What Can Ed Schools Learn from Charters?

by Lisa Hansel
June 28th, 2013

This isn’t about governance structures or threatening paradigm shifts. It’s about Chumbawamba.

I’m a middle-of-the-pack mountain biker, and I often ride with the chorus from Chumbawamba’s “I Get Knocked Down” playing in my head:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You’re never going to keep me down

That started playing in my head as I read CREDO’s new study of charter schools. In CREDO’s 2009 report, charters got knocked down. Now we see that they’ve gotten back up. And since there’s evidence that charter supporters are getting more and more serious about quality, it looks like they won’t be kept down:

Over the five growth periods in this study, we see slow and steady progress in the performance of the charter school sector. The numbers align with the evolving concern over the past five years about charter school quality and, we believe, reflect the serious attention paid to the subject. The dialogue among educators, policy makers, community members and a growing fraction of parents and students has raised awareness and commitment to the academic quality of charter schools. Several charter-related organizations, including operators, authorizers, funders, charter support organizations, and national groups, have taken on the challenge of assuring quality in the sector, in some cases against their own self-interest. The progress reported here is important not only to the charter school movement but as a more general example of school improvement efforts.

For the future charter sector to attain higher performance, more work is needed. Efforts to expand the role of parents as consumers and advocates for high quality education are essential; only when large numbers of families are fully vested and engaged will there be sufficient clout to realize the goal of high quality seats for all charter school students. In addition, charter school operators and their support organizations could emulate the proven practices in the higher performing charter schools….

While the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than local [traditional public schools] TPS to structure their operations and allocate resources to address the needs of their students. Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools….

“Flexibility,” ought to be treated as a privilege. Moreover, it is necessary to move beyond the assertion that it is hard to discern quality before a school opens and begin to build evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing schools. A body of expertise in “picking winners” is vital to the long-run success of the sector….

There is no doubt that care is needed in how closures are handled (witness the District of Columbia and Georgia, both of which closed the same percentage of schools but which resulted in improved performance of the charter sector in DC but flat results in Georgia). But equally obvious is that allowing the closure option to rest unexercised will lead to atrophy of what we have come to view as a singular and unique feature of charter schools. Much like representative democracy, it is critical that when needed, people can “throw the rascals out.”

Contrast this with the new NCTQ study of colleges of education. The vast majority of traditional teacher preparation programs have been knocked down every time NCTQ reviews them. But instead of getting back up—and making research-based changes that would help them stay up—they seem to be digging in.

What if traditional teacher preparation programs took this moment to create a more serious quality agenda? Some may reply that many programs are earnestly crafting changes, but all the chatter sounds suspiciously like what we’ve been hearing for years. NCTQ has now released several such studies; where is the progress? How many universities have closed their teacher preparation programs due to indicators of low quality? How many colleges of education are building bodies of “evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing” teachers?

 

(No, this isn’t me. Mountain biker who can’t be kept down from Shutterstock.)

 

If flexibility ought to be treated a privilege among charter, then perhaps academic freedom ought to be treated as a privilege among teacher preparation programs.

For those charters looking for more ways to improve student achievement—and for those ed schools that would like to stop digging and get up—please become well versed in the science of reading and follow that science to its logical conclusion: a coherent, content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum. Harry Webb will get you started:

We don’t help children from deprived backgrounds or children of minorities by refusing to teach them what they need to know to be able to access the key sources of information in our societies. This is not in any way empowering. To refuse to teach factual knowledge about Churchill, for example, on the basis of a prejudice against dead, white men is not at all liberating. Rather, it simply prevents children from making sense of texts that require that knowledge.

Now, you may protest that you can always look it up in a dictionary or use reading comprehension strategies to comprehend the text. The former is a recipe for frustration and the latter provides only limited help. Reading a text slowly whilst asking yourself questions is a pretty useless strategy if you cannot answer these questions. It reminds me of the proverbial British tourist who cannot speak the local language and therefore decides to speak more loudly and more slowly.

