Top Scholars, Great Reads

by Guest Blogger
February 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

II. Nate Silver and E. D. Hirsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Toy Canon

by Robert Pondiscio
October 10th, 2012

Just days after Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that Common Core State Standards makes high school English class safe once more for Dead White Males, along comes living white male Mike Petrilli with a proposed “Kindergarten Canon” — a collection of 100 “must-read picture books for preschoolers.”

Mike’s list  draws substantially on Core Knowledge’s list of recommended books for preschool and kindergarten, so there will be few quibbles from this blog.   Its principal strength is that every time I find myself thinking, “I bet he overlooked (A Chair for My Mother, Ferdinand, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel)….”  I find, nope, it’s in there.

A few selections feel like filler. One Morning in Maine is one too many Robert McCloskey books, after Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.  No room for Rumpelstiltzkin but George and Martha make the list?  The Tale of King Midas is out but Knuffle Bunny, is in?   Teachers will surely mourn the omission of Miss Nelson is Missing!   Everyone is sure to have absent favorites:  My canon would have to include  Tar Beach; Come Along, Daisy; Go Away, Big Green Monster!  Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnightif only to get at least one book on the list with illustrations by Mark Teague, the best  children’s book illustrator currently drawing breath.

One big difference between a kindergarten canon and shelf of major works of literature to read in high school or college: there really IS time to read every single book on Mike’s Kindergarten Canon while a child is in preschool, and then some.  Repeatedly.  Lots of parents can still recite Goodnight Moon by heart, years after their kids are off to college.

That should keep the gnashing of teeth to a minimum.





PBS Kids a “Sweet Spot for Feds in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 7th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inspector Will See You Now

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2012

If we look at more than just test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, shouldn’t we do the same for schools, asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.  The best accountability systems, he argues, “take various data points and turn them into user-friendly letter grades, easily understandable by educators, parents, and taxpayers alike.”  Petrilli wants to go one step further adding a human element to accountability in the form of “school inspectors” modeled on Great Britain’s inspectorate system.

Under Petrilli’s proposal, a group of inspectors would visit a school at least once per year. “They would mostly look for two things,” he writes.

  1. Evidence that the school is achieving important outcomes that may not be captured by the state accountability system. For example, the school’s administrators might show them test score data from a computer adaptive exam like NWEA’s that demonstrates progress for individual kids (especially those well above or below grade level) that isn’t picked up by the less-sensitive state test. Or perhaps a high school has compelling data about its graduates’ college matriculation and graduation rates that put its mediocre test scores in a different light.
  2. Indications that the school’s culture and instructional program are inculcating valuable attributes in their students. This is to guard against the “testing factory” phenomenon. Is the school offering a well-balanced curriculum (and extra-curriculars), or engaging in test-prep for weeks on end? Is it focused on teaching “non-cognitive” skills and attributes, such leadership, perseverance, and teamwork? Character traits like empathy, honesty, and courage?

Petrilli’s first point is deeper data that probably doesn’t require on-site inspections; the second is more interesting.  I’m all for a more nuanced view of school performance.  If you’ve been in a school lately and haven’t come away dispirited by the sheer volume of test-prep and frustrated by curriculum narrowing, you’re likely engaged in a form a denial or willful ignorance.  Anything that broadens the lens is a step in the right direction.

I certainly agree that you can tell a lot about a school by walking its halls and sitting in its classrooms.  The trouble is that the higher the stakes, the less likely you are to see—or to be allowed to see—the school as it actually is, warts and all.  I’m reminded of the spitting and polishing we used to do in my school when we were having a Superintendent’s walk-through or preparing for our “quality review.”  Suddenly fresh student work bloomed on every bulletin board.  Daily agendas were posted.  Aims and standards in child-friendly language were omnipresent on the blackboard.  Records and planbooks spruced up and made ready for review.  Amazing, engaging lessons were planned and delivered.  No boxed macaroni and cheese when company’s coming.   Dirty dishes went into the oven and dust bunnies were swept under the rug moments before guests arrive.

