Grant Wiggins Doesn’t Quite Understand E. D. Hirsch

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2013

By Harry Webb

This post originally appeared on Webs of Substance, a blog on educational research.

In his latest blog post, Grant Wiggins expresses his frustration at the recent writings of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. It is unsurprising that Wiggins would be irritated by Hirsch: Since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987, Hirsch has been an annoyance to the education establishment, particularly in the US. And now, with the adoption of the Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum by many new charter schools, American education can no longer marginalize Hirsch’s message. His star is in the ascendant.

Of all the logical fallacies, the Straw Man seems to be Wiggins’ favorite. He mentions it three times in the blog post and again in response to comments. The Straw Man that Wiggins thinks he has detected is the idea that there are people who will deny the role of factual knowledge in reading comprehension. Indeed, Wiggins asks, “Would Hirsch please quote someone who does deny it, instead of setting up his straw man?”

A Straw Man

A Straw Man

I have said before that I don’t know of anyone who would outright condemn the acquisition of all forms of knowledge. The game is played much more subtly than that. Instead, the role of knowledge acquisition is diminished. It is made to seem inferior to other goals of education such as training in skills of various forms. It is this that I understand Hirsch to be unhappy about.

Wiggins targets Hirsch’s use of assertions. However, Hirsch does draw upon some evidence to support his claims. The amount of time, for instance, that has been given over to English Language Arts instruction increased with the introduction the NCLB act and without a transformative effect on reading proficiency. And this increase has come at the cost of subjects such as social studies, science, art and music. Hirsch’s view is that instruction in specific reading skills and strategies has limited effect on improving reading. He views the acquisition of broad background knowledge is far more important and this view certainly has some support from the realm of cognitive science.

This means that, according to Hirsch, the NCLB-led distortion of the curriculum is doubly dangerous. Not only is it likely to lead to redundant skill-based reading instruction in those additional English Language Arts lessons, it will also cut the exposure to content knowledge in social studies, science, art and music. So, you see, I think that Hirsch has a point.

I have read The Knowledge Deficit by Hirsch and I am attracted to his thesis on how we have arrived at this point. To paraphrase, Hirsch thinks that the educational establishment decided that the mere transmission of knowledge was not a suitable goal of education. However, once this goal is removed then another has to be found. Hirsch views this as the reason for a focus on transferable skills such as reading comprehension skills or higher-order thinking skills. If these skills can be identified and taught then we have a new role for education.

I am attracted to Hirsch’s thesis because it chimes with my own experience. In the very first lecture at my school of education, I was introduced to a misreading of Plutarch, the gist of which was to warn us all that we were not to see our role as to fill-up students with knowledge. Ever since, this has been reinforced in many and varied ways; I have even attended an education research conference where speaker after speaker derided  ”transmission” teaching as if we would all accept this perspective without question. No, you will not find anyone who will completely deny the role of factual knowledge in reading or any other endeavor; to do so would be absurd. However, you will find plenty who will downplay it.

In fact, this is exactly what Wiggins and his co-author Jay McTighe do in their book, Understanding by Design.

“To know which fact to use when requires more than another fact. It requires understanding – insight into essentials, purposes, audience, strategy, and tactics. Drill and direct instruction can develop discrete skills and facts into automaticity (knowing “by heart”), but they cannot make us truly able.”

There is much to unpack here. Knowledge is reduced to facts and facts, by definition, have to be disconnected and known “by heart” or without understanding. Understanding comes not from acquiring more knowledge – the facts that link the facts – but by some spookier kind of thing; insight. Finally, drill and direct instruction cannot make us truly able.

The first thing to note is that this is a string of assertions. I have not removed the footnotes when quoting this passage; there simply aren’t any. At a minimum, the point about direct instruction requires support. I am aware of no evidence that direct instruction leads to an inferior form of learning than any other approach, despite the many researchers who would like to demonstrate it. I suspect that the evidence is not quoted because there is no evidence.

In the same chapter, Wiggins and McTighe go on to draw-up a table to distinguish “knowledge” from “understanding,” just in case we were not clear. Knowledge is “the facts” whereas understanding is “the meaning of the facts.” This is a little odd; can we not know the meaning of the facts? Further, knowledge is, “a body of coherent facts” whereas understanding is, “the ‘theory’ that provides coherence and meaning to those facts.” The coup de grace is in the final pair of statements; knowledge is, “I respond on cue with what I know” whereas understanding is, “I judge when to and when not to use what I know.”

Clearly, understanding is a superior kind of thing to knowledge. Knowledge just consists of a discrete series of facts that children bark on cue, probably in the context of some dismal drill- or direct-instruction-based lesson. It is easy to see why teachers would not want to focus on the acquisition of knowledge if we are going to define it in these terms.

