The High Price of Willful Ignorance

by Guest Blogger
October 3rd, 2013

Joe Nocera’s op-ed for the New York Times last week, “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s),” is about the radically different experiences three teachers (actual sisters) had in learning to teach. For all three, teacher preparation was, well, less than useful. Nocera’s piece is about the need to greatly improve teacher preparation—and I fully agree with him, and with NCTQ, that an overhaul is desperately needed.

But far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the sisters’ experiences once they started teaching.

Two of the three, Edel Carolan and Melinda Johnson, “have undergraduate degrees in elementary education, yet they both recalled how lost they felt when they first stood in front of a classroom.” One was so desperate that she asked a former professor for help. The other “recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job—classroom management, organization, lesson planning—were things she had to figure out on her own.”

The third, Denise Dargan, did not have a teaching degree. She too felt unprepared in the beginning, but then “she made it sound as if learning on the job was relatively easy.”

What’s the difference? Dargan taught at Icahn Charter School. She was hired by Jeff Litt, who was then the principal and is now the superintendent of the seven Icahn Charter Schools. Litt made learning to teach easy because he “was such a gifted teacher himself.”

I don’t doubt that’s true, but I do know it is only part of the story. Litt is not just a gifted teacher, he is a brilliant educator who understands the full enterprise. He knows that schools need a strong curricular and organizational foundation on which to build student and teacher learning. Litt has used the Core Knowledge Sequence as his curricular foundation, and he has created a supportive structure for teachers and administrators in all of the Icahn schools to solve problems and grow together.

Dargan’s work was still difficult, as teaching children whose home life is not filled with books and museums will always be. But she was not left to struggle in isolation like Carolan and Johnson were.

Nocera may think he’s writing about teacher preparation, but in fact his op-ed is about our nation’s approach to education. I’m not one to say the schools are failing. Even our lowest-performing schools are accomplishing some good things. But I’m not all roses either. Most schools are far less coherent, systematic, efficient, and effective than they should be.

So long as states refuse to specify a core of content students ought to learn in each grade, K – 12 education, teacher preparation, instructional materials, professional development, and students will suffer. Holding on to mistaken ideas about the nature of reading comprehension and critical thinking, far too many professors of education, textbook developers, and professional development providers are willfully ignorant of decades research in cognitive science.

It boils down to this: Any topic a student needs to be able to read and think about is a topic that student must know something about. Take Nocera’s title, for instance. How many readers understand the reference to Anton Chekhov’s play?

Broad literacy requires broad knowledge. That means students have a lot to learn. Some students have the great luxury of learning much of the college-, career-, and citizenship-enabling knowledge at home. Some don’t. For them, anything less than a grade-by-grade, content-specific, cumulative curriculum will not be efficient enough to get the job done.

The price we pay for this willful ignorance is our massive achievement gaps. It is too high.


We all value education. Is eschewing a core of content truly worth the cost?


I Love Joe Kirby—and You Should Too

by Guest Blogger
June 25th, 2013

Maybe it’s just my view from across the pond, but CK appears to be rocking the UK. Hats off to Michael Gove, of course, but the real excellence- and equity-inducing power of building students’ knowledge and skills comes from the teachers who embrace a content-rich curriculum.

Joe Kirby is one of those teachers. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s a great teacher because he’s teaching me about core knowledge (yes, the lower-case form, aka, knowledge that’s essential for all of us to share).

Kirby’s outstanding unit (to use the term loosely) on core knowledge started June 15th when he posted “Which ideas are damaging education?” It’s a review of Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Seven Myths about Education. E. D. Hirsch lauds Seven Myths as “a book from a practitioner that gets the science and the rhetoric right, with an effective organization and a super clear writing style.” For a substantive preview of all seven myths, see Christodoulou’s blog. For a compelling review, let’s turn to Kirby:

Some time in the late 20th and turn of the 21st century, the educational establishment in England took a historic and disastrous wrong turn. Knowledge became mistrusted as limiting and elitist. Facts were branded as useless for the future economy and obsolete due to new technology. Teacher-led instruction was pilloried as passive, boring and ineffective. Subjects were denoted as oppressive constructs and arbitrary middle-class inventions that risked indoctrinating students, reproducing hegemonic values and entrenching social inequalities….

