Posts Tagged curriculum

It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid.

Published by — You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.

In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost.  Tests are not the point.  Learning is.  Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge.  Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.

E.D. Hirsch is an education thinker I greatly admire, largely because he’s comfortable with specifics about what actual knowledge is.  He’s so specific — very refreshing among squabbling education reformers — that he assembled teams of experts to create the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this:  knowing more words makes a kid smarter.  How?  Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means.  But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension.  Which is to say I can’t really read it.  Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”

Reading comprehension is all about understanding the context.

Hirsch unpacks the above sentence by describing a bit about the landscape of baseball to help, say, a British reader understand how those words might be bent to mean what they do.  Frankly, I learned details about America’s favorite pastime that I never knew before.  (Sports bore me to death.  Sorry.)

Likewise, if I knew nothing about the Egyptians, on a test I might think the “mummies” were the moms.  If the above sentence appeared in a reading comprehension test, I would have failed.

The SAT and even the GRE tests are essentially vocabulary tests.  Whatever subjects you know well, you know by the vocabulary used to discuss them.  If you don’t know what “binomial probability” means, then surely you haven’t a clue as to how to do the related math.

Build new contexts; build vocabulary. 

Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies.  Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day.  Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways.  But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down.  Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words.  Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons.  Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.

Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares.  Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees.  One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins.  (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)

Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures.  But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.

Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”

Hirsch says, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better.”

Today’s new teachers have been taught to waste a lot of time on explicitly teaching the sorts of skills readers naturally pick up.  Students have lessons in “reading strategies,” like predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying and identifying the main idea.  By all means give the kids the vocabulary for what they are doing when they discuss Charlotte’s Web.  Name “summarizing” when that’s what they’re doing.  But Charlotte’s world is vastly more important and interesting — the farm, the critters, and the agricultural cycle that would normally turn Wilbur into food.  Help kids build vocabulary for all of it, the book and their approach to it.

We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure.  By all means measure.  I love data.  Measure words.  You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.  If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.

And, God help us, they’ll get better test scores.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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Poll Shows 62% of US Clueless About Public Education

CoCommPublished by — We are growing a nasty future for ourselves by ignoring kids’ education, specifically Common Core.

I have been, in Facebook lingo, a lurker rather than a poster regarding the new national initiative: the Common Core Standards (CCS).

CCS is the biggest thing to come along in education since the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. NCLB is not gone, exactly, but it’s quickly becoming a mere shadow of itself, as national educational policies shift from one philosophical strategy (NCLB) to a radically different one (CCS).

But I’ve lurked because CCS is HUGE. NCLB is puny in comparison. Start with the fact that NCLB had no standards whatever. Each state was told to define and test for academic proficiency. Without any actual goals or agree-on standards, NCLB created a mania for test scores — which meant what? NCLB was about passing and failing, winning and losing, schools labeled “A” or “F.” It was simple. The public engaged in all that judgment.

The only problem was that it didn’t much improve learning, according to the very data the feds forced the states to collect.

As a result, academic, government, and business associations of all kinds began to fashion and later support a set of academic criteria that would make educational attainment comparable among states. Skim through the standards themselves to understand the effort’s scale and complexity. Individual goals for students to meet are nuanced and not simple. Yes, I take issue with some of the CCS decisions, but as a culture we’re finally discussing what on earth we’d like education to be for kids, in detail! This is potentially creative, probably more effective than what we’ve been doing, and an encouraging step in the right direction.

So I was shocked, frankly, to learn how clueless the public is about CCS. The annual report on the annual education survey conducted by Gallup with Phi Delta Kappa, called “Which way do we go?,” reports that fully 62 percent of the general public has never even heard of CCS’s existence. Really? This is not okay.

Common Core is big, but you can wrap your arms around it.

The Alliance for Excellent Education created quite a helpful primer, Common Core 101. Yes, the Alliance is a friend of CC, which also has passionate foes. This primer sketches its comprehensive scope. And it notes what aspects are causing controversies, without getting into the specifics about what’s fueling the fires. You’ll never understand the truly laudable things CCS is trying to do if you get lost in the dense weeds of controversy, which can suck you in like a teen into a video game. Yes, certain testing and textbook contractors are going to make out like bandits as a result of CC, but there really are pros and cons even in that toxic thicket.

Try to avoid passing judgment until you have the big picture. But don’t leave the decisions up to the 38 percent who are paying attention.

The key to CCS is that it’s about standards, not curriculum — big dif.

An academic “standard” is broad benchmark that a kid should meet by a certain time. They’re inevitably vague-sounding. So: children should be able to read by 3rd grade. The way the CCS puts it is that third graders should

* Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words, and

* Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.

Yes, they go on to spell out what skills and knowledge reaching those standards would involve. But they say nothing about curriculum. Teachers, states, districts, and schools, along with parents, are going to have to figure out the how-to of curriculum. And this could be really exciting.

A great curriculum lays out all the interesting, hopefully delightful experiences for kids to DO to help them learn the building blocks. A smart sequence of books, activities, games and projects get kids familiar with the skills and knowledge that make meeting standards easy. (Or at least possible.) Parents, employers and others surely have thoughts about what these experiences should be. If local manufacturers and tech businesses want more kids interested in their industry, work with educators on creating relevant, engaging learning experiences.

For once it seems as if the education industry has left room for the rest of us to get in the game. Education was never for passing tests, though assessment will always be a necessary gatekeeper. Teaching was about passing down values, skills, knowledge that the culture’s adults felt were important for survival. Great! Let’s talk about those values and skills. If CCS has set a standard too low for your taste, help kids meet it and beat early. Aim for something with the kids. The public’s success, your success, is entwined with theirs.

C’mon. Everyone needs at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on with the nation’s kids. Not having kids of their own lets no one off the hook. If you know the unemployment rate, you should also know that 21 percent of America’s children are growing up in poverty. You should know that kids’ education is everyone’s responsibility, and that Common Core is the current strategy. We are growing such a nasty future for ourselves by ignoring the plight of the nation’s kids. And blaming the parents and schools is waaaay too easy. It’s all of us. Get on board.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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