In short, it’s not hard to master the art of displaying “visible evidence” of teaching and learning, while the underlying practices remain disappointing.  If you think that test prep is a waste of time, try getting your lesson plans, student data, running records and myriad other bits of housekeeping presentation-ready for the Inspectorate.  Is this really what we want teachers to focus their energies on?

Some years ago, I proposed a system of random testing whereby the students to be tested, testing dates, grade levels and subject matter was a matter of chance.  The only way to perform well under such an accountability system would be to actually teach all of the students well in all subjects.  That still strikes me as the right impulse.  Any accountability measure with stakes attached to it will inevitably come to dominate classroom practice.  It’s simply human nature to want to put your best foot forward when your reputation or your job is on the line.  This is fairly obvious.  The most likely response to the accountability mechanism should be precisely the practice you want to see in classrooms.  Anything else misses the mark.

A good inspection system can add significant value.  A thoughtful review diligently considered can lead to constructive suggestions and improved outcomes.  It needn’t be a “gotcha” game.  But the same is true of pure test-driven accountability.  In theory, the best outcomes should come from a well-rounded curriculum, effectively implemented by well-trained teachers.  It just hasn’t seemed to work out that way in practice.

School as Gated Community

by Robert Pondiscio
February 1st, 2011

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

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

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

“Clearly Inferior” Yardsticks

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2010

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

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

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

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

Now How Much Would You Pay…?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 25th, 2010

Is Race to the Top a ripoff?  Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli does the math and calculates the cost of the program is $13 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. But throw in the additional $106 billion in ed stimulus already spent (and squandered, he argues) and it adds up to $1500 for a family of four.  One can almost hear Ron Popeil, pitching RttT alongside Ginsu knives and the Veg-o-Matic:

“You get charter caps lifted, you get teacher evaluations tied to test scores, but wait, there’s more!  We’ll throw in national standards absolutely free!  Now how much would you pay?” 

Well, how much would you pay?  Not much, says Petrilli:

Is it worth 1500 bucks to me to see a handful of states lift their charter caps, a couple more promise to take teacher evaluations seriously, and lots of states to sign a letter saying they will do national standards—unless they later decide not to? I’m an “education reformer,” for Pete’s sake, and I gotta say: I don’t think so.

Flypaper has a poll on their site that allows you to vote on how much all this reform is worth to you, at increments from zero to $10,000.  In the early balloting, “zero” is winning.

Maybe if they throw in the Pocket Fisherman?

“Both Parties Are On the Same Side: The Wrong Side”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

Neither the Republicans or the Democrats understand what it takes to produce educated Americans, writes Mike Petrilli in the latest Education Gadfly.  Commenting on the image projected by Sarah Palin, he notes there was a time when Republicans “valued candidates who could demonstrate mastery of subjects like history, geography, and political philosophy.  But splitting the country politically between wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and “the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts” has driven well-educated voters away from the GOP.

So naturally, the Democrats have rushed in to fill the void, right?  Wrong, says Petrilli, who wryly observes that so far the group “Liberals for the Liberal Arts” has yet to be founded.  “Democratic reformers seem just as enamored with the utilitarian and narrow drive toward ‘college and work readiness’ as their Republican counterparts, if not more so,” he notes.  If you need proof, take a look at Ed Secretary Arne Duncan’s speeches.

Over the past six months, he’s made nine major policy addresses that have been posted on his Department’s web site. And in those speeches, he’s mentioned “history,” “literature,” and “geography” exactly zero times. Meanwhile, there were seven instances of “accountability,” and “charter schools” left his lips an astounding twenty-nine times.  Duncan and his team are pushing for structural changes in the system; they, like most reformers these days, are ignoring the “stuff” of education–what students actually need to learn in order to become good Americans.

“But these Democratic reformers had better be careful,” Petrilli concludes.  ”An obsessive focus on nothing but basic skills in reading and math, which can be chopped into little bits of data with which we can make all manner of decisions, will result in a generation of students who will make Palin sound like Socrates.”

