With the Common Core, the Whole Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

by Lisa Hansel
June 13th, 2013

In a new post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Robert Shepherd makes many insightful observations about the sad state of reading instruction:

Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal learning.” They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions, clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique, respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular, embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies, and an industry for identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids to identify the main idea and supporting details; teach them to identify sequences and causes and effects; teach them to make inferences; teach them to use context clues; teach them to identify text elements. Throughout American K-12 education, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around teaching these “strategies.” Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on Making Predictions, and any text that contained some examples of predictions would be a worthy object of study….

The question of how to “make an inference” is extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is actually known about this question has found its way into our instruction….

I bring up the issue of instruction in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. There is no there there. No kid walks away from his or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that inference is reasonable. Why? Because one has to learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all, and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences there are and how one evaluates the various kinds.

But to my way of thinking, he goes too far in indicting the Common Core State Standards:

Have a look at these standards, and what do you see? Well, the standards are abstractions, generalizations: The student will be able to recognize the main idea. The student will be able to draw inferences. The student will be able to determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text. In English language arts, the CONTENT of what is studied is treated in the new standards AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT. We are told that students should be reading substantive, grade-level appropriate works. Some examples of these are given in an appendix. But the standards themselves are simply a list of abstract skills and “strategies.” They don’t even include ANY descriptions of procedures that students might learn for carrying out tasks. So, they completely ignore both world knowledge (knowledge of what) and procedural knowledge (knowledge of how), though they occasionally make vague references to what would result if one had (miraculously, by what means they do not say) acquired the latter….

In our rush to make ELA education scientific, in our emphasis on abstract form over content, we’ve forgotten why we read. We don’t read to hone our inferencing skills. We don’t read because we are fascinated by where, in this essay, the author has placed the main idea. Our purpose in reading is not to find out how the author organized her story in order to create suspense. We read because we are interested in what the text has to say, and the metacognitive abstraction about the text is incidental. It grows out of and relates to what this particular text does and takes meaning from that. The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.

One could implement the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts perfectly and have students entirely miss what reading literature is about. They would not come away from their literature classes with the understanding that when they read a literary work well, they enter into an imaginative world and have an experience there, in all its concreteness and specificity, and it is then THAT experience that has significance, that matters, that has “meaning.”

While Shepherd is spot-on regarding the purpose and value of reading, and on the devastating overemphasis on reading strategies, on the CCSS he is making the same mistake that many educators are making—focusing too much on the standards and too little on the text surrounding the standards. The individual standards are abstract goals. Alone, they could inspire more strategy-focused instruction. But they do not stand alone.

To ensure that students acquire the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to read with ease across academic domains, the standards repeatedly call for a content-rich curriculum (the page numbers given refer to the PDF version of the standards):

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)

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)

The standards also show how to accelerate knowledge and vocabulary growth through a carefully sequenced, grade-by-grade approach to constructing content-area domains:

Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics. (p. 33)

Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks. (Appendix A, p. 33)

Anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results. But they won’t be able to honestly say their approach was in keeping with the spirit or intent of the Common Core.

The CCSS are stronger than states’ previous efforts to produce ELA standards because they do explain the need for domain-based studies organized in a coherent, content-rich curriculum. But in deference to America’s tradition of local control, the CCSS fall short of sealing the deal, of requiring even a few specific texts for each grade.

Just consider what Virginia, a state that did not adopt the CCSS, is currently doing. According to Rachel Levy, VA is clearing content out of the way so students can spend even more time on strategies:

Recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proposed and the General Assembly approved a bill that allows elementary schools to apply for waivers from high-stakes science and social studies testing (aka SOLs) for third graders. So far this testing season, approximately twenty-five public elementary schools have availed themselves of this waiver. The idea is that before struggling readers can learn content they have to master reading comprehension.

Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqui thinks this is a good idea:

The law, which expires in 2015, is a kind of a pilot program, Siddiqi said. He said that schools with low reading pass rates often have low pass rates in social studies and science because the two are connected. “It’s not about what they know,” Siddiqi said. “They are struggling with comprehension.”

