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.


Knowledge Really Is Power

by Guest Blogger
June 18th, 2013

This post isn’t about KIPP, but I’ll start with thanking KIPP for keeping a fundamental truth alive: Knowledge is power. Knowledge enables us to develop, refine, and deploy skills. Knowledge opens doors both literally and figuratively, giving meaning to freedom and democracy.

Knowledge is essential, and it needs to be taught. So it’s with great pleasure that I offer this far-too-long post, with Sol Stern, Annie Murphy Paul, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Tom Birmingham all making the case for knowledge.

Written as an open letter to the next mayor of New York City, Sol Stern’s article in the new City Journal makes a strong case for a content-rich curriculum:

Though children from disadvantaged families, and particularly from single-parent families, certainly tend to start school with less knowledge than middle-class students have, you can nevertheless pronounce confidently that educational improvement is possible, even in the toughest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.

We know that because it happened in Massachusetts…. The Bay State’s 1993 education-reform legislation established the country’s most demanding set of academic standards, which replaced trendy but ineffective pedagogical approaches with an old-fashioned emphasis on “content”—that is, knowledge. The standards eventually brought Massachusetts the greatest overall improvements in student performance in the nation, as measured by the NAEP….

The infrastructure for improvement is already in place, thanks to New York’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards…. If implemented properly—admittedly, a big “if”—the standards could start our schools on a long, difficult path to higher academic performance, not only for poor children but for all students.

Critics of the Common Core argue that the standards aren’t as demanding as Massachusetts’s. They’re right. But the Common Core is far superior to anything that previously passed for academic standards in New York. “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,” say the standards’ accompanying documents. “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum drove improvement in Massachusetts, it could do the same in New York City….

If you pick a schools chancellor and other top officials who keep up with education research, they will know that a consensus exists among cognitive scientists that building broad content knowledge in the early grades is the best way to raise reading comprehension for disadvantaged children. As education scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has warned for the past quarter-century, many poor children remain functionally illiterate not because teachers are incompetent but because those teachers have been “compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum” that dismisses the accumulation of knowledge as “mere facts.” More, a knowledge-based curriculum provides the most promising long-term strategy for preparing all children, poor and middle-class alike, for success in college or, for those who don’t attend college, in the twenty-first-century workplace. As a bonus, the Common Core encourages teaching the historical and civic knowledge that children need to become informed citizens and better Americans.

Contrary to what some critics say, content-based curricula are hardly an untested idea that we should try in only a limited number of schools. Not only do we have the success story of Massachusetts; we can point to the city’s field test of Hirsch’s content-based Core Knowledge literacy program in several schools between 2008 and 2011. The test showed that Core Knowledge produced significantly greater gains for students than the school system’s most widely used reading program (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012).

You still shouldn’t promise miracles, of course. There will be no overnight double-digit leaps in test scores…. It will take more than a few years to change the culture of teaching and restore the priority of knowledge acquisition in the classroom.

Changing the culture of teaching (which would entail changing most teacher preparation programs) will indeed be difficult. One major obstacle to overcome is the idea that students no longer need to acquire knowledge—with the right skills, they can just look up what they need to know whenever they need to know it. In a new post, Annie Murphy Paul addresses that myth:

What kind of information do we need to have stored in our heads, and what kind can we leave “in the cloud,” to be accessed as necessary?

The answer will determine what we teach our students, what we expect our employees to know, and how we manage our own mental resources. But before I get to that answer, I want to tell you about the octopus who lives in a tree.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis…. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered.

Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction…. The other fable here is the notion that the main thing these kids need—what all our kids really need—is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch).

But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies”—or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Google-able and therefore unworthy of committing to memory….

Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge….

Just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump. And sorting the wheat from the abundant online chaff requires more than simply evaluating the credibility of the source (the tree octopus material was supplied by the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society,” which sounded impressive to the seventh graders in Don Leu’s experiment). It demands the knowledge of facts that can be used to independently verify or discredit the information on the screen.

