Tag Archives: E. D. Hirsch

Grant Wiggins

Curriculum is the least understood of the reform efforts, even though parents have more day to day contact with curriculum than choice or accountability. This is in large part because curriculum advocates don’t agree to the degree that accountability and choice reformers do, but also because teachers have far more control over curriculum than most understand. As Larry Cuban explains, curriculum has multiple layers: intended, tested, taught, and learned. Curriculum battles usually involve the intended curriculum, the one designed by the state, which usually creates the tested curriculum as a manageable subset. (Much of the Common Core controversy is caused by the overwhelming difficulty of the tested curriculum, but leave that for another time.)

But intended and tested curriculum are irrelevant once the doors close, and in this essay, I refer to the taught curriculum, the one that we teachers sculpt, whether we use “the book” (actually just pieces of the district approved book), use another book we like better, or build our own.

To the extent most non-educators know anything about curriculum advocacy, it begins and ends with E. D. Hirsch, otherwise known as “the guy who says what my nth grader should know”, author of a book series he eventually transformed into a curriculum for k-6, Core Knowledge. Hirsch offers one Big Idea: improving student background knowledge will improve their reading comprehension, because only with background knowledge can students learn from text. But, the Idea continues, schools ignore content knowledge in favor of teaching students “skills”. To improve reading comprehension and ongoing student academic outcomes, schools must shift from a skills approach to one dedicated to improving knowledge.

Then there’s Grant Wiggins, whose death last week occasioned this essay as an attempt to explain that we’ve lost a giant.

The media proper didn’t give Wiggins’ passing much notice. Valerie Strauss gave his last blog sequence a good sendoff and Edutopia brought back all their interviews with him. Education World and Education Week gave him obits. It doesn’t look as if Real Clear Education noted his passing, which is a bit shocking but perhaps I missed the mention.

Inside education schools, that world reformers hold in considerable contempt, Wiggins’ work is incredibly influential and his death sent off shockwaves. Since 1998, Understanding by Design has been an essential component in preparing teachers for the professional challenge of deciding what to teach and how to deliver the instruction.

Prospective teachers don’t always understand this preparation will have relevance to their lives until their first year in the classroom. Progressive ed schools would never say anything so directly as “You will be faced with 30 kids with an 8 year range in ability and the textbooks won’t work.” Their ideology demands they wrap this message up in hooha on how insensitive textbooks are to the diverse needs of the classroom. Then, their ideology influences the examples and tasks they choose for instruction. Teacher candidates with an instructivist bent thus often tune out curriculum development classes in ed school, rolling their eyes at the absurd examples and thinking keerist, just use the textbook. (Yeah. This was me.)

Usually, they figure out the relevance of curriculum instruction when they get into the classroom, when they realize how laughably inadequate the textbook is for the wide range of abilities and interests of their students. When they realize the book assumes kids will sit patiently and listen, then obediently practice. When they realize that most of the kids won’t bring their books, and that all the well-intended advice about giving consequences for unprepared students will alone result in failing half the class, never mind the problems with their ability. When they realize that many kids have checked out, either actively misbehaving or passively sitting. Worst of all the teachers experience the kids who are eager to learn, try hard, don’t get it, and don’t remember anyway. Then, even after they make a bunch of adjustments, these teachers realize that kids who do seem to be learning don’t remember much—that is, in Cuban’s paradigm, the learned curriculum is wildly different than the one taught (or in the Wiggins universe, “transferred”).

The teachers who don’t quit or move to charters or comprehensives with a higher SES may remember vaguely hey, there was something about this in ed school (hell, maybe that’s just me). So they go dig up their readers and textbooks and suddenly, all the twaddle about diversity and cultural imperialism fades away and the real message becomes legible, like developing invisible ink. How do you create a learning unit? What are your objectives? How will you assess student learning? And at that point, many roads lead to Wiggins.

Grant Wiggins was impossible to pigeonhole in a reform typology. In 1988, he made 10 proposals for high school reform that leaned progressive but that everyone could find some agreement with. He didn’t think much of lecturing, but he wrote a really terrific analysis of lectures that should be required reading for all teachers. (While I also liked Harry Webb’s rejoinder, I reread them in preparation for this essay and Grant’s is far superior.) He approved of Common Core’s ELA standards, but found the math ones weak. In the space of two weeks in 2013, he took on both Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, and this is after Ravitch flipped on Hirsch and other traditionalists.

Grant Wiggins was more than ready to mix it up. Both his essays on Hirsch and Ravitch might fairly be called broadsides, although backed with research and logic that made both compelling, (perhaps that’s because I largely agreed with them). His last two posts dissected Hirsch supporter Dan Willingham’s op-ed on reading strategies. While he listened and watched teachers intently, he would readily disagree with them and was rarely gentle in pointing it out. I found his insights on curriculum and instruction absolutely fascinating, but rolled my eyes hard at his more excessive plaints on behalf of students, like the nonsense on apartheid bathrooms and the shadowing experience that supposedly revealed the terrible lives of high school students—and if teachers were all denied the right to sarcasm, as he would have it, I’d quit. He didn’t hesitate to say I didn’t understand the lives that students lead, and I told him right back that he was wrong. More troubling to me was his conviction that most teachers were derelict in their duty and his belief that teachers are responsible for low test scores. But what made him so compelling, I think, is that he offered value to all teachers on a wide range of topics near to our needs, whether or not we shared all his opinions.

I knew him slightly. He once linked to my essay on math philosophies as an example of a “learned” teacher, and read my extended response (do I have any other kind?) and took the time to answer. Then, a few months later, I responded to his post on “teacher job descriptions” with a comment he found worthy of pulling out for a post on planning. He then privately emailed to let me know he’d used my comment and asked me to give feedback on his survey. That was a very big day. Like, I told my folks about it.

In the last week of his life, Grant had asked Robert Pondiscio to read his Willingham critique. Pondiscio, a passionate advocate of all things content knowledge, dismissed this overture and declared his posts on both Willingham and Hirsch “intemperate”. Benjamin Riley of Deans for Impact broke in, complimenting Grant and encouraging the idea of debate. The next day, Daniel Willingham responded to Grant on his site (I would be unsurprised to learn that Riley had something to do with that, and kudos to him if so). Grant was clearly pleased to be hashing the issues out directly and they exchanged a series of comments.

I had been retweeting the conversation and adding comments. Grant agreed with my observation that Core Knowledge advocates are (wrongly) treated as neutral experts.

On the last day of his life, Grant favorited a few of these tweets, I think because he realized I understood both his frustration at the silence and his delight at finally engaging Dan in debate.

And then Grant Wiggins died suddenly, shockingly. He’ll will never finish that conversation with Dan Willingham. Death, clearly, has no respect for the demands of social media discourse.

Dan Willingham tweeted his respect. Robert Pondiscio wrote an appreciation, expressing regret for his abruptness. If the general media ignored Grant’s passing, Twitter did not.

I didn’t know Grant well enough to provide personal insights. But I’m an educator, and so I will try to educate people, make them aware of who was lost, and what he had to offer.