On the one hand, I am all for reducing standardized testing in Virginia. I also acknowledge that the intention here is worthy: to help struggling students, to not set them up for failure.

However, I’m afraid that the logic is misguided and that that this will mean a decrease in social studies and science instruction and an increase in reading test prep. Yes, reading is a gateway to learning and limited instruction in reading strategies can be helpful, but the reason these students are struggling to comprehend what they read is because they aren’t learning enough content. It’s true that “it’s not about what they know;” it’s about what they don’t know. A valid test of reading would have passages related to the subject matter the students have already learned.

Putting off content-rich instruction to “focus on reading” will only serve to put off progress in reading proficiency.

Sadly, Virginia’s misguided new plan clearly shows that the CCSS are a real step forward. They give states, districts, and schools a strong foundation to build on. So instead of trying to tear down that foundation, let’s help the nation’s educators build up the excellent curriculum, and related materials and professional development, they need.

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.


Talk to Me Baby

by Lisa Hansel
April 11th, 2013

“Annette, you make sure you talk to that baby.” Annette is my mother, and the quote is from my step-grandmother, Eva. Neither one had ever heard of any language or literacy research, but they shared essential wisdom about how to raise children. My mother knew the importance not just of talking to her children, but of reading aloud to them. Having educated herself by reading the canon, she also had good taste in books.

The first book I can distinctly recall her reading to me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I was six and we had recently moved. I don’t know how many weeks of bedtime reading it took, but I know that by the end I did not find my new room so scary. If you’re wondering: no, I did not understand every scene in the book. But that did not matter; I had a wonderful (if partially made up) storyline running in my mind and I enjoyed the time snuggled up to mom. And yes, there were hundreds of children’s books in the house—but, for the most part, I had to read them to myself.

All that Little Women did for me came to mind as I eagerly read Tina Rosenberg’s piece on yesterday’s New York Times Opinionater. She provides a must-read look at a new program designed to minimize the achievement gap between poor and privileged children. Called Providence Talks, it sounds very promising:

The city plans to begin enrolling families in January, 2014, and hopes to eventually reach about 2,000 new families each year, said Mayor Angel Taveras. It will most likely work with proven home-visitation programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership. The visitors will show poor families with very young children how to use the recorders, and ask them to record one 16-hour day each month.

Every month they will return to share information about the results and specific strategies for talking more: how do you tell your baby about your day? What’s the best way to read to your toddler? They will also talk about community resources, like read-aloud day at the library. And they will work with the family to set goals for next month. The city also hopes to recruit some of the mothers and fathers as peer educators.

Providence Talks is designed to prevent the 30-million word gap identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their seminal study:

Our ambition was to record “everything” that went on in children’s homes—everything that was done by the children, to them, and around them…. We decided to start when the children were 7-9 months old so we would have time for the families to adapt to observation before the children actually began talking. We followed the children until they turned three years old…. Our final sample consisted of 42 families who remained in the study from beginning to end. From each of these families, we have almost 2 1/2 years or more of sequential monthly hour-long observations. On the basis of occupation, 13 of the families were upper socioeconomic status (SES), 10 were middle SES, 13 were lower SES, and six were on welfare.

After six years of transcribing and analyzing the results, they found astounding differences in toddlers’ opportunities to learn language. “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour).” By the end of the study, the children in professional families had larger recorded vocabularies than the parents in the families on welfare (1,116 vs. 974 different words). Not surprisingly, the recorded vocabularies of the children in professional families were more than double that of the children in families on welfare (1,116 vs. 525 different words).

Even if these children ended up in equally high-quality preschools (which we know they don’t), the children with small vocabularies would struggle to understand their teachers, while their peers with large vocabularies would not only understand their teachers, but converse with and question them.

As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary grows bit by bit, through multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts. The more words you know, the more context you grasp and the more quickly you learn new words. The larger your early childhood vocabulary, the easier your path to college or a good career.