Achievement Gap or Proficiency Gap?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009

Lots of coverage of the latest NAEP scores and what it means for efforts to close the achievement gap.  Results show efforts to close the gap “may have a limited shelf life for kids,” notes USA Today’s Greg Toppo. 

“Since the early 1990s, schools have helped minority elementary schoolers close the achievement gap in basic math and reading skills, with real progress showing up recently on a federally administered test given to thousands of kids around the time they’re in fourth grade. But by the time they get to middle school, it seems, their progress all but vanishes.”

“Some of the scores are higher than ever, some show no gains over time,” observes Diane Ravitch, a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.  “A closer look reveals that the rate of progress is no greater than–and in some cases, less than–the pre-NCLB years.

In the New York Times, Sam Dillon fixates on evolving regional differences.  “The nation’s most dramatic black-white gaps are no longer seen in Southern states like Alabama or Mississippi,” he notes, “but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois.

Why does the achievement gap persist?  “African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter,” Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock tells the Associated Press.  “They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum,” she said. Meanwhile Richard Whitmire, citing Haycock,  points out that states that focus on early literacy skills are making more progress. 

In a non-NAEP post over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli tosses off an interesting and provocative comment on what we mean — or what we should mean — when we say “achievement gap.”  Mike’s eyebrows went up when he heard DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee say that if present trends continue “within six years we will have completely eliminated the achievement gap between black and white students in the District.”  Says Petrilli:

Now that’s quite a statement. To the man on the street, it surely sounds miraculous. You mean black students in the District of Columbia, most of whom live in abject poverty in places like Anacostia, are going to be learning at the same level as the handful of white students in the system, most of whom come from affluent, well-educated families clustered on Capitol Hill and the upscale neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where houses start in the $750,000 range? Wow! Except that’s not what she means at all. She’s referring to the proficiency gap—and by boosting the percentage of black students getting to “proficiency,” she is automatically closing said gap because almost all of the white students are already over that bar. But that doesn’t mean that the average black student will be achieving at the same level as the average white student, which is what “eliminating the achievement gap” sounds like.

Talk of closing the achievement gap is “sloppy and misleading,” Petrilli notes.  “Let’s stop talking about the achievement gap entirely, and instead focus on raising achievement across the board,” he concludes. ”It’s more honest, and, in my view, more equitable, too.”

Ed Reform Agonistes

by Robert Pondiscio
April 14th, 2009

“Maybe it’s just as well; school vouchers aren’t that “innovative” anyway. In D.C. at least, they merely help poor kids get access to good schools that have been around for a long time. In today’s education reform world, that’s not enough of a “game-changer.” Never mind the difference it makes for several thousand children.”  — Mike Petrilli,  “Voucher Program Dies” at Flypaper.

“Rather than using symbolism, the modern education reform movement has instead often allowed itself to be defined as a cloistered group of white dilettantes from Ivy League schools-counterproductive symbolism and off the mark.” — Andy Rotherham, “Education Reform Requires Symbols for the Movement to Embrace,” in U.S. News.

“Compare our top-performing schools and our weakest performing schools by looking at test scores, graduation rates, whatever measure you want.  Do you find that most top-performing schools are running many more hours per day, or more days per year? Do you find that the top-performing schools have that much more, or better data?  Do you find that they are more likely to have linked student data to teachers? Do you find that the top-performing schools have a maniacal focus on test preparation?  No, no, no, no.”  — David Cohen, a Palo Alto, CA English Teacher via Teacher in a Strange Land.

“I’m a reformist, not a revolutionary, because revolutions in human habits don’t work. Humans resist discontinuity and unpredictability. We may be “wired” that way? In any case, I’m sympathetic, not hostile, to caution. So I’m betting on exploring what “works” within the context of both shared ends and different ends—honoring both continuity and change at the same time.  They needn’t be poised as enemies.”  — Deborah Meier, “Seeing ‘Reform’ as More Than a Horse Race or Marketplace” at Bridging Differences.