PBS Kids a “Sweet Spot for Feds in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 7th, 2012

Small-government conservatives typically argue the less Washington has to do with education, the better.  But Fordham’s Mike Petrilli sees PBS Kids as “a sweet spot for federal involvement in education.”  Petrilli used to agree with conservative pundit George Will that the market can provide children’s programming on its own.  But as the father of two young boys Petrilli has come to believe “there’s no contest when it comes to academic content and quality” if you compare Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel to PBS Kids.

“The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.”

PBS’s Dinosaur Trains and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That are also strong on content knowledge, Petrilli says. “And the line-up is rounded out with several pleasant if content-free offerings that aim to teach character and the like (Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, and so forth). By contrast, Nickelodeon and Disney have “a few decent offerings.” But Petrilli calls Sponge Bob “poisonous” and Dora the Explorer “the crack cocaine of children’s television.”

“Back to the role of government. The reason the PBS shows are more educationally sound is that one of their major investors—Uncle Sam—demands that they be so. The Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program provides upwards of $30 million a year to develop high-quality programs, as well as related content (web sites, games, etc.). Unlike most federal initiatives—which must work through the states, local school districts, and local schools before getting to actual kids—this one has a much shorter line to the end product: Good stuff for kids to watch. It’s an easy way for the federal government to make a positive contribution.”

I haven’t seen all of the shows to which Petrilli refers, but ultimately the proof is in the programming. Commercial broadcasters have other masters to serve, and any programming that helps build background knowledge in the critical early childhood years certainly can’t hurt.  But remember, the Associated Academy of Pediatricians recently issued a warning saying children should watch no TV whatsoever if they are under two years of age.

First the Mars Rover, and now an unexpected mash note from the right-of-center Fordham Foundation.  Big government is having a good week.

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.

Pretty Good Gatsby

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2011

Film critic Roger Ebert is spitting mad at a “retelling” of The Great Gatsby that scrubs away the novel’s poetry and lyricism to produce a simplified version for “intermediate level” readers.  Here’s the conclusion of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

“And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And here, per Ebert, is what students encounter in a “retold” version published by Macmillan:

“Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

“Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

“Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?”

This is wince-worthy stuff, and Ebert is justified in his full-throated denunciation.  “There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it,” he writes.

“Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”

Over at Flypaper, Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee seconds Ebert’s take, but observes that giving students ”bastardized translations” in place of the original is “common practice in far too many classrooms.”  Particularly, she notes, ”in places where standards and curricula are focused more on teaching abstract reading ‘skills’ than on ensuring that all students read and understand rich literature.”  But Porter-Magee holds out hope that the advent of Common Core State Standards should make classrooms less safe for ham-handed abridgements of  literature.   The new standards, she says, require us to “refocus our time and attention on the importance of reading sufficiently complex texts and using evidence from those texts to guide discussion, writing, activities, etc.”

“To my eye, that is among the most significant take-aways from David Coleman’s and Sue Pimentel’s publishers’ criteria.  That we need to stop feeding our struggling readers dumbed-down versions of complex texts. That we need to stop focusing on empty skills like making “text to self” or “text to world” connections. And we need to stop organizing our curricula around broad and empty themes that may only be tangentially related to the texts students are reading.

“That is to say: we need to refocus literature class on actually reading literature.”

I hope Porter-Magee is right.  But I’m certain Ebert is, even though saying so puts me in an awkward position.  It was just a few months ago that I opined in this space in favor of a sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn that changed 200 uses of the racial epithet “nigger” to slave, and “injun” to Indian.  If softening the language for modern ears means a foundational book, commonly banned, will now be taught and embraced again then (I said at the time) that seems not too high a price to pay  Now I’m no longer so sure.  I still see much value in educated people reading deeply some great works of literature while being at least familiar with the characters, plots and themes of many more.  But Ebert’s denunciation is powerful and persuasive.

“You can’t become literate by being taught illiteracy,” he writes, ”and you can’t read The Great Gatsby without reading it.”

Report: Sky Not Falling

by Robert Pondiscio
March 15th, 2011

True or False:

1. The United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation.

2. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

3. In both reading and math, in raw numbers, the United States produces more high-achieving Hispanic students than Asian students.

4. There are more high-achieving African-American students than high-achieving Finns.

All true, according to an interesting new paper  American Achievement in International Perspective by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Janie Scull.   The moral of the story?  Size matters and the large number of U.S. students ensures a high number of high achievers across the board.  “In raw numbers, at least, our high-achieving Hispanic and black American students outnumber the high achievers of several other countries,” Petrilli observes at Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  “At the least, this indicates that they will have a seat at the international table—on prestigious college campuses, in the board room, and in the laboratory. It’s a start.”