Okay, students really do have to learn things. Knowledge really is power. How should we go about teaching them all this knowledge? Many educators have been taught that the best approach is the supposedly natural one: having students explore, making observations and discoveries. But according to recent research, it appears as through directly teaching students is both natural and—more importantly—highly effective. In yet another must-read post on his science and education blog, Daniel Willingham explained this research:

I don’t much care about “naturalness” one way or the other. As long as learning is happening, I’m happy, and I think the value some people place on naturalness is a hangover from a bygone Romantic era, as I describe here.

Now a fascinating paper by Patrick Shafto and his colleagues … leads to implications that call into doubt the idea that exploratory learning is especially natural or authentic.

The paper focuses on a rather profound problem in human learning. Think of the vast difference in knowledge between a new born and a three-year-old; language, properties of physical objects, norms of social relations, and so on. How could children learn so much, so rapidly?…

Much of the research on this problem has focused on the idea that there must be innate assumptions or biases on the part of children that help them make sense of their observations…. Many models using these principles have not attached much significance to the manner in which children encounter information. Information is information.

Shafto et al. point out why that’s not true. They draw a distinction between three different cases with the following example. You’re in Paris, and want a good cup of coffee.

1) You walk into a cafe, order coffee, and hope for the best.
2) You see someone who you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe so you get yours there too.
3) You see someone you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe. She sees you observing her, looks at her cup, looks at you, and nods with a smile

In the first case you acquire information on your own. There is no guiding principle behind this information acquisition. It is random, and learning where to find good coffee will slow going with this method.

In the second scenario, we anticipate that the neighborhood denizen is more knowledgeable than we–she probably knows where to get good coffee. Finding good coffee ought to be much faster if we imitate someone more knowledgeable than we. At the same time, there could be other factors at work. For example, it’s possible that she thinks the coffee in that cafe is terrible, but it’s never crowded and she’s in a rush that morning.

In the third scenario, that’s highly unlikely. The woman is not only knowledgeable, she communicates with us; she knows what we want to know and she can tell us that the critical feature we care about is present. Unlike scenario #2, the knowledgeable person is adjusting her actions to maximize our learning.

More generally, Shafto et al suggest that these cases represent three fundamentally different learning opportunities; learning from physical evidence, learning from the observation of goal-directed action, and learning from communication.

Shafto et al argue that although some learning theories assume that children acquire information at random, that’s likely false much of the time. Kids are surrounded by people more knowledgeable than they. They can see, so to speak, where more knowledgeable people get their coffee.

Further, adults and older peers often adjust their behavior to make it easier for children to draw the right conclusion…. more knowledgeable others often do take into account what the child knows, and speak so as to maximize what the child can learn. If an adult asked “what’s that?”  I might say “It’s Westphalian ham on brioche.” If a toddler asked, I‘d say “It’s a sandwich.”

One implication is that the problem I described—how do kids learn so much, so fast—may not be quite as formidable as it first seemed because the environment is not random. It has a higher proportion of highly instructive information….

The second implication is this: when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching.

So whatever value you attach to “naturalness,” bear in mind that much of what children learn in their early years of life may not be the product of unaided exploration of their environment, but may instead be the consequence of teaching. Teaching might be considered a quite natural state of affairs.

I’ll leave the summing up to two leaders of the charge to ensure that all students acquire the knowledge (and skills—they go together!) they need.

E. D. Hirsch, chiming in on Willingham’s blog, noted:

Readers … should be aware of the relevant comments of the most curmudgeonly education commissioner California ever had, Max Rafferty, with regard to the natural teaching methods. “Schooling is not a natural process at all. It’s highly artificial. No boy in his right mind ever wanted to study multiplication tables and historical dates when he could be out hunting rabbits or climbing trees. In the days when hunting and climbing contributed to the survival of homo sapiens there was some sense in letting the kids do what comes naturally, but when man’s future began to hang upon the systematic mastery of orderly subject matter, the primordial, happy-go-lucky, laissez faire kind of learning had to go. [...] The story of mankind is the rise of specialization with its highly artificial concomitants. [...] When writing was invented, “natural” education went down the drain of history. From then on, children were destined to learn artificially. [...] This is civilization — the name of the game. [...] All civilization is artificial.” Actually, I think Rafferty understated the case. The pre-historic kid had to be taught by a grownup how to hunt rabbits — at least if the group was going to be successful.

