Tag Archives: Robert Pondiscio

Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):


You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.


Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):


Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?



So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.



Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?




I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.


For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.


I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.


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.

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.

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.