Of course, Wiggins is not alone in these views. Even back in 1916, Cubberley made a similar contrast in “Public School Administration.” According to Diane Ravitch:

“When it came to the curriculum, he authoritatively contrasted two approaches: One was ‘the knowledge curriculum’ which he described in highly pejorative terms: ‘Facts, often of no particular importance themselves, are taught, memorized and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.’ The opposite of this dreary approach was ‘the development type of course,’ in which ‘knowledge is conceived of as a life experience and inner conviction and not as the memorization of the accumulated knowledge of the past,’ Using the latter approach, school would change from a place in which children prepare for life by learning traditional subjects to one in which children live life.”

So, you see, the tradition of devaluing knowledge, of denying that understanding is a form of knowledge, of linking knowledge to pure rote learning; this is an old tradition.

In this context, I am glad that there is someone like Hirsch out there, arguing for the value of content knowledge. His is a perfectly valid argument that needs to be more widely heard.


Predicting Failure

by Guest Blogger
October 8th, 2013

Caution: Frustration Ahead! Yes indeed, this post needs a warning label.

The BBC, in conjunction with the British Council, is aiding and abetting the spread of edutainment and comprehension strategies through its website TeachingEnglish.


BBC thumbs down courtesy of Shutterstock.


A look at the most recently added lesson plans reveals far too much trivial content. The first two pages have “lessons” on snacking, playground words, food festivals, gossip, and texting. Out of the 10 lessons shown on those two pages, there is one substantive lesson on carnivores vs. herbivores, which draws on “Triumph of the Herbivores” from BBC Earth. With the BBC’s in-depth news coverage and documentaries, I assumed all its lessons would draw on its treasure-trove of content.

To be fair, I must say that I have merely perused the site. These recently added lessons could grossly misrepresent the bulk of the content—and I hope they do. I also hope the BBC starts vetting the lessons to remove the many that are substance free. In particular, I hope it removes this one: “Pause & predict – YouTube technique.” It encourages teachers to use Mr. Bean clips to teach children to make predictions. This is a couple years old, so I wish I could just shudder and forget about it. But over the weekend, this time-wasting lesson spread to the US:

By fourth grade, students are often proficient at making predictions about what will happen at the end of a book…. What they aren’t as used to is making small predictions–close predictions–thinking about how a character might respond to the next big event or interaction based on how that character has responded in the past…. Mr. Bean is a great character to use for prediction work, because he has a very clear M.O. He tries to solve his problems in ways that fix the immediate issues, but miss the main point. For example, in the short clip, “Packing for a Holiday,” Mr. Bean manages to fit everything in a suitcase, but he does so by making the items useless, like packing only half a shoe.

Mr. Bean on the high dive is priceless, but my knowledge of Mr. Bean—including my ability (or lack thereof) to predict what he’ll do next—never helped me in college, in the voting booth, in keeping up with current affairs, etc. Simply put, the lovable Mr. Bean’s purpose is laughter and relaxation—not education. In the US, youth only spend 20% of their waking time (about 12% of their total time) in school. Given the great breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to acquire to become literate adults, we just don’t have time for Mr. Bean.

The sad fact is, the teachers who are excited about this Mr. Bean lesson don’t know any better. As NCTQ has clearly demonstrated, the majority of teachers are never taught that knowledge, vocabulary, and fluent decoding are essential to reading comprehension. Many are taught about comprehension strategies; but without strategies being placed in the larger context of how comprehension develops, teachers end up with a very skewed notion of best practices. Predicting how Mr. Bean will pack for a holiday is the result.

So long as teacher and administrator preparation passes on mistaken beliefs instead of cognitive science research, such silliness is inevitable. Poor preparation leads to weak curriculum selection and development, which is then reinforced with professional development based on the same mistaken beliefs. Our current teachers would be far more effective if they were given a better education and better instructional materials.

In that spirit, let’s see what cognitive science tells us about comprehension strategies. Daniel Willingham summed up the research as follows:

[Comprehension strategies] don’t really improve the comprehension process per se. Rather, they help kids who have become good decoders to realize that the point of reading is communication. And that if they can successfully say written words aloud but cannot understand what they’ve read, that’s a problem. Evidence for this point of view include data that kids don’t benefit much from reading comprehension instruction after 7th grade, likely because they’ve all drawn this conclusion, and that increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit. It’s a one-time increment.

Willingham goes on to explain that “the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each” and that the rest of the time spent on comprehension strategies is both a waste of time and counterproductive: It makes reading boring. That’s probably why some teachers have turned to Mr. Bean. A better solution would be to spend far less time on comprehension strategies and far more on science, history, literature, art, geography, and music.