Natural or not, acquiring academic knowledge is necessary. To the extent that we ignore the power of knowledge, and the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching it directly, we are locking the doors that a content-rich education would open. Tom Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate and coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, clearly stated our dire situation just a few days ago in the Boston Globe:

As education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated, achievement gaps are really knowledge gaps. Poor kids tend to have access to less background knowledge outside school than privileged kids. Unless poor kids are exposed to the same academically rich content in school that more affluent kids can get at home, we consign these students to second-class citizenship.


The Curriculum Reformation

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2012

Sol Stern has a piece in the new issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which echoes a point made on this blog about Common Core State Standards: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever.   “For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement,” Stern writes, “and that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.”

Stern calls Hirsch, the “odd man out in the school-reform movement.”  But with the widespread adoption Common Core standards, “Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards,” Stern writes.  That includes New York State which earlier this year awarded the Core Knowledge Foundation a multi-million dollar contract to produce a pre-K through second-grade ELA curriculum aligned to the standards.

Since a pilot of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program initiated under then-Chancellor Joel Klein began to show strong results according to the New York City DOE’s own research three years ago, Stern has played gadfly ever since, frequently asking why New York City did not more broadly implement a curriculum its own research indicated was more effective than its widely used balanced literacy approach. Stern offers up a scoop:

“Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. ‘I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,’ Klein wrote. He added that ‘the early results’ of the pilot were ‘enormously encouraging.’

“And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was ‘well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.’”

On Common Core State Standards, Stern notes political objections as well as “the far more serious criticism” leveled by Ze’ev Wurman, Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards “are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours.  Massachusetts reformers in particular, Stern notes, “have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993…The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work.”

“Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Stern concludes by arguing—correctly, I believe—that adoption of CCSS by states isn’t enough.  States need to choose effective, specific curricula to meet the standards.  He cites work by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, which demonstrated the effect size of curriculum and instructional materials rival those associated with differences in teacher effectiveness, the go-to strategy in the ed reform playbook.

“The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults,” Stern warns.  “Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of ‘rich content knowledge.’”

“That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory,” writes Stern.

Teach Now, Test Later

by Robert Pondiscio
July 20th, 2011

Over at Joanne Jacobs, they’re talking about Sol Stern’s recent article on the New York City Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Regular commenter Stuart Buck, as he is wont to do, looks to turn the discussion into a referendum on what he perceives to be the anti-reform stance of Diane Ravitch and others.  Stern’s piece, he writes,

“supports the idea that we need a broad curriculum, etc. On the other hand, it completely undermines their insistence that testing inevitably leads poor beleaguered educators to teach to the test, to narrow the curriculum, and even to cheat and lie out of the sheer pressure. After all, if kids can actually do BETTER on the tests with none of the latter misbehavior, then testing isn’t the horror it’s made out to be.”

Later Buck offers that it is not possible to hold these two ideas in one’s head at the same time:

1. “It’s the STAKES attached to the testing that inevitably lead educators to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and cheat.”

2. Broad and rich curricula like Core Knowledge would actually allow educators to IMPROVE test scores above and beyond a narrow test-prep curriculum.

True, a patient investment in knowledge and language growth will raise scores over time, but the key phrase is over time.  There is no reason to expect an instant dividend from a knowledge-rich curriculum.  Indeed, because reading tests are de facto tests of background knowledge, there is every reason NOT to expect the results to show for several years when the cumulative effect of broad knowledge acquisition asserts itself. 

The high stakes associated with reading tests may not preclude teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum, but it arguably disincentivizes it.  If you are expected to show at least one year’s growth in one year’s time (a concept I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around) you are far more likely to resort defensively to test-prep and “reading strategies” instruction rather than teach material that might not show up on a state exam this year, or ever. 

The entire proposition is that knowledge and vocabulary are a “slow growing plant,” as E.D. Hirsch has said. The results show up in the long term. That’s hard to reconcile with high stakes reading tests that demand results now.

Reading Solution “Hiding in Plain Sight”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 14th, 2011

Sol Stern shines a welcome spotlight on New York City’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) pilot program in a Daily News op-ed.  Launched to considerable fanfare under then-Chancellor Joel Klein three years ago, the program has quietly continued in ten low-income elementary schools.  It represents ”a ray of reading hope in the city,” says Stern, and one that stands in sharp contrast to other initiatives “including giving cash bonuses to teachers and principals and paying minority children to show up in class and behave.”

