New standards, old content-lite teaching

New Common Core Standards won’t help students learn if schools stick with the same old content and teaching strategies, writes Matthew Levey, a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher.

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to Common Core. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg? Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king, children don’t seem to be getting enough.

“Children also need much more explicit instruction” to put content into context, Levey writes.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.

. . . Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled. He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Raising standards without redesigning the curriculum and retraining teachers is doomed to fail, Levey predicts. 

Via Core Knowledge, where Robert Pondiscio has started a squishiness watch on the upcoming common social studies standards.  A draft framework will be released next month, he notes. “If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.”  The new standards won’t detail issues or events students should study, Gewertz writes. Instead they’ll describe “the structure, tools and habits of mind” they should develop.

No content? Pondiscio offers the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade as a reference.

Knowing, reading and writing

In the new American Educator, Jennifer Dubin praises Core Knowledge’s approach to teaching reading and writing in An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge.

The gains in reading, science, and social studies made by young students in a Core Knowledge language arts pilot show that the language arts block can be used to develop both the reading skills and the knowledge of the world that are essential to later reading comprehension.

In Core Knowledge schools, teachers read to students from more challenging books than they’d be able to handle on their own, Dubin explains. Each grade focuses on certain knowledge domains. For examples, kindergarteners learn about nursery rhymes and fables, the five senses, stories, plants, farms, Native Americans, kings and queens, seasons and weather, Columbus and the Pilgrims, colonial towns and townspeople, taking care of the Earth and presidents and American symbols.

Several New York City elementary schools tried the Core Knowledge approach with great success.

Before switching, students at a mostly low-income Queens elementary school knew little about the world — not much science, history or geography — says Joyce Barrett-Walker, principal of P.S. 96. Students had been taught reading strategies — find the main idea — but lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they read. They had nothing interesting to write about.

‘Personalizing’ helps kids solve math problems

“Personalizing” algebra questions — using a sports or music context, let’s say, instead of farming — helps students, according to Southern Methodist University researchers whose latest study is slated for publication in Journal of Educational Psychology.

Struggling students are easily discouraged by new problems and distracted by unfamiliar words, said Professor Candace Walkington.

She asked ninth graders who were using Cognitive Tutor software about their interests in areas such as sports, music, and movies. Then she randomly assigned them to take the linear-equation unit with standard word problems or one of four variations tailored to their interests.

The students who received personalized word problems solved them faster and more accurately than students who received the standard questions, particularly when it came to translating the story scenarios into symbolic equations.

Moreover, the strongest effects occurred for students who were struggling the most before personalization.

“Problems that required a relatively high reading level and more-challenging knowledge components, those were the steps of the problem that were particularly affected by the personalization,” (Carnegie Learning founder Steven) Ritter noted during the Sept. 12 discussion at Carnegie Mellon.

“It kind of makes sense if you think [about it], if you’re a big sports fan … you are probably better able to read things about sports because you understand the vocabulary, you understand the situations, and for you, the readability is better,” he said.

Core Knowledge’s E.D. Hirsch would predict this: Students need background knowledge to understand what they read. If students are struggling to read a story problem, they won’t have much mental energy left to tackle the math.

Here are five variations of the set-up to a math problem:

One method for estimating the cost of new home construction is based on the proposed square footage of the home. Locally, the average cost per square foot is estimated to be $46.50.

You are working at the ticket office for a college football team. Each ticket to the first home football game costs $46.50.

You are helping to organize a concert where some local R&B artists will be performing. Each ticket to the concert costs $46.50.

You have been working for the school yearbook, taking pictures and designing pages, and now it’s time for the school to sell the yearbooks for $46.50 each.

You work for a Best Buy store that is selling the newest Rock Band game for $46.50.

SOURCE: Candace A. Walkington, Southern Methodist University

Surprisingly, students who’d received “personalized” questions did better two months later on a new unit without personalized questions.

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.

Build knowledge to teach reading

Building background knowledge orally is the “secret sauce” of Core Knowledge’s reading program, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own.

. . . This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. . . .  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Also on Core Knowledge Blog: ‘Opinion is to Knowledge as Dessert is to Vegetables.’

Elementary reading books are short on non-fiction, but California’s new readers are a small step in the right direction, writes Dan Willingham on his blog. He agrees that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

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.