The extraordinary working-class efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to gain knowledge through great literature documented by Jonathan Rose in his book, The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Classesbelie the notion that high culture somehow belongs to an elite.

Seven Myths gathers the evidence from cutting-edge cognitive science about the vital importance of knowledge in memory and cognition to uproot an entrenched status quo and concludes: ‘there is nothing elitist about powerful knowledge: what is elitist is the suggestion that such knowledge belongs to an elite… It’s sometimes said that those who want to teach knowledge want to take us back to the 19th century. In fact the reverse is true. It’s those who don’t want to teach knowledge who want to take us back to the 19th century. For when we consider the 19th century, we see that for many of the elites at the time were extremely reluctant to teach knowledge to the masses, on the grounds that it would make them ‘refractory and seditious’. Combining historical analysis with modern scientific research, this should strike a resounding chord with anyone who wants to see education become more equitable.

On June 18, in “How knowledge is being detached from skills in English, Kirby began sharing his own experiences as an English teacher in London:

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist….

When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all.

Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

In his next post, “Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work,” Kirby described what his teaching experiences revealed:

Take as an example the way we read and teach even short novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This completely baffled my class the first time I taught it to Year 8, because I failed to specify the prerequisite and deep knowledge necessary for an enduring understanding of the text. Any meaningful interpretation sadly eluded my pupils, because they needed contextual, historical knowledge to make their own meanings of it. The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm – yet are completely central to a strong understanding of why the novel was written, what it is about and why it has endured. When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need….

All the evidence shows that reading well depends heavily on general knowledge. Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost. Whilst students could be studying the most challenging content, reading authors of books with astonishing depth and complexity, and wrestling with their contradictions and ambiguities, instead we feed them an entertaining diet of stuff they’re already interested in….

Why can’t poor kids benefit from reading Dickens, Orwell and Duffy? Nothing about their writing is inherently elitist. Dickens wrote about poverty and slums; Orwell fought in a civil war as a socialist; Duffy combats gender and class prejudice. There’s nothing elitist about teaching these writers; what’s elitist is reserving them for selective schools…. This divergence is not uprooting inequality in education; it is entrenching it.

On June 20th, Kirby followed-up with “The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English,” giving us a striking metaphor:

I want to go into detail now and give one example of a ‘double-helix unit’ that integrated knowledge and skills that really worked. My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a Year 7 class. I sequenced the core knowledge about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I specified what pupils should learn about 1830s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse….

So in my English teaching now, whenever I’m planning a scheme of work on any text, this is my approach. I specify in precise detail the hidden bodies of knowledge that make up student mastery of the text. I decide exactly what I want them to know about the context, plot, characters, themes, language and form. I sequence this valuable knowledge systematically across lessons. I test them regularly on whether they’ve understood and mastered the content I think is essential for them. A look at their interpretations at the end of the unit will tell how big a difference knowledge makes.

Kirby’s unit on core knowledge ended on June 23rd, with a fantastic post titled “What makes a great school curriculum?” Hopefully you’ll read Kirby’s whole unit, but if you’ve only got time for one of the posts, read this one. In The Making of Americans, E. D. Hirsch explains why it is so critical for the people who share a nation to also share some values and knowledge. In this post, Kirby outlines a strong curriculum. He also gives a tragic example of what can happen when people occupy a land without sharing even the most basic values or knowledge:

I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.

Thanks Joe! Summer school is a great time for enrichment courses. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed yours.


The Common Core Needs a Common Curriculum

by Guest Blogger
May 23rd, 2013

As first published in Education Week, May 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

The Common Core State Standards contain laudable goals for what students ought to be able to do. Attaining those goals, especially in English/language arts and literacy, depends on how schools interpret the standards’ call for a content-rich curriculum: “[W]hile the standards make references to some particular forms of content, … they do not … 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.”

What is a content-rich curriculum? And who should pick the content? I argue that we should all come to agreement on the content. But first, we must understand the cognitive science that explains why content is important.