Two large (and largely overlooked) problems remain at the root of the reading crisis:  a lack of a coherent elementary school curriculum, and a stubborn insistence on teaching and testing reading comprehension as a how-to ”skill.”  Comprehension is highly correlated with general knowledge—the more you know, the greater your ability to read, write, speak and listen with fluency and comprehension.  Thus an essential component of reading comprehension instruction must be a focused commitment to build broad background knowledge in a coherent manner from the earliest days of schools–precisely what CKLA seeks to do. Stern elaborates on how the curriculum differs from the dominant approach in most classrooms:

“Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in early grades. But the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing E.D. Hirsch believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students’ background knowledge.  So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.”

Perhaps most significantly, the New York City pilot program also includes a study of 10 matched control schools for comparison.  Stern points out that the program has produced stunning results to-date:

“After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group. The results of the third-year study, now that the children have completed second grade, won’t be announced until sometime this autumn, probably at about the same time as the 2011 NAEP reading results are made public. It is probable that the Core Knowledge program will continue to show promising results, while scores on the NAEP eighth-grade reading test will be as stagnant as ever.

Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal, where his piece will also appear, argues that New York should keep the program in place ”showing the education authorities that the solution to the city’s reading problem is in plain sight.”

Unfortunately, rationality is usually in short supply at the Department of Education; Klein has moved on, and it’s not clear whether Hirsch’s reading program remains on the department’s agenda. Right now, there’s no guaranteed funding for continuation of the program.

“An Inescapable Moral Challenge”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 25th, 2011

For every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble, observes Sol Stern in City Journal.  It’s a pattern that is mirrored across New York City.  “Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor,” he writes, ”the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.”

Stern’s piece profiles Harlem’s St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school, which has essentially “charterized” itself to survive.  The school’s board last year broke away from the New York archdiocese and reconstituted itself as an independent Catholic school.  “St. Aloysius is now something like a charter school within the city’s Catholic education sector,” Stern writes. 

St. Aloysius easily bests neighborhood schools on standardized tests despite a refusal to make testing and test prep a centerpiece of its classroom practice.  (“At St. Aloysius, there are no teacher bonuses tied to testing, students receive no special recognition for high scores, and very little test prep takes place,” Stern writes.)  It also more than matches the results posted by the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, featured prominently in Waiting for Superman.   And St. Aloysius gets these results for about $9000 per pupil per year–less than half of the cost of New York’s neighborhood schools and the roughly $13,000 that charter schools get from the city.    Stern says several factors may explain the school’s success, including extended learning time and separating boys and girls beginning in the sixth grade.

“It doesn’t take long, though, for a visitor to discover St. Aloysius’s most powerful asset: the rich content of its classroom instruction. St. Aloysius exemplifies the old-fashioned notion that school is a place where children learn about our civilization’s shared knowledge and values and where teachers remain the undisputed authorities in the classroom, imparting that knowledge and those values through a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. This traditional approach has stood the test of time and is still proving itself today in many inner-city Catholic schools, in the “no excuses” charter schools operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), in schools that have adopted E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, and, to some extent, even in run-of-the-mill Massachusetts public schools that adhere to that state’s back-to-basics curriculum reforms.”

 Such schools, Stern writes, represent “an inescapable moral challenge” to the education-philanthropy community. 

“It is painfully obvious that without a rescue effort, the number of Catholic schools in neighborhoods like Harlem will continue to shrink. The money certainly exists to mount such a rescue; for years, this glittering city has been awash in private philanthropic and foundation funds—hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars—spent on an assortment of education-reform schemes, including charter schools, the creation of small public high schools, and bonuses for teachers and administrators.”

 When a school “that creates such effective classrooms for disadvantaged children, and that also builds character and personal responsibility in its students, still has to worry about where next year’s dollars will come from” he concludes “there remains a fundamental imbalance in these charitable efforts.”


