban—are implementing a curriculum plan called the Core Knowledge Sequence. That number is slated to increase significantly in the fall: Under the new Common Core State Standards, the state of New York is recommending the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through second grade.

It won’t be long before the Core Knowledge program will have helped educate more than a million children—an estimate that doesn’t count the several million children whose parents have taken them through Core Knowledge books such as What Your First-Grader Needs to Know. Judging from the evidence, this is a good thing. The Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that students need actual knowledge, not just thinking skills, in order to succeed. As the program’s website explains:

It’s natural to assume that teaching lots of “stuff” isn’t important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much “walking-around knowledge” you carry inside your head—and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it’s easier to learn more. And it’s much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don’t.

As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I’ve written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program’s character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia.

***

A crucial moment occurred about 60 years ago as I was in my first semester of teaching English to Yale freshmen. The poem under discussion that day was “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, and my interpretation was being challenged by a very sharp undergraduate.

The poem starts this way:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
     And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
     ”Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
 
So let us melt, and make no noise,
     No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
     To tell the laity our love.

The undergraduate insisted that it was a poem about death, since the poem forbids “mourning” and offers the image of a man dying quietly.

Most professors of English would agree that this is not a poem about dying. In Donne’s day, the word “mourning” did not have the limited, mortuary connotation it has now. True, the poet does say he is departing from his beloved, but he’s going on a real geographical trip. In the rest of the poem he explains that he’ll be coming back, and they will renew their love as before. The valediction is a “be seein’ ya,” not a “farewell.”

But nonetheless the poem can be read as a permanent farewell. In Donne’s famous image of a compass, the twin legs part from each other, then one leg takes a circular trip, but then the two legs come back together. All that could be read as a reuniting of two souls after death. There are other clues that make death a plausible interpretation—not just the word “mourning” in the title, but also the image of the dying man, and the poet’s insistence that he and his beloved are not like “dull sublunary lovers” who depend on each other’s physical presence. That could suggest some sort of posthumous spiritual reunion.

But my bright undergraduate didn’t even need to bring out those detailed arguments. He made a more decisive theoretical observation: He pointed out that then-current literary theory held that the intention of the poet is irrelevant. A poem goes out into the world as an artwork, a “verbal icon,” to be interpreted as readers wish, so long as their interpretations follow the public norms and conventions of language. That doctrine meant, said the undergraduate, that hisreading of the poem was just as valid as my reading, since both followed public norms and conventions. My immediate response was that his logic was absolutely right.

So, why was I teaching this class?

In 1954, Yale was the vibrant center of the “New Criticism” that had already begun to take over the teaching of literature in the high schools, mainly through the phenomenally successful textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren called Understanding Poetry. The theory was that you didn’t need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques. The other influential text was The Verbal Icon by William K. Wimsatt, who, like Brooks, had been a professor of mine at Yale. All of them became dear friends despite our disagreements.

In those heady days when the Yale English department was rated tops in the nation, it had the feeling almost of a theological seminary for the new doctrines that freed the study of literature from its pedantic, historical trappings and treated works of literature intrinsically as literature—as “verbal icons.” Under this theory, the argument that my student made was right. His “reading” wasjust as valid as mine. Once he had mastered Understanding Poetry, why should I, or anyone, need to teach him how to read Donne’s poem?

***

Five years passed. I was now back from a Fulbright in Germany where I had completed my dissertation on William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling, and I was teaching at Yale again. I now thought I was ready to respond to the undergraduate’s challenge. I had explained in the introduction to my dissertation just why you do really need to know quite a lot of extrinsic things to understand even the simplest poem of Wordsworth.

When I was in Germany, I had eagerly read the works of humanistic theorists like Wilhelm Dilthey and philosophers like Edmund Husserl. I had also begun to read linguistics and cognitive psychology. I wrote up my musings as a 1960 article called “Objective Interpretation” in the Publications of the Modern Language Association. Besides citing a lot of eminent German theorists, I offered a concrete example: a simple Wordsworth poem along with two very different interpretations, one by Cleanth Brooks and the other by historical scholar F. W. Bateson. Here is the poem:

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.
 