I Love Joe Kirby—and You Should Too

by Guest Blogger
June 25th, 2013

Maybe it’s just my view from across the pond, but CK appears to be rocking the UK. Hats off to Michael Gove, of course, but the real excellence- and equity-inducing power of building students’ knowledge and skills comes from the teachers who embrace a content-rich curriculum.

Joe Kirby is one of those teachers. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s a great teacher because he’s teaching me about core knowledge (yes, the lower-case form, aka, knowledge that’s essential for all of us to share).

Kirby’s outstanding unit (to use the term loosely) on core knowledge started June 15th when he posted “Which ideas are damaging education?” It’s a review of Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Seven Myths about Education. E. D. Hirsch lauds Seven Myths as “a book from a practitioner that gets the science and the rhetoric right, with an effective organization and a super clear writing style.” For a substantive preview of all seven myths, see Christodoulou’s blog. For a compelling review, let’s turn to Kirby:

Some time in the late 20th and turn of the 21st century, the educational establishment in England took a historic and disastrous wrong turn. Knowledge became mistrusted as limiting and elitist. Facts were branded as useless for the future economy and obsolete due to new technology. Teacher-led instruction was pilloried as passive, boring and ineffective. Subjects were denoted as oppressive constructs and arbitrary middle-class inventions that risked indoctrinating students, reproducing hegemonic values and entrenching social inequalities….

The extraordinary working-class efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to gain knowledge through great literature documented by Jonathan Rose in his book, The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Classesbelie the notion that high culture somehow belongs to an elite.

Seven Myths gathers the evidence from cutting-edge cognitive science about the vital importance of knowledge in memory and cognition to uproot an entrenched status quo and concludes: ‘there is nothing elitist about powerful knowledge: what is elitist is the suggestion that such knowledge belongs to an elite… It’s sometimes said that those who want to teach knowledge want to take us back to the 19th century. In fact the reverse is true. It’s those who don’t want to teach knowledge who want to take us back to the 19th century. For when we consider the 19th century, we see that for many of the elites at the time were extremely reluctant to teach knowledge to the masses, on the grounds that it would make them ‘refractory and seditious’. Combining historical analysis with modern scientific research, this should strike a resounding chord with anyone who wants to see education become more equitable.

On June 18, in “How knowledge is being detached from skills in English, Kirby began sharing his own experiences as an English teacher in London:

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist….

When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all.

Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

In his next post, “Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work,” Kirby described what his teaching experiences revealed:

Take as an example the way we read and teach even short novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This completely baffled my class the first time I taught it to Year 8, because I failed to specify the prerequisite and deep knowledge necessary for an enduring understanding of the text. Any meaningful interpretation sadly eluded my pupils, because they needed contextual, historical knowledge to make their own meanings of it. The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm – yet are completely central to a strong understanding of why the novel was written, what it is about and why it has endured. When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need….

All the evidence shows that reading well depends heavily on general knowledge. Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost. Whilst students could be studying the most challenging content, reading authors of books with astonishing depth and complexity, and wrestling with their contradictions and ambiguities, instead we feed them an entertaining diet of stuff they’re already interested in….

Why can’t poor kids benefit from reading Dickens, Orwell and Duffy? Nothing about their writing is inherently elitist. Dickens wrote about poverty and slums; Orwell fought in a civil war as a socialist; Duffy combats gender and class prejudice. There’s nothing elitist about teaching these writers; what’s elitist is reserving them for selective schools…. This divergence is not uprooting inequality in education; it is entrenching it.

On June 20th, Kirby followed-up with “The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English,” giving us a striking metaphor:

I want to go into detail now and give one example of a ‘double-helix unit’ that integrated knowledge and skills that really worked. My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a Year 7 class. I sequenced the core knowledge about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I specified what pupils should learn about 1830s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse….

So in my English teaching now, whenever I’m planning a scheme of work on any text, this is my approach. I specify in precise detail the hidden bodies of knowledge that make up student mastery of the text. I decide exactly what I want them to know about the context, plot, characters, themes, language and form. I sequence this valuable knowledge systematically across lessons. I test them regularly on whether they’ve understood and mastered the content I think is essential for them. A look at their interpretations at the end of the unit will tell how big a difference knowledge makes.

Kirby’s unit on core knowledge ended on June 23rd, with a fantastic post titled “What makes a great school curriculum?” Hopefully you’ll read Kirby’s whole unit, but if you’ve only got time for one of the posts, read this one. In The Making of Americans, E. D. Hirsch explains why it is so critical for the people who share a nation to also share some values and knowledge. In this post, Kirby outlines a strong curriculum. He also gives a tragic example of what can happen when people occupy a land without sharing even the most basic values or knowledge:

I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.

Thanks Joe! Summer school is a great time for enrichment courses. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed yours.


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

by Guest Blogger
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.