If you don’t believe me, or if you’ve never heard of these ideas then this is a good place to start. This article explains the impact of the knowledge deficit on children from deprived backgrounds.

The best way to support effective reading is therefore to build the knowledge base of a child. This then forms part of a virtuous circle; as the knowledge base increases then the access to new knowledge available via reading also increases. This also explains why teaching that focuses on reading comprehension strategies rather than background knowledge perpetuates social divisions. The children of middle class parents gain this factual knowledge at home, in spite of their schooling whereas children from deprived background have only the school to rely on and yet the school is refusing to teach them things….

Recommended Reading

The Knowledge Deficit – E D Hirsch Jr

Why don’t students like school? – Daniel T Willingham

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou

 

TTBOMK, Paying Attention Is MIA. NISM?

by Lisa Hansel
May 15th, 2013

Translation: To the best of my knowledge, paying attention is missing in action. Need I say more?

I don’t need to say more about the problem, so let’s get right into what to do. Many thanks to Dan Willingham for drawing attention to, as he put it, “the 21st century skill students really lack”:

It’s unlikely that they are incapable of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.

We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….

Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.

Most students are able to avoid being mildly bored, but the result may be that they become boring people. I doubt it is possible to learn a great deal about the world—to make “the inside of your head … an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”—without enduring some boredom. Many great books pull you in slowly—it’s only after 50 or so pages that you’re hooked. Likewise, many academic subjects only become fascinating when you’re far enough in for contradictory details to emerge and for questions that once seemed clear to become debatable. I was one of those teenagers who thought that learning about raindrops as prisms would ruin the rainbow. It didn’t. The textbook diagram was dry, but the next rainbow was more vibrant. Suddenly, I was glad that I had diligently studied that textbook, not merely crammed for the test.

Paying attention and then being unexpectedly rewarded for it is an experience many of us have had—but we can’t just assume all students will be so fortunate. As Willingham wrote, “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.”

Willingham mentioned a Harvard art professor, Jennifer Roberts, who “asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper. Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.”

Some boredom is assured, but would be painting be ruined or enhanced? Roberts explains that it is enhanced as students see more details. Willingham notes that students’ patience is rewarded, revealing the value of persisting and paying attention.

I think there is one more element here—the quality of the work being studied. Students were not to spend three hours gazing upon any painting; it had to be one in a Boston museum.  This assures that they are looking at the original work, and that the work itself has been judged by several experts to be worthy of preservation.

We should indeed encourage students to pay attention—and we must also hold ourselves accountable for giving them things worthy of their attention.

That said, how do we help more students learn to value paying attention and persisting through initial boredom? I hope Willingham will answer that question with rigorous research. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a common sense approach: start early and build slowly.

Just that happens in Core Knowledge Language Arts and Will Fitzhugh’s Page Per Year Plan.

In Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA)—a knowledge-building reading, writing, speaking, and listening program for preschool through third grade—teachers slowly develop students’ ability to pay attention by reading aloud. Importantly, the read-alouds start short and grow longer over the course of the school year and across school years. The read-alouds also provide information worth learning and are grouped by domain so that students have time to grasp concepts and acquire new vocabulary. Even better, the domains themselves are carefully sequenced, with early studies of topics like plants and farms providing a foundation for later studies of pilgrims and ecology. Squirmy young children quickly grow into attentive students as they realize that these fiction and nonfiction read-alouds contain interesting stories and answer questions about the world.

Fitzhugh is the founder of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students. Fitzhugh often laments that the traditional history term paper is quickly becoming a relic. He hopes to reinstate the term paper through his Page Per Year Plan:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic.

This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she may also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This should reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.

I believe there’s one more benefit: sustained attention. Year by year, students would have to put forth a little more effort, take a little more time, and grasp a little bit more deeply the learning that results from researching and writing about a topic. I’d bet that those Harvard students who dutifully studied a painting for three hours (as well as wrote a research paper on it) were prepared for the task with similarly rigorous studies throughout their K – 12 years.