 No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In Brooks’s view, the poem evokes a sense of futility—the lover’s “agonized shock” at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree:

Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object’s being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl’s falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. … [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.

In contrast, F. W. Bateson sees the poem building up to a sense of “pantheistic magnificence”:

The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human “thing.”

As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth, I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet’s intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth’s nature. As the poet wrote in “The Prelude Book, III”:

To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

If Wordsworth had meant to imply the “dead, dead inertness” that Brooks found in the poem’s conclusion, he would hardly have ended the series “rocks and stones and trees.”

However, by favoring Bateson’s reading over Brooks’s, I was disobeying the New Critical doctrine that intention doesn’t matter. This raised a troubling contradiction. If there was no such thing as a “correct” interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.

But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.

Such a theory could not interest anyone very long—and indeed deconstruction was much shorter-lived than New Criticism. This explains why literature departments now have largely turned away from “readings” and have focused their work (often productively) on cultural activism and historical studies.

***

Fast-forward a decade and a half to the late 1970s. By this time, I was a chaired professor at a top-rated English department. I’d written several articles and books on English Romantic poets and theory of interpretation, and I was putting the maximum into my retirement fund. But I was getting worried: After serving two stints as department chairman, I’d seen that English programs were neglecting the task of teaching composition.

With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I decided to do some large-scale empirical work on how to teach writing more effectively. Studies by the Educational Testing Service had shown that the teaching of composition was currently neither an art nor a science, but almost completely arbitrary. When a single paper was graded by multiple people, the resulting grade was unpredictable almost to the point of randomness. My research was designed to discover whether we could devise a non-arbitrary grading system based on the actual communicative effectiveness of writing.

But what I discovered was something altogether unexpected and, as it turned out, life-changing. I found that when readers were somewhat unfamiliar with the topic in the text, no paper, no matter how well written, could communicate effectively with those readers. I had assumed that clear writing would help the most when the subject was unfamiliar. In fact, the opposite was true. When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

When we carried our experiments to a community college in Richmond, this truth became more apparent—and extremely urgent. These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge—information already stored in one’s long-term memory—is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It’s more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts.

Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills—the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly.

Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it’s hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills—just as devotees of the New Criticism had done.

***

When I first started my experiment on writing, I thought it would prove that a student could become a good writer by learning a few formal techniques. But the data showed that background knowledge, not technique, is by far the more important element in both writing and reading. Technique only gets you about 10 per cent of the way in communication. The remaining 90 percent requires knowledge—knowledge that those struggling readers in Richmond hadn’t been taught.

When the results of our writing experiment surprised us, an unprepared mind might have simply considered it a failed experiment. I realized years later that it was my own prior knowledge that allowed me to comprehend the results of the study. The light bulb went on for me only because my mind had been prepared by my work in literary theory: the harsh glare of a bright-yet-contentedly undereducated student and the contradictory interpretations of two poems.

Fundamentally, the Core Knowledge reform movement is an effort to give all students the broad knowledge that will set them up for a good income and a lifetime of reading and learning. I won’t be around to see how it ends. With luck it could end with higher achievement and much smaller achievement gaps—but only if far more schools, parents, and concerned citizens become persuaded, as I did, that knowledge trumps skills.

A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

After over 5 years and 1500 posts, this will be my final blog entry as host of the Core Knowledge Blog.

The good news – no, great news – is that the blog will continue to host an ongoing conversation on curriculum, literacy, teaching and learning.  It will continue to make the case for a content-rich education as the indispensable key to language proficiency, vocabulary growth, critical thinking, problem solving and nearly all of the big picture goals we prize in education.   A guy named E.D. Hirsch will be taking over this space for now.  I believe you’ve heard of him.

K-12 education looked very different when this blog launched in December 2007.   The education reform discussion largely revolved around structural concerns—teacher quality, testing, charter schools, school choice, and the like.  This blog expressed frustration early and often at the blithe lack of concern among policymakers and reform advocates with the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.  All of these structural issues struck me, then and still, as important but insufficient if we wish to see not merely incremental change, but a watershed improvement in student outcomes, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students.

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.  Not for nothing has Hirsch been referred to as the intellectual forefather of Common Core.  All of this was nearly unthinkable a mere five years ago.

