Playing Catch-Up

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2012

An important new report from ACT’s National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) turns the lights up on a point that cannot be made often or strongly enough: when it comes to academic readiness, it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.  Over at Education Week, Sara Mead summarizes the findings, which she correctly describes as “sobering.”

“Among students who were ‘far off track’ in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards 4 years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT’s EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored ‘far off track’ in reading–as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can’t like those odds.”

Policymakers take note of this from the report itself:

“Efforts to improve students’ academic preparation have often been directed at the high-school level, although for many students, gaps in academic preparation begin much earlier. Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge. These gaps are likely to widen over time because of the ‘Matthew effects,’ whereby those who start out behind are at a relative disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge.”

Bingo.  Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is your go-to response, here’s some cold water for you: “’Far off track’ 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample,” Mead observes. ”But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of ‘far off track’ students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.”

Sobering, indeed.

The report’s takeaway emphasizes the need for “a realistic view of the difficulty of closing these gaps,” hence the need to start earlier.

“Underestimating the time and effort required could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late. Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores.”

In Mead’s view, this means “high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school.”  I agree.  But critically, it must also mean a clear and focused understanding of what we mean when we say “high quality pre-k.”  Gaps in language proficiency are fundamentally gaps in knowledge and vocabulary–and the deficits are readily apparent on Day One.  To my mind, “high quality preschool” means aggressive interventions aimed at building language skill and knowledge acquisition before the dreaded Matthew Effect becomes a runaway train.

Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.


Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2012

Part of my required reading is the daily Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief, a summary of education news.  Yesterday’s email carried the subject line, “Are there benefits to reading aloud?”

This is roughly akin to a newsletter for doctors headlined, “Are there benefits to quitting smoking and exercise?”  I’d be mighty surprised to learn there are still teachers who need to be sold on the benefits of reading aloud to students.  But the SmartBrief headline links to a smart Edweek piece from Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts teacher in Texas, on the benefits of read alouds, including “building community,” “exposing kids to new authors and genres,” and “supporting developing readers.”

“Reading aloud removes roadblocks to comprehension like unfamiliar vocabulary and contextualizes words developing readers do not know. Listening to a fluent reader gives students a reading role model for their own oral reading skills, too. Since listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension, you can read books that are a higher reading level than your students can read alone.”

She’s completely correct on all of these points, but further explication is worthwhile.  If anything, Miller undersells the value of reading aloud.  When students listen to a readaloud, cognitive bandwidth that might ordinarily be devoted to decoding is redirected toward the vocabulary and content of the reading.  We learn vocabulary primarily in context, not by memorization. Thus readalouds build language proficiency by exposing kids to sophisticated language well above their independent  reading level.

But I’d wager most teachers leave untapped a lot of the potential of readalouds.  Pop quiz:  how many of the last ten books you read to your class were nonfiction?   You probably answered either “zero” or “one.”  That’s a lost opportunity.  The same principles that make it worthwhile to read fiction aloud are even more true for nonfiction. Plus, nonfiction often has rich, domain-specific vocabulary.  You’re more likely to hear words like “orbit,” “zenith,” “solar,” or “celestial,” in a book on astronomy.  Readalouds not only grow vocabulary, they are the best way to build critical background knowledge, which is essential for later reading comprehension.

Read alouds also have value well past the primary grades.  It’s fairly obvious that oral language competence precedes written language proficiency (we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write).  What’s less well known is a fact my colleague Alice Wiggins likes to point out: reading comprehension typically doesn’t catch up until about 8th grade.  This means that a strong case can be made for read alouds to building knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency through and including middle school.

Miller’s piece touts “World Read Aloud Day” on March 7, 2012 and suggests every day should be read aloud day.  Agreed.  But read alouds should be for more than just stories and poems.  Tellingly, Miller suggests ten books for upper elementary students to hear out loud. The only one that’s not fiction and poetry is a memoir by Hatchet author Gary Paulsen.

Building knowledge and vocabulary remain the royal road to reading comprehension.  Reading to students across subject areas–not just stories and poems–just might be the most underutilized strategy in the teacher’s tool kit.

A Visit to the Core Knowledge Auto Body Shop

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of Americans

by Robert Pondiscio
September 1st, 2009

The official publication date is still two weeks away (Sept. 15), but copies of E.D. Hirsch’s new book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, have started to hit the bookstores.  Jay Mathews gets a jump with his review in the Washington Post.  “If the inventive 81-year-old had been a business leader or politician or even a school superintendent, his fight to give U.S. children rich lessons in their shared history and culture would have made him a hero among his peers,” Mathews shrewedly observes. ”Instead, he chose to be an English professor, at the unlucky moment when academic fashion declared the American common heritage to be bunk and made people like Hirsch into pariahs.” 

Mathews notes (correctly, I think) that Hirsch’s new book makes the case for a common curriculum “in the clearest form since his ground-breaking 1987 book, Cultural Literacy.”

“The Making of Americans” puts the most troublesome elementary school subject, reading, at the center of its argument. Reading achievement and language proficiency generally have been disappointing for decades, particularly in schools full of the children of immigrant or impoverished parents. Progressives have called for engaging students with lessons that celebrate their real lives and their cultural heritages. Old books about dead white guys don’t hack it, they say. Hirsch’s research convinced him that this approach cut children off from the shared background they all must have to understand the words in front of them.

Richard Kahlenberg, reviews the book in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar, not yet available online:

In The Making of Americans, Hirsch…widens the lens to connect his ideas on education reform to the fundamental rationales for our system of public schools in the United States. Citing the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Horace Mann, Hirsch identifies two central reasons for the American “common school”: to create social mobility, allowing bright, hard-working students of all origins to enjoy the American dream; and to create social cohesion, binding children of diverse economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds into citizens of a single nation. Hirsch makes a highly cogent case to support the concept that a common curriculum is necessary in elementary schools to further both goals. The American focus on skills, rather than on content, has left low-income students bereft of “unspoken background knowledge” that is explicitly taught in countries like France and Finland, where levels of academic inequality are much lower. “It does not seem to occur to the intellectual descendants of Rousseau,” Hirsch writes, “that the four-year-old children of rich, highly educated parents might be gaining academic knowledge at home that is unfairly being withheld (albeit with noble intentions) from the children of the poor.”

“American education would be far better off if leaders heeded Hirsch’s sound advice to restore a common-core curriculum, Kahlenberg concludes.  “Our system would do even better still if leaders went one step further and reinvented Horace Mann’s economically integrated common school for the 21st century.”