Instead of writing a content-rich curriculum, some schools have selected a scripted program. Some new teachers have said their schools’ scripted reading programs saved them because they were not prepared to teach children with widely varying backgrounds. But once teachers build expertise, they meet individual students’ needs better than any script. Perhaps scripted programs should be optional, not mandated.

At the other extreme, some schools have a sink-or-swim approach in which each teacher writes his or her own curriculum. This drives too many new teachers out of the profession, creating a level of turnover that is harmful to students. Some teachers swim, but their ability to learn from their peers is minimal when everyone is teaching very different things.

Many educators seem to agree that the middle ground between a script and a free-for-all makes sense, so the sticking point is defining that middle ground. This is where my perspective differs from mainstream educational thought.

Many school districts mandate specific pedagogies, but not specific content. I think this is backwards. Effective instruction depends on the content to be learned and the students in the room, so pedagogical mandates are often counterproductive. What to teach ought to be a communal, research-based, and experience-based decision; how to teach should be up to the individual teacher.

The content of instruction is so important that any responsible community should be willing to do the hard work of specifying and agreeing to what students need to know and be able to do by the end of each grade.

Research demonstrates that knowledge and skills develop together. The most crucial skills—comprehension, critical thinking, and writing—all depend on having relevant knowledge not at one’s fingertips, but already stored in one’s long-term memory. The cognitive science is clear: Any topic students need to read or think about is a topic they must know about.

Exactly what are those topics? Research can partially answer that question. Skim a few newspaper articles. For brevity’s sake, the articles explain what’s new, but offer little background knowledge. The sports section gives game highlights and scores; it does not explain the rules. The economy section tells you where the Dow closed and offers the latest jobs and housing data; it reveals little about what those are or why they matter. The news tells you what’s new—it expects you to know enough to digest it.

As a foundation for lifelong learning, the knowledge all students need is the knowledge that adults are assumed to have. One way research can help determine what to teach is by showing what knowledge is taken for granted in publications intended for broad audiences.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “Samuel Ting, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Nobel laureate particle physicist, said Wednesday that his $1.6 billion cosmic ray experiment on the International Space Station had found evidence of ‘new physical phenomena’ that could represent dark matter, the mysterious stuff that serves as the gravitational foundation for galaxies and whose identification would rewrite some of the laws of physics.”

What knowledge is assumed and what is not? We are not expected to know who Ting is or what dark matter is. But we are expected to know MIT, the Nobel Prize, particle physics, cosmic rays, the International Space Station, gravity, and galaxies. That’s a lot to know.

Researching what knowledge is commonly taken for granted is the approach E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of Core Knowledge, and his colleagues took when they initially developed a list of what all Americans should know. Many critics pointed out—rightly—that the list was too narrow. By focusing on knowledge assumed by mainstream outlets, it did not adequately reinforce fundamental American values: finding strength in diversity and appreciating all Americans (not just those who become famous).

Many of those critics do not realize that Hirsch agreed with them. That initial list has been revised with input from hundreds of teachers and scholars; today’s Core Knowledge Sequence contains a great diversity of people, events, and ideas.

When schools adopt the sequence, they go through their own communal process: The sequence takes half the instructional time, so each school adds on, creating its own curriculum.

As Jeffrey Litt, the leader of New York City’s Icahn Charter Schools, has pointed out, schools that go through this communal process can foster real collaboration among teachers, enabling them to build on one another’s strengths and reduce their workloads by sharing materials.

Agreeing on content also prevents repetitions and omissions, like the 2nd and 3rd grade teachers reading Charlotte’s Web aloud, instead of agreeing onCharlotte’s Web for 2nd grade and selecting another excellent book, like Bud, Not Buddy, for 3rd grade. The world is a fascinating place; the more of it we introduce to students, the richer their lives will be.

Now let’s tackle some uncomfortable issues. We all have our hang-ups. One of mine is highly mobile students. Far too many students change schools frequently, falling further behind every time. We can blame inadequate low-income housing, the bad job market, poor transportation … the list continues. Regardless, there’s one obvious way to help: Schools that share students should share grade-by-grade content. Mobile students would suffer less, and teachers would be better equipped to help them catch up.