School as Gated Community

by Robert Pondiscio
February 1st, 2011

In the midst of all the rhetorical overkill about the Ohio mother who lied about her address to get her kids into a better school, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli reminds us that nearly 3,000 schools nationwide function as de facto gated communities. 

Petrilli and Janie Scull issued a report about a year ago on “America’s Private Public Schools,” which found that in some metropolitan areas, “as many as one in six public-school students — and one in four white youngsters — attends such schools,” which exclude practically all low-income kids.  That’s a whole lot of “Rosa Parks moments.”

“Before you throw stones at Copley-Fairlawn, be sure that your own neighborhood school isn’t one of the excluders,” Petrilli writes.

Nation Touches Third Rail, Survives

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2010

Despite the adoption of Common Core State Standards by more than half the states in the nation, the sky remains firmly in place, impervious to the coordinated attack.   Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared himself “ecstatic” at the adoption rate telling the New York Times, “This been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer.”

Game-evolver, perhaps, as even CCSS supporters are quick to point out.  At Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow writes that high standards will mean little “if the tests are no good, the curriculum is weak, and schools have little or no support to make standards mean something in the classroom.”  The Minister of Propaganda for the education status quo thus finds himself under the same big tent as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli at Fordham.  Even conservatives love the Common Core Standards, they note at National Review Online, with its call for students to memorize their times tables, learn phonics, and understand the country’s founding documents:

“Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) But without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet or live longer.”

Right.  Critics argue that standards don’t educate children.  Right again.  The true test remains implementation.  For elementary education, the principal benefit of the CCSS is the recognition that verbal achievement is based on general knowledge, and the explicit call for instruction in language arts to include all key academic domains and be integrated with a content-rich curriculum.  Is that a guarantee it will happen?  Of course not.  Even under a single standard, the states that fare the best will be the ones with the best trained teachers and the most thoughtful, rigorous curriculum.

Hey! That sounds like a real race to the top.

“Clearly Inferior” Yardsticks

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2010

Important and compelling report from Fordham comparing our current ramshackle collection of state standards to the Common Core State Standards.  The essential question: Would replacing any given state’s math and ELA standards with CCSS be a step forward, back or no difference?  The upshot, per Fordham’s Education Gadfly:

Common Core State Standards Initiative are clearer and more rigorous than today’s ELA standards in 37 states and today’s math standards in 39 states….In 33 of those states, the Common Core bests both ELA and math standards. Yet California, Indiana and the District of Columbia have ELA standards that are clearly superior to those of the Common Core. And nearly a dozen states have ELA or math standards  in the same league as  Common Core. 

At Fordham’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli sensibly points out the states that have already adopted the Common Core are moving from “clearly inferior” standards to something much better. “As a result, the national average for state standards has already gone from a “C” for both math and English (pre-Common Core adoption) to a B-plus for math and a B for English, now that these states have switched standards. In just the last month or so, America has raised the bar by at least a letter grade, from mediocre to very good standards,” he writes. 

More on CCSS and the Fordham report from Joanne Jacobs and Eduflack.  The New York Times has a debate on national standards with a collection of big thinkers, and Alfie Kohn.

Rating the Common Core Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
March 23rd, 2010

The Fordham Foundation, which like Core Knowledge, came out in support of the draft Common Core State Standards, has gone back to take a closer look.  They still like what they see.  The math standards are ”rigorous, internationally-competitive standards that earn an impressive A-,” their report says.  The ELA standards rate a “solid B.”   With some clarification of vague standards and the addition of more references to specific content, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee at Fordham’s Flypaper blog, the ELA standards “have the potential to be top notch.”

“On the implementation side, if these standards are going to realize their promise and truly drive student achievement, states will need to ensure that these standards are linked to rigorous, content-rich curricula and outstanding instruction. Even rigorous standards, after all, only describe the destination. But, assuming that these drafts only improve in the revision process, we think that states would be wise to consider their adoption.”

The distinction between describing the destination (standards) and the way to get there (curriculum) is, alas, lost upon the editors of the Wall Street Journal who editorialize against efforts to “standardize what is taught in American public schools.”  National standards, says the Journal ”are no substitute for school choice and accountability.” Over at Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow says the Journal is engaged in magical thinking.  “Don’t do the hard work of figuring out what all students should really know and be able to do. Let the market’s invisible hand shape the standards! ’Higher standards will be the fruit of such reforms, not the driver.’  Sure,” he writes.

By “making explicit the essential role of building knowledge in reading and hence the need for a coherent curriculum that builds knowledge across grades” the Common Core Standards essentially function as a call to upend the incoherent, process-driven literacy block in elementary school.  Kind of surprising the Journal–among others–would not see and support this important distinction.