Today’s typical 12th grader would likely struggle to write a 12-page history paper. YKWIM? (Translation: You know what I mean?) But a 12th grader who had already written 11 other history papers would likely succeed beautifully. Fitzhugh has been touting his Page Per Year Plan for more than a decade. Maybe it’s time we listened.

NVNG! (Translation: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!)

 

Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Lisa Hansel
March 29th, 2013

I have been trying to ignore it. Really. You see, I have great respect for Stephen Lazar. He clearly cares about America’s youth—and America. And even though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him teach, I’m certain he knows his stuff: Lazar is a National Board–certified social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City.

In a blog post last week, he discussed the Common Core State Standards and New York’s draft grades 9-12 Social Studies Framework, I was nodding in agreement for most of it. Here are the parts that made me cheer:

We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally. Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings….

It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

I also found his remarks on the relationships that ought to exist between standards, curricula, and assessments wise:

As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process…don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.

It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Good stuff. Until I got to the three specific recommendations. While I agree with the spirit of the recommendations, the inescapable fact is that they go against decades of findings from cognitive science. I can’t blame Lazar for not knowing this research. Our colleges of education and professional development workshops typically do not teach it; and Lazar doesn’t have an easy job like mine in which he can decide to dig into a topic and stay focused until a body of evidence starts to show itself. There is a cacophony of conflicting voices out there—Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a whole book on how hard it is for educators to know when to trust the “experts.”

Understanding that I truly want Lazar to succeed, please allow me a friendly critique of his recommendations.

Regarding any new social studies framework, Lazar writes:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

What I want to focus on is recommendation number 2. For 1 and 3, I’ll just quickly point out that they are contradictory. A framework can’t both emphasize inquiry and leave many paths open—the very emphasis on inquiry effectively closes the more traditional path. Research shows that in the hands of a master teacher—which I believe Lazar to be—inquiry approaches can be effective. But research also shows that more traditional methods—including lectures, Socratic dialogs, term papers, and plain old reading—can also be effective. So let’s just stick with recommendation number 3 and keep all the paths open. That way, Lazar can use the inquiry methods he finds so effective—and teachers like Diana Senechal, who has written beautifully in support of varied methods, can use whatever approach seems best suited to the content and the students.

Now back to recommendation number 2: “The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.” This is a wonderful idea. So wonderful that educators and researchers have spent decades pursuing it—but to no avail. It turns out, breadth is not useless—it is essential.

To ensure that the “new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults” one of the most important things educators can do is provide breadth of knowledge and vocabulary. If there is anything civic engagement depends on, it is language comprehension and critical thinking. And what do comprehension and critical thinking depend on? Having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Written or spoken, we simply can’t grasp the meaning of language if we don’t know anything about the topic. If we know at least a little bit about it—if we have at least some of the relevant terms already in our vocabulary—then the door is cracked open and we have a chance to ask questions, search for answers, and bit-by-bit deepen our knowledge—thereby deepening our understanding and our capacity to act (or our capacity to decide not to act).

There is no telling which issues may become important over the next several decades. We can predict certain long-lived topics will persist: states’ rights, voter access, and taxation without representation are a few that come to mind. But what will become the critical issues that we need our youth to engage in? That’s like trying to decide which YouTube video will go viral next year.

There’s only one thing that will ensure that today’s youth are prepared no matter which issues arise tomorrow: breadth of knowledge. Students with really broad knowledge are able to read and think about a wide array of topics. Students with narrow knowledge are not. They may have expertise in a few topics, but that won’t help them grasp a newspaper article on a topic they have never encountered.

In Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (a terrific book that should be required reading in all teacher preparation programs), Daniel Willingham explains that “Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory. If any one of them is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.” So, having a bunch of facts (and other stuff) stored in long-term memory turns out to be a great thing. Willingham offers a full explanation in his book, here’s just a little more (drawn from an excerpt of the book) to help clarify the upshot of the research he summarizes:

It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. There is a separation of data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents.

The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.

