Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Lisa Hansel
February 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Of Ostriches and the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2013

All signs point to just one way for schools to dramatically narrow the achievement gap: implement a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, content-rich curriculum that builds broad knowledge and essential skills. That’s the foundation on which high-achieving, more equitable school systems (here and abroad) have built the rest of their educational infrastructure. Specific knowledge and skills for each grade give direction to teacher preparation, enable teacher collaboration, empower parents to better support their children’s learning, increase the quality of textbooks, create stability for students who change schools, etc. When the whole infrastructure is moving in the same direction, students’ education is coherent and learning accelerates.

But seriously, who cares? Let’s just stick our heads in the sand.

 

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s easy. We can pretend that schools are doing the best they can under (very truly) difficult circumstances. We can pretend that the narrowing of the curriculum doesn’t matter, that the past several decades of cognitive science findings do not exist, that comprehension, critical thinking, and learning to learn will arise magically from a scattershot of engaging lessons.

That’s what we’ve been doing—and it’s the mistake most states and school districts are now repeating with the Common Core. Despite the repeated admonitions that the Common Core ELA standards can only be met with a rich, knowledge-building curriculum, most educators and leaders talk of individual lessons with isolated content and skills—not of coherent bodies of knowledge that enable skill development.

If your head is buried, you can’t see the results. Fortunately, there are some clear-eyed participants in this fractured ed reform world who have drawn attention to three of the worst consequences of our collective denial on curriculum.

1) 17 year olds’ reading scores are flat. E. D. Hirsch explains this one in the Answer Sheet:

The reading proficiency of high school seniors has not budged since the great verbal decline of the 1970s, which was well documented by drops in scores on the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Tests of Educational Development. So, why haven’t the short-term early boosts in grades 4 and 8 translated into better verbal scores in grade 12?

Reading tests in later grades are more knowledge-intensive than the tests in the early grades. Emphasis on phonics (which has improved early reading) plus test-prep aren’t enough to do well on these later tests, which require broad knowledge and vocabulary. Scholars of the subject (including the late great reading researcher Jeanne Chall) showed that 12th-grade scores declined in the 1970s and stayed flat, because of a narrowing of the school curriculum.

2) Far too many teachers don’t understand that skills hardly ever transfer from one topic to the next. Paul Bruno tackles this on his blog:

One of my most memorable experiences in my two-year credential+MA program came out of a class discussion of chapter 3 of How People Learn, on “Learning and Transfer”. Much of that chapter was dedicated to discussing the challenges faced in getting students to “transfer” something they’ve learned in one context and apply it successfully in another context….

[Studies] suggest very strongly that the sort of transfer many teachers claim to want is at best much more difficult than we typically acknowledge and at worst largely impossible….

In my graduate school classroom … rather than challenging our conceptions of transfer, the finding simply represented a puzzle: Why did students not transfer the problem-solving strategy from one situation to the other and how could teachers have taught the strategy differently to promote such transfer?

For what feels like the billionth time: Skills depend chiefly on knowledge! If you want to read with comprehension and think critically about the Bill of Rights, you have to learn a lot about the Bill of Rights. Your resulting ability to think critically about the Bill of Rights will not help you in the science lab or at the art museum. It won’t even help very much if you want to analyze the Civil War—there’s a bunch of stuff between the Bill of Rights and the Civil War that you have to learn in order to analyze the Civil War.

3) Our assessment system is less helpful—especially for our neediest students—than it should be. Marc Tucker brings clarity to this one. Technically he’s interviewing Jim Pellegrino, but it’s more like a conversation—and Tucker’s pointed summaries make me smile:

In the United States, there is strong resistance to the idea that the federal government or even the states should specify what the curriculum should be, or, for that matter, what instructional techniques should be used…. But what I thought I heard you saying is that how one teaches fractions actually defines what the curriculum is and it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean.  The standards might say that the student will learn to do fractions, but there is a world of difference between simply teaching the algorithms needed by students to do standard fraction problems and teaching ratio and proportion at a fairly deep level.  Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?…

It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries.