“The Most Important Education Reformer of the Last Century”

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2009

[Update:  In the comments to this post, Paul Hoss questions Sol Stern giving credit to Hirsch for Massachusetts's Education Reform Act.  Stern responds below.]

In the new City Journal, Sol Stern files a comprehensive dispatch on the career of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and judges the Core Knowledge founder to be “the most important education reformer of the last century.”   Stern writes that “Hirsch’s theories, long merely persuasive, now have solid empirical backing in Massachusetts’s miraculous educational reforms.”  So why, he wonders, isn’t Washington paying attention? 

At his Senate confirmation hearing in February, Arne Duncan succinctly summarized the Obama administration’s approach to education reform: “We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn’t work.” Since becoming education secretary, Duncan has launched a $4.3 billion federal “Race to the Top” initiative that encourages states to experiment with various accountability reforms. Yet he has ignored one state reform that has proven to work, as well as the education thinker whose ideas inspired it. The state is Massachusetts, and the education thinker is E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

“Hirsch’s theories, long merely persuasive, now have solid empirical backing in Massachusetts’s miraculous educational reforms,” Stern writes.  One element of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act was a “Hirschean knowledge-based curricula for each grade.”

In the new millennium, Massachusetts students have surged upward on the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—“the nation’s report card,” as education scholars call it. On the 2005 NAEP tests, Massachusetts ranked first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math. It then repeated the feat in 2007. No state had ever scored first in both grades and both subjects in a single year—let alone for two consecutive test cycles.

Hirsch spoke at a luncheon event at the Manhattan Institute Wednesday, which was recorded for future broadcast by C-SPAN.  In the meantime, a podcast of a lively conversation between Stern and Hirsch is on the City Journal website here.

Freire Is Foul and Foul is Freire

by Robert Pondiscio
April 27th, 2009

Mention the name Paolo Freire at a gathering of educated people and you’re likely to get blank stares.  Unless members of that group went to ed school, where the Brazilian theorist is nothing less than a rock star, and his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Opressed is part of the canon.  In the new City Journal, Sol Stern examines the curious case of Freire and asks  how his “derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever gets confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools?”  For starters, Stern says Freire’s seeds were cast upon fertile soil.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed resonated with progressive educators, already committed to a “child-centered” rather than a “teacher-directed” approach to classroom instruction. Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

Freire opposed what he described as the “banking” concept of education, in which the student is a seen as a tabula rasa to be filled by the teacher.  Banking, naturally, is a tool of the oppressor in which the teacher talks and the students listen, the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply, and the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.  “Freire’s strictures reinforced another cherished myth of American progressive ed,” Stern notes, “that traditional teacher-directed lessons left students passive and disengaged, leading to higher drop-out rates for minorities and the poor.”

Stern finds no evidence that Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed has gained much traction or met with much success anywhere in the Third World.   “Nor have Freire’s favorite revolutionary regimes, like China and Cuba, reformed their own ‘banking’ approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined, and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals—and the production of more industrial managers, engineers, and scientists,” he notes.  Why, Stern finally wonders, does American education’s love affair with Freire persist?

A broad consensus is emerging among education reformers that the best chance of lifting the academic achievement of children in the nation’s inner-city schools is to raise dramatically the effectiveness of the teachers assigned to those schools. Improving teacher quality as a means of narrowing racial achievement gaps is a major focus of President Obama’s education agenda. But if the quality of teachers is now the name of the game, it defies rationality that Pedagogy of the Oppressed still occupies an exalted place in training courses for those teachers, who will surely learn nothing about becoming better instructors from its discredited Marxist platitudes.

Stern challenged me a few months ago to find a published piece critical of Friere’s work and its impact on American education.  I failed.

Game On

by Robert Pondiscio
July 11th, 2008

Miracle of New York or smoke and mirrors? It’s Chris Cerf vs. Sol Stern over at Eduwonk. 

Hang ‘Em High

by Robert Pondiscio
March 7th, 2008

I’ve been meaning to get to Sol Stern’s eyebrow-raising exegesis of the rise and fall of Reading First. But whether you’ve read it or not, read this blistering response, which imagines a conversation between a smug reading teacher and a fourth-grader who can’t read. It may peel off your wallpaper. Tip ‘o the hat to Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning for posting this.