Dear 8th Grader: You Have a 3% Chance of Getting Ready for College

by Guest Blogger
April 2nd, 2013

What are the odds that an eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind academically will catch up? You know the odds are low, but single-digit low? According to research from ACT, catching up in high school is rare—if by “catching up” we mean getting poorly prepared eighth graders ready for college by twelfth grade. An eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks has just a 6% chance of catching up in reading—in science and mathematics, that student has a mere 3% chance. What about catching up before high school? Not likely. A fourth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind has just a 7% chance of catching up in reading by eighth grade and an 8% chance in mathematics.

For some readers, the obvious conclusion is that the schools need to get better at closing the gap. But the ACT’s report also has findings for all schools, the top 10% of all schools, the top 10% of low-poverty schools, and the top 10% of high-poverty schools. All of the results on catching up are depressing.

Once gaps exist, we certainly have to do everything we can to close them. At the same time, we must start earlier to prevent these enormous gaps from opening up. The path to college begins in preschool.

And, by the way, after preschool, children should go to kindergarten. Why do I state the obvious? While many of us have been chattering about Obama’s universal preschool plan, ECS has just reminded us that some kids do not have access to kindergarten. Across states, access to high-quality kindergarten is so unequal that it “perpetuates, if not exacerbates, the achievement gap.” While 15 states require children to attend kindergarten, five states do not even require school districts to offer kindergarten. (Those five are Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Four of them have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which begin in kindergarten. Are you scratching your head yet?)

Ultimately, the ECS report reminds us that we have a long, long way to go in developing a strong system of early childhood education in this country.

Silver lining time: The one benefit of having waited so long to get serious about early learning is that we have an enormous body of research to draw from. We have so much research that sorting through it is a challenge. For that, I’m turning to an unsung hero of the school improvement world: Chrys Dougherty. He is a senior research scientist with ACT and a former teacher. He knows the education and cognitive science research—and he gets kids and classrooms.

ACT recently published Dougherty’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning. Everyone involved in early childhood and early grades education should read it. For that matter, everyone interested in school improvement and closing the achievement gap should read it.

I’m assuming that you are going to read it—it’s only 8 pages! So, instead of offering a CliffsNotes version, I’m providing my favorite parts (you’ll have to go to the report for the endnotes):

Students who do not have a good start usually do not thrive later on. That is due not only to the fact that students in stressful environments with limited learning opportunities often remain in those environments, but also because early learning itself facilitates later learning—students who already know more about a topic often have an easier time learning additional information on the same topic, and early exposure to knowledge can stimulate students to want to learn more….

Educators have long emphasized the importance of learning to read well in the early grades, a belief supported by longitudinal research. Reading consists of two abilities: the ability to identify the words on the page (decoding), and the ability to understand the words once they are identified (comprehension)…. Ensuring that students learn to decode well depends, among other things, on using activities and methods in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade that develop children’s phonological (sound) awareness and their knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds. Meanwhile, children’s comprehension can be developed in the early grades by reading aloud to them from books that develop their knowledge and vocabulary….

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

Accountability systems have been designed to create a sense of urgency about improving test scores. However, this has often had the undesirable effect of shortening educators’ time horizons so that they emphasize changes aimed at improving accountability ratings over the short run. These changes can include narrowing the curriculum to deemphasize subjects not tested in the current grade, and spending inordinate amounts of time coaching students on how to answer sample test questions.

By contrast, many steps to improve academic learning and behaviors take time to bear fruit and may not immediately result in higher test scores. For example, implementing an excellent kindergarten and first-grade reading, mathematics, science, social studies, or fine arts program will not immediately affect test results in the older grades. Neither will field trips to science and art museums, nature areas, and historical sites—all of which develop knowledge of the world. Accountability incentives should be modified to recognize efforts that increase student learning over the longer run and promote learning in grades and subject areas not covered on state tests.

If we actually followed Dougherty’s advice, our students would have a great chance of getting ready for college.


Reading Comprehension Is “Useless”

by Guest Blogger
March 29th, 2013

I have been trying to ignore it. Really. You see, I have great respect for Stephen Lazar. He clearly cares about America’s youth—and America. And even though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him teach, I’m certain he knows his stuff: Lazar is a National Board–certified social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City.

In a blog post last week, he discussed the Common Core State Standards and New York’s draft grades 9-12 Social Studies Framework, I was nodding in agreement for most of it. Here are the parts that made me cheer:

We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally. Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings….

It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

I also found his remarks on the relationships that ought to exist between standards, curricula, and assessments wise:

As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process…don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.

It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Good stuff. Until I got to the three specific recommendations. While I agree with the spirit of the recommendations, the inescapable fact is that they go against decades of findings from cognitive science. I can’t blame Lazar for not knowing this research. Our colleges of education and professional development workshops typically do not teach it; and Lazar doesn’t have an easy job like mine in which he can decide to dig into a topic and stay focused until a body of evidence starts to show itself. There is a cacophony of conflicting voices out there—Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote a whole book on how hard it is for educators to know when to trust the “experts.”

