Tag Archives: Robert Pondiscio

Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . ..as your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,’” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.


Social Justice and Winning the Word

Robert Pondiscio got cranky with me on Twitter. I don’t translate well to 140 characters. I barely translate to 1400 words.

In Who’s the Real Progressive?, Pomdiscio got all “in your FACE!” with Steve Nelson, head of Calhoun School (tuition $40K), who snippily dismissed Pomdiscio’s school as “not progressive”. Pomdiscio was outraged. How dare he say that a school dedicated to helping black and Hispanic kids succeed isn’t progressive?

I told him he was needlessly fussed. “Social justice” and “progressive” are two terms firmly ensconced in liberal ideology with specific meanings about means, not outcomes. He should know that. I was told off in no uncertain terms. Pondiscio pointed out that he didn’t ask me for advice. True enough, and if he didn’t want unsolicited responses, he might try email next time.

But since I’ve escaped the bonds of Twitter….

Twenty years ago, I used to say I agreed with the goals of feminism and then qualified that statement: I can’t stand NOW, I think feminism has gone far afield, blah blah blah. Now I say I’m opposed to feminism, because I believe that women should have equal rights and responsibilities.

But Ed, a feminist will say, feminism is about women having equal rights and responsibilities.

And I laugh. “Hahahahaha! Good one!”

Of course, at the heart of this exchange lies a cold hard truth: feminists won the word.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers (usually English and history) talk about how they want their kids to “develop a positive value system” in the context of a recycling program or anti-bullying week. If they are trying to institute “social justice” values then it’s a panel on gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Dream Act.

Me, I don’t participate in the recycle program. When the kids ask me why, I tell them I want to hurt the environment. I was bullied into accepting a sticker during anti-bullying week, but I didn’t wear it, telling my students I’m anti-bullying, but also anti-anti-bullying. When students tell me they oppose gay marriage, gun rights, or the Dream Act, I simply warn them to watch their audience or have a lawyer on call. I would also mention whether I agreed or disagreed, just as I would with students with opposing views.

And if I’m asked whether I support social justice, I say no, because I support free speech and the right to individual opinion.

But Ed, says a liberal teacher, social justice is all about free speech and the right to individual opinion.

Hahahahaha! I say. Good one!

Again, a sad truth at the heart of it all: liberals won the words.

And that’s all I was trying to tell Robert Pondiscio. By all means, take on the absurd assumption that a progressive school must teach a curriculum drenched in liberal propaganda and enforce a rigid ideology about “social justice” that only acknowledges “white institutionalized racism” and “white male patriarchy” as wrongs imposed upon a minority populace bravely struggling against the jackboot on their necks. I’m all for it. While you’re at it, go take on ed schools not for their curriculum (it’s not that bad) but for their routine violations of academic freedom and the elite ed schools’ systematic exclusion of conservatives or Republicans from their student population, implying, but never daring to say directly, that the right’s political agenda is incompatible with worthwhile educational outcomes. I’m there.

But spewing outrage when a progressive tells you that your school isn’t progressive because you believe in good test scores for and enforce tough discipline against black and Hispanic kids? Of course it’s not progressive to insist on homogeneous cultural success and behavior markers. Progressives don’t care about ends, they care about means. Did the teachers spout liberal values and espouse progressive dogma? It’s progressive. Otherwise, not. They won the word. Cope.

Of course, the real irony is that reformers, whether choice, accountability, or curriculum, rarely question the liberal ideal of “social justice” and “progressive values” in at least one key respect. As I’ve written before, reformers of all stripes have completely embraced the progressive agenda for educational outcomes: affirmative action, the DREAM act, special education mainstreaming (for public schools, not for charters, of course), support for non-English speakers. They’re only arguing about means.

Note that the students in Robert Pondiscio’s essay with the happy stories about college acceptance to Brown and Vanderbilt, are all black and they almost certainly got in with lower test scores than if they’d had the same income but were white or Asian. A substantial number of Americans don’t see social justice in the notion of accepting far less qualified kids, often of higher income, simply because of their skin color. And yet Pondiscio offers his story as an unalloyed example of a progressive outcome, of social justice.

In fact, he wouldn’t even be writing happy stories about poor whites or Asians, just as you don’t see KIPP cutting admission deals for white and Asian students, because reformers aren’t starting charter schools to help poor whites or Asians.

Suburban upper-income whites, sure. Reformers are all about wealthy suburban whites for the same reason that Willie Sutton robs banks. Progressive charter schools for liberal whites trying to escape the overly brown and poor population of their local schools are on the rise. These schools aren’t reliant on philanthropists, but well-to-do parents willing to provide seed money to bootstrap the initial efforts. Poor or even middle class whites need not apply: they don’t bring the color the schools will need to prove the “diverse” population. They can apply for the lottery, eventually. (“Poor” Asians are a different story; it’s largely how the Chinese takeover of American Indian Public Charter went unnoticed. Chinese and Koreans bring all sorts of money from back home but have little money on paper, so often count as “low income”. Doesn’t stop them from buying up real estate, often, literally, with cash.)

You’ll go a long, long time looking for reformers’ advocacy of any issue that benefits poor whites, or even suburban whites not rich enough to write a check for seed money. In fact, I’d argue that increased choice is one aspect of reform that will hurt poor and middle-class whites, since no one’s interested in starting schools for them.

So Pondiscio’s brouhaha: Steve Nelson claims he’s progressive because he enforces liberal think on a bunch of rich white students and gives lip service to getting low income black and Hispanic kids get into college, probably with a couple–but not too many–Calhoun scholarships. Robert Pondiscio claims he’s more progressive because he works for a school that gets more black and Hispanic kids get into elite colleges, thanks to progressive universities’ belief in affirmative action and wealthy conservative organizations eager to fund selective charter schools instead of writing $40K scholarships, the better to prove that traditional schools and unionized teachers suck.

