‘We are building the Japanese garden’

Sol Stern recalls his sons’ progressive education at a highly regarded Manhattan elementary school in The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch in City Journal.

Many PS 87 teachers were trained at “citadels of progressive education” such as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, Stern writes. They learned that all children are “natural learners.”

PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about.

In fourth grade, a new teacher assigned more “real-life” math problems. For example: How many Arawaks did Christopher Columbus kill in his conquest of Hispaniola?

Children were taught little about the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, Stern writes.

“It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” the principal said, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

In Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), E.D. Hirsch “convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good,” writes Stern

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading.

Hirsch is the “most important education reformer” of the last 50 years, concludes Stern.

Making Americans: Core civics


Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Social studies — including history and civics — is being crowded out of the classroom by the push to raise reading and math achievement, said Stefanie Sanford at a Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core. As a Fordham trustee and chief of Global Policy and Advocacy for The College Board, Sanford thinks the new standards will revive civic education.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.

The amount of time devoted to history and civics education “has been on the decline for decades,” says Sanford. Schools have shifted time from science, history, and the arts to English language arts and math. But reading achievement has stagnated in the last 40 years.

In 1971, the average reading score on the twelfth-grade NAEP was 285. In 2008, it was 286.

While the goal of improving reading achievement is noble, our efforts to do so have been misguided and have inadvertently undermined our efforts to improve civic education for two reasons.

First, student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content.

Research tells us that, once students have learned how to read, the best way to improve reading comprehension is to broaden students’ content knowledge and to expand their vocabulary. That means that, rather than shifting time away from history and civics, if we really want to improve reading achievement, we should redouble our efforts to teach important content. And that includes teaching U.S. history and civics.

Second, civics education cannot stand alone.

. . . civics education should be infused throughout the K–12 curriculum. Students in English classes should be asked to read and understand the Founding documents—not just for their historical significance but also for their literary merit. And they should be invited to study and analyze the great texts that are part of the Great Conversation. These are part of a well-rounded ELA curriculum, not an add-on that comes only if and when schools have time. We cannot expect to graduate a generation of culturally and historically literate American citizens unless our curriculum and instruction are infused with the great literary works that informed and drove our nation’s great history.

Sanford is the author of Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.

Learning with dinosaurs

Cover edit 3What are the best educational videos available for streaming? Mike Petrilli is making a list.

He’s been watching a BBC series, Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons, who are 5 and 3. Thanks to the series (narrated by Kenneth Branagh!), the five-year-old “has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.).”

A five-year-old’s curiosity knows no bounds, Petrilli writes.

As E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years.

Petrilli hopes to identify the best streaming videos available to teach core content to early elementary-school children.

Learning science — and English

In California’s wine country, elementary schoolers are learning science and developing English proficiency at the same time, reports Ed Week. The Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, has partnered with the Sonoma school district.

A pilot project was launched in 2008 at El Verano Elementary, which has the highest poverty rate and the highest number of English Language Learners. With a federal Investing in Innovation grant, the project has expanded to all five of the district’s elementary schools.

Victoria Silberman’s 1st graders sit on a brightly colored carpet, staring attentively at the whiteboard.

“Where have you seen worms?” asks Ms. Silberman.

In my backyard, in the garden, in the dirt, her pupils respond. She writes those words on the board.

“What do worms need?” she asks.

Dirt. Shelter. Water. Food.

On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they’re allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes.

Most schools don’t teach content in English till students test as proficient. Often, ELLs are pulled  out of science or social studies lessons to learn English skills in isolation, says Lynn Rankin, who runs the project for the museum. They fall farther and farther behind.

“There seems to be the misperception that children have to have a certain level of language proficiency to understand science, but we have a different view,” Rankin added. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” she said, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas. Science instead provides a context for learning language.”

Students are more interested in science, teachers say. The state tests science in fifth grade: 59 percent of the school’s fifth graders test as “proficient,” up from 37 percent in 2008. Scores also are rising on the state’s English-language-proficiency tests.