Understanding that I truly want Lazar to succeed, please allow me a friendly critique of his recommendations.

Regarding any new social studies framework, Lazar writes:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

What I want to focus on is recommendation number 2. For 1 and 3, I’ll just quickly point out that they are contradictory. A framework can’t both emphasize inquiry and leave many paths open—the very emphasis on inquiry effectively closes the more traditional path. Research shows that in the hands of a master teacher—which I believe Lazar to be—inquiry approaches can be effective. But research also shows that more traditional methods—including lectures, Socratic dialogs, term papers, and plain old reading—can also be effective. So let’s just stick with recommendation number 3 and keep all the paths open. That way, Lazar can use the inquiry methods he finds so effective—and teachers like Diana Senechal, who has written beautifully in support of varied methods, can use whatever approach seems best suited to the content and the students.

Now back to recommendation number 2: “The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.” This is a wonderful idea. So wonderful that educators and researchers have spent decades pursuing it—but to no avail. It turns out, breadth is not useless—it is essential.

To ensure that the “new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults” one of the most important things educators can do is provide breadth of knowledge and vocabulary. If there is anything civic engagement depends on, it is language comprehension and critical thinking. And what do comprehension and critical thinking depend on? Having some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory. Written or spoken, we simply can’t grasp the meaning of language if we don’t know anything about the topic. If we know at least a little bit about it—if we have at least some of the relevant terms already in our vocabulary—then the door is cracked open and we have a chance to ask questions, search for answers, and bit-by-bit deepen our knowledge—thereby deepening our understanding and our capacity to act (or our capacity to decide not to act).

There is no telling which issues may become important over the next several decades. We can predict certain long-lived topics will persist: states’ rights, voter access, and taxation without representation are a few that come to mind. But what will become the critical issues that we need our youth to engage in? That’s like trying to decide which YouTube video will go viral next year.

There’s only one thing that will ensure that today’s youth are prepared no matter which issues arise tomorrow: breadth of knowledge. Students with really broad knowledge are able to read and think about a wide array of topics. Students with narrow knowledge are not. They may have expertise in a few topics, but that won’t help them grasp a newspaper article on a topic they have never encountered.

In Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (a terrific book that should be required reading in all teacher preparation programs), Daniel Willingham explains that “Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory. If any one of them is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.” So, having a bunch of facts (and other stuff) stored in long-term memory turns out to be a great thing. Willingham offers a full explanation in his book, here’s just a little more (drawn from an excerpt of the book) to help clarify the upshot of the research he summarizes:

It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has a set of procedures available (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. There is a separation of data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents.

The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.

In his blog post, Lazar writes that he wants “to spark an effective resistance to the ‘laundry list approach’ to social studies standards.” I don’t see a laundry-list approach in New York’s draft—I don’t see any indication that teachers will be encouraged to teach isolated facts instead of teaching facts in the context of exploring important people, events, and ideas. But those who don’t know the importance of broad knowledge and vocabulary tend to see a “laundry list” when presented with an appropriate, research-based effort to ensure that all students have facts in their long-term memories.

And, by the way, depth is not transformative—at least not in the general skill-building way it is usually discussed. Depth is great—every student should seriously investigate and develop some expertise in at least one topic. It’s an essential character-building and self-defining experience in which students come to know that they really do have the ability to meet challenges and accomplish important goals. But the widespread notion that by doing an in-depth project students are going to develop some critical thinking or problem solving skills that they can then apply in different settings to different problems on different topics just isn’t correct. Without some relevant knowledge already stored in long-term memory, it just doesn’t work.

So, here’s a friendly amendment to recommendation 2: The framework should provide time for in-depth investigations and ensure that all students develop essential breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.


Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

by Guest Blogger
March 20th, 2013

While yesterday’s post came as a surprise, the birthday boy now knows what I’m up to, so allow me a quick personal message: Happy Birthday Professor Hirsch! No doubt you would like to give me a completely different reading list for the week (starting with William Bagley and ending with Orlando Patterson, perhaps?), but I beg to differ. At a time when the nation’s educators are grappling with the new Common Core State Standards, isn’t it appropriate to revisit the many benefits of a common core of content?

Today I’m focused on an undeniable fact that, to my way of thinking, trumps all arguments against common content: student mobility. The damage done to highly mobile students by our national (and state) refusal to specify any common content is, as E. D. Hirsch has pointed out, one of the worst forms of injustice—an avoidable injustice.