 

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

 

Knowledge Really Is Power

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2013

This post isn’t about KIPP, but I’ll start with thanking KIPP for keeping a fundamental truth alive: Knowledge is power. Knowledge enables us to develop, refine, and deploy skills. Knowledge opens doors both literally and figuratively, giving meaning to freedom and democracy.

Knowledge is essential, and it needs to be taught. So it’s with great pleasure that I offer this far-too-long post, with Sol Stern, Annie Murphy Paul, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Tom Birmingham all making the case for knowledge.

Written as an open letter to the next mayor of New York City, Sol Stern’s article in the new City Journal makes a strong case for a content-rich curriculum:

Though children from disadvantaged families, and particularly from single-parent families, certainly tend to start school with less knowledge than middle-class students have, you can nevertheless pronounce confidently that educational improvement is possible, even in the toughest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.

We know that because it happened in Massachusetts…. The Bay State’s 1993 education-reform legislation established the country’s most demanding set of academic standards, which replaced trendy but ineffective pedagogical approaches with an old-fashioned emphasis on “content”—that is, knowledge. The standards eventually brought Massachusetts the greatest overall improvements in student performance in the nation, as measured by the NAEP….

The infrastructure for improvement is already in place, thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards…. If implemented properly—admittedly, a big “if”—the standards could start our schools on a long, difficult path to higher academic performance, not only for poor children but for all students.

Critics of the Common Core argue that the standards aren’t as demanding as Massachusetts’s. They’re right. But the Common Core is far superior to anything that previously passed for academic standards in New York. “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas,” say the standards’ accompanying documents. “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum drove improvement in Massachusetts, it could do the same in New York City….

If you pick a schools chancellor and other top officials who keep up with education research, they will know that a consensus exists among cognitive scientists that building broad content knowledge in the early grades is the best way to raise reading comprehension for disadvantaged children. As education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has warned for the past quarter-century, many poor children remain functionally illiterate not because teachers are incompetent but because those teachers have been “compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum” that dismisses the accumulation of knowledge as “mere facts.” More, a knowledge-based curriculum provides the most promising long-term strategy for preparing all children, poor and middle-class alike, for success in college or, for those who don’t attend college, in the twenty-first-century workplace. As a bonus, the Common Core encourages teaching the historical and civic knowledge that children need to become informed citizens and better Americans.

Contrary to what some critics say, content-based curricula are hardly an untested idea that we should try in only a limited number of schools. Not only do we have the success story of Massachusetts; we can point to the city’s field test of Hirsch’s content-based Core Knowledge literacy program in several schools between 2008 and 2011. The test showed that Core Knowledge produced significantly greater gains for students than the school system’s most widely used reading program (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

You still shouldn’t promise miracles, of course. There will be no overnight double-digit leaps in test scores…. It will take more than a few years to change the culture of teaching and restore the priority of knowledge acquisition in the classroom.

Changing the culture of teaching (which would entail changing most teacher preparation programs) will indeed be difficult. One major obstacle to overcome is the idea that students no longer need to acquire knowledge—with the right skills, they can just look up what they need to know whenever they need to know it. In a new post, Annie Murphy Paul addresses that myth:

What kind of information do we need to have stored in our heads, and what kind can we leave “in the cloud,” to be accessed as necessary?

The answer will determine what we teach our students, what we expect our employees to know, and how we manage our own mental resources. But before I get to that answer, I want to tell you about the octopus who lives in a tree.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis…. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered.

Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction…. The other fable here is the notion that the main thing these kids need—what all our kids really need—is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch).

But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies”—or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Google-able and therefore unworthy of committing to memory….

Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge….

Just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump. And sorting the wheat from the abundant online chaff requires more than simply evaluating the credibility of the source (the tree octopus material was supplied by the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society,” which sounded impressive to the seventh graders in Don Leu’s experiment). It demands the knowledge of facts that can be used to independently verify or discredit the information on the screen.

Okay, students really do have to learn things. Knowledge really is power. How should we go about teaching them all this knowledge? Many educators have been taught that the best approach is the supposedly natural one: having students explore, making observations and discoveries. But according to recent research, it appears as through directly teaching students is both natural and—more importantly—highly effective. In yet another must-read post on his science and education blog, Daniel Willingham explained this research:

I don’t much care about “naturalness” one way or the other. As long as learning is happening, I’m happy, and I think the value some people place on naturalness is a hangover from a bygone Romantic era, as I describe here.