In his blog post, Lazar writes that he wants “to spark an effective resistance to the ‘laundry list approach’ to social studies standards.” I don’t see a laundry-list approach in New York’s draft—I don’t see any indication that teachers will be encouraged to teach isolated facts instead of teaching facts in the context of exploring important people, events, and ideas. But those who don’t know the importance of broad knowledge and vocabulary tend to see a “laundry list” when presented with an appropriate, research-based effort to ensure that all students have facts in their long-term memories.

And, by the way, depth is not transformative—at least not in the general skill-building way it is usually discussed. Depth is great—every student should seriously investigate and develop some expertise in at least one topic. It’s an essential character-building and self-defining experience in which students come to know that they really do have the ability to meet challenges and accomplish important goals. But the widespread notion that by doing an in-depth project students are going to develop some critical thinking or problem solving skills that they can then apply in different settings to different problems on different topics just isn’t correct. Without some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory, it just doesn’t work.

So, here’s a friendly amendment to recommendation 2: The framework should provide time for in-depth investigations and ensure that all students develop essential breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.

 

Best of the Blogs: Dumbing Down and Building Up

by Lisa Hansel
March 27th, 2013

Good sense, sound research, and cultivated open-mindedness—these three things help us all live healthier, happier lives. But they tend to be in short supply.

Not so yesterday in blogdom: E. D. Hirsch shared his good sense, Daniel Willingham offered a guide to sound research, and Diana Senechal revealed the joys of cultivated open-mindedness. I hope you’ll read their posts in full, so here are just a few highlights.

Over at the Huffington Post, E. D. Hirsch asks, “Are Schools Dumbing Down the Common Core Standards?

The arguments against [the Common Core State Standards] grow ever more fierce — as if … schools were being forced to descend from their current level of excellence to study “informational texts” like tax codes which will drive Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson out of the curriculum.

None of the horrid scenarios need happen — given an ounce or even a milligram of common sense. Since the standards do not prescribe a definite curriculum, many different curricula could fulfill them. It’s no more reasonable to claim that Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson will be excluded as to claim that they will be required. One could easily insist that within language arts courses “informational texts” such as historical ones must qualify as “literature” — a word that is not limited to fiction and poetry, yet does exclude tax codes.

Moreover many of the current criticisms aren’t really directed against the standards themselves but against the frantic directives that principals and superintendents are sending out to teachers. I agree that some school administrators are reacting to the coming of the standards in strange and unproductive ways — just as they did when No Child Left Behind became law. But the standards don’t require folly — against which the gods themselves struggle in vain….

The Core Knowledge example proves that effective curricula can be based on the new standards. It will be up to the critics and the practitioners themselves to create effective curricula. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the standards but in ourselves, if we should fail in this unique new chance to improve our schools.

On his Science and Education blog, Daniel Willingham explores “A New Push for Science in Education in Britain.”

Basic scientific knowledge gleaned from cognitive and developmental psychology (and other fields) can not only help us to interpret the results of randomized trials, that knowledge can be useful to teachers on its own. Just as a physician uses her knowledge of human physiology to diagnose a case, a teacher can use her knowledge of cognition to “diagnose” how to best teach a particular concept to a particular child.

I don’t know about Britain, but this information is not taught in most American schools of Education. I wrote a book about cognitive principles that might apply to education. The most common remark I hear from teachers is surprise (and often, anger) that they were not taught these principles when they trained.

Elsewhere I’ve suggested we need not just a “what works” clearinghouse to evaluate interventions, but a “what’s known” clearinghouse for basic scientific knowledge that might apply to education….

When building a house an architect must respect certain basic facts set out by science. Physics and materials science will loom large for the architect; for educators it might be psychology, sociology et al. The rules represent limiting conditions, but so long as you stay within those boundaries there is lots of ways to get it right. Just as physics doesn’t tell the architect what the house must look like, so too cognitive psychology doesn’t tell teachers how they must teach.

Guest blogging for Joanne Jacobs, Diana Senechal considers “The pull and counter-pull of teaching.”