In the preface to Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch wrote: “That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum.” In the 25 years since he wrote those words, education reformers have tried pretty much everything except fixing the fragmented curriculum. The Common Core Standards are a step in the right direction, but educational excellence and equity are still far in the distance. Today’s excerpt, from The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, reveals why common content—not merely common goals—is essential.*

The following selections on student mobility are from pages 109 – 120. As you read, keep in mind that what Hirsch is calling for is commonality, not uniformity; he is calling for about 50% of what schools teach in each grade to be specific, agreed upon, common content. The other 50% would be up to each school (or district), as would 100% of pedagogy.

The percentage of economically disadvantaged students who migrate during the school year is appallingly high, and the effects are dishearteningly severe. One study has analyzed those effects on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade. The researchers found that the adverse effects of such social and academic incoherence are greatly intensified when parents have low educational levels and when compensatory education is not available in the home. But this big fact of student mobility is generally ignored in discussions of school reform. It is as if that elephant in the middle of the parlor is less relevant or important than other concerns, such as the supposed dangers of encouraging uniformity or of allowing an “outsider” to decide what subjects are to be taught at which grade level.

The finding that our mobile students (who are preponderantly from low-income families) perform worse than stable ones does not mean that their lower performance is a consequence of poverty. That is to commit the fallacy of social determinism. Where there is greater commonality of the curriculum, the effects of mobility are less severe. In a summary of research on student mobility, Herbert Walberg states that “common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation) … alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.” The adverse effects of student mobility are much less severe in countries that use a nationwide core curriculum than in the United States, where no national guidelines alleviate the trauma and incoherence of the fragmented educational experience of the millions of students who change schools in the middle of the year….

The average mobility rates for the inner city lie routinely between 45 percent and 80 percent, with many suburban rates between 25 percent and 40 percent. Some schools in New York and other cities have mobility rates of over 100 percent—that is, the total number of students moving in and out during the year exceeds the total number of students attending the school.

Given the curricular incoherence in a typical American school even for those who stay at the same school, the education provided to frequently moving students is tragically fragmented. The high mobility of low-income parents guarantees that disadvantaged children will be most severely affected by the educational handicaps of changing schools, and that they will be the ones who are most adversely affected by the lack of commonality across schools….

As American students advance through the grades, their preparation levels become ever more diverse. This was a finding that Stevenson and Stigler emphasized in The Learning Gap, a superb comparative study of American and Asian schools. American teachers now take it as a matter of course that in the same classroom they must teach students who have gained and who have not gained the most basic knowledge they need to understand what is to be taught. Here we are speaking not about differences of ability but about huge differences in relevant preparation….

Stevenson and Stigler found that teachers have much greater job satisfaction when they can depend on one another in a supportive chain over the grade levels. Then all the students in a class can be counted on to have a reasonable level of preparation for the new grade level….

In the face of extensive student mobility, we need to reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon subject matter should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the Mayflower, then we have an obligation to decide when the Mayflower will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for the Mayflower. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age….

The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some disadvantaged students will never hear about the Mayflower while others will hear about the Mayflower ad nauseam, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.

As if that were not bad enough, our national refusal to do the hard work of devising a common core of content actually harms all children. Turning now to pages 71 – 74, Hirsch explains that whether or not our schools teach it, our nation does in fact have common content—it is used by highly literate adults every day.

Every newspaper and book editor and every producer for radio and TV is conscious of the need to distinguish what can be taken for granted from what must be explained. Learning the craft of writing is bound up with learning how to gauge what can be assumed versus what must be explained. The general reader that every journalist or TV newscaster must imagine is somebody whose relevant knowledge is assumed to lie between the total ignorance of a complete novice and the detailed knowledge of an expert…. Reading proficiency, listening proficiency, speaking proficiency, and writing proficiency all require possession of the broad knowledge that the general reader is assumed to have and also the understanding that others can be expected to possess that knowledge….

Most current reading programs talk about activating the reader’s background knowledge so she can comprehend a text. But in practice, they are only paying lip service to the well-known scientific finding that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Little attempt is made to enlarge the child’s background knowledge. The disjointed topics and stories that one finds in current reading programs seem designed mainly to appeal to the knowledge that young readers may already have, such as “Going to School” and “Jenny at the Supermarket.” The programs do not make a systematic effort to convey coherently, grade by grade, the knowledge that newspapers, magazines, and serious radio and TV programs assume American readers and listeners possess….

Here is the first paragraph of an article by Janet Maslin, taken at random from the books section of the New York Times on February 6, 2003. It is an example of writing addressed to a general reader that a literate American high school graduate would be expected to understand.

When Luca Turin was a boy growing up in Paris, according to Chandler Burr’s ebullient new book about him, “he was famous for boring everyone to death with useless, disconnected facts, like the distance between the earth and the moon in Egyptian cubits.” Mr. Burr sets out to explain how such obsessive curiosity turned Mr. Turin into a pioneering scientist who, in the author’s estimation, deserves a Nobel Prize.