Now a fascinating paper by Patrick Shafto and his colleagues … leads to implications that call into doubt the idea that exploratory learning is especially natural or authentic.

The paper focuses on a rather profound problem in human learning. Think of the vast difference in knowledge between a new born and a three-year-old; language, properties of physical objects, norms of social relations, and so on. How could children learn so much, so rapidly?…

Much of the research on this problem has focused on the idea that there must be innate assumptions or biases on the part of children that help them make sense of their observations…. Many models using these principles have not attached much significance to the manner in which children encounter information. Information is information.

Shafto et al. point out why that’s not true. They draw a distinction between three different cases with the following example. You’re in Paris, and want a good cup of coffee.

1) You walk into a cafe, order coffee, and hope for the best.
2) You see someone who you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe so you get yours there too.
3) You see someone you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe. She sees you observing her, looks at her cup, looks at you, and nods with a smile

In the first case you acquire information on your own. There is no guiding principle behind this information acquisition. It is random, and learning where to find good coffee will slow going with this method.

In the second scenario, we anticipate that the neighborhood denizen is more knowledgeable than we–she probably knows where to get good coffee. Finding good coffee ought to be much faster if we imitate someone more knowledgeable than we. At the same time, there could be other factors at work. For example, it’s possible that she thinks the coffee in that cafe is terrible, but it’s never crowded and she’s in a rush that morning.

In the third scenario, that’s highly unlikely. The woman is not only knowledgeable, she communicates with us; she knows what we want to know and she can tell us that the critical feature we care about is present. Unlike scenario #2, the knowledgeable person is adjusting her actions to maximize our learning.

More generally, Shafto et al suggest that these cases represent three fundamentally different learning opportunities; learning from physical evidence, learning from the observation of goal-directed action, and learning from communication.

Shafto et al argue that although some learning theories assume that children acquire information at random, that’s likely false much of the time. Kids are surrounded by people more knowledgeable than they. They can see, so to speak, where more knowledgeable people get their coffee.

Further, adults and older peers often adjust their behavior to make it easier for children to draw the right conclusion…. more knowledgeable others often do take into account what the child knows, and speak so as to maximize what the child can learn. If an adult asked “what’s that?”  I might say “It’s Westphalian ham on brioche.” If a toddler asked, I‘d say “It’s a sandwich.”

One implication is that the problem I described—how do kids learn so much, so fast—may not be quite as formidable as it first seemed because the environment is not random. It has a higher proportion of highly instructive information….

The second implication is this: when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching.

So whatever value you attach to “naturalness,” bear in mind that much of what children learn in their early years of life may not be the product of unaided exploration of their environment, but may instead be the consequence of teaching. Teaching might be considered a quite natural state of affairs.

I’ll leave the summing up to two leaders of the charge to ensure that all students acquire the knowledge (and skills—they go together!) they need.

E. D. Hirsch, chiming in on Willingham’s blog, noted:

Readers … should be aware of the relevant comments of the most curmudgeonly education commissioner California ever had, Max Rafferty, with regard to the natural teaching methods. “Schooling is not a natural process at all. It’s highly artificial. No boy in his right mind ever wanted to study multiplication tables and historical dates when he could be out hunting rabbits or climbing trees. In the days when hunting and climbing contributed to the survival of homo sapiens there was some sense in letting the kids do what comes naturally, but when man’s future began to hang upon the systematic mastery of orderly subject matter, the primordial, happy-go-lucky, laissez faire kind of learning had to go. [...] The story of mankind is the rise of specialization with its highly artificial concomitants. [...] When writing was invented, “natural” education went down the drain of history. From then on, children were destined to learn artificially. [...] This is civilization — the name of the game. [...] All civilization is artificial.” Actually, I think Rafferty understated the case. The pre-historic kid had to be taught by a grownup how to hunt rabbits — at least if the group was going to be successful.