The fight is not over.  It will never be over.  Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.  Is there any field that is as broadly ignorant of its own history as education?

Which brings me to what’s next for your humble blogger.  Effective this month, I will be continuing to make the case for content, but in a slightly different form and venue.  I will be leading an effort, along with some of the leading thinkers in education and public policy, to launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.  You will find me here shortly, and for now you can also follow me on Twitter here and Facebook here.  You can also email me at rpondiscio@aol.com.

To be sure, I don’t view this as a departure from the work of Core Knowledge, but as an extension of it.  Another voice in the happily growing chorus of those who understand and advocate for a content-rich education, and seek to rescue our kids from the joyless, skills-happy, prep-and-test drudgery to which schools too often descend.  We have a larger mission to serve in education.  One that transcends the unlovely if earnest end of “college and career readiness.”  The public purpose of education is citizenship first.  Don’s last book was titled, The Making of Americans for a reason.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to have been associated with Core Knowledge for the last five years, and to have had this forum to make the common sense case for a content-rich education.  I walked in the door a true believer in the Core Knowledge vision.  I walk out the door doubly so.

I owe debts that can never be repaid to my Core Knowledge colleagues, in particular Linda Bevilacqua and Alice Wiggins.  To Dan Willingham for his wise counsel, friendship and assistance.  And most of all to Don Hirsch.  It has been the singular privilege of my adult life to be associated with him and his deeply democratic and egalitarian vision of education.

The Unlikely Triumph of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2012

At last week’s forum of the Education Commission of the States in Atlanta, Core Knowledge Founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was honored with the organization’s James Bryant Conant Award.  Given annually since 1977, the prestigious honor is bestowed upon “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to American education.”

E.D Hirsch, Jr. at last week's ECS Forum in Atlanta

For Hirsch, it has been quite a ride to arrive at this moment.   His ideas about education reform and reading burst into the collective consciousness with the 1987 publication of Cultural Literacy, a surprise publishing phenomenon which spent over six months on the New York Times best-seller list.  However, the book had the misfortune of coming out at the height of the ‘80s culture war battles and became, as Dan Willingham observed, “possibly the most misunderstood education book of the last fifty years.” Hirsch’s critics—and they were many and loud—largely ignored what he was saying about the fundamental role of shared knowledge in reading comprehension and literacy instruction. Instead they were aghast at what they mistakenly perceived as, in Hirsch’s words, “a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was–an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge.”

In a 2007 interview, Hirsch expressed relief  about the emerging awareness that “all the time, the Core Knowledge project has been what it said it was – a progressive effort to improve schools and empower low-income and minority students.”  He elaborated in his acceptance remarks last week.

“Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is not mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.”

“Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award,” Hirsch concluded.  The turnaround, he noted, “can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge.”

The complete text of Hirsch’s acceptance remarks can be found here. A video of those remarks can be found here.

Remarks on Receiving the Conant Award, July 10, 2012

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation, and the University of Virginia, I want to thank ECS for adding my name to a list that includes some of the most admirable people in American education. When I first heard of this honor, I identified with Dr. Johnson and his wife. There was a fable that the wife of the great dictionary maker found him in bed with another woman. “Dr. Johnson,” she said, “I’m surprised.” “No, Madam,” he said “I am surprised. You are astonished.” When I heard of this award, I was both!

The remarkable list of predecessors includes Ralph Tyler, who started NAEP among many other things, and Thurgood Marshall who won the verdict in Brown v Board of Education among many other things. As I ponder the other distinguished names, I see a few patterns in the themes that have mattered most to ECS and to the country – the goals and policies that have dominated our educational efforts since 1977 when the Conant Awards began.

I have lived through those decades and more – beginning as a first grader in 1934 at our neighborhood public school, the Lennox School in Memphis, Tennessee. There I learned that it didn’t matter who my parents were, or where their parents came from. My teachers explained that we were all free Americans, where one person is just as good as another. I quickly and permanently bought into idea.

