Note: A shorter version of this essay appears today in the New York Daily News under the title “School reform’s next frontier: Translate new standards into good curriculum that puts reading first.”
Over the summer, 37 states agreed to adopt a single set of K-12 standards in English Language Arts to define the competencies needed for citizenship, productivity, and fairness. It’s a long overdue reform. But now comes the hard part – figuring out exactly the new standards mean for the day-to-day work of teaching and learning in U.S. classrooms. It is one thing to insist, as the new standards do, that history and science be taught alongside literature during the many hours spent on literacy in elementary school. But the ultimate effectiveness of this new effort will turn on another key provision of the new standards – the requirement that literature, science, history and other topics be dealt with coherently from earliest grades, at first in oral form, and that they be integrated with the whole of the K-12 curriculum.
Any discussion of the new Common Core State Standards must begin with a clear understanding of what the standards do and do not say. It has been contended that schools in the adopting states will all be teaching exactly the same things at the same time. Wrong. The content that teachers teach and children learn is “curriculum.” Standards and curriculum are not the same thing. The Common Core Standards do not guarantee a uniformity of educational experience any more than auto safety standards force Americans to drive a single kind of car, or building codes make every house look the same. The Common Core standards describe the desired outcome only, not precisely what must be taught and how to achieve it. This distinction between standards and curriculum is no mere pedantry. It’s not lack of standards but of a coherent and content-rich K-8 curriculum that has created our chronic education crisis. Curriculum dilution, especially in Kindergarten through fifth grade, has depressed student knowledge levels, caused verbal skills to decline, and perpetuated a competency gap between demographic groups. If the new standards are carried out well with coherent and substantive curricula, this new reform will begin to reverse the decline.
The Nobel economist James Heckman has shown that high school graduation rates rose sharply during the first half of the 20th century, then started dropping in the late 1960s. During roughly the same era — from 1965 to 1980 — American 15-year olds dropped from 3rd to 14th place in reading comprehension on international comparisons. Our twelfth-graders’ scores on the verbal SAT dropped a dizzying 50 points. Since the 1980s the verbal scores of American high school seniors have not budged despite multiple system-invigorating efforts like charter schools, accountability systems, and intensive literacy programs, and a meteoric rise in educational spending. Other nations, whose students experience the same distractions of TV, internet, video games, and sometimes show the same diversity of population, have improved while we have declined. The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base. This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence. During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98 percent white and middle class – dropped with similar sharpness.
What changed was less the demographics of the test-takers than the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools and then the teachers and administrators they trained. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum — as researchers have shown by analyzing the severe watering down of American school books in the period 1950-to the present. The decline of the elementary curriculum coincided with our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores. To cause them to rise again, we will need to adopt contrary ideas – never an easy prospect — and we will have to strengthen the coherence and substance of the K-8 curriculum — exactly as the new standards recommend.
Why do I focus on verbal scores as an index of our educational decline? Math is critically important of course, but language ability correlates highly with nearly all our goals for American education. Verbal scores correlate with general knowledge, with the ability to learn, communicate, and complete jobs effectively — even with an ability to work in teams. They are a good predictor of productivity and income. If we were permitted just one wish for K-12 education, a steep rise in verbal scores would be our safest bet.
And the surest way to insure a rise in verbal scores is to induce a big rise in vocabulary size. Reading tests and the SAT verbal test are well correlated with vocabulary size. You don’t effectively build a big vocabulary by studying words, but rather by studying things starting in earliest grades. You cannot do it quickly nor by intensive remediation at the high school level. A large vocabulary is the product of having gained broad general knowledge from earliest years. Unfortunately, recent reading instruction has devalued the systematic build up of knowledge, assuming wrongly that reading ability is a general skill, rather than an ad hoc skill essentially dependent on knowledge. To be a good reader in general you have to know a lot and possess a large vocabulary.
The connection between verbal ability and general knowledge is the firm scientific foundation of the new CCSS standards. Their most promising feature is their requirement that during the two hours spent on literacy in grades K-5, students shall begin building knowledge that will serve them throughout their lives. The standards are indeed silent on what constitutes essential, foundational knowledge. That’s the hard part. Within a state, specificity and commonality of core topics are critical, particularly considering how often our children change schools. If students at each grade level across a state are taught some of the same things as other students, are taught those things them thoroughly, and are thus made ready to move to the next grade, their progress in knowledge and language will be cumulative and sure.
This new core-standards effort constitutes, then, a reversal of the basic ideas and policies that since the mid 1960s have caused American education to decline. Now is a perilous moment. The anti-intellectual monopoly of the education world, combined with the financial power of a few large publishers makes the new common-core initiative highly precarious. There is every likelihood that the same diluted and fragmented early curriculum will be given a new label and present itself as conforming to the new standards. One already sees signs of this same-old, same-old being set out with fanfare on the web. Without delay, some private non-partisan philanthropies should get together and form an independent board that will validate claims that school materials and curriculum guides are in conformity with the new standards. The aim of such a board would not be to determine whether the school materials pass some ideological test, but whether they are likely to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary coherently, year by year, step by step, and thus recapture equality of opportunity, good citizenship, and a path to prosperity.
The story of America’s educational decline is the story of verbal decline. It has a beginning, a traceable arc and, if the states are vigilant, an end.