Under pressure to raise reading and math scores, many elementary schools spend little time on science. Forty percent of California elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less on science instruction a week, reports WestEd. In addition, 85 percent of teachers “received no science professional development within the past three years.”

Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

Curriculum is back — and Hirsch has got it

Common Core Standards’ call for a  “well-developed, content-rich curriculum” is forcing “a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom,” writes Sol Stern in The Curriculum Reformation. “And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Of course, E.D. Hirsch has been talking about content-rich curriculum for years, but nobody was listening.  His Core Knowledge curriculum, which proved itself in a New York City experiment, is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades,” as called for by the new standards’ guidelines, Stern writes.

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. 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.”

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

New standards will help kids read, understand

Nobody loves standards (and that’s O.K.), writes Robert Pondiscio. But teachers could come to appreciate Common Core State Standards (CCSS) approach to “turning children into readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.”

“A student never thanked me for teaching the main idea,” a teacher wrote to me recently. “But many thanked me for teaching them about animal migrations.” CCSS remind us to engage children not just with rote literacy skills work and process writing, but also, and especially, with real content—rich, deep, broad knowledge about the world in which they live. The conventional wisdom has become that CCSS “add nonfiction to the curriculum,” but that’s not right. Common Core restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum.

Why did they ever leave? Reading is “domain specific.” You already have to know at least a little bit about the subject—and sometimes a lot about the subject—to understand a text. The same thing is also true about creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Indeed, nearly all of our most cherished and ambitious goals for schooling are knowledge-dependent. Yet how many times have we heard it said that we need to de-emphasize teaching “mere facts” and focus on skills like critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving? CCSS rescue knowledge from those who would trivialize it, or who simply don’t understand its fundamental role in human cognition.

CCSS calls for “the systematic teaching of explicit phonics skills” and “building knowledge systematically” by choosing texts “around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”

Educational insanity

After 20 years of education reform focused on reading and math — and billions of dollars in spending — NAEP results show little improvement, writes Lynne Munson of Common Core. It’s educational insanity, she writes, using Einstein’s definition: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice.  We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests.  We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale.  We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances):  None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Teaching knowledge “of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more” works for all students, Munson writes, citing International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula and Core Knowledge. Ignoring curricular content is nuts.

Attack of the reading tests

Rachel Levy hoped to teach history and geography while developing her high school students’ reading and writing skills. But the principal of her inner-city D.C. school — pre-Rhee — told social studies teachers to spend one-fifth of class time teaching the reading test, Levy writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

Teachers were told to make a chart for each student showing how well he or she did on each skill, such as “context clues.”

Then I was supposed to target my lesson plans to teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses. . . . such instruction and data collection had to be documented in our lesson plan books and during classroom observations.

Teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses?

While testing doesn’t require such stupidities, few educators have the patience to rely on a “well-rounded and knowledge-rich curriculum” to raise scores gradually, Levy writes.

She tried to persuade colleagues that the way to raise test scores was to “teach content and have students read and write as much as possible.”  No one agreed.

Now raising three children, Levy blogs at All Things Education.

Update:  You need to know how to teach but you also need to know your subject very well, writes Michael Bromley, a social studies teacher who guest-blogged for Rick Hess on Ed Week.  “No matter the teaching strategy, if you don’t have something valid, interesting, and important to teach there will be no learning.”

In June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report showing core historical illiteracy among American school children. In response, famed historian David McCullough told the Wall Street Journal, “People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.”

Wait a minute, there, David, hold on: modern pedagogy states that qualified, education-proficient teachers can teach anything, so long as the correct strategies for student engagement are followed. Isn’t that the problem? David replies, “You can’t love something you don’t know any more than you can love someone you don’t know.” Amen, brother . . .

If you don’t know the subject, your students won’t either, Bromley concludes.