Novices can find plenty of vidoes on his “backwards design” with a simple google. But his discussions on learning and assessment are probably more interesting to the general audience and teachers alike—and my favorites as well.

Reformers like Michael Petrilli are experiencing a significant backlash to their causes. Petrilli isn’t wrong about the need for parent buy-in, but as Rick Hess recently wrote, the talkers in education policy are simply uninterested in what the “doers” have to offer the conversation.

Amen to that. The best education policy advocates—Wiggins, Larry Cuban, Tom Loveless–have all spent significant time as teachers. Grant Wiggins set an example reformers could follow as someone who could criticize teachers, rightly or wrongly, and be heard because he listened. If he disagreed, he’d either cite evidence or argue values. So while he genuinely believed that most teachers were inadequate, teachers who engaged with him instantly knew this guy understood their world, and were more likely to listen.

And for the teachers that Grant found inadequate—well, I will always think him in error about the responsibility teachers own for academic outcomes. But teachers should stretch and challenge themselves. I encourage all teachers to look for ways to increase engagement, rigor, and learning, and I can think of no better starting point than Grant Wiggins’ blog.

I will honor his memory by reading his work regularly and looking for new insights to bring to both my teaching and writing.

If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure Grant is currently explaining to God how the world would have turned out better if he’d had started with the assessment and worked backwards. It would have taken longer than seven days, though.

My sincere condolences to his wife, four children, two grandsons, his long-time colleague Jay McTighe, his band the Hazbins, and the many people who were privileged to know him well. But even out here on the outskirts of Grant’s galaxy of influence, he’ll be sorely missed.

In Teaching, Even Caitlin Flanagan Has Her Uses

In my Saturday enrichment class, I wrote the opening paragraph to Caitlin Flanagan’s The Dark Power of Fraternities on the board:

(1) One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: (2) he would shove a bottle rocket up his a** and blast it into the sweet night air. (3) And perhaps it was an excellent idea. (4) What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket.(5) What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

The class, the same students I’ve been teaching weekly since September, were finishing up a brief assignment as I wrote. You are wondering, perhaps, why I didn’t just print out the passage, but that question gives me more credit for planning than I am due.

These four boys: smart, engaged (even Francis, who still hugs the wall when I let him), fluid writers, ready readers. A joy. When I refuse to let them have “word banks”, they thrive on the challenge. When I turn over discussion to them, I get three boys eagerly arguing for their interpretation of events, individuals, authorial intent. (I have to noodge Francis). Dino is still the leader, the punky Korean kid with cowlick and attitude to spare, but Arthur and Bruce are more than willing to stand up for their own ideas. I would be happier if they remembered paper and pencil more often (here, Francis shines, always prepared, always lending out supplies, whereas I snark at the others routinely for their failure to live up to the stereotype), but in all other ways, a dream class.

Example: Our previous book was Hound of the Baskervilles. After we’d finished the book, I gave them a prompt in which I asserted my opinion, that the women of the book were opportunistic whiners, morally inferior in every way to the men, that they were weak ninnies who cared only for their own interests. They were to agree or disagree, using specific characters and their actions to support. Dino generally agreed with my position, citing Laura Lyons’ betrayal of Sir Charles, and Beryl Stapleton’s rage upon realizing her abusive husband had been cheating on her. Bruce and Arthur sympathized with the women, pointing out that they had very little control over their lives. Francis agreed with the “no choice” position, but used Mrs. Barrymore, who I honestly hadn’t even considered in writing the prompt, pointing out that she was entirely dependent on her husband to help her brother—all she did was cry about it.

So how to step it up? Last week, I dug up some of the vocabulary and grammar workbooks we keep around, and gave them each one.

“But these words are easy,” sniffed Dino.

“I haven’t seen any of them in your essays,” I noted.

“Oh,” said Arthur, always the one to see pedagogical intent. “We are working on writing?”

“Yes, I’ve been mulling the best way to challenge you, to keep this class a step beyond just an acceptably interesting way to spend Saturday afternoon. You are all effective readers who understand the importance of content knowledge. I trust you’re going to continue to build on that. So I decided you’re going to focus on writing quality. We’re going to study grammar and vocabulary in part to incorporate the deeper knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure, and in part to give you a means to focus in on the act of writing—not the ideas and content, but the expression itself.”

So it’s a week later, and I’d told them to write three sentences using any three vocabulary words, using the structure of Subordinate Clause, Independent Clause. I had originally planned to put them on the board, go through the “work/glue” routine (more on that in a minute), and then have them rewrite.

But just then, I thought of the Flanagan piece. Like I said, not much of a planner.

The kids had finished up while I was writing, and I could hear the rustle of shock as they figured out the gist.

“This paragraph opens an article by Caitlin Flanagan on fraternities, and for now, it’s not important if you don’t know what they are. In journalism, the opening paragraph is known as the lede; when your English teachers talk about the hook, they’re describing the same thing in an annoying way.”

“Why would she write about an idiot?” asked Dino, ever the challenger.

“How did someone so stupid get to college?” Bruce wanted to know.

“Both worthy questions, but not what I want you to focus on. Anything else you notice?”


“She doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” offered Arthur. Francis, the Clarence Thomas of my class, still silent.

“You are all focusing on the content. I knew you would. That’s a big part of my point. Not one of you ever considered the quality of the writing. How many sentences do you see, if you count the colon break as a sentence?”


I marked them out (as you see now).

“What do you notice?”

Pause again, but this time they examined the sentences, not the content.

Arthur: “So, okay, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the first sentence is really, really long.”

Dino: “Yeah, and then the next one, what he’s going to do” (they giggle) “is short. And….specific. Like, you have to kind of figure out what the first sentence is about, but the second one is, like…..” he searches for a word. “blunt.”

Me: “Brutal, even.”

“The shortest sentence is the third one,” Bruce: “Which is weird, because it’s not an excellent idea.”

“Nice,” I said. “It’s almost like a bridge, a pause, to the second half of the paragraph. Go back to the first sentence, again. Dino has a good point—it’s a meandering sentence, in a way. What is it saying?”

“He’s stupid.”

“He’s young,” Francis stepped up.

“What does inebriant mean?” I asked.


“So you ever heard of someone being inebriated?”

“Oh, is he drunk?” asked Arthur.

“Hey, ether is an alcohol, too!” from Bruce.

“So being young is like being drunk.”

“But he was drunk, too.”

“She never used the word drunk,” observed Dino. “My English teacher always tells us to be clear, not use big words just to use them.”

“Good point. Flanagan, the author, wrote this for the Atlantic, so was directing it to a highly educated audience. But you bring up an interesting point: when are writers using appropriate synonyms, bringing in the full richness of the English language, and when are they just ‘using big words’? ”

“It’s weird, too, because she’s real direct after the colon,” Arthur observed.

“Hey, excellent point. After all that lyrical description of youth and alcohol, suddenly we get the brutality.”

Dino smacked the desk. “Contrast!”

“There you go.”

“Oh, I see” Bruce leaned forward. “She kind of leads you in, it’s a nice night, he’s drunk but kind of in a nice-sounding way, and he’s young, so he has an idea.”

