Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy

Julius Caesar’s assassination was “mean,” said one of Bridgit McCarthy’s third graders.

“JC helped get France for them — except it was, you know, Gaul back then,” said another. “Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.” 

But students remembered last week’s lesson. “Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings.”

McCarthy teaches at New Dimensions, a public charter school in North Carolina that uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. Students learn about world civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt in first grade, ancient Greece in second grade and ancient Rome in third. They enjoy it, she says.

A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

Children can learn a great deal in the early grades if teachers use “a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other,” concludes McCarthy on Core Knowledge Blog.

NYC goes back to ‘balanced literacy’

New York City’s low-performing elementary and middle schools are being told to use “balanced literacy” approaches that didn’t work well in the past, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat.

At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of theTeachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

Yet Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said, “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Daily “independent reading” time and student-selected books key components of balanced literacy, notes Wall. “Teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing” at their ability level.

“The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago,” until then-Chancellor Joel Klein let some schools try a Core Knowledge program focused on building students’ background knowledge. Compared to balanced literacy students, Core Knowledge students showed much stronger reading gains.

Balanced literacy’s critics say it’s incompatible with the Common Core, reports Chalkbeat.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Schools have lost the idea that “reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Reading’s not much fun for people who can’t read well and understand what they read.

Diana Senechal challenges the idea that “balanced literacy” leads to joyful reading.

No longer a ‘pariah’

Politico’s list of the 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter” includes, at number 8, E.D. Hirsch of the Core Knowledge Foundation and David Coleman, principal author of Common Core Standards.

“I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,” Hirsch tells Peg Tyre.

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated. For nearly 30 years, he has been labeled a blue-blood elitist and arch-defender of the Dead White European Male. Now, the retired English professor is finding that his ideas, once dismissed wholesale by the educational establishment, are being credited as the intellectual foundation of the national reform movement that has swept the country in recent years, pushing expanded access to preschool and the Common Core state learning standards to improve the chances of America’s poorer children.

In 1987, Hirsch argued in Cultural Literacy argued that children need background information to understand what they read.

In the index, he listed “5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.”

“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” says David Coleman, who calls Hirsch’s work “absolutely foundational.” 

The Common Core is a “delivery mechanism” for Hirsch’s ideas, writes Robert Pondiscio, who worked for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, funded with the profits from his books.

The standards say:

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.

That’s Hirsch.

“One of the frustrations of supporting Common Core is seeing Hirsch’s simple, elegant, and irrefutable insight disappear into a miasma of sloppiness, opportunism, and obfuscation,” writes Pondiscio.

Moms vs. puppets — in 1948

If Only We Had Listened . . . to parents about progressive education, writes Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel.

In 1948, the Washington Times-Herald criticized the poor spelling skills of high school juniors in New York. Only about 65 percent could spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

The problem starts in first grade, said three mothers of public school children, who visited the newspaper office. Students aren’t learning anything, said Mrs. A. They make puppets.

The book on making puppets has diagrams with letters A, B and C, said Mrs. B. “But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Teachers don’t believe the progressive methods work, said Mrs. C. But they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.

The editor and the mothers were confident these methods were being imposed on teachers, writes Hansel. “It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.”

When education reforms don’t work well, teachers get the blame, writes E.D. Hirsch. Teacher quality isn’t the issue, he argues. The problem is that most reforms have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Stop blaming teachers, concludes Hansel. Give them a coherent curriculum with more content — and fewer puppets.

Knowledge at the Core

Knowledge at the Core, a new Fordham e-book of essays, argues that Common Core standards won’t work without a “sequential, content-rich curriculum.”

The essays in Knowledge at the Core also pay tribute to the work of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy  and other education reform books and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Essays include: Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch by Sol Stern, Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge by Ruth Wattenberg, There Are No Shortcuts by Robert Pondiscio and Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Hirsch contributes Sustaining the American Experiment, Romancing the Child and Why I’m For the Common Core.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: “A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

Will 1st graders be lost in the ziggurat?

New York’s first-grade curriculum module on Early World Civilizations is troubling Chris Cerrone of Schools Matter @the Chalk Face. The vocabulary includes priests, religion, ziggurat, caravan, chariots, pyramid, archaeologist, hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, afterlife, prophet, etc.

Nearly all the Chalk Face commenters believe the unit is not “developmentally appropriate” for first graders, writes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist. Some cited Piaget’s stages of development, arguing little kids can’t learn abstract ideas. Others cited their experience teaching first grade.

Willingham doesn’t think much of Piaget’s theories. And the experience argument cuts both ways:

 . . . if we adopt a proof-of-the-pudding-is-in-the-eating criterion, lessons on ancient civilizations are fine because they are in use and children are learning. The material shown above is part of the Core Knowledge sequence, around for more than a decade and used by over a thousand schools. (NB: I’m on the Board of the Core Knowledge Foundation.)

. . . Another curriculum has had first-graders learn about ancient civilizations not for a decade, but for about a century: Montessori. (NB again: my children experienced these lessons at their school, and my wife teaches them–she’s an early elementary Montessori teacher.)

Montessori schools teach the “Five Great Lessons” at the beginning of first, second and third grades on: the history of the universe and earth, the coming of life, the origins of human beings, the history of signs and writing and the story of numbers and mathematics.

“Our understanding of any new concept is always incomplete,” Willingham argues.

For example, how do children learn that some people they hear about (Peter Pan) are made up and never lived, whereas others (the Pharaohs) were real? Not by an inevitable process of neurological maturation that makes their brain “ready” for this information, whereupon  they master it quickly. They learn it bit by bit, in fits and starts, sometimes seeming to get it, other times not.

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

Developmental psychology  provides some help in thinking about how children learn, Willingham concludes, but isn’t a good guide to what children can learn.

I just spent two days in Disneyland with Julia, 4, and Lily, 2. A major fan of Peter Pan, Julia thinks “fairy dust” enabled us to fly back to northern California. (I suggested the plane had been sprinkled with aerodynamics.) She also watches Little Einsteins, which teaches music terms. On the drive from the airport, she told her grandfather he was driving presto and should instead drive moderato.

Lessons in virtue from Macbeth and a duck

Jessica Lahey is a convert to character education after teaching at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in New Hampshire, that uses Core Knowledge and Core Virtues curricula.

Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. . . . students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work.

And it’s “easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence,” she writes in The Atlantic.

The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus.

. . . In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Macbeth’s bloody, “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

Literature isn’t the only teacher. When a mother duck built her nest near the main school pathway, students had to learn to control their curiosity. Mom Mallard could handle students walking by, but left her nest if they paused for a look.

 In Stanford’s famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it’s the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

. . . Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days.

“Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” writes Lahey. It’s not a bit of “fluff” tacked on to the real curriculum. It must be woven into lessons on Achilles, Ozymandias, Macbeth and a mother duck.

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

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.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.