Natural or not, acquiring academic knowledge is necessary. To the extent that we ignore the power of knowledge, and the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching it directly, we are locking the doors that a content-rich education would open. Tom Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate and coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, clearly stated our dire situation just a few days ago in the Boston Globe:

As education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated, achievement gaps are really knowledge gaps. Poor kids tend to have access to less background knowledge outside school than privileged kids. Unless poor kids are exposed to the same academically rich content in school that more affluent kids can get at home, we consign these students to second-class citizenship.

 

Why Reading Is the Tougher Nut

by Lisa Hansel
June 3rd, 2013

In the New York Times last week, Brett Peiser, chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools network, asked some very important questions about why students struggle with reading comprehension: “Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” As Peiser noted, all of these are facets of comprehension that take time to improve—but the problem is both easier to understand and harder to address than most educators realize.

In response to the Times article, Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School, noted on his blog that “At Match, we too have always had larger math gains than English gains.  Not just on MCAS, also on SAT.” He continues:

Two years ago I tackled this topic, and Tom [Hoffman] commented:

One problem with our testing regime is that it makes math look like half of the goal of a school. Math as a discipline is constructed and taught differently than all others. If your school is constructed to optimize math instruction, you’re not half way there; you’re more like 1/5th of the way.

Good thought.  I don’t know of any schools where kids have, say, 4 English classes and one math class.  And if we didn’t have the phrase “English class” — if instead we only had the component parts called “Literature class,” “Non-fiction class,” “Writing class,” “Vocabulary Building and Grammar class,” and so forth, you could imagine a school designed that way, with 4X the amount of time devoted to English.  And then instead of one test for English, we’d have 4 exams and one math exams.

I’m not saying this is a good idea given other tradeoffs, I’m saying that might result in more equal sized gains.

Goldstein is a fan of E. D. Hirsch’s work, so I hope he’ll smile when he reads this: I know of schools that have “4 English classes and one math class.” Schools that teach the full Core Knowledge Sequence teach language arts, world and American history and geography, visual arts, music, science, and mathematics. If you trust the decades of research showing that the key to literacy is broad knowledge, then these schools have, in effect, five English classes and one math class. The difference between this and typical schooling is that Core Knowledge schools teach all of these things from kindergarten through eighth grade. They do it rigorously, with content-rich curricula that flesh out the Sequence with domain-based studies in which reading, discussing, and writing content happens throughout each day.

To put this back in Peiser’s terms, if you focus on knowledge, issues with vocabulary, long sentences, and dense texts will be resolved.

As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is best learned not with vocabulary lists, but in context while studying specific domains of knowledge. Key terms may be explained as needed, but most vocabulary is acquired through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. I saw an example of this recently at P.S. 104, the Bays Water School in Queens, NY, which is doing a terrific job of bringing Core Knowledge Language Arts to life. Second graders had recently listened to, discussed, and written about a series of texts their teacher read aloud about leaders—like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.—who had fought for a cause. Along the way, they learned the word “injustice.” I happened to be sitting in when the teacher started reading aloud from Charlotte’s Web: “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig.” Hands flew into the air as the children were eager to relate what they already knew about injustice to this new example.

It may be fairly obvious that building knowledge also builds vocabulary and enables comprehension. But the connection between knowledge and comprehending dense texts with long sentences may not be as obvious. Recent research by Diana AryaElfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson shines some light:

The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.

Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….

Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs.

In writing about this research, E. D. Hirsch noted that “These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the ‘right’ reading level of a text for a child. On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out…. Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.”

So, for comprehension, the primary question is this: How can we ensure that students are familiar with a broad range of topics? You don’t need four English classes—you need a content-rich, carefully organized, grade-by-grade curriculum. Introduce young children to the world through literature, science, history, geography, and the arts. Even in middle school, read to them texts that are too challenging for them to read themselves. Engage them in discussions and substantive writing every day.

And be patient.

Patience is the hard part. Our high-stakes accountability systems not only expect yearly gains, they reward bad practices. While drilling students in comprehension strategies can get a bump in scores, it will not lead to meaningful increases in literacy. Building broad knowledge (and thus broad vocabulary and the capacity to grasp complex text) takes time. With a content-rich, sequential curriculum, schools can build the necessary knowledge over time. What they can’t do is show big yearly gains on tests that are not matched to their curriculum (which is a hazard of all state tests in which the content of the passages is not revealed and thus can’t be studied).

