The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever.

by Robert Pondiscio
September 20th, 2012

The following is a version of remarks presented Wednesday at panel hosted by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, titled “Why Huck Finn Matters: Classic Literature in Schooling.” At the event, Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein presented a new paper, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.  I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with Professors Stotsky and Bauerlein, and moderated by David Steiner, Dean of the Hunter College School of Education, to discuss the paper, which describes “deficiencies in Common Core’s literature standards and its misplaced stress on literary nonfiction or informational reading.

Those who know me will tell you I’m a fairly mild-mannered guy.   In the rough and tumble of education reform arguments, I don’t call people names.  I don’t yell, scream or grandstand.  I have an instinct toward the middle.   But I understand why I’m on this panel today.  Because I’m the guy who likes Common Core State Standards, which are supposed to be the death knell for literature in schools.   If this were a professional wrestling match, I’d be the heavy.

My role is to break a chair over the hero’s head and sneer at the audience.  But you know in the end the good guys will win.  Professor Bauerlein will eventually pin me to the mat. And Professor Stotsky will leap from the top rope and finish me off with a somersault leg drop.  If I don’t tap out, Jim Stergios will stand over my body and count to ten.

These are serious people and important scholars.  I’m an enormous admirer of each and every one, especially Professor Stotsky.  But if I am to play the heavy, I will play my role to the hilt.  I will go down swinging.

In my opinion, the single most important piece of data in American education is the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading for 17-year-olds in the United States.  It is the de facto final report card on American K-12 education.   Educational Progress?   What progress?  Forty years.  No progress.   I can’t look at NAEP scores without thinking of the EKG of someone who has gone into cardiac arrest.  Flatline.  Just like 12th grade NAEP.

When the heart stops beating, several nasty things happen in short order.  The lack of blood flow to the brain causes loss of consciousness.  Left untreated for even five minutes, permanent brain injury is unavoidable.  The patient’s only chance of survival and neurological recovery is immediate and decisive treatment.

American education has been suffering a lack of oxygen to its collective brain not just for five minutes, but for five or more decades.   Brain damage is setting in.  Call a Code Blue!  Stat!  Who’s got  shock paddles?

David Coleman??

Coleman, as you know, is the primary author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.  Or as I like to think of them, the defibrillator.  The reason I see CCSS as the defibrillator – our last chance to shock American education back to life – boils down to 57 words.   These 57 words:

“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.”

E.D. Hirsch, as you surely know, is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a frequent guest at Pioneer events like this. If you were to boil down his career to a single paragraph, these 57 words would come close.   In fact, I would go as far as saying these 57 words are the most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk told us in 1983 that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

If time permitted I would explain the importance of these 57 words you.  I’d describe how broad general knowledge is indispensable to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.  I would demonstrate how reading comprehension is not a skill at all, and how reading tests are basically tests of background knowledge.   And I would detail for you how this has been almost completely lost upon American education.

Until Common Core State Standards.

If time permitted, I would also describe for you the tedious, content-free reading instruction I inflicted for years upon my 5th graders in the South Bronx.   How the “best practices” I served up to Viviana, Rebecca, Francesca, Gabriel and Roberto was—I now understand–fundamentally flawed.  How I and others inadvertently denied those children the rich, broad knowledge of the world that we take for granted and that they need to become proficient in English and productive, self-sustaining citizens.

Wait.  Did I say need?  Sorry, not need. Needed.  Past tense.  It’s too late now.

Viviana dropped out in 9th grade and had a baby.  Francesca, too.  Rebecca dropped out and has two babies.  Gabriel and Roberto are in jail.  Our tax dollars support them all.

Huck Finn?  Are you serious?  You expect students like mine to make sense of Huck Finn with no foundational knowledge of 19th century America.  Of slavery?  Of riverboats?  Or rivers.  They don’t know where the Mississippi River is or whether it flows north or south.  They probably don’t even know which way is north.  They left elementary school without the most rudimentary knowledge they need to make sense of the even the most basic texts.

But no Common Core Standards?  Illegal, you say?  Coercive?  They de-emphasize literature and besides, your own Massachusetts states standards are superior.  All of that may be true.  I’ll concede those points.  In an as yet unpublished op-ed piece, E.D. Hirsch writes,

“It is not overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus laser-like on the question: ‘Is this school policy likely to eventuate in a large increase in the vocabulary sizes of 12th graders?’”

He’s exactly right.

Implemented not just by the letter, but in its spirit, Common Core State Standards, by emphasizing the coherent, intentional accumulation of knowledge, will increase vocabulary and language proficiency.  You want to throw out the whole thing.  Fine.  Throw it out.  But keep those 57 words.  If we get that right in the early years, a lot of other problems melt away.  Lose those 57 words, and the rest probably isn’t going to matter anyway.

If opposition to Common Core gives us another forty years of flatlining, of intellectual brain death, we are not doing the country a service.  We will have another of Mark Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generations.  And another.  And another.  And another.

Every teacher in elementary school in the land must understand that without imparting a coherent, knowledge-rich, language-rich ELA curriculum – which Common Core cannot even mandate but strongly recommends – most of our children will not meet any meaningful standard.  I will give you text complexity, evidence-based writing, a 50-50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in the upper grades.  Hundreds of pages of standards and publishers criteria and exemplars and assessments and I will not fight you on any of them.

But I will not give up these 57 words.  The foundation on which American education rests must be intentional and coherent.  It must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.

That is the hill on which I’m prepared to die.

If we overthrow Common Core–if we fail to rigorously, intentionally, coherently implement those 57 words, that is also the hill on which competence, educational attainment, upward mobility, and informed, engaged citizenship also dies.



A “Profoundly Egalitarian” Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
September 22nd, 2010

Earlier this year, the Pioneer Institute hosted a discussion with E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and Andrew Rotherham at the Suffolk Law School in Boston.  A transcript of the event has just been made available and it’s a good read. 

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are pretty good that you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work and ideas.  But I was especially struck by Rotherham’s remarks introducing Don.  He points out that Hirsch’s best-seller Cultural Literacy, which gave rise to the Core Knowledge movement, came out at the same time as Allan Bloom’s 1987 book Closing of the American Mind and was ”injected into the culture wars alongside it” through no fault of Hirsch.   ”Don’s books say what they say if one takes the time to read them,” Rotherham noted.  He proceeded to take issue with the all too common notion that, when it comes to curriculum, “it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading something.”

“Is there a more vain or ahistorical sentiment in education? Never mind that it ignores that throughout the ages there has been some content and ideas that societies felt was so important it should be written down and preserved. But that idea is also at odds with what we know about how people learn and acquire domain knowledge and skills in the first place. And how important content is to reading and understanding. That’s why the divides in this debate don’t always fall along education’s traditional lines. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, has long championed Don’s work because they understand how central clearly-defined content is to learning. So Don’s ideas are hardly conservative in the political sense. On the contrary, they’re profoundly egalitarian.”

To this day there is still hostility among too many who have not taken the time to let Hirsch’s work ”say what it says”; who assume the message is, as one blogger put it as recently as last week: “Clearly, Bloom and Hirsch’s view of relevant curriculum is white curriculum.”

Not right.  His point was not that children from other walks of life be force-fed American literate culture, rather that familiarity with the common knowledge of our culture is the principal difference between those who are literate and those who are not. This distinction is what led Dan Willingham, to call Cultural Literacy the most misunderstood education book of the last 50 years

“The challenge today is democratizing that kind of education both to increase individual opportunity and also our collective good,” in Rotherham’s words.

Profoundly egalitarian is exactly right.