Even better, if a state specified some content for each grade, it could overhaul teacher preparation and student testing. Today, teachers are taught, in education professor David Cohen’s words, “nothing in particular.” With specific content, teacher-preparation programs would know exactly what content and pedagogical knowledge teachers need.

With grade-by-grade content, a state could also develop better tests: Specifying course content and testing a sample of it is what our most highly regarded programs—Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate—do. Preparing for these tests (unlike typical state tests that are not anchored to specific content) means developing knowledge and related skills.

My hunch is that shared content appeals to far more teachers than policymakers realize. Many teachers find selecting content frustrating because students in our current, incoherent system have enormous variety in their knowledge and skills. Many teachers enjoy the communal process of agreeing upon content. Many more enjoy the result: time to focus on how to teach each student.


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.

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

by Guest Blogger
March 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


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

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

Part 4: Passing the Test




Connecting the Dots on Equity

by Guest Blogger
March 13th, 2013

As a young child, I loved those connect-the-dots coloring books. Searching for the next number was sometimes tough (but not too tough) and it was fun to watch the picture emerge from what was, just a few minutes before, a messy array dots.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently as I’ve read, and read the buzz about, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” a.k.a. the equity commission report. The dots are there—but they aren’t connected. They aren’t even numbered. And there sure isn’t a full-color picture of equity and excellence.

The report does highlight serious problems. One in particular—the lack of common curriculum—caught my attention: “unlike in America, teachers in high-performing countries can draw on common instructional materials aligned with rigorous, national curriculum frameworks that all students are expected to master and that form the basis of teacher development and training” (p. 22). A crucial difference between these national curriculum frameworks and the Common Core State Standards is that the frameworks specify lots of academic content knowledge that students must acquire. This content adds depth to teacher training and enables more meaningful teacher collaboration (Japanese lesson study comes to mind).

The members of the equity commission are obviously sympathetic to the benefits of common core curriculum, yet our tradition of local control seems to make enacting such a thing, even on the state level, unthinkable.

Still, the report makes plenty of solid recommendations (i.e., gap-closing early childhood education, the steps necessary to mitigate the effects of poverty, and more). It just doesn’t help us figure out where to start or offer a picture of our destination.

But Jeffrey Litt does.

In an Education Trust webinar yesterday, Jeffrey Litt explained how he turned around P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx, and then went on to help create and lead the highly successful Icahn Charter Schools, also in the Bronx.

When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:

The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.

Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:

The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.

Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Litt may call Core Knowledge the equalizer, but in fact it’s Core Knowledge in the hands of dedicated, collaborative educators that connects the dots on equity and excellence. Just in case your picture isn’t colored in yet, here’s one more lesson from Litt:

Many people say all children can learn. Well that’s true. But a parakeet can learn too. We look for people who believe that children can excel.

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

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.

All In

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life.” Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for “Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control.” I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids’ (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year).

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I’m thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods.

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I’d gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I’d smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It’s not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, on the contrary – I’m one of the A-man’s biggest fans – and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that “character stuff” was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students’ fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus’ sense of justice in English class, Achilles’ lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi’s incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that “the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome.”

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it’s tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher’s manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call…but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans.

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually being to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin’s  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is “vobis” because “you” is plural, not singular.”

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America’s educational crisis, but I do know that this week’s headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I’m all in.

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, where this piece also appears, can be found at

When Barbie Drops Algebra

by Robert Pondiscio
July 30th, 2012

Andrew Hacker’s provocative weekend op-ed in the New York Times (“Is Algebra Necessary?”) wondered why schools insist on subjecting students to the “ordeal” of algebra.  “There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it,” Hacker wrote.  “But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong.”  Making algebra mandatory, along with other more advanced math subjects leads to failure and dropping out, which “prevents us from discovering and developing young talent,” he argues.

“The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.  Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that ‘to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.’”