The public school teachers of those days committed themselves very powerfully the Americanizing mission of the schools. And that aim was also reflected in our schoolbooks. This Americanizing mission could be called nationalism, but it was different in a fundamental way from the nationalism being taught in other lands which had not been created from the egg on the authority of written documents devoted to universal principles. Those other countries, including France, existed before the Enlightenment. They were not conceived in liberty and dedicated to abstract propositions. Their students were being taught a more tribalistic form of nationalism, founded on language, place and parentage, history, blood and soil – going back to the root sense of nationnatio – meaning birth.

Here in the New World, we were told, it wasn’t your birth that determined who you were, but your ability and diligence, and you pledged your allegiance to a multi-national community based on freedom and equality. The schools instilled in us an un-tribal patriotism, and a sense of equal worth that empowered some of us, including me, to rebel against our own parents, just as our predecessors rebelled against George the Third.

But this is not the occasion for narrating my history starting in first grade. More pertinent to the occasion is our common educational history since the Conant Awards began. Their most consistent and noble theme has been equality of educational opportunity.

That was the title of the Coleman Report of 1966, which showed authoritatively that during the 1960s families had more impact on academic achievement than schools did. Yet the Conant awards show that we as a nation have remained dedicated to changing that result. Several Conant awardees besides Thurgood Marshall have devoted their lives to equal educational opportunity – including, Carl Perkins whose name appears on the national Perkins Act of 1984 which aimed to improve the access for those who had been underserved in the past. It includes James Comer and Robert Slavin who have devoted their professional lives to equal educational opportunity, and it includes the redoubtable Kati Haycock who received the Conant Award three years ago. Despite our disappointingly slow progress, the goal of equal educational opportunity is never far from our minds. And I hope that you will think of the Core Knowledge effort by my colleagues and me as belonging to that common goal of equalizing educational opportunity.

As I discuss in my recent book, The Making of Americans, equal opportunity was a primary mission of our schools from the start –as they were conceived by Jefferson and Noah Webster. That was one of the two main aims. The first was to give each person an equal chance, and the second was to unite the huge spread-out country into a national community in which loyalty to that larger community would trump regional, local, and private interests. George Washington even left money for the schools in his will for the express purpose of “spreading systematic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire, thereby to do away local attachments and State prejudices.”

You will hear tomorrow from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor about the civic mission of the schools. I want to devote my few remarks to the place of language mastery in achieving equal opportunity, greater civic participation and greater economic effectiveness. In the triad of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, we are pretty clear about what’s needed in arithmetic, but only recently has cognitive science corrected some widespread misconceptions about reading and writing, listening and speaking.

Those misconceptions have held us back. Overcoming those misconceptions is key to achieving language mastery for all. And language mastery is the key not only to citizenship, as Jefferson said, but to all of those information-age skills that have been termed 21st-century skills – critical thinking, the ability to work in teams, the ability to look things up, the ability to communicate well, and the ability to learn new skills readily. All of these skills depend on the possession of a large vocabulary.

I need hardly remind this group of that fact that our students’ verbal scores declined in the late 70s and have stayed flat ever since. According to the Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which correlates verbal test scores with income level and job competence — vocabulary size and reading comprehension are critical to raising student abilities and overcoming the achievement gap. No single general test of academic achievement is more highly correlated with income and civic competence than a verbal test such as the NAEP 12th-grade reading test.

Behind this correlation of verbal scores with life chances lies the deep truth that reading skill implies more than reading, and language implies more than language. A large vocabulary is, on average, the best single predictor of job competence and life chances. And a large vocabulary can only be gained by acquiring broad general knowledge, not by studying words. Nor can a large vocabulary be gained by practicing reading strategies and thinking skills – those dominant topics in our elementary schools. Such how-to ideas are enormously attractive, but they have not worked, and cognitive science tells us that they cannot work. Broad substantive knowledge, not formal technique, is the key to achievement and equity.

In 1987, many thought that my book-length foray into education reform called Cultural Literacy was a book about the culture wars. That’s why the cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, called it the most misunderstood education book in the past 50 years. What he had in mind was the mistaken assumption that the book was a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was – an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge. That misunderstanding arose not just because the word “cultural” was in the book’s title, and not just because the culture wars were in high gear when it came out, but also because the nature of reading was and still is deeply misunderstood by the general public and many educators.

It was an accident that my combination of research interests brought me into contact in the 1970s with frontier studies the newly developing field of psycholinguistics. Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is NOT mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.

