Core Knowledge kids learn more in NYC pilot

Second graders scored significantly higher in reading comprehension at New York City schools using the Core Knowledge curriculum compared to similar students at other schools, reports the New York Times. Core Knowledge students also did better on tests of social studies and science knowledge.

The pilot tracked 1,000 students at 20 schools from kindergarten through second grade. Most of the comparison schools used “balanced literacy,” which mixes phonics and comprehension strategies and stresses reading fiction.

. . . children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

Balanced literacy works well for children whose parents read to them daily,  said Katie Grady, principal of Public School 104 in Far Rockaway, Queens. “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said.

Core Knowledge will mesh well with the new Common Core Standards, which call for teaching as much nonfiction as fiction.

I’m tutoring a first-grade boy this year. He loves to read about science: He likes bugs, the slimier the better. He also likes sci-fi: Star Wars, super-heroes and robots. He used the word “predator” correctly.

A return to “Death and Life”

I have been enjoying my recent return to Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010). I have read the book many, many times; I edited it and was research assistant during the final stages of revision. After dozens of readings, the book remains absorbing, invigorating, and beautiful.

As I read it this time, it occurs to me that the central error of Balanced Literacy is very similar to the error of implementing Balanced Literacy (or any other model) across a system. Ravitch’s book draws an implicit and compelling parallel between the two errors.

Balanced Literacy makes the mistake of putting the “strategy” at the center of instruction. Ravitch describes the approach in chapter 3:

Teachers are supposed to teach the prescribed strategies and procedures, and the students (alone or in groups) are expected to practice their reading strategies and refer to them by name. A student might say, for example, “I am visualizing,” “I am summarizing,” “I am making a text-to-self connection,” “I am making a prediction,” or “I am making an inference.”

The emphasis on strategies is misguided (in my opinion). Reading strategies, taught and applied generically, can distract from the text and distort its meaning. What’s more, one learns much more about literature from close reading of specific literature than from instruction in the strategies themselves. The strategy approach is supposed to apply to all students and texts, but each text should be approached on its own terms. Of course, patterns and general practices do emerge, but they come out of the careful reading and attentive listening.

So there’s the central error: taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.

A similar error can be found in the very act of mandating Balanced Literacy across a district. Ravitch describes how Balanced Literacy migrated from District 2 in New York City to the entire school system of San Diego and then back to New York City as a whole. [Read more...]

Teachers still have genres in Minnesota

Schools have decided to adopt Balanced Literacy in District 719, Prior Lake-Savage, Minnesota.

But it’s not all bleak. Teachers will still be able to assign some books. According to the Savage Pacer,

Every reading class – which includes all K-5 classrooms and grade six through eight reading and English classes – will receive a “classroom library” consisting of around 250 age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction books from a variety of genres, said Greene. But despite the new approach to give students an array of reading options, teachers still will be able to assign some texts to entire classes.

“There’s going to be a balance,” the coordinator said. “It’s not going to be always that free-for-all reading. Teachers still have genres and they still have to introduce students to different things.”

What’s wrong with the existing curriculum? It’s “one size fits all,” says Greene.

Well, so is Balanced Literacy, but in a different way. Balanced Literacy focuses on reading strategies. Dan Willingham argues–and I agree–that content knowledge affects reading comprehension more profoundly than reading strategies do. But teachers under BL must focus on strategies nonetheless.

The phrase “one size fits all” is another example of the “witchery of words.” Anything can be called “one size fits all.” We must ask, one size of what? And all of whom?