Those of us raised in language-rich homes were born on third—and more of us should realize that we did not hit a triple. Far too often, we mistake the lack of opportunity to learn for lack of ability to learn. The Matthew Effect is real—the more you know, the faster you learn. But instead of focusing on the power of today’s learning to accelerate tomorrow’s learning, when we encounter a “slow” child we too often think that slowness is immutable. Richard Nisbett, a prominent cognitive scientist, has explained that learning makes you smarter. His book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count is well worth reading, but here’s a recent article he wrote that covers a lot of the same ground.

Appreciating that research, and my own good fortune (thanks mom!), I have high hopes for Providence Talks. But I have to say that it really must be followed by language-rich, knowledge-building preschool and K – 12 experiences. Children in wealthy families keep learning every day at school and at home, and their college-educated parents have the capacity to help with homework, construct enriching summer activities, buy hundreds of books and educational games, etc. If schools are to build on the strong start created by Providence Talks, they will have to be far more purposeful and organized in their efforts to increase students’ vocabularies, knowledge, and skills—especially in the early grades.


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


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2013

Three decades ago, in the spring of 1983, E. D. Hirsch published an essay titled “Cultural Literacy” in the American Scholar. He also turned 55. At an age when most people are getting serious about their retirement planning, Hirsch was embarking on a new career. He didn’t know it at the time; he thought the research on the need for background knowledge for skilled communication was so clear that all schools would rapidly revise their curricula and his job would be done. The research was clear, but the resistance to new ideas and evidence was not. Today, the siren song that elevates skills above content remains strong. Here is an excerpt from “Cultural Literacy” in which Hirsch explains how he broke free.

The received and dominant view of educational specialists is that the specific materials of reading and writing instruction are interchangeable so long as they are “appropriate,” and of “high quality.”…

I call this the doctrine of educational formalism….

During most of the time that I was pursuing research in literacy I was, like others in the field, a confirmed formalist. In 1977 I came out with a book on the subject, The Philosophy of Composition, that was entirely formalistic in outlook. One of my arguments, for instance, was that the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose. I suggested that freshman could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve, if they were directly taught those underlying psycholinguistic principles….

So intent was I upon this idea that I undertook some arduous research…. For about two years I was deeply engaged in this work. It was this detailed engagement with the realities of reading and writing under controlled conditions that caused me finally to abandon my formalistic assumptions….

[My colleagues and I] devised a way of comparing the effects of well-written and badly written versions of the same paper…. To our delight, we discovered that good style did make an appreciable difference, and that the degree of difference was replicable and predictable. So far so good. But what became very disconcerting about these results was that they came out properly only when the subjects of the papers were highly familiar to our audiences…. What we discovered was that good writing makes very little difference when the subject is unfamiliar. We English teachers tend to believe that a good style is all the more helpful when the content is difficult, but it turns out that we are wrong….

While the variability of reading skills within the same person was making itself disconcertingly known to me, I learned that similar variability was showing up in formal writing skills—and for the same reasons. Researchers at the City University of New York were finding that when a topic is unfamiliar, writing skill declines in all of its dimensions—including grammar and spelling—not to mention sentence structure, parallelism, unity, focus, and other skills taught in writing courses. One part of the explanation for such results is that we all have limited attention space, and cannot pay much heed to form when we are devoting a lot of our attention to unfamiliar content. But another part of the explanation is more interesting. Part of our skill in reading and in writing is skill not just with linguistic structures but with words. Words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large domains of content….

It would be useful … to have guidance about the words that high school graduates ought to know—a lexicon of cultural literacy. I am thinking of a special sort of lexicon that would include not just some ordinary dictionary words, but would also include proper names, important phrases, and conventions. Nobody likes word lists as objects of instruction; for one thing, they don’t work. But I am not thinking of such a lexicon as an object of instruction. I am thinking of it rather as a guide to objects of instruction. Take the phrase “First Amendment,” for instance. That is a lexical item that can hardly be used without bringing in a lot of associated information. Just what are the words and phrases that our high school graduates should know?