Unfortunately the scientific consensus has not fully made its way into the thinking of teachers and principals. Reading is still thought of as a skill which, once learned, enables you to understand language addressed to the general public – whether in print or over radio, TV or the internet. But reading ability is really two distinct abilities – decoding and comprehending. The single word “reading” has merged decoding and comprehension, causing us to assume that if students learn to decode well they can develop into good readers just by reading widely. But this is false.

Language proficiency is not just mastery of decoding but also a mastery of the broad knowledge that is taken for granted in speech and writing. Here’s a quick example taken from a British newspaper – The Guardian. As I read it to you, imagine that you are a disadvantaged student encountering a reading test like the NAEP.

A trio of medium-pacers–two of them, Irfan Pathan, made man of the match for his five wickets. But this duo perished either side of lunch–the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before–and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket. Clarke clinically cut and drove to 10 fours in a 134-ball 81, before he stepped out to Kumble to present an easy stumping to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

That passage reminds me of a comment made after a public lecture by Einstein: “I knew all the words. It was just how they were put together that baffled me.” My colleagues at Core Knowledge have shown that this is precisely the kind of bafflement felt by disadvantaged children who encounter a passage on a reading test when they are unfamiliar with the background knowledge relevant to the passage.

If we consider the importance of unspoken, taken-for-granted knowledge in understanding language, and if we also consider the demonstrated importance of language comprehension for 21st-century skills, we are led to the firm conclusion that early schooling ought to be more focused on the systematic imparting of knowledge, and less on strategies and test-taking techniques.

I want to close with a final thought about the historical context of today’s Conant award. As Bob Dylan said: “The times they are a changin’.” Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award. I’ve had little to say in my work about such current reforms as charter schools, or teacher quality, or accountability systems, or school-management policies. My persistent theme has been that only a knowledge-based approach to early schooling, starting in preschool and pursued systematically over several years can overcome the language gap caused by family disadvantage. The findings of the Coleman Report can be reversed, but only if we abandon the how-to approach that we have followed for many decades.

Today’s award suggests that we are beginning to understand that the key to lifting achievement and narrowing the gap is a systematic approach to imparting knowledge, starting in preschool; that not only our curricula but also our tests need to be based on the knowledge domains of a coherent curriculum.

Thanks to a recent report in the New York Times, more people are now aware of the results of trials with the Core Knowledge early literacy program which have been stunning. And now with the Common Core standards, there’s a new emphasis on introducing broad general knowledge within the early literacy block.

Despite the criticisms that have been launched against the new Common Core standards, the principles behind them are sound – especially in their call for more units on science and history within the class hours devoted to language arts. For if general knowledge is the key to language proficiency, then early language-arts needs to help impart general knowledge coherently and systematically.

Some have rightly warned that merely following the letter and not the spirit of the new Common Core standards will leave us just where we already are. For if we teach helter-skelter bits of non-fiction (on the how-to theory of reading) rather than coherently developing student knowledge, we will not really have changed our practices or our results.

Perhaps your selecting me for this year’s Conant Award can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge. If that turns out to be true, you will have given me much more than this great honor. You will have renewed my optimism about the future of our schools and country. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

4th Grade Core Knowledge Curriculum Key to Citizenship

by Robert Pondiscio
July 3rd, 2012

Nearly three out of four of the 100 potential civics and history questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test are covered in the Core Knowledge Sequence.  In 4th grade.

That remarkable statistic comes courtesy of Lisa Malaquin-Prey, a Kindergarten teacher at Brevard Academy, a Core Knowledge school in Brevard, North Carolina.  Malaquin-Prey discussed her journey to citizenship last weekend at a Washington, DC conference hosted by Team CFA, a network of charter schools in North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona—all of which teach the Core Knowledge curriculum.  A New Zealander by birth, and Australian by upbringing, Malaquin-Prey has lived in the U.S. since 1997.

New Citizen Lisa Malaquin-Prey

While working as a camp counselor years ago, Malaquin-Prey described how she used to “stand respectfully” when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited.  “I heard those words every day for 9 weeks, but they didn’t hold a lot of meaning for me,” she recalled.  She followed the same routine for years in her classroom, explaining to her students that she didn’t recite the Pledge with them because she was not a citizen.  But at the same conference a year ago, Malaquin-Prey found herself unexpectedly brought to tears by an old video of the comedian Red Skelton explaining the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, and resolved to become an American citizen.