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has proposed an interesting solution: a two-part accountability system that allows schools to create their own measures. Here’s his pitch (Duncan, Congress—are you listening?):

    1. First, as the default system, we keep something like we have today, but with better standards and tests. (Yes, common-core standards and tests.) Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won’t lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the “typical” school in America becomes better than it is today. (NB: I’d scrap any state-prescribed “accountability” below the level of the school. In other words, no more rigid teacher evaluation systems; leave personnel issues to the principals.) And it would provide taxpayers an assurance that they are getting a “public good” from their investment in public education (namely, a reasonably educated citizenry).
    2. Then we offer all public schools—district and charter—an opt-out alternative. They can propose to the state or its surrogate that they be held accountable to a different set of measures. My preferences would be those related to the long-term success of their graduates. School “inspections” could be part of the picture, too. These evaluation metrics would be rigorous, but designed to be supportive of, rather than oppositional to, the cause of excellent schools. And they might be particularly important to educators of a more progressive, anti-testing bent.

This plan would allow schools to focus on building knowledge instead of artificially boosting scores with drills on comprehension and test-taking strategies. Schools could commit to a strong curriculum, then measure progress in reading comprehension through curriculum-based tests of students’ growing knowledge of literature, science, history, geography, music, the arts. Such tests could involve reading, writing, and speaking to ensure that students are progressing in all aspects of language as they develop broad knowledge of the world.

Developing and teaching a content-rich, coherent curriculum is hard to do, but it’s also the only approach that works.

 

The Common Core Needs a Common Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
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.

 

Can the Common Core Standards Reverse the “Rising Tide of Mediocrity”?

by Lisa Hansel
April 26th, 2013

This post originally appeared on April 25, 2013, on the Shanker Blog:  http://shankerblog.org.

Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled “Cultural Literacy,” sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.

In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

Mediocrity is what filled the void as schools slowly retreated from teaching all children rigorous content. That retreat happened throughout the 20th century: Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth.

E. D. Hirsch was a professor who shared that misunderstanding until his own research awoke him to the (now well-established) fact that broad literacy depends on broad knowledge. Shanker was by far the most prominent educator to grasp the veracity and power of Hirsch’s work.

Rigor is the antidote to risk.

According to Richard Kahlenberg’s terrific biography of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal,* Shanker “believed, with E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that if one really wished to be a political progressive concerned about disadvantaged kids, one needed to be an educational ‘conservative’ who stood for teaching students certain core knowledge that was essential to upward mobility in American society” (p. 10).

It was in the early 1980s, when Shanker read both A Nation at Risk and “Cultural Literacy,” that his particular form of progressivism took shape: Shanker saw that poor children needed a whole array of supports—including a traditional, rigorous curriculum that would give them all the knowledge that wealthier children get from their college-educated parents.

While virtually all education leaders panned A Nation at Risk, Shanker did not. According to Kahlenberg, Shanker’s reaction was “pivotal”:

When the … report was released … Shanker and a group of top union officials sat together and read the document. Sandra Feldman recalled: “We all had this visceral reaction to it. You know, ‘This is horrible. They’re attacking teachers.’ Everyone was watching Al to hear his response. When Al finished reading the report, he closed the book and looked up at all of us and said, ‘The report is right, and not only that, we should say that before our members.’ ” (p. 275)

Shanker did just that in a speech to members less than a week after the report came out. And then he spent the remainder of his life (he passed away in 1997) fighting for several major reforms. A few of the noteworthy ones were peer assistance and review, charter schools, and standards.

Thanks in part to Hirsch, Shanker had a very clear sense of what educational standards needed to accomplish. According to Kahlenberg:

Shanker disagreed with education-school professors who favored general thinking skills over gaining specific-content knowledge. He believed students needed both, and that John Dewey’s education theories had been misinterpreted by some “progressive” educators…. “Dewey himself was shocked when he went into some of these progressive schools and saw what was going on in his name.”