So began E. D. Hirsch’s 30-year struggle to close the achievement gap by giving all children the skills and the broad knowledge that enable strong reading and writing. In the years following his American Scholar essay, Hirsch wrote a bestselling book version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and developed a lexicon of what high school graduates should know: the Core Knowledge Sequence. To find out how the Sequence came about, we turn to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Pages 74 – 77 answer the question “Which Knowledge Do We Need?”*

What exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of? That is the nuts-and-bolts question….

It is assumed by the American educational community that any “representative” knowledge will do. My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to develop more useful guidance for schools than this imprecise and inaccurate notion back in the 1980s. We asked ourselves, “In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?” We considered various scholarly approaches to this problem. One was to look at word frequencies. If a word appeared in print quite often, then it was probably a word whose meaning was not going to be explained by the speaker or writer. We looked at a frequency analysis of the Brown Corpus, a collection of passages from very diverse kinds of publications that was lodged at Brown University, but we found that this purely mechanical approach, while partially valid, did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results. For example, because the Brown Corpus was compiled in the 1950s, “Nikita Khrushchev” was a more frequent vocabulary item than “George Washington.”…

A much better way of finding out what knowledge speakers and writers take for granted is to ask these people themselves whether they assume specific items of knowledge in what they read and write. This direct approach proved to be a sounder way of determining the tacit knowledge, because what we must teach students is the knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge….

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill. One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the [New York] Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that “any given day’s issue of the Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of these unexplained terms, which “play a part in the daily commerce of the published language.”

An inventory of the tacit knowledge shared by good readers and writers cannot, of course, be fixed at a single point in time. The knowledge that writers and radio and TV personalities take for granted is constantly changing at the edges, especially on topical issues. But inside the edges, at the core, the body of assumed knowledge in American public discourse has remained stable for many decades…. If we want to bring all students to reading proficiency, this stable core is the enabling knowledge that we must teach.

That’s more easily said than done. One essential, preliminary question that we faced was, how can this necessary knowledge be sequenced in a practical way for use in schools? We asked teachers how to present the topics grade by grade and created working groups of experienced teachers in every region of the country to produce a sequence independently of the others. There proved to be less agreement on how to present the material grade by grade than there had been in identifying what the critical topics are…. The sequencing of many topics is inherently arbitrary. While it’s plausible in math that addition needs to come before multiplication and that in history Greece probably ought to come before Rome, maybe it’s not plausible that Greece should come before George Washington.

We collected the accumulated wisdom of these independent groups of teachers, made a provisional draft sequence, and in 1990 held a conference where 145 people from every region, scholarly discipline, and racial and ethnic group got together to work extremely hard for two and a half days to agree on an intelligent way to teach this knowledge sequentially. Over time, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been refined and adjusted, based on actual classroom experience. It is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics.


* 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 4: Passing the Test



A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

After over 5 years and 1500 posts, this will be my final blog entry as host of the Core Knowledge Blog.

The good news – no, great news – is that the blog will continue to host an ongoing conversation on curriculum, literacy, teaching and learning.  It will continue to make the case for a content-rich education as the indispensable key to language proficiency, vocabulary growth, critical thinking, problem solving and nearly all of the big picture goals we prize in education.   A guy named E.D. Hirsch will be taking over this space for now.  I believe you’ve heard of him.

K-12 education looked very different when this blog launched in December 2007.   The education reform discussion largely revolved around structural concerns—teacher quality, testing, charter schools, school choice, and the like.  This blog expressed frustration early and often at the blithe lack of concern among policymakers and reform advocates with the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.  All of these structural issues struck me, then and still, as important but insufficient if we wish to see not merely incremental change, but a watershed improvement in student outcomes, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students.

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.  Not for nothing has Hirsch been referred to as the intellectual forefather of Common Core.  All of this was nearly unthinkable a mere five years ago.

The fight is not over.  It will never be over.  Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.  Is there any field that is as broadly ignorant of its own history as education?