“Francis?” we all waited. And waited. And waited.

“It’s like the short sentence in the middle stops it.”

“Interesting. What do you mean?” we all waited some more. Dino wanted desperately to talk; I waved him down.

“Like, not telling you what happened…”

“..yet. I totally agree.” Dino could wait no longer. “It’s like she’s giving time to process what this idiot did before going on to say what happened.”

“And then she tells us what happened, and both sentences are different from the first three.” Arthur pointed out.

“What do you notice?”

“It’s like…parallel? The 20-year-old hahahahaha, um, and then the 20-cent bottle rocket.” Bruce pushed back his glasses. “So she tells you why things went wrong (eww).”

“Nice. Notice at the end, the use of two general terms that convey exactly what happened: ‘successful blastoff’ and ‘failure to launch’.” They all laughed. “So first she explains why things went wrong, then she tells you what happened, generally, and your imagination fills in the details.”


“Good discussion; you’ve talked about how her writing achieved her goals. What you haven’t mentioned one way or the other is the quality of the writing.”

“I don’t know what good writing is.” from Arthur.

“Look at the board.”

They looked again, and were quiet.

“I could give you some of the technical ways in which it’s great. Remember the many times we’ve discussed working words and glue words? Let’s go through it again.

(Note: C. Edward Good’s oops book transformed my writing a decade or so ago. Good gives full credit for work/glue concept to the originator Richard Wydick, but Wydick didn’t get specific the way that Good does. I teach a modified form of Good’s structure.)


“So how much glue do you see?”


“Wow. Not much.”

“Remember, glue is not a matter of bad or good. Articles are essential, as are conjunctions and pronouns. She uses the simple word ‘it’ to great effect. And starts a sentence with ‘And’!, which some teachers say is wrong, but they’re wrong. She opens with ‘a young man named’, when ‘Travis Hughes’ would do nicely. It’s not all about following rigid rules.”

“She uses ‘to be’ as a main verb, too.”

“Right, another thing that shouldn’t be taken to excess but is used beautifully here. And let me tell you something: I am not a fan of Caitlin Flanagan’s ideas. If she’s against fraternities then I’m strongly tempted in favor of them. But if I ever wrote an essay that’s half as evocative, as rich, as this five-sentence paragraph, I’d count it as a good day. So now, look down at your three sentences.”

They all groaned. I laughed.

“No, I’m not trying to make you feel inadequate! That’s not the point. Here’s the question: how much work did you put into crafting them? How much time did you spend choosing words, thinking about active verbs, how much did you think about how much weight each word could pull?”


“Right. You just wanted to get the assignment done. Well, this is what I mean by our new focus on writing. When I ask you to write sentences, using a particular style, I don’t want you to just get it done. I want you to think about the words, form a picture in your head of what you want your sentence to do, or the idea you want to communicate. It’s easier at first to work with images or actions, but over time, you want to spend the same time making your ideas as vivid. But the point here is the quality of your writing, not simply putting together a grammatically correct sentence. You all have the stuff to become strong writers.”

Writing is thinking, you always say.”

“That’s right. That’s stage one. That’s what everyone has to understand first. You’ve got that part down, all of you. Now it’s time to craft your thoughts, make them compelling, think about presenting those thoughts to their greatest advantage.”

I’ve been teaching English longer than I’ve been teaching math, really, although not in public school. Math, at its core, has a procedural, structural component rarely found in the study of either composition or literature, once you get past grammar. Writing or literary analysis doesn’t involve procedures, but an approach, a quality of thought.

I started into a full jeremiad against English high school instruction today, but decided against it. I don’t know enough about what goes on in the average classroom. Suffice it to say this: from what I see, we spend almost no time in high school English teaching students how to write well, or how to analyze literature to the extent of their ability. No, Common Core won’t fix this.

In math, improvement doesn’t count until the kid gets The Right Answer. Writing and literary analysis both have a big advantage in that respect: all improvement counts. I’ve taught ACT classes in which I’ve taken low ability kids from single incoherent paragraphs to five paragraph essays—still weak in language and grammar, but considerably improved from where they began and infinitely greater in self-expression. I’ve watched students with sixth grade reading skills suddenly realize that in two chapters of his memoir that cover Haiti, Rick Bragg barely mentioned that the oppressors and the oppressed were all black, and wonder why he avoided direct mention of this key fact, leading to great discussions of audience and ideology. None of the kids ended with significantly stronger reading skills or much more in the way of vocabulary—although they usually retain a much stronger understanding of grammar. However, they all improved in using the skills they had to think and express their ideas.

Best of all is when you get smart kids who understand what’s on offer. I can’t give them procedures. I can give paths, methods, considerations, advice. But not a flowchart on how. Sorry, Don Hirsch. It’s not all about content.

Of course, that’s what makes it so fun.

Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat

…but anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about education reform knows that kids experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter kindergarten at age five matter a whole lot in terms of how well they are going to do once they are in school, and I would say that even hardened cynics would concede that high quality preschool programs could make a dent in our mile-wide achievement gaps.” — Michael Petrilli, around the 1:24 mark.

As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how.Charles Murray

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K. Dick

You know how every one mentions the Perry project as the gold standard, a small “hothouse” study that had good results but the fear is the results can’t be replicated? Here’s the data they’re talking about comparing cohorts at age 27 and age 40 (click to enlarge):

So all those people tweeting and posting excitedly about the pre-school initiative—this is what they’re worked up about? “Hey, if we take really incredibly at-risk kids and spend billions on them in pre-school and manage to replicate the very best outcome we’ve ever managed, only 1 in 3 of them will be arrested five times by their 40th birthday, instead of 1 in 2!”

That’s the gold standard, the “good news” in preschool programs: the achievement gap moves barely a nudge, measured cognitive ability goes up a tad, and the jail gap isn’t quite as spectacularly awful. Pick your own personal favorite preschool research and you’ll still get the same results: not anything to complain about, but the subjects are still much more similar to the control group than to any middle-class norms.

And yet, do-gooders keep talking up preschool, despite Russ Whitehurst‘s appeal for hardheadedness. They blow past the so-far indifferent results and talk up the happy day when we’ll do it right. Then they combine that dream with the current meme on the Vocabulary Deficit—currently in vogue because of E. D. Hirsch and the NAEP results—and so you see folks on the right, left, and even the supposedly unbiased talking up the possibility that vocabulary instruction, or the lack thereof, is causing the achievement gap.

But I’m going to ask everyone to think about Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox, sort of.

Say a single welfare mom has a sixth baby that she doesn’t really want and in a moment of grief and despair she sticks the baby in a box with a subatomic parti….no, wait, that won’t work. But she puts the baby in a box and leaves it on a street corner in front of a security camera—and then, right after she drops the baby off, the camera breaks and the last shot we have is of the foundling sitting in the box, while a rich, childless couple approaches, just after having been rejected by their ninth adoption agency, in search of a child to whom they can devote their lives and considerable income.

We don’t know what the child’s ultimate fate is. Maybe the rich, childless couple happen upon the baby and raise it as their own. Or maybe the single welfare mom comes to her senses and returns to her baby, which she raises with her other five kids by different fathers. The security camera image doesn’t say, so as with Schrödinger’s cat, we can imagine either outcome.

According to the vast majority of educated elites, the adopted version of the child would be successful and happy, starting preschool with a rich vocabulary and, after an academically demanding high school career, embarking on a successful adult journey. The version raised with the welfare mother would, in contrast, start preschool with a vocabulary deficit in the thousands of words, which a struggling public school with incompetent teachers won’t be able to fill, and embark upon adulthood in a life of poverty—assuming that adulthood didn’t start earlier than eighteen with either a pregnancy or a jail term.

According to the experts who actually study these outcomes, the environment in which the child is raised would have relatively little impact. Adoption studies don’t usually track granular academic achievement such as grades and test scores, but they do track IQ and personality and long-term academic outcomes (highest degree received, etc), and all available evidence from adoption studies says that by adulthood, IQ tracks more closely to the biological parent than the adoptive parents.

So if we were staring at that last frozen image from the security camera, wondering if the rich parents or the struggling welfare mom ended up with the baby, we could console ourselves on this point: academically, the outcomes would probably be a wash.

For the past twenty years or so, our educational policy has been devoted to ignoring the considerable mountain of data that suggests neither government nor parents can do much to mitigate the academic and life outcomes of children living in poverty, because the outcomes aren’t really caused by the poverty. All research suggests that the child’s IQ is linked closely to the biological parents’ and IQ, not poverty, has the strongest link to academic outcomes.

To point this out in public is to commit heresy or, as Steve Sailer puts it, to invite a “point and sputter” fest. Blah blah Richard Nisbett, blah blah French adoption study, blah blah blah BLAH Malcolm Gladwell, blah blah Duckworth (who did, after all, find that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation”).

If you are genuinely wondering what to believe, don’t cherrypick. Read a summary of generally accepted understanding (Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns). Definitely take any claims of making young children smarter with a big dollop of skepticism, since fadeout is a nearly universal downer when looking back at early childhood studies. And if you ever see a mention of the Flynn Effect, go ask James Flynn himself:

The most radical form of environmental intervention is adoption into a privileged home. Adoptive parents often wonder why the adopted child loses ground on their natural children. If their own children inherit elite genes and the adopted child has average genes, then as parents slowly lose the ability to impose an equally enriched environment on both, the individual differences in genes begin to dominate.

(I guess Nisbett missed that, given his liberal appeal to the expert Flynn, coupled with what seems to me a major misrepresentation of adoption studies.)

Actual experts, in other words, will point out that E. D. Hirsch and all the pre-school advocates probably have it backwards, that vocabulary deficits don’t cause low cognitive ability, but that low cognitive ability is the source of vocabulary deficits. Knowing more vocabulary doesn’t make you smarter. Smarter people know more vocabulary.

But time and again, the world will be assured by some well-meaning elite that really—no, really—all IQ really measures is a person’s education. People with high IQs were given a good education, people with low IQs were not. Preschoolers with high vocabularies are just reflecting their superior education. But here’s a nice overview of three recent studies that specifically test whether education drives cognitive ability or the other way around. All three found that cognitive ability (IQ) drives education achievement to a great degree. (Richard Nisbett doesn’t mention those studies, either. But then, he also says that The Bell Curve was widely acclaimed by an uncritical press. Um. What?)

We don’t have a lot of research on IQ and specific educational outcomes—say, correlating reading ability or middle school algebra results with IQ. You’d think that the people who wince at the very mention of IQ would be pushing for unequivocal research on IQ and test scores of school age kids. After all, research would prove all these pernicious myths about IQ were wrong once and for all, right? Take, say, a longitudinal study of 10,000 children, from preschool to adulthood, of all incomes and races. Test their IQ, vocabulary word bank, and other cognitive markers as appropriate. Collect parental SES, parental education, parental marital status, parental behaviors (do they read to their kids? Do they beat their kids? Do they have drugs in the house? and so on), early education status, race, location….pick your demographic data. Then yearly collect their GPA and test scores, their transcripts as they move through high school. And see what pops up. How well did IQ predict test scores and GPA? How much did poverty impact the scores kids with high IQs? How much did parental wealth influence the outcomes of kids with low IQs?

But there won’t ever be that kind of study. Why?

Because poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids so consistently that it would make the news if they didn’t. Here’s a cite from 1991 test scores, back before the College Board stopped sorting by both income and race: satscoresbyraceincome91 (As well as my usual standby cite)

and here’s a recent study that establishes the SAT as a reliable IQ predictor.

But it’s not just the SAT; low income whites outperform “not-poor” blacks everywhere—the NAEP data ruthlessly collects this data every year:



California’s CST scores show the same thing: economically disadvantaged whites outperform non-economically disadvantaged blacks and basically tie with non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics.

So no one in the educational policy business is in any hurry to call for long-term research on income, IQ, and test scores (state, SAT, AP, whatever). Much easier, really, to continue talking about poverty, environment and really crappy teachers, secure in the knowledge that anyone observing the naked emperor will be castigated as a racist.

But just suppose we completed this study I propose, and tracked school/NAEP/SAT test scores by IQ over a long period of time. Tracked from age 2 on, imagine the study shows that low-income kids with higher than average IQs have test scores and academic skills comparable, if not quite as high, as higher than average middle and high income kids. Likewise, high-income kids with low IQs have test scores and skills similar to low income kids with equivalent cognitive abilities. Imagine that we remove every shred of a reason to blame poverty for anything more than a high distribution of kids with low cognitive ability, thus making the schools hard to manage and blunting slightly the brightest kids’ ability to learn in such a loud environment.

In other words, imagine the unthinkable: the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution.

Do I hope this hypothetical study would result in this finding? No. I would, in fact, be pleased to learn that poor, high IQ kids faded due to lack of development and support in their schools, drowning in low ability kids, and that rich kids with low IQs do substantially better than poor kids with the same IQs. That’s a problem we could fix. But I worry that for the most part, such a study would end with the hypothetical results I propose, because based on available data, it seems the most likely finding.

But again, all I’m asking here is that you imagine this outcome. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: what conclusions would we be required to accept, however reluctantly?

If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.

It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race.

Okay. So let’s continue through this hypothetical and posit that we accepted these conclusions. (ha ha! this is me, laughing at my hopeless optimism. But work with me.)

For starters, we could accept that academically speaking, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment would not yield dramatically different outcomes and that preschool isn’t even a tiny bit of a magic learning pill. We might be satisfied with preschool that, as Charles Murray says, “buys some [low income children] a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home”. Maybe we’d stop holding preschool responsible for long-term academic outcomes and ask instead how it helps poor kids with unstable home environments and parents with varying degrees of competency, convincing these kids that their country and community cares about them and wants them to be safe.

Maybe we’d get to the point where we start exploring the best educational methods for kids with low cognitive ability. Sure, we’d start with Direct Instruction, although I can’t be the only teacher who doesn’t see a miracle at work in this old video. Show me the part where they remember it a month later and I’ll be impressed. And if you add “for kids of low to mid-cognitive ability” to the end of every E. D. Hirsch sentence, you’d have a perfect prescription for elementary and middle school education. The problem with Hirsch, as I mentioned to Robert Pondiscio in the comments of this post, lies in our “cultural diversity”—that is, teaching specific content leads to “cultural homogeneity” and no, no, no, that just won’t do. Better to not educate our low ability blacks and Hispanics at all then educate them in a useful content knowledge that wasn’t Afro or Latino-centric.

Someone’s going to chime in when I finally post this and say “But Ed, you don’t understand. If we teach them with Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge, the achievement gap will disappear! Look at KIPP’s results! Look at Rocketship Academy!” and I warn him to beware the false god of elementary school test scores. If the achievement gap is a function of IQ distribution, then effective education methods will not fix the gap, but rather help us educate low-IQ kids in a way they find meaningful and interesting, which will keep them invested in the process rather than giving up.

Let’s leave what to do about high school for a different post, because this one will be long enough.

What the results of such a study would do, I hope, is force everyone to stop thinking of low test scores as a missed opportunity to create more computer programmers or doctors but rather as a natural outcome of IQ distribution. With luck, well-meaning reformers will realize that they must stop looking at low test scores as an indictment of the educational system. Well-meaning progressives might cease their declarations that poverty and the evils of income inequality are stopping our poorest children from achieving college. Perhaps the results would stop educators from making low IQ kids feel utterly hopeless by declaring that more school, more learning, is their only possible chance for success, and end permanently the moralistic drumbeating for “lifelong learning”. Maybe we’d start using our considerable creativity to address the obvious pitfalls that could come about if we accepted the reality of low IQs. We don’t want to return to a educational world in which such kids are relegated to dreary, regimented education, because we must give all our kids as many skills and as much knowledge as they can absorb. Acceptance does not mean resignation and abandonment.

And most of all, I hope, any reasonable person who understood the impact of IQ on academic and life achievement would instantly realize that we must stop importing low-skilled competition to further reduce the opportunities for our own citizens. Once everyone stops fooling themselves about the quality of American education and realizes that we aren’t doing all that badly once we control for IQ, surely immigration enforcement and even reduction must follow. If enforcement means more illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Chinese head on back home, then our own unskilled and low-skilled workers have more opportunities, even if it raises restaurant prices to pay for legal cooks and busboys, forces homeowners to take care of their own lawns, and makes farmers finally invest in mechanization, or whatever other dire outcome businesses currently predict. Reducing immigration flow means low ability children have less competition for funding, because lord knows our current generous immigration policies forces schools to channel a whole bunch of money into teaching low-IQ kids, both legal and illegal, who weren’t born here and to whom we owe allegiance only because of our own generosity. Maybe we’d even get toughminded enough to realize that the best DREAM Act legislation would send the well-educated undocumented kid back to their country of origin with a little note saying “Hey, this one’s really bright. Give him a job!”

But of course, I’m just positing a hypothetical. We don’t know whether children living in poverty with high IQs have low test scores. And we don’t want to find out. Instead, we’ll just refuse to believe in IQ and pray it goes away.

Skills vs. Knowledge

E. D. Hirsch is all upset because teachers are deluded about the importance of knowledge (content), emphasizing skills such as critical thinking and written expression over content. A Common Core true believer, he is shocked, shocked I say! at the fact that most teachers think they are already implementing Common Core, but think its ability to impact achievement is minimal.

Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have.
The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

I have no dog in this hunt; I emphasize content knowledge in all my teaching subjects, but think Hirsch, who believes the achievement gap can be closed, is a tad deluded himself on its magical qualities. I also agree with the utter invincibility of the teacher population when it comes to resisting changes they don’t want to make, and let it be known that I join with my brethren in this resistance, because a cold, cold day in hell it will be before, say, I teach literacy in my trig class or come up with a project-based implementation of the power laws.

But I thought this graph interesting.


Hirsch on this graph, from the 2010 Met Life Survey:

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

Okay. So the executives AGREE with the teachers, and DISAGREE with the thought leaders. But never mind, he’ll be noble and overlook their stupidity, because they were taught using this horrible skills-based method and it apparently didn’t serve them well. Oh, wait.

And please. Can we stop pretending? Trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and calculus are utterly non-essential for success in the real world. They are only essential for signaling to colleges that the student is a smart cookie, and as Ron Unz and Chris Hayes both point out, the value in that varies based on the student race and family SES (including where Mom and Dad went to school).

So can we give it a rest on the pieties?

Of course, now that I think on it, E. D. Hirsch is a thought leader, so I guess it makes sense he’d back his own against teachers and Fortune 1000 executives.

SAT Writing Tests–A Brief History

I have a bunch of different posts in the hopper right now, but after starting a mammoth comment on this brand new E. D. Hirsch post (Welcome to blogging, sir!), I decided to convert it to a post—after all, I need the content. (Well, it was brand new when I started this post, anyway.)

Hirsch is making a larger point about Samuel Messick’s concern with consequential validity versus construct validity but he does so using the history of the SAT. In the 80s, says Hirsch, the ETS devised a multiple choice only method of testing writing ability, which was more accurate than an essay test. But writing quality declined, he implies, because students believed that writing wasn’t important. But thanks to Messick, the SAT finally included a writing sample in its 2005 changes.

I have nothing more than a layman’s understanding of construct vs. consequential validity, and Hirsch’s expertise in the many challenges of assessing writing ability is unquestioned, least of all by me. But I know a hell of a lot about the SAT, and what he writes here just didn’t match up with what I knew. I went looking to confirm my knowledge and fill any gaps.

First, a bit of actual SAT writing assessment history:

  • By 1950, the CEEB (College Board’s original name) had introduced the English Composition Achievement Test. The original test had six sections, three multiple choice, three essay (or free response). The CEEB began experimenting with a full 2-hour essay the next year, and discontinued that in 1956. At that point, I believe, the test was changed to 100 question multiple choice only. (Cite for most of this history; here’s a second cite but you need to use the magnifying glass option.)
  • In 1960, the CEEB offered an unscored writing sample to be taken at the testing center, at the universities’ request, which would be sent on to the schools for placement scoring. (I think this was part of the SAT, but can’t be sure. Anyone have a copy of “The Story Behind the First Writing Sample”, by Fred Godshalk?)
  • In 1963, the English Composition Achievement Test was changed to its most enduring form: a 20 minute essay, followed by a 40-minute multiple choice section with 70 questions.
  • In 1968, the CEEB discontinued the unscored writing sample, again at the universities’ request. No one wanted to grade the essays.
  • In 1971, the CEEB discontinued the essay in the ECAT , citing cost concerns.
  • In 1974, the SAT was shortened from 3 hours to 2 hours and 45 minutes, and the Test of Standard Written English was added. The TSWE was multiple choice only, with questions clearly similar to the English Composition Achievement Test. The score is not included in the SAT score, but reported to colleges separately, to be used for placement.
  • In 1976, in response to complaints, the essay version of the ECAT was reinstated. (It may or may not be significant that four years later, the ETS ran its first deficit.) From what I can tell, the ECAT and the TSWE process remained largely unchanged from 1976 through 1994. This research paper shows that the essay was part of the test throughout the 80s.
  • In 1993, all achievement tests were rebranded as SAT II; the English Composition Achievement Test was renamed to the SAT II Writing exam. At some point, the SAT II was shortened from 70 to 60 questions, but I can’t find out when.
  • In 1994 , there were big changes to the SAT: end to antonyms, calculators allowed, free response questions in math. While the College Board had originally intended to add a “free response” to the verbal section (that is, an essay), pressure from the University of California, the SAT’s largest customer, forced it to back down (more on this later). At this time, the TSWE was discontinued. Reports often said that the SAT Writing exam was “new”; I can find no evidence that the transition from the ECAT to the SAT II was anything but seamless.
  • In 1997, the College Board added a writing section to the PSAT that was clearly derived from the TSWE.
  • In 2005, the College Board added a writing section to the SAT. The writing section has three parts: one 25 minute essay and two multiple choice sections for a total of 49 questions. The new writing test uses the same type of questions as the ECAT/SAT II, but the essay prompt is simpler (I can personally attest to this, as I was a Kaplan tutor through the transition).
  • By the way, the ACT never required an essay until 2005, when compliance with UC’s new requirement forced it to add an optional essay.

I’m sure only SAT geeks like me care about this, but either Hirsch is wrong or all my links are wrong or incomplete. First, even with his link, I can’t tell what he’s referring to when he says “ETS devised a test…”. A few sentences before, he places the date as the early 80s. The 80s were the one decade of the past five in which the College Board made no changes to any of its writing tests. So what test is he referring to?

I think Hirsch is referring to the TSWE, which he apparently believes was derived in the early 80s, that it was a unique test, and that the College Board replaced the TSWE with the required essay in 2005. This interpretation of his errors is the only way I can make sense of his explanation.

In that case, not only are his facts wrong, but this example doesn’t support his point. The SAT proper did not test written English for admissions. The TSWE was intended for placement, not admissions. Significantly, the ACT was starting to pick up market share during this time, and the ACT has always had an excellent writing test (multiple choice, no essay). Without the TSWE, the SAT lacked a key element the ACT offered, and saying “Hey, just have your students pay to take this extra test” gave the ACT an even bigger opening. This may just possibly have played into the rationale for the TSWE.

Colleges that wanted an SAT essay test for admissions (as opposed to placement) had won that battle with the English Composition Achievement Test. The CEEB bowed to the pressures of English teachers not in 2005, but in 1963, when it put the essay back into the ECAT despite research showing that essays were unreliable and expensive. After nine years of expense the CEEB believed to be unnecessary, it tried again to do away with the essay, but the same pressures forced it to use the essay on the English Composition Achievement Test/SAT II Writing Test from 1976 to 2005, when the test was technically discontinued, but actually shortened and incorporated into the SAT proper as the SAT Writing test. Any university that felt strongly about using writing for admissions could just require the ECAT. Many schools did, including the University of California, Harvard, Stanford, and most elite schools.

The College Board tried to put an essay into the test back in the 90s, but was stopped not because anyone was concerned about construct or consequential validity, but because its largest customer, the University of California, complained and said it would stop using the SAT if an essay was required. This struck me as odd at first, because, as I mentioned, the University of California has required that all applicants take the English Composition Achievement test since the early 60s. However, I learned in the link that that Achievement Test scores weren’t used as an admissions metric until later in the 90s. In 1994, UC was using affirmative action so wasn’t worried about blacks and Hispanics. Asians, on the other hand, had reason to be worried about an essay test, since UC had already been caught discriminating against them, and UC clearly felt some placation was in order. Later, after the affirmative action ban, UC did a 180 on the essay, requiring that an essay be added to the SAT in 2005.

Why did the College Board want to put an essay in the SAT in 1994, and why did UC change its position 11 years later? My opinion: by then the College Board was getting more efficient at scoring essays, and the ECAT/SAT II Writing wasn’t catching on with any other than elite schools and UC. If the Writing test was rolled into the SAT, the College Board could charge more money. During the 90s we saw the first big push against multiple choice tests in favor of “performance-based assessments” (Hirsch has a whole chapter in one of his books about these misconceptions), giving the College Board a perfect rationale for introducing an essay and charging a lot more money. But UC nixed the essay until 2002, when its list of demands to the College Board called for for removing analogies, quantitative comparisons, and—suddenly—demanding that the writing assessment be rolled into the main SAT (page 15 of the UC link). I can see no reason for this—at that time, UC still required Subject tests, so why couldn’t applicants take the writing test when they took their other two Subject tests? The only reason—and I mean the only reason—I can see for rolling the writing test into the main SAT comes down to profit: the change made the College Board a hell of a lot of money.

Consider: the College Board already had the test, so no development costs beyond dumbing the test down for the entire SAT population (fewer questions, more time for the essay). So a test that only 10% of the testing population paid for could now be sold to 100% of the testing population. The 2005 SAT was both longer (in time) and shorter (in total questions), and a hell of a lot more expensive. Win win.

So UC’s demand gave the College Board cover. Fair’s fair, since UC had no research rationale whatsoever in demanding the end to analogies and quantitative comparisons, changes that would cost the College Board a great deal of money. Everyone knows that California’s ban on affirmative action has made UC very, very unhappy and if I were to assert without foundation that UC hoped and believed that removing the harder elements of the SAT would reduce the achievement gap and enable the university to admit more blacks and Hispanics, well, I’d still get a lot of takers. (Another clue: UC nearly halved the math test burden requirement at the same time—page 16 of the UC link.) (Oh, wait—Still another clue: Seven years later, after weighting the subject tests more heavily than the SAT and threatening to end the SAT requirement altogether, UC ends its use of….the Subject tests. Too many Asians being “very good at figuring out the technical requirements of UC eligibility”.)

So why does any of this matter?

Well, first, I thought it’d be useful to get the history in one place. Who knows, maybe a reporter will use it some day. Hahahahaha. That’s me, laughing.

Then, Hirsch’s assertion that the “newly devised test”, that is, the TSWE, led to a great decline in student writing ability is confusing, since the TSWE began in 1974, and was discontinued twenty years later. So when did the student writing ability decline? I’ve read before now that the seventies, not the eighties, saw writing nearly disappear from the high school curriculum (but certainly Hirsch knows about Applebee, way more than I do). If anything, writing instruction has improved, but capturing national writing ability is a challenge (again, not news to Hirsch). So where’s the evidence that student writing ability declined over the time of the TSWE, which would be 1974-1994? Coupled with the evidence that writing ability has improved since the SAT has achieved “consequential validity”?

Next, Hirsch’s history ignores the ECAT/SAT II Writing test, which offers excellent research opportunities for the impact of consequential validity. Given that UC has required a test with an essay for 50 years, Hirsch’s reasoning implies that California students would have stronger writing curriculum and abilities, given that they faced an essay test. Moreover, any state university that wanted to improve its students’ writing ability could just have required the ECAT/SAT Writing test—yet I believe UC was the only public university system in the country with that requirement. For that matter, several states require all students to take the ACT, but not the essay. Perhaps someone could research whether Illinois and Colorado (ACT required) have a weaker writing curriculum than California.

Another research opportunity might involve a comparison between the College Board’s choices and those driving American College Testing, creator of the ACT and the SAT’s only competition. I could find no evidence that the ACT was subjected to the on-again, off-again travails of the College Board’s English/Writing essay/no essay test. Not once did the College Board point to the ACT and say to all those teachers demanding an essay test, “Hey, these guys don’t have an essay, so why pick on us?” The ACT, from what I can see, never got pressured to offer an essay. This suggests, again, that the reason for all the angst over the years came not from dissatisfaction with the TSWE, but rather the Achievement/SAT II essay test, and the College Board’s varying profit motives over the years.

Finally, Hirsch’s example also assumes that the College Board, universities, high school teachers, and everyone else in 2005 were thinking about consequential or construct validity in adding the essay. I offer again my two unsupported assertions: The College Board made its 1994 and 2005 changes for business reasons. The UC opposed the change in 1994 and demanded it in 2005 for ideological reasons, to satisfy one of its various identity groups. Want to argue with me? No problem. Find me some evidence that UC was interested in anything other than broadening its admissions demographic profile in the face of an affirmative action ban, and any evidence that the College Board made the 2005 changes for any other reason than placating UC. Otherwise, the cynic’s view wins.

On some later date, I’ll write up my objections to the notion that the essay test has anything to do with writing ability, but they pulled the focus so I yanked them from this post.

By the way, I have never once met a teacher, except me, who gives a damn about helping his or her students prepare for the SAT. Where are these teachers? Can we take a survey?

Every so often, I wonder why I spend hours looking up data to refute a fairly minor point that no one really cares about in the first place and yes, this is one of those times. But dammit, I want things like this to matter. I don’t question Hirsch’s goals and agree with most of them. But I am bothered by the simplification or complete erasure of history in testing, and Hirsch, of all people, should value content knowledge.

Yeah, I did say “brief”, didn’t I? Sorry.

Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help

I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My mother tells me that she’d first thought I memorized certain Dr. Seuss stories, and it took her a while to figure out that I could read independently. I was 3.

My father’s IQ is probably less than 100, but not much. He has exceptional conversational fluency in languages; put him anywhere in the world and he’s exchanging stories with cab drivers and waiters in less than a week. He’s an equally fluent and improvisational musician. When he learns something it stays learned: he spent two hours explaining to nine-year-old me how airplanes flew and to this day, that’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten. Ask him about any major plane crash that occurred before 2000 (the year he retired after 45 years in airline operations) and he can tell you exactly who was at fault, why, and what changes were made to reduce the risk of reoccurrence. Unlike my highly concrete father, my mother is a better abstract thinker. She mastered technology easily, moving from shorthand secretary to working with faxes and computers in the 70s and 80s,and moved up the ladder from temp secretary to executive secretary for bigwigs at a major technology company, to network support technician for her last few years when she got tired of secretarying. She has a somewhat higher IQ but none of the improvisational fluency of my dad; you can see this best in their individual approaches to cooking, at which they both excel. Dad never uses recipes, Mom rarely ventures off without a cookbook, both of them produce meals you’ll remember forever. Dad’s second wife got a college degree in her 30s and made the Dean’s list but works as a skilled technician in the same job she had before college; Mom’s second husband has two doctorates from a top ten university, spent his life in a high-octane brain job, but his real love is carpentry and gardening, which he did as a side business before and during retirement. Politically, Dad is a blue-collar Democrat, Mom a hippie-dippie liberal.

At no point did my blue-collar parents take any steps to develop my intellect, even though they were fully aware that I was at or near genius IQ. My mother refused to allow me to move up a year in school because she’d been advanced and didn’t like it. My parents could have sent me to Phillips Academy, all expenses paid; they decided not to. They saw no difference between my going one of the top public universities schools in the country and a local state college except cost, although they did think I should “major in business” (hey, it was the early 80s). I went for cost and in those days, that was a terrible call. In my twenties and thirties, I resented their decisions which seem inexplicable today. However, two master’s degrees at top-tier universities (which took up a lot of my 40s) have convinced me that the only thing I would have gotten from a better education is more amusing stories about how much trouble I caused the schools and how glad they were to get rid of me.

Anyway. Up to a few years ago, I said I was a book and TV lover. Now I know I’m just an obsessive who needs to keep a busy brain. Regardless, I consumed information reflexively as a result of keeping my brain busy. I grew up overseas with no TV, but when we came home for summers I was literally glued to the set. I watched game shows, Bonanza, Medical Center, SWAT, and Scooby Doo until age 10, when I discovered movies and stayed up late to watch whatever was on. (I discovered Star Trek reruns at 12).

TV-watching never interfered with my reading; I read 2-3 books a day (1000 WPM, clocked and reclocked), before, during, and after TV. On weekends during the year when I had no TV, I’d easily go through 5-7 books. I quickly read through the school library. No public library overseas and no English bookstores in that country, and I could only talk my parents into buying me five or six books at airport bookstores, which I ran through in a couple days. I read the back of cereal boxes and Clorox bottles, which was convenient when my baby brother appeared to have taken a swig from the jug. (Unfortunately, we lived in a place that didn’t have ready access to milk, the recommended remedy. But he survived.) My grandfather, bless his heart, used to send me a huge box of paperbacks, picked at random from the general and genre fiction section, which took me a bit longer to run through than books for kids my age—and they had far more interesting plots. So when I ran through Gramps’ gift, I turned to my parents’ books; I know everything there is to know about the works of John D. McDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis. Just ask me.

Some early reading memories:

  • The Middle Sister, age 5—odd little book, but I’ve found that many remember the plot, if not the story. One of my earliest memories of a “chapter” book; an older cousin was reading it. Most of my reading at this age were junior high basal readers that I stole from school. I hadn’t figured out I could read my parents’ books, and everything else I’d ripped through a year or more earlier, apparently.
  • The Trojan War,age 6: Not until years later did I learn that The Iliad didn’t have the Trojan Horse scene in it, but ended with Hector’s death. I found parts of the story confusing. Not the gods, I figured out what was going on, there; the gods had magical powers and subdivided areas of interest. (An agnostic from birth, best I can tell, I had no bias for or against polytheism. The Greek pantheon seemed an entirely reasonable way of explaining things. But then, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between God and Santa Claus.) No, what confused me was why all these battles seem to happen one at a time. What was everyone else doing while Hector was killing Patroclus or Achilles was killing Hector? How did the Greeks have time to discuss who got Achilles’ armor? Where were the Trojans while the Greeks were building the horse? I developed this confused idea of an arena, with the kings watching each scheduled battle—I must have seen a gladiator fight on TV. One thing I was clear on, though: everything was Paris’s fault.
  • King of the Wind, age 7–I am the opposite of artistic, but this image fascinated me. I read every Marguerite Henry book I could find, but I only enjoyed Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Born To Trot.
  • Madame, Will You Talk?, age 7—we were in an isolated European village, and I’d run through my dozen books. Desperate for something to occupy my brain, I picked up this romance-thriller when my mother had finished, thus meeting my earliest genre title. I didn’t quite understand the plot, which had something to do with Nazis and Jews and getting revenge for a Jew that was killed—apparently, Nazis killed Jews? I looked it up later when I got home; it may have been my first intro to WW2 and the Holocaust, although I can’t be sure. I suddenly understood a lot more of Hogan’s Heroes, though. I read Airs Above the Ground a year later, because it had a teenage boy in it and not as much love stuff. Mary Stewart, by the way, is still with us at 96. Holla!
  • David Copperfield, age 7—Suddenly Dora’s gone. David’s sad. What the hell happened to Dora? I had barely figured out what happened to Emily. Something dire with Steerforth. But where did Dora go? I had to read “Another Retrospective” three times before I realized that “Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me?” meant Dora was dying and when Agnes was sad, she’d died. Wow. Couldn’t you be more specific? I read fast, I miss things.

    Years later, I was quizzing my son on A Tale of Two Cities, which I hadn’t read, and asked him what happened to Madame Defarge. “I don’t know; she just disappears.” “Naw, that can’t be true. I’d have heard if she just disappeared.” So I leaf back through the book. “Oh, here it is. Miss Pross kills her.” “What? Miss Pross? No way? How’d I miss that?” “The bastard buried it in the middle of a paragraph, like he always does.” “That’s annoying.” “Tell me.” (My son’s ACT reading score: 36.)

  • The Black Stallion, age 7—This was the kind of stuff I was looking for when I read all those Marguerite Henry books! Unfortunately, he just kept writing about the same damn horse. But the first one is an awesome read. Still. I tried nibbling seaweed a few times, but ick.
  • Oliver Twist, age 8—I figured out that Nancy died. In fact, I think this was the first time I saw the word “corpse”. But how? He just hit her. You could die from people just hitting you? It didn’t take a gun or a knife? Or a car? Or jumping off a cliff like in Snow White?
  • The Happy Hooker, age 8 or 9—She didn’t seem very happy. But I wasn’t clear what a hooker was. When I figured out it was linked to prostitution, I looked that word up. Still not entirely clear. I had a vague idea that Nancy in Oliver Twist did something like that, but again, not happy. Hmmm.
  • The Quick Red Fox, also age 8 or 9, after The Happy Hooker—ah. Some women don’t charge, some women do. I wasn’t quite sure for what, but McDonald was actually much more informative on this point than the Hooker lady. I wasn’t sure which McGee thought was preferable, although he never seemed to pay.
  • Nerve and Enquiry, age 9—I read Dick Francis books from 1971 until 1999 or 2000; I think the last one I read was To The Hilt. I have fonder memories of him than any other writer, and not just because of his unreasonably perfect heroes (which made much more sense when I learned that his wife wrote most of his books), but because he was a living writer in my life for nearly 30 years. From these first two books, I learned that horseracing wasn’t just about who ran the fastest, but about “steeplechasing”, which involved jumping over fences and mud pools. With the horse. I also learned that marrying first cousins was a bad thing, and that jockeys were a lower “class” than trainers. But I wasn’t sure what “class” was. Not the school kind.
  • Cards on the Table, age 9—I’m reasonably certain this was my first Christie novel. Death on the Nile was second. I didn’t realize it was a bad idea to peek at the end until I was 12, and by then I’d read the entire Christie canon. All those endings, spoiled. But I learned more about this “class” thing, which also had something to do with “titles” (not books). I thought “class” complaints were restricted to the English until a distressingly short time ago. I also became familiar with a number of poisons and confirmed that yes, just getting hit on the head could kill you.

Not a complete list. I know I read Madeleine L’Engle and Laura Ingalls Wilder during these years, and all the Hardy Boys canon. (The Twisted Claw was the bomb.) I read Little Men at 7 or 8, and eventually Little Women. I also read a lot of history books and almanacs. And some really strange books that I can’t remember clearly which is extremely annoying. But these are the memories that seem relevant.

What’s my point? As I’ve mentioned before, my measured vocabulary has spiked hard to the right side of the bell curve, leaving the 99th percentile in the dust since I was first tested at 8. And my vocabulary is far weaker than my analytical reading skills. While I scored a 730 on the SAT (which at that time was 99+ percentile), I scored an 800 on the English Lit Achievement Test (known now as the SAT subject test), which even now is a rare achievement, and much less frequent back then.

And yet, as I hope this little tale has revealed, I did not live the life of a middle class child with that literacy-rich environment that gives children the background content knowledge. Or, based solely on my story, E. D. Hirsch has it wrong:

[Students learn new vocabulary] by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. 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.

I am living proof that “understanding the gist” does not require background knowledge, that some people, like me, acquire content knowledge through the books that they read and TV that they watch. In fact, it’s clear that I, god save me, constructed my knowledge of the world through the books that I read. If you were to go by me, the progressives have it exactly right—teach them to read, and knowledge will follow. But you know, progressives are never right about their idealism, so let’s laugh off that possibility and return to Hirsch, who is right, but for the wrong reason.

Hirsch isn’t the only one emphasizing the importance of specific instruction in content knowledge because of poor environment. Lately, advocates on all sides of the debate have been focused on Hirsch’s argument (aka the Core Knowledge solution) “knowledge-rich” environment of the middle class and higher kids, the “language deficient” environment of low income kids, and how the latter group is starting behind.

One might think that these guys think academic achievement is purely a matter of environment, that individual ability has nothing to do with it.

But then, this essay is long enough. More later.

Update: One of the more idiotic commenters I’ve ever run into on this site argues that what I describe is a typical, middle class knowledge-rich environment. Sigh. I called her an idiot. But I’ll update with a bit more information, just in case there’s other zealots who think they’ve got a point.

My reading was considered incredibly weird by everyone who knew me. I was teased constantly. I was “grounded” by losing access to any reading material; my father once upset me terribly by pretending to throw my book out the window of a Greek hotel room when I wasn’t in bed by 10:00. (He hadn’t, but he didn’t let me have it back for a day.) My parents did not have a lot of books, they bought books to read on planes when four kids allowed them the time. They did not read otherwise, but (like me) rarely threw things away, so there were ten years of books lying around the house. The Dickens books were from the library. I was far better-informed than my parents were in a distressing number of subjects, but granted them total expertise on cooking, music, sports, and airplanes—and would accept their knowledge of current and recent events as somewhat reliable but needing confirmation. I was, undoubtedly, incredibly annoying.

As for the traveling, we travelled on passes as an employee benefit. My parents were, and are, extremely adventurous (particularly my mother, who just came back from a month in South Africa). We traveled everywhere and saw everything on the cheap. I hated it a lot of the time, although I’m glad now I did it. I did not gain any content knowledge from the travel, although I learned flexibility and patience.