In the 1980s, Shanker became an early advocate of University of Virginia English Professor E. D. (Don) Hirsch Jr.’s argument that American students needed to be “culturally literate”—to master a body of facts that literate American’s know—in order to be successful in mainstream society. A full two years before Hirsch’s bestselling book Cultural Literacy became a phenomenon, Shanker embraced Hirsch’s view that knowing subject matter was important to reading comprehension…. “To read well you need background information that is culture-specific,” Shanker argued. Students needed to be taught Shakespeare and mythology so they could understand common cultural references.

Shanker was also taken by Hirsch’s argument that when students know particular content matter, their interest and curiosity are more likely to be aroused. A student who knows something about dinosaurs is more likely to pick up a book on dinosaurs when browsing through the library. “Subject matter,” Shanker argued, “is the life’s breath of learning.” While some “progressive” educators dismissed Hirsch’s approach as emphasizing “mere facts,” Shanker wrote thirteen separate columns mentioning Hirsch’s theory, invited Hirsch to speak at the AFT’s biennial QuEST Conference, and featured Hirsch on the cover of American Educator….

Shanker … believed that the core knowledge of the dominant culture was essential for all students to master if they wished to advance socioeconomically within the society…. Shanker argued:

Some people have been very critical of Hirsch’s proposals on the grounds that they try to impose the dominant culture on groups that would rather have their children learn their own culture. But the thrust of Hirsch’s proposal is egalitarian. He believes that by starting early and by giving all children the same core knowledge to learn, we can prevent the creation of an educational underclass…. (p. 323-324)

Despite their best efforts, neither Shanker nor Hirsch succeeded in bringing the need for knowledge-building curricula into mainstream reform efforts.

But now, the tide is finally turning.

The Common Core State Standards demand rigor—and a strong curriculum. In the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy, the need for a knowledge-building curriculum is plainly stated and explained:

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students  must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)

Shanker, no doubt, would applaud the effort. Hirsch certainly is. As more and more states take implementation seriously and support schools in creating the content-rich curricula they need, we all should be applauding.

 

* In quoting Tough Liberal, I have not included the endnotes.

 

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.

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.

 

Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 4: Passing the Test

by Lisa Hansel
March 22nd, 2013

So far this week E. D. Hirsch has taught us that higher-order thinking depends on knowledge, that highly mobile students suffer acutely from our national refusal to establish a core of common content, and that there is an identifiable body of specific knowledge that facilitates communication. Now, on Hirsch’s birthday, we examine his game-changing policy prescription: curriculum-based reading tests.

Turning to pages 153 – 162 of Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, we learn “How to Ace a Reading Test.”*

Reading tests are attacked for cultural bias and other faults, but such complaints are unfounded. The tests are fast and accurate indexes of real-world reading ability. They correlate extremely well with one another and with actual capacity to learn and communicate. They consist, after all, of written passages, which students are to read and then answer questions on; that is, students are asked to exercise the very skill at issue…. The much more reasonable complaint is that an emphasis on testing has caused schools to devote too much time to drills and test preparation, with a consequent narrowing of the curriculum….

Yet the fault lies not with the tests but with the school administrators who have been persuaded that it is possible to drill for a reading test—on the mistaken assumption that reading is a skill like typing and that once you know the right techniques you can read any text addressed to a general audience. The bulk of time in early language-arts program today is spent practicing these abstract strategies on an incoherent array of uninformative fictions. The opportunity costs have been enormous. Schools are wasting hours upon hours practicing drills that are supposed to improve reading but that are actually depriving students of knowledge that could enhance their reading comprehension….

Here is the beginning of an actual passage from a New York State reading test for fourth grade:

There is a path that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, 2,167 miles later. This path is called the Appalachian Trail. If you want, you can walk the whole way, although only some people who try to do this actually make it, because it is so far, and they get tired. The idea for the trail came from a man named Benton MacKaye. In 1921 he wrote an article about how people needed a nearby place where they could enjoy nature and take a break from work. He thought the Appalachian Mountains would be perfect for this.

The passage goes on for a while, and then come the questions. The first question, as usual, concerns the main idea:

This article is mostly about

1. how the Appalachian Trail came to exist.

2. when people can visit the Appalachian Trail.

3. who hikes the most on the Appalachian Trail.

4. why people work together on the Appalachian Trail.