Which brings me to what’s next for your humble blogger.  Effective this month, I will be continuing to make the case for content, but in a slightly different form and venue.  I will be leading an effort, along with some of the leading thinkers in education and public policy, to launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.  You will find me here shortly, and for now you can also follow me on Twitter here and Facebook here.  You can also email me at rpondiscio@aol.com.

To be sure, I don’t view this as a departure from the work of Core Knowledge, but as an extension of it.  Another voice in the happily growing chorus of those who understand and advocate for a content-rich education, and seek to rescue our kids from the joyless, skills-happy, prep-and-test drudgery to which schools too often descend.  We have a larger mission to serve in education.  One that transcends the unlovely if earnest end of “college and career readiness.”  The public purpose of education is citizenship first.  Don’s last book was titled, The Making of Americans for a reason.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to have been associated with Core Knowledge for the last five years, and to have had this forum to make the common sense case for a content-rich education.  I walked in the door a true believer in the Core Knowledge vision.  I walk out the door doubly so.

I owe debts that can never be repaid to my Core Knowledge colleagues, in particular Linda Bevilacqua and Alice Wiggins.  To Dan Willingham for his wise counsel, friendship and assistance.  And most of all to Don Hirsch.  It has been the singular privilege of my adult life to be associated with him and his deeply democratic and egalitarian vision of education.

A Questionable Schema

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2012

Here’s a charming group of second graders singing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

The words are a little difficult to understand, which might indicate the kids themselves aren’t entirely clear on the lyrics.  But the ditty seems to be a reading strategies lesson, reminding the kids to “check my schema” when they read to ensure comprehension.

“Think about all the things I know about the text before I read.
Building schema really helps me comprehend the words I read.
While I’m reading, I keep thinking ‘Does what I read make sense to me?’
If it doesn’t I check my schema, then I re-read carefully.

“Building schema, building schema
I do it every time I read.
Because it gives me background knowledge
For the next books that I read”

I don’t wish to be overly critical of an earnest attempt to make kids better readers.  But does it really help second graders’ comprehension to toss around (let alone sing about) terms like “building schema?”   I’m skeptical.  The word itself is more jargon than vocabulary.  Call it the Lipnicki Effect.  It’s cute, funny and sometimes impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching kids to activate their background knowledge when they read? Or actually building background knowledge?

Sorry, I meant schema.


David Coleman: “I’m Scared of Rewarding BS”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2012

Dana Goldstein’s profile of Common Core State Standards architect David Coleman is up at The Atlantic, and it’s a must-read.   For better or for worse, she writes, his ideas are transforming American education as we know it.  The money quote:  “I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman tells Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

“By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.”

It’s a very strong piece, full of insights on what makes Coleman tick.  Read Dana’s piece and then head over to Fordham for Checker Finn’s take.  The profile is “mostly on-target,” he writes, but he chastises Goldstein (rightly, I think) for failing to appreciate the distinction between standards and curriculum.

“She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.”

Checker’s other criticism – whether or not Rhodes Scholar and classics enthusiast Coleman favors “college for all” concerns me less.  Make no mistake, it’s an important issue and worthy of debate.  But my enthusiasm for Common Core lies not at the end of the K-12 pipeline but at the start.  By championing from the first days of school a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” — even without specifying that body of knowledge – CCSS is a strikes a hammer blow for an indispensable, content-rich vision of literacy instruction.  Implemented thoughtfully and rigorously, that will get kids out the other end with a lot more opportunities and options that they have at present.

The Coleman profile is part of a terrific package of education pieces at The Atlantic.  While you’re there, don’t miss Peg Tyre’s outstanding piece about a New York City high school that pulled itself out of a steep decline with an aggressive and rigorous writing curriculum. More on that to come.

When the Common Core=Teaching Reading Strategies 2.0

by Guest Blogger
August 17th, 2012

By Rachel Levy

According to its advocates, the Common Core Standards will usher in an era of equal opportunity to higher quality education via better, richer, and more career and college relevant standards. But if the account presented in this post on Education Sector’s The Quick & The Ed is any indication, I fear the Common Core ELA standards will keep us in the same era we’ve been in.