To stop the verbal drop, teach gist

The new low in SAT verbal scores reflects a sharp drop in high school students’ language competence that started in the 1970s, writes E.D. Hirsch. We can stop the drop in verbal ability by teaching knowledge that will enable children to understand what they read, Hirsch argues.

In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

Children who’ve developed strong language skills at home can learn easily, while the language-poor fall further and further behind.

The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired indirectly, by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.

. . . Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on, every student, from the start, understands the gist of what is heard or read. If preschoolers and kindergartners are offered substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds, then the results show up five years or so later in significantly improved verbal scores.

. . . By staying on a subject long enough to make all young children familiar with it (say, two weeks or so), the gist becomes understood by all and word learning speeds up. This is especially important for low-income children, who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base affluent children take for granted.

Current reform strategies aren’t enough, argues Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge movement and author of The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools.

Core Knowledge Blog has a longer version of Hirsch’s argument.


If it works, keep doing it

New York City wasted millions of dollars on bonuses for students and teachers with no effect on performance, writes Sol Stern in a New York Daily News op-ed.  Now a Core Knowledge reading program is succeeding in 10 Bronx and Queens elementary schools by teaching phonics and background knowledge to disadvantaged students. But there’s no guarantee the funding will be continued.

As chancellor of New York City schools, Joel Klein set up a comparison between the Core Knowledge pilot schools and similar schools using “balanced literacy.”

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 third-year results will be released in the fall. If the gains continue, logic says the program should be extended. But logic doesn’t always prevail.

On the other hand, New York City’s Education Department has ended a three-year bonus program for teachers and administrators because a RAND study found it had no effect on students’ or schools’ performance.

New standards need good curriculum

The new Common Core Standards require a good curriculum that puts reading first, writes E.D. Hirsch, Core Knowledge founder, in the New York Daily News.  A content-lite curriculum, especially in the elementary grades,  has “depressed student knowledge levels, caused verbal skills to decline and perpetuated a competency gap between demographic groups over the past generation,” Hirsch writes.

Since the 1980s the verbal scores of American high school seniors have not budged despite efforts like charter schools, accountability systems 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 over this period.

Demographics don’t explain why students of all kinds haven’t improved, Hirsch argues.

What changed was the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum. That led directly to our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores.

Why do I focus on verbal scores? Because they correlate with general knowledge, with the ability to learn, communicate and complete jobs effectively.

The “powerful connection between verbal ability and general knowledge is reflected in the new standards,” writes Hirsch, but he’s not sure the day-to-day curriculum will reflect that.

Education philanthropists should fund an independent board that will assess whether school materials “are likely to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary, and thus recapture equality of opportunity, good citizenship and a path to prosperity.” Without this, fragmented, diluted curriculum could undercut the new standards.

Update: Common Core (not the folks that wrote the new standards) asked teachers to write K-12 English Language Arts curriculum maps for the new standards.

By year’s end, we expect to release a revised version of the maps as part of an expanded web site that will allow educators to submit lesson plans and to both comment on and rate various aspects of the maps.

The curriculum maps are free.

Curriculum is the missing link

Agreeing on Common Core Standards isn’t enough, writes Eugenia Kemble on the Shanker Blog. Curriculum is the missing link.

. . .  implementation requires curriculum – that is, the selection and sequencing of essential content knowledge so that teachers can produce a sensible year’s worth of expected learning in the core domains of math, literature, science, history, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and health and physical education.

More detailed than even the most thorough state standards, but less detailed than textbooks and daily lesson plans, a high-quality common core curriculum would clearly define what teachers should teach and when students should learn it.

Most developed nations align education around a common curriculum, Kemble writes. But it would require major changes in the U.S. education system, which is based on local control.  She argues it’s worth it.

. . .  think about what doing this might actually mean for all the pop solutions currently on the table – good teacher preparation (education schools might have to acknowledge that student curriculum actually matters), good teacher evaluation (we might even consider the fairness of having a consistent set of expectations for what students should know), good research (imagine research not plagued by an inability to truly control for the variation in what students are expected to learn), performance pay, targeting low performing schools, assessments to measure defined accomplishment rather than to differentiate students, and on and on.

Kemble praises E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation for “aligning its successful curriculum sequence to the new Common Core Standards.”  In addition, the Common Core organization (no relation to the Common Core Standards group) is developing curriculum maps aligned with the new common English language arts standards.

Standards need a curriculum foundation to make a difference, Kemble argues.