“I’m listening to it, and all of a sudden.  I get it.  I’m hearing the Pledge of Allegiance in a new way and I’m getting it.  While watching it, I was shocked at how I reacted to it.  I remember feeling flushed and tears came to my eyes.  I remember looking around at the other people at my table, and no one is reacting the way I do, and I was embarrassed.  And then everyone stands to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  And I stand, and while everyone around me is saying it, I’m thinking ‘I want this.  I want to be a part of this.  I want to earn the right to say this!’

It took Malaquin-Prey six months to complete the naturalization process, which includes demonstrating proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in English, and answering questions that show your knowledge and understanding of the United States in three areas: American Government (principles of American Democracy, system of government, and rights and responsibilities); American History (the colonial period and independence, the 1800’s and recent American history); and Integrated Civics (geography, symbols and holidays.)  On the day of the test, you are asked up to 10 questions from a list of 100 possible questions.  You need to correctly answer six of the ten to pass.

While describing the process, Malaquin-Prey asked the audience to “raise your hand if you teach 4th grade.”

“When you look at the content of the Citizenship Study Guide, 74 out of the possible 100 questions could be answered using the 4th Grade Core Knowledge Social Studies Curriculum, specifically the domain units on Making a Constitutional Government and American Revolution.  When you look at the content of the Citizenship Test, what the American Government feels a citizen should know and understand mirrors the Social Studies objectives of the Core Knowledge Curriculum.”

The Core Knowledge curriculum, she concluded, is “filled with opportunities for students to understand the principles of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of U.S Citizenship.”

“Beginning in Kindergarten, students are learning about former Presidents and American Symbols and the meaning of Democracy.  In 2nd grade, students explore the Constitution and answer the question, “What is government?”  In 4th grade, students delve into the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and examine every part of the constitution and the levels and functions of government.”

Malaquin-Prey passed her exam with ease and took the Oath of Allegiance in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January.  “My proudest moments that day were, raising my hand and taking that Oath, collecting my citizenship certificate, and above all, being asked to lead the Pledge for the first time for more than 100 new American Citizens,” she recalls.

Study Guide for Citizenship Test

For the record, here are the six questions asked of one of our newest fellow citizens:

  1. Who is the current Chief Justice of the United States?
  2. Name one war fought in the 1900’s.
  3. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
  4. Who is the “Father of our Country”?
  5. We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?
  6. In what month do we vote for President?

A Singular Honor for E.D. Hirsch

by Robert Pondiscio
June 27th, 2012

It’s a proud day for Core Knowledge.

From the Education Commission of the States today comes word that Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., will be the recipient of its James Bryant Conant Award in honor of his “decades of work in developing and spreading the idea that students become proficient readers and learners only when they also have wide-ranging background knowledge.”

Hirsch joins a distinguished list of education luminaries to have received the Conant Award, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children’s Defense Fund’s  Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Claiborne Pell, Fred Rogers, and Ted Sizer.

“For decades, Dr. Hirsch has been a thoughtful contributor to understanding how kids learn and helping our educational system better meet their needs. He is truly deserving of the Conant Award,” said ECS President Roger Sampson in a statement announcing the accolade.

Hirsch burst into the public eye with his surprising 1987 best-seller Cultural Literacy.  With his subsequent books The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Knowledge Deficit, and The Making of Americans, he solidified his reputation as one of the most influential education reformers of our time.

What fewer people know about Hirsch is that long before Core Knowledge, he was an influential literary critic and English professor who made a sudden and unexpected turn into K-12 education reform.  A 2008 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein described Hirsch’s growing awareness that  “literary theory and literary study were drifting ever farther from the pressing intellectual needs” of college students, and Hirsch’s unanticipated response.

“There was no apparent reason for Hirsch to do anything else except stay on track, continue the theory debate, publish in Critical Inquiry, field job offers and lecture invitations, and train the next generation of literary critics and theorists. But he changed focus and slid down the education ladder….He turned to primary education, dedicating his life, and lots of income, to improving the system.”