Well, sure.  But expecting competence in any reasonably advanced subject–biology, physics, or English composition–will likely have the same effect.  What Hacker is arguing might well be termed Barbie Syndrome: years ago, a talking Barbie doll uttered the infamous phrase, “Math class is tough!”  Mattel pulled the doll off shelves, but Barbie might have received a sympathetic pat on the back from Hacker, who proposes a different math curriculum that mirrors the quantitative reasoning most of us will need on the job:

“Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call ‘citizen statistics.’ This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.  It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.”

“There’s a strong argument to be made that math is taught poorly in many schools, with little attention paid to how most people are likely to use numbers in the real world,” Dana Goldstein points out.  But Goldstein correctly perceives that any argument about who should learn what is ultimately about tracking.  “A great teacher can often spark interest in a subject a student thought she would never enjoy. One reason to have more rigorous academic standards is to leave open the possibility of that magic happening more often for more young people, and to make sure unfair streotypes about who is ‘academic’ don’t prevent kids from discovering unexpected passions,” she writes.

Dan Willingham points out that Hacker is simply wrong in several assumptions. “The inability to cope with math is not the main reason that students drop out of high school, he writes.  “Yes, a low grade in math predicts dropping out, but no more so than a low grade in English. Furthermore, behavioral factors like motivation, self-regulation, social control as well as a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school are as important as GPA to dropout [rates]” he notes.  Willingham also dismisses Hacker’s argument that too much of what students learn in math class doesn’t apply in the real world.

“The difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard. New learning tends to cling to the examples used to explain the concept. That’s as true of literary forms, scientific method, and techniques of historical analysis as it is of mathematical formulas.  The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.”

Willingham says Hacker’s op-ed also “overlooks the need for practice, even for the everyday math he wants students to know.”

“There are not many people who are satisfied with the mathematical competence of the average US student. We need to do better. Promising ideas include devoting more time to mathematics in early grades, more exposure to premathematical concepts in preschool, and perhaps specialized math instructors beginning in earlier grades.”

Hacker’s suggestions “sound like surrender,” Willingham concludes, and I agree.  It’s hard not to detect a whiff of defeatism–a shrug, a wave, and the weary suggestion that, “Hey, not everyone can be good in math.  It’s OK” in Hacker’s putatively sensible piece.  But let’s try a more vigorous focus on math–with computational mastery and conceptual understanding given co-equal status–before we throw up our hands and suggest that Barbie drop algebra and switch to “citizen statistics” in 8th grade.

Update: “I think it is dumbing down math — so far down that it will close the door on many careers,” writes Joanne Jacobs.  “But it’s better to teach some math than stick unprepared, unmotivated students in dumbed-down classes labeled ‘algebra’ and ‘geometry.’”

Update x+2: Sherman Dorn weighs in.

Nobody Loves Standards (and That’s O.K.)

by Robert Pondiscio
June 14th, 2012

Note:  This piece originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly and Common Core Watch blog.

I don’t love standards. I doubt any teacher does.

I love literature. History. Science. I love grappling with ideas. I’m excited to know how things work and to share what I have learned with others, especially eager-to-learn children. Standards, by contrast, are unlovely, unlovable things. No teacher has ever summoned his or her class wide-eyed to the rug with the promise that “today is the day we will learn to listen and read to analyze and evaluate experiences, ideas, information, and issues from a variety of perspectives.”

“Won’t that be fun, boys and girls?!”

Well, no, it won’t. Standards are a joyless way to reverse engineer the things we love to teach and do with kids. Thus I understand and sympathize if beleaguered teachers view Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as just one more damn thing imposed on them from on high, interposed between them and their students. But if they do, that’s a shame. Because far from being just another compliance item on the accountability checklist, the Common Core State Standards, implemented well and thoughtfully, promise to both improve literacy and make teaching a lot more fun and significantly more rewarding.

In the essential primary grades, where most of our educational battles are won or lost, CCSS promise to return sanity to the work of turning children into readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers. David Coleman, the principal architect of the English language arts standards, recently said CCSS “restores elementary teachers to their rightful place as guides to the world.” He’s exactly right, and here’s why:

Content is back

“A student never thanked me for teaching the main idea,” a teacher wrote to me recently. “But many thanked me for teaching them about animal migrations.” CCSS remind us to engage children not just with rote literacy skills work and process writing, but also, and especially, with real content—rich, deep, broad knowledge about the world in which they live. The conventional wisdom has become that CCSS “add nonfiction to the curriculum,” but that’s not right. Common Core restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum.