Getting Back on Tracking

by Robert Pondiscio
December 11th, 2009

Want to start a fight in education?  Suggest that ability grouping or “tracking” is a good idea and someone (usually not a parent and seldom a teacher) will accuse you of being indifferent to struggling students.  And that’s one of the milder forms of criticism. 

A new study by Brookings’ Tom Loveless issued by the Fordham Institute concludes, among other things, that tracked schools produced more high-achieving students than nontracked schools.  The study, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools, finds schools with more tracks produce more math pupils at advanced and proficient levels and fewer failing students.  The opposite is found in nontracked schools:  more students  failing than in schools that track.

Commenting on Loveless’s report Fordham’s Checker Finn and Amber Winkler offer two “bottom lines”:

Bottom line number one: American education needs to care more about taking all of its students to the next level and less about how we get them there. Anna Penny, a former teacher in New York City, said as much in the New York Daily News this past summer: “Anyone who has ever taught knows that kids progress at dramatically different speeds in different subjects. When our schools resist tracking even when it’s clearly needed, they wind up valuing homogeneous classrooms over effective ones.”

Bottom line number two: In the name of equity, gap closing, political correctness, and leaving no child behind, American education has been a bit too willing to neglect its higher-performing students and the school arrangements that best meet their needs. A recent report by the National Association for Gifted Children finds that eighteen states can’t even tell us how many children have been identified as gifted within their borders. Further, the vast majority of gifted children are placed in regular classrooms (no surprise, given Loveless’s findings), places with teachers not ordinarily trained in gifted education. In fact, thirty-six states don’t require regular teachers to have training in gifted education at any point in their careers, nor do most teacher-preparation programs include coursework on gifted learners. That’s obviously unfortunate for high-achieving youngsters and the ill-equipped teachers who teach them, but it’s also damaging to our long-term national interest. 

I agree.  As a teacher, I thought tracking made sense if for no other reason than pure pragmatism.  In my 5th grade classroom I had kids functioning anywhere from a first to eighth grade level.  “Differentiation” (a.k.a intra-room tracking)  among such a disparate group of students sounds great, but it’s an idea that’s more honored in the breach than the observance.  It’s awfully hard to do well, especially in a classroom with serious behavior problems and students who struggle to work well independently.  Moreover, there will always be a natural tendency in heterogeneous classrooms to regard your high achievers as doing just fine.  Compared to where the rest of the class is, that’s true.  Compared to where they could be is another matter.

Darkness Falls

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2009

The United States is in gradual decline, says Checker Finn matter of factly.  “Many people seem oblivious, going about their own affairs without reference to ominous but very gradual trends, rather like the frog that didn’t know it would be boiled because the water in that pot was warming so slowly,” writes the head of the Fordham Institute in his latest Education Gadfly column.

Among the “worrisome signs of national decay” Finn sees are America’s flat education results and sagging international performance:

Nearly all our major test-score trend lines have been horizontal for decades–the small upward and downward blips tend to balance out–and comparisons with other lands show us mediocre to woeful. We could once respond that the U.S. makes up in education “quantity” (e.g., graduation and matriculation rates) what we may lack in quality but that’s not true any longer. Half a dozen countries now best us on those measures, too.

In addition, there is decreasing demand for U.S. dollars overseas, a “staggering” debt burden being passed on to future generations, and a national government that can no longer make big decisions. “Whether the challenge at hand is immigration, excessive litigation, discrepant academic standards, swine flu, financial regulation, hurricane Katrina, mass transit, climate change, Afghanistan–pick your topic–Congress either avoids the problem altogether or kicks the can down the road for someone to worry about later,” writes Finn.  He also bemoans “our culture and our politics of polarization, selfishness, and bad manners.”

Finally, we’re giving up on too many of the great challenges and opportunities that we face, including realms where America was once terrific. NASA has pretty much abandoned space exploration, at least the manned kind. We don’t seem even to be trying very hard to extirpate nuclear weapons from Iran. China is turning into the next hegemon. My wife the doctor says that European and Asian countries are more adept and adventurous today in medical research than we are. Airbus is getting a lot more new planes into the air than Boeing. Our domestic auto industry is all but defunct.

Worst of all, Finn is not sure our national decline can be reversed.  “The cultural, behavioral, and attitudinal manifestations of declinism seem to me to go deeper than politics.”

Checker has been just a little ray of sunshine of late.  First there was his speech at Rice University wondering if it’s time to “throw in the towel on ed reform.”  Now this.  On the other hand, I haven’t heard anyone say he’s all wet.  Anyone?