Education is filled with opposing principles, where neither is absolutely correct…. Most teachers have certain leanings, but those leanings are not the whole of their understanding or of the truth. Often I find that when I tip just a little bit against myself, interesting things happen.

For instance, my philosophy courses have focused on reading and discussion of texts—for good reasons. The texts are compelling, and the students approach them thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Yet when I give students a chance to take off with their own ideas, I find that they bring forth some of their best work. The moral is not that I should abandon the texts, but rather that I should vary the type of assignment now and then.

My ninth-grade students are studying rhetoric and logic. Most recently, they read G. K. Chesterton’s essay “The Fallacy of Success.” We examined how Chesterton takes apart the idea of success, and how his reference to the myth of King Midas enhances his argument. They did well with this.

Then I thought: why not have them take apart a concept themselves? … Much came out of this exercise. Yet it was informed by our reading and discussion of “The Fallacy of Success.” There need not be a contradiction between analyzing someone else’s essay and writing your own (with your own ideas). In the best of scenarios, the two support each other.

 

It’s Not You, It’s Me. I Think You’re an Idiot.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 2nd, 2012

Anyone who has grown overtired of dead-end education debates needs to read Dan Willingham’s latest blog post, which points out that when debate devolves into mere taunting and questioning the motives of your intellectual opponents, the audience you’re most trying to reach–the unpersuaded and undecided–tune out. “In education policy, some of us have gone too far,” Dan writes.  “People who disagree with us are depicted as not merely wrong, but evil.”

“People who advocate reforms such as merit pay, the use of value added models of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers are not merely labeled misguided because these reforms won’t work. They are depicted as bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.

“Likewise, those who see value in teacher’s unions, who are leery of current methods of teacher evaluation, who think that vouchers threaten the neighborhood character of schools are not merely wrong: they are accused of looking out for the welfare of lousy teachers.

“And of course both sides are accused of ‘not caring about kids.’”

Willingham, as is his wont, cites studies bolstering what you might intuit by watching—or heavens forfend, participating in–these dispiriting wars of words:  partisans tend to believe they know what people in the other side of an issue are thinking and how they would behave.  The bottom line: “We think that people who agree with us are moral, and people who disagree with us, less so. Further, we think that we know how other people will interpret complicated situations–they will driven more by ideology than by facts,” Dan writes.

He concludes with a call for “fewer blog postings that, implicitly or explicitly,  denigrate the other person’s motives, or that offer a knowing nod with the claim ‘we all know what those people think.’” That call is all but certain to be more honored in the breach than the observance.

We can’t help ourselves.  And besides the other guys really ARE  evil.  Me? I just want what’s best for kids.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation.  He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”

Right.

Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

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.

How to Make Kids Hate Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
May 1st, 2012

Building reading instruction around comprehension strategies is not only ineffective, it also takes the joy out of reading, writes Dan Willingham in his latest blog post.

The UVA cognitive scientist has long argued that while reading strategies have some value–principally in helping students understand that what they read should have some communicative value–it’s a huge mistake to think of reading comprehension as a transferable skill that can be learned, practiced, and applied to any text.  Practicing reading strategies ad nauseam doesn’t confer any particular advantage.  Data are hard to find on just how much time is spent in practice on “finding the main idea,” “determining the author’s purpose”  and other such strategies in the average classroom. “But whatever the proportion of time, much of it is wasted, at least if educators think it’s improving comprehension,” Willingham writes, “because the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each.”

Moreover, Willingham notes that the wasted time “represents a significant opportunity cost.”   Why? Because building reading instruction around strategies “makes reading really boring”:

“How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

If one of the goals in reading instruction is to develop a love of reading, strategies instruction is not merely unhelpful, but counterproductive, he argues.  “Reading comprehension strategies seem to take a process that could bring joy, and turn it into work,” Willingham concludes.

Known Knowns vs. Known Unknowns

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2011

As a field, education often seems long on beliefs, but short on knowledge.  We might believe that technology or small group work improves student learning, for example.  But how do we really know?