Why did they ever leave? Reading is “domain specific.” You already have to know at least a little bit about the subject—and sometimes a lot about the subject—to understand a text. The same thing is also true about creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Indeed, nearly all of our most cherished and ambitious goals for schooling are knowledge-dependent. Yet how many times have we heard it said that we need to de-emphasize teaching “mere facts” and focus on skills like critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving? CCSS rescue knowledge from those who would trivialize it, or who simply don’t understand its fundamental role in human cognition.

Coherence matters

Common Core asks not just for more nonfiction, but for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum in English language arts. Yes, there’s a difference. Perhaps the gravest disservice done to schoolchildren in recent memory is the misguided attempt to teach and test reading comprehension not just as a skill, but as a transferable skill—a set of tips and “reading strategies” that can be applied to virtually any text, regardless of subject matter.

Make no mistake:  Building the foundations of early reading—teaching young children to decode written text—is indeed skill-based. The CCSS recognize this crucial truth by calling for the systematic teaching of explicit phonics skills. However, “the mistaken idea that reading [comprehension] is a skill,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written, “may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge-base problem must be solved.” CCSS aim to solve it by requiring a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Let’s be clear: The standards are not a curriculum and do not pretend to be. But they have plenty to say about the importance of “building knowledge systematically” and choosing texts “around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”

Sandra Stotsky recently expressed her dismay “that one badly informed person [lead Common Core author David Coleman] could single-handedly alter and weaken the entire public school curriculum in this country.” But at least at the K-5 level there is no curriculum to alter or weaken. The fruitless focus on teaching reading as a content-neutral skill—find the main idea, identify the author’s purpose, compare and contrast—created conditions where what kids read doesn’t matter; in that regime, “text” becomes a vehicle for practicing non-existent comprehension “skills.” Big mistake. Putting history and science at the center of ELA instruction doesn’t exclude literature. It repudiates the imperialism of trivial fiction that has debased ELA and deprived students of the knowledge they need to understand serious fiction—and just about everything else.

By asking teachers to focus their efforts on building knowledge coherently—and making it clear that doing so is fundamental to literacy—CCSS represent an essential breakthrough for reading comprehension and vocabulary growth. The intellectual DNA of Common Core ELA Standards belongs to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., whose fundamental proposition has long held that a knowledge-rich classroom is a language-rich classroom.

CCSS invite elementary-school teachers to rethink the tedious regimen of content-free “mini-lessons” and empty skills practice on whatever reading materials happen to be at hand. “There is no such thing as doing the nuts and bolts of reading in Kindergarten through fifth grade without coherently developing knowledge in science, and history, and the arts. Period,” Coleman said recently at an event run by Common Core (the non-profit organization). “It is the deep foundation in rich knowledge and vocabulary depth that allows you to access more complex text,” he said.

Show what you know

Perhaps the most controversial new thrust of CCSS is their “reliance on text and evidence-based reading” for fiction as well as non-fiction. Too many people have tried to characterize this as diminishing the importance of fiction and literature. That is not the case—and close reading of text is necessary for both. The very worst that can be said about a reliance on text- and evidence-based reading and writing is that it’s an overdue market correction.

As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. (“How do you feel about the character’s decision to hit her friend?”) The skill, common to most existing state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate—or to build—a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth, and comprehension. I understand the criticism of those who find the focus on texts and evidence as too narrow, but I don’t agree. Indeed, it has always struck me as inherently condescending to assume that children cannot be engaged or successful unless they are reflecting upon personal experience nearly to the exclusion of other subjects.

In sum, Common Core strikes me as, at long last, the re-emergence of common sense in our classrooms. We’re no longer ignoring what we know about reading comprehension and language development. And we’re making elementary-school teachers the most important people in America. I still don’t love standards. I never will. But the big ideas enshrined within CCSS were long overdue to be restored, renewed, or otherwise placed at the heart of ELA instruction from the first days of class in every American school.

Even Common Core opponents should be pleased.