Of Ostriches and the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2013

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

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

 

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This Is What Equal Opportunity Looks Like

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2013

A few days ago, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote about supporting the Common Core State Standards—and doing whatever it takes to implement them well—simply because they reflect real-world standards. Institutions of higher education and employers have high standards. For many children from disadvantaged homes, rigorous schooling offers the only hope for being well prepared. Tucker recalled:

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

Tucker points out that instead of shying away from the Common Core, we ought to accept it as one necessary step in a total overhaul of our educational approach. “We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.”

All true. I argue that the place to start is standards and curriculum. The standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the specific content. With those as the foundation, we can rebuild the rest of our educational infrastructure—especially teacher preparation.

Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is a comprehensive reading, writing, speaking, listening, and knowledge-building curriculum for preschool through third grade that could be used to strengthen the elementary grades.

Teachers are excited about it because it develops decoding and encoding skills while also engaging students in listening to and discussing rich teacher read-alouds. Fiction and nonfiction, the read-alouds have a mix of fables, science, and history, including tales from around the world, ancient civilizations, the human body, and astronomy.

To really understand it, you have to see it. Take a look at this video featuring two schools that participated in the pilot of CKLA in New York City: P.S. 96Q and P.S. 104Q.

In the video, Alice Wiggins, Core Knowledge’s executive vice president, explains that one great benefit of CKLA is the carefully organized content: Children “are pulling knowledge from what they learned earlier in the school year and even in prior years because of the way the program spirals.”

Hope Wygand, a teacher, has seen this in action. In her hands, CKLA builds knowledge and excitement:

In second grade, I know I have to teach ancient Greek myths because in third grade, they are going to do ancient Roman myths. So it all builds….

When you can start a lesson and the children already know what you are talking about, they are so much more interested because they already have an investment in it—and they want to show you what they know.

But don’t just take it from me. See for yourself.

 

Tucker Takes Zhao in Just One Round

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 16th, 2013

High praise for Marc Tucker’s thoughtful response to Yong Zhao’s well-meaning, but terribly misguided, critique of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Since I’ve decided to judge this boxing match, I’m calling a TKO. Tucker won round one so easily that it would be dangerous for Zhao to try to fight on.

Zhao reveals that he does not know much about the CCSS (he expects a new world “where all American children are exposed to the same content, delivered by highly standardized teachers”) and has been duped by left-brain/right-brain silliness (he writes that “Right-brained directed skills, including design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning, will become more valuable…. [But] the core subjects prescribed by the Common Core … are mostly left-brained cognitive skills”). Tucker refutes Zhao’s key points effortlessly. I hope you’ll read their exchange, so I’ll just give two highlights:

1. Tucker on Zhao’s concern that the CCSS will quash creativity:

“The literature is clear.  Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it.  They typically know a lot about unrelated things and their creativity comes from putting those unrelated things together in unusual ways.  Learning almost anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, because, without that scaffolding, we are not able to put new information and skills to work.”

2. Tucker on Zhao’s concern that the CCSS will not prepare students for tomorrow’s unknown jobs:

“It is true that the future will be full of jobs that do not exist now and challenges we cannot even imagine yet, never mind anticipate accurately.  But, whatever those challenges turn out to be, I can guarantee you that they will not be met by people without strong quantitative skills, people who cannot construct a sound argument, people who know little of history or geography or economics, people who cannot write well.”

The fact is, the new standards are a big step toward preparing all students for more rigorous higher education—be it online, on a traditional college campus, or on the job. What folks like Zhao are missing is a solid understanding of the research on language comprehension, effective communication, critical thinking, and other crucial abilities (like being responsible citizens). These abilities depend on knowledge. Not just any knowledge—relevant, subject- and task-specific knowledge. The more extensive the knowledge, the deeper the analysis. The CCSS—because they bring higher-quality fiction and dramatically more nonfiction into the classroom, and because they provide a coherent, focused, and rigorous approach to mathematics—will help millions of students develop such knowledge.

Innovate or Imitate?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2011

If education is a test, America might want to spend a little more time copying the answers the other countries are writing down on their papers.

Writing in at The Atlantic, Marc Tucker notes that despite spending “more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg” America continues to lag not just developed nations like Japan, Finland, Canada, “but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.”

“You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.”

Tucker’s list of “unproven solutions” includes charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests. These strategies are “nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations,” he writes. “And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing,” notes Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.”

The top performers also raise entry standards for the teaching profession and insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach” and generally make teaching a high-status profession.

“The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world’s highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.”

The cycle in the U.S., Tucker notes, is the opposite of virtuous.  Teaching is a low-status profession, lacking in prestige and colleges of education set a low bar for admissions.  Salaries are low.  Teachers also have weak knowledge of their assigned subjects “and increasingly, they’re allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training,” he notes. “When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing.”

The inevitable result is ever lower student achievement, which drives more attacks on teaching and stricter accountability, which Tucker wisely observes, makes it “even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers.”

But hey, we can innovate and disrupt with the best of them!

The problem, Tucker concludes, is not a lack of innovation but a simple lack of what successful countries have: “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.”