The cataclysmic nature of their disagreement on progressive values involves the degree to which culturally homogenous discipline should be enforced while pursuing the unquestioned good of allocating resources for a select group of black and Hispanic students. And, I guess, whether $40K tuition scholarships for low income black and Hispanic students are morally inferior to them winning a lottery to a nominally public school funded by billionaires directly, rather than through scholarships.

Okay. Well. Glad we got thatstraightened out.

Meanwhile, we’re a long way from a world in which we give all low income kids an equal shot, regardless of race. We’re not even at the point where each demographic has its own group of interested billionaires to fund selective schools for a lucky few.

Bah, Humbug.


More on Mumford

(Totally accidental pun, I promise. The man’s a disgusting sleaze, but he’s not stupid.)

So for some reason, the Clarence Mumford story broke this week. Odd, that.

A sample, just from my twitter feed:

Robert Pondiscio: “Cheating on teacher certification tests? Seriously?? Not exactly the highest bar to clear.”

Eduwonk: “The real scandal is the low-level of the Praxis test and why it continues to be used at all. The Praxis II is different, but the basic Praxis is much too low a bar given what we expect of teachers.”

Sarah Almy, Director of teacher quality at Education Trust: ““These are pretty basic tests….The fact that there were folks who felt like they needed to bring somebody else in in order to meet a very basic level of content knowledge is disturbing, in particular for the kids those teachers are going to wind up teaching.”

Walter Russell Mead: “Massive cheating scandal on teacher certification tests. Worse: tests are pathetically easy, only idiots could flunk.”

Here are the names of the people thus far indicted:

Notice all these people are black. Which is what I predicted back in July, when this story first broke. Some of the other names are Jadice Moore, Felippia Kellogg (somehow, this Fox news story couldn’t find a picture of her), Dante Dowers, Jacklyn McKinnie. (A primary tester was John Bowen; I haven’t been able to find a picture of him, oddly, Fox News couldn’t find a picture of him, either.) If I do some bad ol’ stereotyping based solely on those names, I’d advise gamblers to bet on them being black, too.

I am pleased to be wrong about one thing—I thought it likely the testers who could easily pass the test would be white, but it appears that most of them are black, as well. Notice also that the Fox News story and many others make it clear that many of the people paying for the tests were already teachers, and that some of the tests were Praxis II. I’d written about that, too.

If you’re wondering why I am pretty sure that most, if not all, of the teachers paying for testers are black, here are some helpful graphics:


And yet, no one save little old me is even mentioning the race of the people involved, as if it’s this totally random factor, like you could find white teachers desperately paying thousands of dollars to pass these tests.

Robert Pondiscio, WRM, and Andy Rotherham and the many other people sneering about the people who need to pay someone else to pass the test, be very specific: Only 40% of African Americans can pass the Praxis I the first time. The other 60%? That’s who you are calling idiots.
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Let’s be clear what I am not saying. I am not excusing the fraud. I am not hinting that African Americans are incapable of passing the tests (this fraud ring shows clearly that they are not).

And since I’m prone to prolixity, I will bullet my points.

I am saying that reformers are:

  • hammering constantly on the need for “higher standards”,
  • sneering at the low standards on teacher credential tests,
  • scoffing at grossly distorted stats suggesting that all teachers, regardless of content area, have low SAT scores,
  • declaring that the only way to “restore credibility and professionalism to teaching” is to pull teachers from the top third of college graduates, ignoring the fact that high school content teachers are already drawn from the top half, as well as the fact that there’s no real need for elementary school teachers to be rocket scientists

And while they rant on endlessly on these talking points, they are ignoring the following unpleasantness:

  • the low cut score on the basic content knowledge tests are put in place specifically to ensure that some small number of African American and Hispanic teachers will pass. The white averages are a full standard deviation higher; a huge boost to the cut scores in most credentialing tests wouldn’t bother the bulk of all teachers (white females, remember) in the slightest.
  • research has turned up very close to empty in proving that teacher content knowledge has any relationship to student achievement. (Cite to research in my earlier article).
  • research consistently shows that teacher race has a distressing relationship to student achievement–specifically, more than one study shows a positive outcome when black teachers teach black students. (again, cite in earlier article)
  • Raising the cut scores will decimate the black and Hispanic teaching population.
  • Many states dramatically increased the difficulty in elementary school credentialing tests after NCLB, yet research has not shown these new teachers to be far superior to the teachers who just passed the much easier (or non-existent) earlier tests. There hasn’t been research done specifically on this point. Hint. Oh, and by the way–those cut score boosts have already dramatically reduced the URM teaching population.

So reformers, when you call for higher content standards, when you say that teachers who can’t pass the test are idiots who should never be allowed in a classroom, you are talking about black and Hispanic teachers. When you demand that we need far more rigorous demonstrated content knowledge for teachers, you are merely making calls for changes that will decimate the already reduced URM teacher population.

And you are doing this with next to no evidence that your demanded changes will impact student achievement, merely on your own prejudice that smarter teachers would make better teachers.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s a perfect research paper out there waiting to be written that will winkle out the lurking variables to prove that yes, we need smarter teachers and yes, it’s okay to annihilate the black and Hispanic teaching population in a good cause. Fine. Go find it.

Or maybe you just want to be snobby elites who don’t personally know anyone who scored below 600 on any section of the SAT, and think your own personal prejudices should substitute for education policy.

Whatever. Just learn and accept what you’re doing. You are calling for changes that will further homogenize an already white career category, closing off a major career option to over half of all blacks and Hispanics, for what is thus far no better reason than you think teachers should be smarter.

Got it? Own it. Or shut the hell up about it.


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