This example shows that the background knowledge required to understand the general sections of the New York Times, such as the book review section, is not deep….

What do readers need to know in order to comprehend this passage? We need to know first that this is a book review, which aims to tell us what the book is about and whether it is worth reading. We need to understand that the reviewer is favorably disposed to the book, calling it “ebullient,” and that it is a nonfiction work about a scientist named Luca Turin. We need to have at least a vague semantic grasp of key words like ebullient, boring, obsessive, pioneering, estimation. We need to know some of the things mentioned with exactness, but not others. It’s not necessary to know how long a cubit is. Indeed, the text implies that this is an odd bit of information…. We need to know in general what Paris is, what the moon is and that it circles the earth, that it is not too far away in celestial terms, and we need to have some idea what a Nobel Prize is and that it is very prestigious. Consider the knowledge domains included in this list. Paris belongs to history and geography; so does Egypt. The moon belongs to astronomy and natural history. The Nobel Prize belongs to general history and science.

We may infer from this example that only a person with broad knowledge is capable of reading with understanding the New York Times and other newspapers. This fact has momentous implications for education, and for democracy as well…. Reading achievement will not advance significantly until schools recognize and act on the fact that it depends on the possession of a broad but definable range of diverse knowledge. The effective teaching of reading will require schools to teach the diverse, enabling knowledge that reading requires.

Ultimately, Hirsch concludes, “The only way to attain the long-desired educational goal of high achievement with fairness to all students is through a structure in which each grade, especially grades one through five, builds knowledge cumulatively (and without boring repetitions) upon the preceding grade” (p. xii). “Different schools can teach the same topics in various ways and still attain the degree of commonality we need to use school time productively and foster high literacy” (p. 124).

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.  


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


You may also be interested in the other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

Part 4: Passing the Test




Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”

Blame the Tests

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 15th, 2013

In Praise of Samuel Messick 1931–1998, Part III

The chief practical impact of NCLB has been its principle of accountability. Adequate yearly progress, the law stated, must be determined by test scores in reading and math—not just for the school as a whole, but for key groups of students.

Now, a decade later, the result of the law, as many have complained, has been a narrowing of the school curriculum. In far too many schools,  the arts and humanities, and even science and civics, have been neglected—sacrificed on the altar of tests  without any substantial progress nationwide on the tests themselves. It is hard to decide whether to call NCLB a disaster or a catastrophe.

But I disagree with those who blame this failure on the accountability principle of NCLB. The law did not specify what tests in reading and math the schools were to use. If the states had responded with valid tests—defined by Messick as tests that are both accurate and have a productive effect on practice—the past decade would have seen much more progress.

Since NCLB, NAEP’s long-term trend assessment shows substantial increases in reading among the lowest-performing 9-year-olds—but nothing comparable in later grades. It also shows moderate increases in math among 9- and 13-year-olds.

So, it seems that a chief educational defect of the NCLB era lay in the later-grades reading tests; they simply do not have the same educational validity of the tests in early grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math.


It’s not very hard to make a verbal test that predicts how well a person will be able to read. One accurate method used by the military is the two-part verbal section of the multiple-choice Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which is known for its success in accurately predicting real-world competence. One section of the AFQT Verbal consists of 15 items based on short paragraphs on different subjects and in different styles to be completed in 13 minutes.  The other section of the AFQT Verbal is a vocabulary test with 35 items to be completed in 11 minutes. This 24-minute test predicts as well as any verbal test the range of your verbal abilities, your probable job competence and your future income level. It is a short, cheap and technically valid test. Some version of it could even serve as a school-leaving test.

Educators would certainly protest if that were done—if only because such a test would give very little guidance for classroom practice or curriculum. And this is the nub of the defects in the reading tests used during the era of NCLB: They did not adequately support curriculum and classroom practice. The tests in early-grades reading and in early- and middle-grades math did a better job of inducing productive classroom practice, and their results show it.

Early-grades reading tests, as Joseph Torgesen and his colleagues showed, probe chiefly phonics and fluency, not comprehension. Schools are now aware that students will be tested on phonics and fluency in early grades. In fact, these crucial early reading skills are among the few topics for which recent (pre-Common Core) state standards had begun to be highly specific. These more successful early reading tests were thus different from later ones in a critical respect:  They actually tested what students were supposed to be taught.

Hence in early reading, to its credit, NCLB induced a much greater correlation than before between standards, curriculum, teaching and tests. The tests became more valid in practice because they induced teachers to teach to a test based on a highly specific subject matter—phonics and fluency. Educators and policymakers recognized that teaching swift decoding was essential in the early grades, tests assessed swift decoding, and—mirabile dictu—there was an uptick in scores on those tests.