I first came across Susan Headden’s post, “Getting Complicated With Texts: Understanding the New ELA Standards,” describing a hands-on workshop she attended on the Common Core ELA standards, via a John Thompson post “Does Common Core Have It Backwards?” in This Week in Education. The idea that most struck Thompson (who is no Common Core hater) as concerning was:

“The group was left with the overarching message that mastering text complexity is the secret to reading success.” . . . .Teachers were told that “the problem with questions based on experience is that they exclude students who haven’t had those experiences. ‘Text … is the great equalizer.’”

Thompson says that’s wrong:

The key to teaching anything for mastery is understanding the human complexity within our kids. The logic underlaying that conclusion was even worse. Even if the assessment experts who conducted the professional development have never stepped foot in the inner city, they should know that the opposite applies in high-challenge schools.  Our path to success is building on the students’ strengths, based on their real-life learning.

I don’t disagree with Thompson but I would go much further. Vital to teaching anything (okay, vital to teaching reading) for mastery to any students, is background knowledge. The Common Core is supposed to go further than just asking students to learn from text by relating the general themes in the text it to their own personal experiences. As it should, but that doesn’t mean we should limit what they are learning to the content of the texts they are studying. From Headden’s post:

As we did our reading, we kept the hallmarks of complexity in mind. On the high end of the scale, they include: structure that is unconventional rather than expected, ideas that are implicit rather than explicit, and language that is figurative rather than literal, archaic rather than contemporary, and vague rather than clear. Sentences in very complex texts tend to be complicated rather than straightforward, and vocabulary is academic rather than plain.  Informational text that is defined as complex might require specialized knowledge, have multiple meanings, and an obscure purpose. Complex literary texts tend to include references to other texts, demand cultural knowledge, and carry sophisticated, multiple perspectives. (More than one participant noted that such texts might well meet the standard of complexity, but that they might also fit the definition of bad writing.)

The group engaged in a lively discussion about how much context a teacher should supply with a reading selection. “Are you helping [students] understand the more background you give him?” Liben asked. Yes, he said. “But are you making them better readers?” No.  “If you call attention to the ‘hard parts’ are you helping them comprehend?” Yes, he said. “But you are depriving them of the opportunity to find key turning points on their own.”  In short, he asked his audience, “Do you measure success by how much you smooth the road for your teachers, or by how bumpy the road is?” The Common Core clearly leans toward the bumps.

According to this account, teachers and being told that reading comprehension is a transferable skill, that the Common Core will improve reading comprehension by virtue of giving students more complex texts to work through.

Although I’ve been critical of the Common Core Standards, that they focus on reading strategies was not one of my criticisms; to the contrary, that they emphasized content knowledge, a greater study of literature, and more and more complex writing were selling points. But this account makes the Common Core ELA Standards sound as if they are skill-heavy, or at least that teachers are being guided to implement them as if they were. The problem is you can’t really teach something like “text complexity” any more than you can teach something like the “main idea.” Just because the texts are more “complex” doesn’t make using them in the place of simpler texts a superior approach or any different from the reading strategies approach. Apart from the acknowledgement that all teachers have to teach vocabulary (agreed), there’s no nod to background knowledge or context in Headden’s post. And even teaching vocabulary doesn’t do much good if it’s taught in isolation, though certainly explicitly teaching the meaning of morphemes can help students to build and make meaning of vocabulary.

Finally, while the practice of “quality over quantity” in education resonates with me, “reading success” with complex texts even with a lot of content knowledge won’t happen without practice. Besides the fact that it will pretty quickly bore or frustrate the bejesus out of them, you can’t just have students study the patterns and codes of complex text and then imagine they’ll apply those to future complex texts and viola! they’ll be better readers. No, students have to practice. They have to read lots and lots—fiction and non-fiction books, literature, magazines, newspapers, poetry, short stories, blogs—until the patterns and structures in each genre become predictable and recognizable.