Hirsch has often told the story of being “shocked into education reform” while doing research on written composition. Conducting research at a pair of colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining a student’s ability to comprehend a passage, an even more important factor was the student’s background knowledge.

“African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant,” Hirsch recalled. “They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students,” he said.

Thus was born Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986, and a year later brought out Cultural Literacy, which remained at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months.

Hirsch will receive the Conant Award at the ECS National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta on July 10.  ECS’s announcement can be found here.

An extraordinary and richly deserved honor.

A Visit to the Core Knowledge Auto Body Shop

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2012

The New York Times offers up a piece about a New York City school that has put building background knowledge at the heart of its curriculum.  P.S. 142, a school in lower Manhattan hard by the Williamsburg Bridge “has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons,” the paper notes, “in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”

“Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. ‘I’ve been inside a bus,’ Tyler said. ‘Does that count?’”

This is not a Core Knowledge school, but the teachers and staff clearly understand the critical connection between background knowledge, vocabulary and language proficiency.  The Times describes the school’s “field trips to the sidewalk,” with children routinely visiting parking garages and auto body shops, or examining features of every day life.

“In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.

The “no standing” example illustrates perfectly how easily a lack of shared references and experiences conspire to thwart comprehension.  It is simply inconceivable that a non-driver would connect the act of balancing on two feet with the act of idling by the curb in a car.  Our language is deeply idiomatic and context driven.  Even a simple word like “shot” means something different on a basketball court, a doctor’s office, or when the repairman says your dishwasher is “shot.”

Obvious?  Sure it is.  To you. But you’re not a low-income kid who has never sat in a car.  Or stood in one.  These things either need to be taught explicitly or experienced first-hand.

“Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge,” the Times notes.  It’s gratifying to see this point rendered as if it’s widely known in our schools.   Still the piece ends on a bittersweet note.  A local superintendent says he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they’re fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” Daniel Feigelson said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”

The long view should win out simply because there is no short view. At least not one that has been proven effective. Language growth is a slow growing plant, E.D. Hirsch points out.  There is no shortcut to building the vocabulary and background knowledge that drives comprehension. All the reading strategies instruction in the world can’t compensate.

Here’s my suggestion:  Although I love the phrase, PS 142 should immediately stop calling these activities “field trips to the sidewalk.”

Call it “test prep.”  Because that’s what it really is.

Fine Word – ‘Legitimate’

by Guest Blogger
January 31st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

I love words. I love that words have history, and ancestors, and family trees. I love that geography, culture, economics, and historical events give birth to words and shape their evolution over time.

I never wanted to be a Latin teacher, but I suppose it was inevitable. After I accepted my current job as an English and Latin teacher, my aunt revealed that my grandmother had wanted to be a Latin teacher more than anything in the world, but she could not, due to marriage, family obligations, and money. She became the first female (and, as I understand from my family, the youngest) court stenographer for the Kentucky Supreme Court. Her father had to go to work with her, she was so young. She deserved to do whatever she wanted to do. And so it’s fitting – and more than an honor – to fulfill her posthumous dream. It’s in my blood, I suppose.

I find it fascinating that denied the opportunity to teach others about her love of words, she spent her entire career recording spoken English, condensing its sounds into squiggles and lines. She used to hone her shorthand skills by transcribing entire soap opera episodes and telephone conversations on. Ask her what my father ate for lunch during a mid-day phone call in 1972, and she could have flipped right to the combination of squiggles for “soup, a pickle, and a Heineken.”

I like to think she would have enjoyed my classes; particularly the time I spent on etymology, the study of word origins. I teach one vocabulary/etymology word a day at the very beginning of class when I teach my cultural literacy item of the day. Today’s word? Spurious. A great word, one that my grandmother would have loved.

‘Spurious’ describes something that is false, or inauthentic, but it comes from the Latin spurius, meaning “bastard” or “illegitimate.” Spurius was related to all sorts of lovely words such as spurcitia, meaning “filthiness” or “dirt,” and spurcare, “to make dirty” or “to defile.” The Romans thought highly of their illegitimate children, clearly. They even turned spurius into a proper name for all those illegitimate offspring roaming around ancient Rome. If your name was Spurius, you were likely illegitimate.