Since the improvements were impressive, let’s take a look at what has happened in over the past decade among the lowest performing 9-year-olds on NAEP’s long-term trend assessment in reading.

Note that there is little to no growth among higher-performing 9-year-olds, presumably because they had already mastered phonics and fluency.

Similarly, early- and middle-grades math tests probed substantive grade-by-grade math knowledge, as the state standards had become ever more specific in math. You can see where I’m going: Early reading and math improved because teachers typically teach to the tests (especially under NCLB-type accountability pressures), and the subject matter of these tests began to be more and more defined and predictable, causing a collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice.

In later-grades reading tests, where we have failed to improve, the tests have not been based on any clear, specific subject matter, so it has been impossible to teach to the tests in a productive way. (The lack of alignment between math course taking and the NAEP math assessment for 17-year-olds is similarly problematic.) Of course, there are many reasons why achievement might not rise. But specific subject matter, both taught and tested, is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for test scores to rise.

In the absence of any specific subject matter for language arts, teachers, textbook makers, and test makers have conceived of reading comprehension as a strategy rather than as a side effect of broad knowledge. This inadequate strategy approach to language arts is reflected in the tests themselves. I have read many of them.  An inevitable question is something like this: “The main idea of this passage is….” And the theory behind such a question is that what is being tested is the ability of the student to strategize the meaning by “questioning the author” and performing other puzzle-solving techniques to get the right answer. But, as readers of this blog know, that is not what is being tested. The subject matter of the passage is.

This mistaken strategy-focused structure has made these tests not only valueless educationally, but worse—positively harmful. Such tests send out the misleading message that reading comprehension is chiefly strategizing. That idea has dominated language arts instruction in the past decade, which means that a great deal of time has been misspent on fruitless test-taking activities. Tragically, that time could have been spent on science, humanities and the arts—subjects that would have actually increased reading abilities (and been far more interesting).

The only way that later-grades reading tests can be made educationally valid is by adopting the more successful structure followed in early reading and math. An educationally valid test must be based on the specific substance that is taught at the grade level being tested (possibly with some sampling of specifics from previous and later grades for remediation and acceleration purposes). Testing what has been taught is the only way to foster collaboration and reinforcement between tests and classroom practice. An educationally valid reading test requires a specific curriculum—a subject of further conversations, no doubt.

Education Homilies and Other Empty Buckets

by Robert Pondiscio
July 5th, 2012

Teaching, more than any other profession, loves its homilies.  “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”  “Teach the child, not the lesson.”  We unthinkingly repeat these phrases not because they are correct, but because they are inspiring and ennobling.  Of all the homilies in education, none rankles more than this one: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  The quote is typically (and apparently mistakenly) attributed to the poet William Butler Yeats.

Writing at the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, Carol Corbett Burris, a high school principal and former “New York State Outstanding Educator,” cites this homily to drive a takedown of the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), an independent graduate school of education, which trains teachers for KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools.   At Relay, “teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training,” Burris writes.  (Full disclosure: Relay started as “Teacher U” and was incubated by former Core Knowledge board member David Steiner at New York’s Hunter College, where Steiner heads the School of Education).

Burris watches a RGSE video on “Rigorous Classroom Discussion” and is not impressed.  “The teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant,” she writes.  “She is performing as taught by a system that, in my opinion, better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college,” she observes. In Burris’s view RGSE and its methods portend something dark.

“I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.”

Having spent a fair amount of time in “no excuses” charter schools that use the techniques that Burris finds objectionable, I understand her criticism.  Such high-energy, tightly structured teaching techniques can seem militaristic, and in the hands of less skillful practitioners a bewildering blur.   But Burris misses badly when she dismisses what she sees as mere “pail filling.”  This badly and broadly misstates the critical role of knowledge (the stuff in the pail) to every meaningful cognitive process prized by fire-lighters: reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.   Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.

Few recent authors have been more pointed in decrying instructional practices that kill students’ love of reading than Kelly Gallagher, the author of Readicide.  He has been outspoken in criticizing “the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers.”  Yet I strongly suspect he too would dimiss pitting “bucket-filling” versus “fire-lighting” as wrong-headed.  In his 2011 book, Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts, Gallagher writes:

“I don’t want my students to read in only one particular genre.  I want my students, of course, to develop a wide spectrum of reading tastes.  To become eclectic readers, they need to broaden and deepen their background knowledge.  Likewise, one of my goals is to broaden my students’ writing spectrum, and if I have any chance of accomplishing this, again, I have to work on building their background knowledge.  whether we are talking about reading or writing, background knowledge is critical.  You have to know stuff to write about stuff.”

The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.   Education is neither the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire.  It’s both.

You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket.