Rob Pondiscio from Core Knowledge was at the University of Arkansas last week as part of the Department of Education Reform’s lecture series. The video of his lecture will be posted later on, but let me give you a preview — I thought he hit a home run.
Rob is not a researcher, but he is a very effective communicator of research. For the most part Rob was channeling the works of E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham. In particular, Rob was most effective in conveying the idea that reading is not a transferable skill. Once students have a basic understanding of phonics, which is not that hard, and once they have a few basic reading strategies, the greatest barrier to kids reading well is that they lack the content knowledge to understand what they are reading. Unless students know things it does them little good to spend more and more time focusing on abstract reading skills.
Check out this very handy illustration of why this is the case from Dan Willingham:
Unfortunately, the misconception that reading is a skill informs much of how elementary school instruction is organized. We are spending more and more time on reading, per se, but less and less on the content subjects, like history, science, art, and music, that would provide the knowledge to allow students to read with understanding.
To repeat, students don’t struggle with reading (for the most part) because they can’t sound out the words or because they lack reading strategies. They struggle because they don’t know enough about the world to put what they read into any context so that it would make sense to them. This is especially true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are exposed to less enriching content at home.
So what should we do to fix this? On this I think Rob Pondiscio hit a foul ball. Rob is doing the right thing in trying to convince people to focus more on enriching content and stop thinking of reading as a skill. But the Core Knowledge Foundation is making a mistake in backing national standards as a way to move their agenda forward.
Let’s think about the political logic of their strategy for a second. Ed schools and much of the rest of the edublob hate the idea of focusing on content. They think that content inevitably means an emphasis on dead white men. They think that expecting content knowledge sets some kids up for failure because they can’t or won’t learn it. They are more interested in advantaged kids who already possess a lot of rich content knowledge. For these reasons and more, the edublob is politically opposed to shifting the focus to content.
So how does Core Knowledge think we can sneak into national standards and the assessments a focus on content knowledge even while that approach is opposed by the edublob. The edublob will certainly control those standards and assessments over time. You can’t get the edublob to reform itself by sneaking your minority preferences into a regulatory regime that they dominate. If they don’t want to do it, they won’t. And they can either block your good ideas from national standards and assessment or alter them over time. Dan Willingham agrees that national standards are not a promising strategy.
Rather than centralize control over the education system via national standards and assessments and hope that your ideas will prevail, it is much smarter for Core Knowledge to push for greater decentralization over schools and the training of future teachers. They should want more vouchers, charters, and alternative certification. In doing so they could get kids and future teachers out of the edublob that still thinks reading is a skill and give them the freedom to pick schools where Core Knowledge’s good ideas have been adopted.
Yes, some people will pick bad schools with bad ideas. But at least Core Knowledge will be able to fight it out on the level playing field of the marketplace of ideas. With the status quo or even greater centralization, the edublob can enforce perpetuation of their bad ideas regardless of how effective your alternative is. They dominate the centralized institutions.
Members of a religious minority shouldn’t push for a state-sponsored church in the hopes that will embrace their minority view. They should push for religious freedom and try to make converts.