The key to reading success is a vocabulary and knowledge-rich curriculum and a lot of practice reading. If the Common Core ELA Standards don’t include this, then they won’t be much of an improvement or change from current ELA standards. However, even if the Common Core Standards result in more content-rich ELA classrooms, which means students with more background knowledge and possibly more productive focus on text complexity, for now, as Thompson points out, text is not the great equalizer. Its divides students rather starkly not based on complexity or structure but according to schema, or what they already know. If teachers don’t or aren’t able to take this into account and scaffold appropriately, students will flounder and the CCSS will fail to help them.

Rachel Levy is a parent, teacher, and writer who lives in Central Virginia, with her husband and three children. She normally blogs at All Things Education.

That Dog Won’t Hunt

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2012

“How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?” Abraham Lincoln is famously reported to have asked.   Four, said Abe.  “Because calling it a leg doesn’t make it one.”

And calling your ELA curriculum Common Core aligned doesn’t mean it really is.

At Fordham’s Common Core Watch blog last week, Kathleen Porter-Magee posted a piece that deserves more attention.  It’s an eye-opening look at how literacy guru Lucy Calkins is “rewriting the Common Core” to basically argue for the same old literacy practices that have largely failed our students.  A new book by Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core “sounds like a useful resource that ELA teachers can use to figure out how to align their instruction to the new standards,” writes Porter-Magee. However…

“Unfortunately, it misses the mark. Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.”

This is as unsurprising as it is dispiriting. “The anti-intellectual monopoly of the education world, combined with the financial power of a few large publishers makes the new common-core initiative highly precarious,” E.D. Hirsch warned two years ago.  “There is every likelihood that the same diluted and fragmented early curriculum will be given a new label and present itself as conforming to the new standards.”

The helpful-sounding mission of Pathways to the Common Core is to help educators “grasp what the standards say and imply—as well as what they do not say—deeply enough that they can join in the work of interpreting the standards for the classroom and in questioning interpretations others may make.”  Here’s Porter-Magee:

“And question the ‘interpretations’ others propose, they do, as they often contradict not only the guidance released by the lead authors of the Standards (including that found in the “publishers criteria” for ELA, something the authors outright dismiss), but also the guidance included within the four corners of the CCSS document itself. Of course with any set of expectations there is room for debate on some of the finer points. But the lengths that the authors go to explain away the parts of the standards with which they are least comfortable is breathtaking.”

Phonics, for example, is derided as “the low-level literacy work of sound-letter correspondence and so on” which has been, “thankfully, marginalized in its own separate section of the CCSS.”  Whoa, says Porter-Magee. “These statements are patently false and represent a damaging misdirection of the expectations laid out in the Common Core standards.”

“The truth is that there is an entire section of the standards—a section that is given the same prominence and importance as the Reading Standards for Literature and the Reading Standards for Informational Text—called “Reading Standards: Foundational Skills (K-5).” There, the standards make the importance of student mastery of these supposedly “low-level” skills abundantly clear, not only by delineating precisely what is expected of students, but also by saying that they “are necessary and important components of an effective, comprehensive reading program designed to develop proficient readers with the capacity to comprehend texts across a range of types and disciplines.”

There’s much more, and I strongly recommend reading Porter-Magee’s smart takedown start to finish.  I’ve just ordered a copy Pathways to the Common Core.  Having been trained in Calkins’ content-hostile approach to reading and writing and forced to implement it in my classroom, I’ll be very interested to see how she explains away CCSS’s insistence that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”  Or the Standards’ clear and unambiguous call for a content-rich approach to literacy:

“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.”

“We will never have an honest discussion about the relative merits of one approach versus another if publishers avoid the difficult conversations and merely seek to bend the Common Core to their own will—and self-interests,” Porter-Magee concludes.

N.B.  Kathleen has another piece on CCSS implementation at the Shanker Blog that is also a must-read.  And check out the comments for a surprise appearance by CCSS authors David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, who log in to say, “Kathleen’s got it right.”

It’s on.