Writing in the Teachers College Record, Dan Willingham suggests education needs a “What’s Known Clearinghouse” to provide teachers with current and accurate summaries of education research, similar to digests available to physicians and other professions.  Isn’t this what the IES’s What Works Clearinghouse is supposed to do?  The WWC summarizes the research literature on various curriculum and teaching methods, but says nothing about basic scientific research that might have implications for teaching.  “For example, basic research on human cognition, or on the social lives of teenagers, or sex differences would seem applicable to educational practice,” Willingham writes. “A teacher might want to know the latest research on how children’s memories work, even if this research has not been instantiated in a particular classroom program,” he notes.

“The need for better information about research is not hard to see. Type “learning styles lesson plans” into an internet search engine and you’ll get thousands of hits. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim is scientific, namely that a learning style is part of the mind’s architecture, that differences in learning styles are well characterized, and that that individuals can be categorized on this basis. The data do not support this claim.”

A What’s Known Clearinghouse, Willingham suggests, “would provide summaries of research on topics that are relevant to education, but are not themselves education applications” such as the role in learning of nutrition or stress or various medications. 

“While there may not be studies to evaluate programs and practices borne of this knowledge, there is clear value in teachers knowing, for example, that a great deal of data collected in the last five years indicates that kids are not especially good at multi-tasking, or that, despite what their textbook might have said twenty years ago, the latest evidence indicates that children’s cognitive development does not progress in discrete stages. Such insights can and should be put into practice by reflective educators now, not only in formal programs such as those evaluated in the What Works Clearinghouse, but in the hundreds of decisions a teacher makes each day.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Dan’s idea might be making it difficult for hucksters to abuse the term “research-based” in promoting their wares.  It might also short-circuit the endless fads that plague education from getting a toe-hold.  For example, it has become a bromide among 21st century skills faddists that technology “changes the way children’s brains work.”  As Willingham notes:

“Brain change in response to technology is nothing special. The brain changes as a consequence of any experience you have.  Becoming a soccer fan changes your brain. Reading this article changes your brain. Experience with technology is unlikely to change the fundamental processes by which we learn, deploy attention, reason, and so forth. These processes are too hardwired to be radically altered. Experience will yield tweaks, not a major overhaul.”

“The current model of information dissemination–a free for all–is not serving the field well,” notes Willingham. ”There is not an invisible hand guiding the marketplace of ideas towards scientific accuracy. It’s time to try something more proactive,” he concludes.

Questioning the Teacher Quality Orthodoxy

by Robert Pondiscio
October 19th, 2010

Teachers might be the most important in-school factor in student achievement, but is that necessarily a good thing?  Dan Willingham’s latest at the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog notes that when teachers are viewed as the essential ingredient in reform models, the impetus is to fire unsatisfactory teachers and hire better ones.  “I’m no economist, but this approach sounds expensive,” Dan writes. ”If teaching were more consistent,” he notes, “characteristics of individual teachers wouldn’t matter so much.”

For example, we might try to make teaching more consistent by improving teacher preparation. Right now, teacher preparation just doesn’t matter very much. Most teachers say that it didn’t help them, and there is scant evidence that the type of training teachers receive has much impact on their teaching.  Naturally, if teacher training has little impact, and teachers are left to their own devices, characteristics of the teacher will end up mattering a lot to teacher quality.

Willingham also points out that a consistent curriculum might also make teacher quality a less volatile variable by making lesson content more consistent across teachers.  A set curriculum might hamper the creativity of individual teachers, but Willingham cites the words of one principal who told him: “With my really good teachers, if they bend the curriculum, I kind of look the other way. But I don’t look the other way with my struggling teachers. For them, it’s a safety net.”

“It could be that both or neither of these ideas, if pursued in any detail would prove workable. But alternatives should at least be considered,” Dan concludes.  “Teachers are the most important in-school factor; we should not automatically assume that’s a desirable state of affairs.”