A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

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.

Vocabulary is destiny

Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes Hirsch.

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.

 

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.

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.

 

Hirsch on Ravitch: Saving our schools

In How to Save the Schools in The New York Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch responds to Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Hirsch supports Ravitch’s call for a “widely shared core curriculum.”

It would assure the cumulative organization of knowledge by all students, and would help overcome the notorious achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. It would make the creation of an effective teaching force much more feasible, because it would become possible to educate American teachers in the well-defined, wide-ranging subjects they would be expected to teach—thus educating students and teachers simultaneously.It would also foster the creation of much better teaching materials, with more substance; and it would solve the neglected problem of students (mostly low-income ones) who move from one school to another, often in the middle of the school year.

Ravitch wants a voluntary national curriculum that will be adopted by states because of its excellence, not because of federal coercion. If there’s no consensus, she hopes states will adopt curricula “rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”

Ravitch “evokes a vision of good neighborhood schools” that anchor their communities. Hirsch praises Ravitch’s “detailed, real-world stories of what has actually happened under the reforms of recent decades.”

Yet if Ravitch’s proposals for a coherent, cumulative national — or at least widely shared — curriculum are to carry the day, she needs to put forward a more effective critique of the intellectual and scientific inadequacies of the anticurricular, child-centered movement. Her vision can hardly be put into effect while an army of experts in schools of education and a much bigger army of teachers and administrators, indoctrinated over nearly a century, are fiercely resisting a set curriculum of any kind. Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education. She needs to expose in greater analytic detail the inadequacies of the invisible-hand theory of child-centered schooling.

Ravitch is too dismissive of charter schools, which challenge “the intellectual monopoly of the educational world,” Hirsch writes. He wants a middle stance between Checker Finn’s desire to “blow up the (public) system” and Ravitch’s desire to rely on “better teacher education and school-by-school improvement in the hands of experienced, well-trained teachers and administrators.”

Good neighborhood schools are great. But what about the children going to bad neighborhood schools staffed with novice teachers and run by excuse-making principals?

Core standards get reading right

Core standards could revolutionize reading instruction, writes E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.

The English Language Arts Standards include a call for “literacy in history/social students and science,” Hirsch points out. Standards writers explain that students need a “foundation of knowledge” to be “better readers in all content areas.” Hirsch could not agree more.

(The document) concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Currently, reading comprehension is taught as a series of transferable strategies, Hirsch writes. It’s assumed that if children can “find the main idea” or “question the author,” they can understand anything. But comprehension is based on knowledge.

Several studies show that “poor” readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and “strong” readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions as though these strategies will somehow replace the subject-matter knowledge needed to become broadly literate.

Publishers could replace trivial fiction with a random assortment of trivial non-fiction, Hirsch writes. But he hopes the message will get through: There must be a “coherent, specific and content-rich” curriculum.  Strategies aren’t enough.

Here’s an Ed Next debate on national standards.

Common knowledge

In The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch argues that schools must teach our shared heritage and language to prepare children of many ethnicities to grow into “competent and civic-minded Americans who can function in the public sphere.”

Our nation’s founders strongly supported education to mold citizens, Hirsch writes. They were less concerned with “the development of personal talent and individuality” in the private sphere.

In the 20th century, progressive educators focused on on trying to meet the individual child’s interests, talents and needs. They rejected a standard curriculum in favor of “child-centered” teaching with the teacher as a “guide on the side” not a “sage on the stage.”

But the failure to teach a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum has hurt children — especially those who don’t have educated parents teaching them at home — Hirsch argues forcefully. Children don’t learn to read well if they don’t understand the context of the words on the page. They can’t enter the mainstream culture if they can’t speak, read and write the language of educated Americans.

A best-selling author since Cultural Literacy, Hirsch has been rejected by the education establishment, despite the success of Core Knowledge schools that use the curriculum his foundation has developed.

He attacks the education school as “theological institutes where heresy is viewed as an evil that its members have a civic duty to suppress. The anti-curriculum movement’s sense of righteousness, of being in possession of ethical rectitude and privileged truth, often have a religious flavor. Pro-curriculum heretics are to be seen as fallen souls who want to impose soul-deadening burdens on children and discourage lively, child-friendly teaching. Subject-matter-oriented people are by defintion authoritarian, undemocratic and right-wing. ”

Lively, engaging teaching can be used to help students learn subject matter in a coherent curriculum, Hirsch writes. There’s no need to be boring — or right-wing.

In Commentary, Liam Julian, managing editor of Policy Review, praises Hirsch’s ideas, but questions whether it’s possible to write a national core curriculum that’s any good.

Recently, Hirsch himself reviewed a set of proposed nationwide English standards developed by two nongovernmental organizations and panned them, finding them “very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place.” Why on earth would he expect a national core curriculum to be any less deficient, especially when he enumerates in The Making of Americans just how anti-intellectual and silly the broad education establishment has become? . . .  if the recent history he recounts is any guide, the product is far likelier to be a murky, multicultural, concept-based document developed by the exact education establishment he excoriates.

This is a real concern.

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Knowledge matters

E. D. Hirsch’s knowledge-based curricula is the key to “Massachusetts’s miraculous educational reforms,” writes Sol Stern in City Journal.  After the 1993 education reform bill, Massachusetts wrote content-rich grade-by-grade standards backed by testing, Stern writes.

The history and social-science curriculum, for instance, makes clear that students should be taught explicitly about their rich heritage, rather than taught how to learn about that heritage. The curriculum calls for schools to “impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society.” This learning includes “the vision of a common life in liberty, justice, and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution two centuries ago.”

While other states have seen little progress in reading and math, Massachusetts students have moved to the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and do much better than the U.S. as a whole on Trends in International Math and Science Studies (TIMSS).

Stern’s children were students at a sought-after Manhattan public school, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose teachers and principals had trained at Columbia University’s progressive Teachers College.

I once asked my younger son and some of his classmates, all top fifth-grade students, whether they knew anything about the historical figure after whom their school was named. Not only were they clueless about the military leader who delivered the final blow that brought down America’s slave empire; they hardly knew anything about the Civil War, either. When I complained to the school’s principal, he reassured me: “Our kids don’t need to learn about the Civil War. What they are learning at P.S. 87 is how to learn about the Civil War.”

After reading Hirsch, the Sterns “accelerated our children’s supplementary home schooling” to ensure that they developed a base of knowledge.

Common standards: Where's the content?

A draft of proposed common core state standards for high school students is available as a pdf. The English Language Arts and math standards are supposed to provide “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable.”

Dead on Arrival” writes Core Knowledge Blog, which was the first to provide the pdf link.

. . .  the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons – or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

. . . Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

. . . Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed. On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. complains that the standards ignore content knowledge. “They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

For example, students might have excellent reading skills but be unable to understand the sample text on covalent bonds because they don’t understand the science references.

This has been a hurry-up effort, so I’m not surprised at the lack of specifics. But I do wonder whether it would be better to start with the most-respected standards — Massachusetts’ — rather than starting from scratch.

The standards are a first draft that can be revised and improved, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson. She hopes for “clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read.”