Many educators see this question as probing the general skill of “finding the main idea.” It does not. Try to put yourself in the position of a disadvantaged fourth grader who knows nothing of hiking, does not know the difference between an Appalachian-type mountain and a Himalayan-type mountain, does not know where Maine and Georgia are, and does not grasp what it means to “enjoy nature.” Such a child, though much trained in comprehension strategies, might answer the question incorrectly. The student’s more advantaged counterpart, not innately smarter, just happens to be familiar with hiking in the Appalachians, has been to Maine and Georgia, and has had a lot of experience “enjoying nature.” The second student easily answers the various questions correctly. But not because he or she practiced comprehension strategies; this student has the background knowledge to comprehend what the passage is saying….

It has been shown decisively that subject-matter knowledge trumps formal skill in reading and that proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another. Test makers implicitly acknowledge this by offering, in a typical reading test, as many as ten passages on varied topics. (If reading were a knowledge-independent skill, a single passage would suffice.)… Contrary to appearances and educators’ beliefs, these reading tests do not test comprehension strategies. There usually are questions like “What is the main idea of this passage?” but such a question probes ad hoc comprehension, not some general technique of finding the main idea. Reading comprehension is not a universal, repeatable skill like sounding out words or throwing a ball through a hoop. “Reading skill” is rather an overgeneralized abstraction that obscures what reading really is: an array of separate, content-constituted skills such as the ability to read about the Appalachian Mountains or the ability to read about the Civil War….

A reading test is inherently a knowledge test. Scoring well requires familiarity with the subjects of the test passages. Hence the tests are unfair to students who, through no fault of their own, have little general knowledge. Their homes have not provided it, and neither have the schools. This difference in knowledge, not any difference in ability, is the fundamental reason for the reading gap between white and minority students. We go to school for many years partly because it takes so long to build up the vast general knowledge and vocabulary we need to become mature readers.

Because this knowledge-gaining process is slow and cumulative, the type of general reading test now in use could be fair to all groups only above fifth or sixth grade, and only after good, coherent, content-based schooling in the previous grades. I therefore propose a policy change that would at one stroke raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. (As a side benefit, it would induce elementary schools to impart the general knowledge children need.) Let us institute curriculum-based reading tests in first, second, third, and fourth grades—that is to say, reading tests containing passages based on knowledge that children will have received directly from their schooling. In the early grades, when children are still gaining this knowledge slowly and in piecemeal fashion, it is impossible to give a fair test of any other sort….

We now have an answer to our question of how to enable all children to ace a reading test. We need to impart systematically—starting in the very earliest grades by reading aloud to students, then later in sequenced self-reading—the general knowledge that is taken for granted in writing addressed to a broad audience. If reading tests in early grades are based on a universe of pre-announced topics, general knowledge will assuredly be built up. By later grades, when the reading tests become the standard non-curriculum one, such as the NAEP tests, reading prowess will have risen dramatically.

Policy makers say they want to raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. But it seems doubtful that any state can now resist the anti-curriculum outcry that would result from actually putting curriculum-based testing into effect. Nonetheless, any state or district that courageously instituted knowledge- and curriculum-based early reading tests would see a very significant rise in students’ reading scores in later grades.

States would also see impressive results right away on the curriculum-based tests since the passages would be about content that all students had actually been taught. Just imagine: With curriculum-based tests, “test prep” would consist of studying literature, history, science, and the arts. Bringing that imaginary world to life relies on our leaders working together. So, this birthday retrospective ends with a call to the left and right, drawn from pages 186 – 187 of the Making of Americans.

One of the gravest disappointments I have felt in the twenty-fine years that I have been actively engaged in educational reform is the frustration of being warmly welcomed by conservatives but shunned by fellow liberals. The connection of the anti-curriculum movement with the Democratic Party is an accident of history, not a logical necessity. All the logic runs the other way. A dominant liberal aim is social justice, and a definite core curriculum in early grades is necessary to achieve it. Why should conservatives alone favor solid content while my fellow liberals buy into the rhetoric of the anti-curriculum theology that works against the liberal aims of community and equality? Practical improvement of our public education will require intellectual clarity and a depolarization of the issue. Left and right must get together on the principle of common content.

 

* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.

 

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.

 

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

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song