Which segues nicely into my cultural literacy item of the day. I got to thinking: If the Roman naming convention had continued into the Elizabethan era, and Shakespeare had known about it, and he’d named Gloucester’s illegitimate son Spurius instead of Edmund, the first speech in Act II of King Lear would be even more awesome than it already is.

Edmund (a.k.a Spurius) was the illegitimate son of Gloucester, close advisor to Lear. Gloucester lavishes all of his love on the legitimate son, Edgar, which drives Edmund nuts. He hates being a bastard because it renders him less than – more base - than his bookish brother Edgar. Anger drives him to deceit in the form of a tragic plot against his brother that leads to Oedipus-style eye removal, nakedness, and rampant baseness among all concerned. The fact that Edmund is, in fact, the spurious (illegitimate) son causes him to become spurious (false) and deceive his father. See that? That’s just lovely, if you ask me.

I recommend this PBS performance of King Lear, as the Edmund is a hottie and does this extremely appealing L- and T- thing with his tongue on the word “legitimate” that causes giggles among the middle school girls. Oh, not me. I would never. Not in English class, anyway.

Act I, Scene 2

The Earl of Gloucester’s castle

Enter [Edmund, the bastard] alone, with a letter [the one he's going to use to trick his father, Gloucester, into disavowing his good and true son, Edgar]

Edmund (Spurius, the bad-boy hottie I mentioned)

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I                      335
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,                       340
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality                                  345
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund                      350
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word- ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!                                       355

The girls may adore the hunky, bad-boy Edmund, but despite my dorky enthusiasm for the nickname, they absolutely refuse to call him Spurius. My love for the symmetry of it all was loudly and eagerly trumped by the fact that ‘Edmund’ sounds a lot like ‘Edward,’ the vapid vampire guy from Twilight - or, as I like to call it, “That book I won’t give you independent reading credit for, so don’t even bother to ask me.”

Did I mention that my preferred word for the time of day between daylight and nighttime is not, in fact ’twilight,’ but gloaming, from the Old English glomung, a derivative of glom, from…aw, crap. Crappity-crap-crap.

From glom, Old English for ’twilight.’

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

NAEP: Proof of Education Insanity

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2011

The following post by Lynne Munson appeared originally on the blog of Common Core, a Washington, DC-based organization that works to promote a liberal arts, core curriculum in U.S. schools.  Munson is Common Core’s executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — rp.

I challenge anyone to think of a nation that works as hard as we do to find silver linings in its educational failures. On Tuesday morning NAEP reported that, in the course of two years, our nation’s 4th and 8th graders improved a single point (on a 500-point scale) in three of four reading and math assessments, and flatlined on the fourth. If you look at figures plotting NAEP scores over the last 30 years, any upward slope in the data is nearly undetectable to the naked eye. Analysts have spent the last few days slicing and dicing this data and making unconvincing arguments that some positive trends can be detected.

But the reality is that these results are appalling—particularly if you consider the massive federal funding increases, intense reform debates, and the incessant promises of new technologies that have dominated the education discussion for nearly two decades. We have spent a great deal and worked very hard but gotten unimpressive results. And this is in reading and math where, to the detriment of so many other core subjects, we’ve aimed nearly all of our firepower.

Einstein* defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Well, my bet is that Einstein would have deemed NAEP data absolute proof of America’s educational insanity.

We’ve spent the last twenty years attempting to make what, on the surface, appears to be a diverse, creative, and wide-ranging series of reforms to public education. We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice. We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests. We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale. We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances): None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Maybe we need to give content a chance. What I mean by “content” is the actual knowledge that is imbedded in quality curricula. Knowledge of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more. There are a few widely used curricula (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula, Core Knowledge) that effectively incorporate much of this knowledge base. And performance data strongly suggests that these curricula work for ALL students.

So let’s draw on such successes and, sure, conduct more research, do more experiments, and spend more money. But let’s do it to build a shared understanding what our students need to learn —the content they need to learn. Then let’s use the best technology available and make the kind of investments we need in professional development to teach that content effectively. In light of the poor results other approaches have yielded, is there any other sane course?