(commoncore.org)_ (corestandards.org)

(Adding an update with a detailed conversation between Lisa Hansel, the author of the post, and Brian Pick, the D.C. Public Schools official in charge of implementing the Common Core. The update includes a correction about  who published the Curriculum Guide, and some new things Hansel learned about DCPS Core implementation.)

Education Week is now publishing reporter Catherine Gewertz’ interesting four-part series chronicling how D.C. Public Schools is implementing the Common Core State Standards. Here’s a critique of the approach DCPS is taking in this task, by Lisa Hansel is the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the idea that every child should learn a core of content that spans language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and the visual arts. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator.

By Lisa Hansel

I’d like to congratulate the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for not only being dedicated to implementing the Common Core State Standards, but for doing so publically. The new standards present a great challenge, requiring major changes in curriculum and pedagogy. So DCPS should be commended for allowing Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz access to teachers, students, instructional coaches, and administrators while they grapple with these changes.

It was through that reporting that I learned of DCPS’s approach to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I am impressed with their commitment, but dismayed by their approach.

We all know that what gets tested is what gets taught (especially in a high-stakes environment like DC’s in which teacher evaluations rest on students’ scores and everyone feels pressure to help the largely disadvantaged student population achieve more). So there’s one key document that will drive DCPS’s work.

Officially it’s called the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System Resource Guide 2013—but in reality, it’s a Guide to Making the CCSS a Tougher Version of Business as Usual. At the top of each page, from 12 – 33, is typed “Reading Tested Standards” in bold. Call them priority standards or power standards; they, along with their lifeless assessment stems for grades 2 through 10, will prevent the true intent of the CCSS from taking hold in DC’s schools.

The problem is not with any one standard or assessment stem—it’s with this checklist mentality. The great strength of the Common Core for literacy is not the standards themselves; it is in their call for a content-rich curriculum and their explanation of why systematically building knowledge is so very important.

Educators who read the full, original CCSS for English language arts and literacy, including the introduction and appendices, will learn how to accelerate knowledge and vocabulary growth through a carefully sequenced, grade-by-grade approach to constructing content-area domains. It is in this text that accompanies the individual standards that one grasps the transformational potential of the Common Core:

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students  must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)


Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics….


Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades. (p. 33)


Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks. (Appendix A, page 33)


By publishing a so-called Resource Guide that reduces the Common Core to a list of tested standards, DCPS minimizes the chances that teachers will ever read the original standards documents or ever acquire the essential information about how the standards are meant to be enacted. As a result, it also minimizes the chances that DCPS will ever meet its own goals.

Seeing DCPS’s approach to the Common Core—all trees, no forest—I was saddened but not surprised by the scope and sequence posted on DCPS’s website. It reveals a light touch on building content knowledge and a heavy focus on building skills. Each “Unit Theme” is too broad to be coherent. Likewise, each “Unit Focus” only briefly and vaguely describes the content to be learned, yet specifies the skills to be taught and practiced. Here’s an example from grade 2 in which the theme is “Exploring the World.” The following is the complete text of the unit focus:

 Students will study the history of, and daily life in, another country (teachers should select which country to study). In reading, students will continue to compare and contrast by making text-to-text connections. Students will also focus on summarizing individual paragraphs and multi-paragraph texts. In writing, students will write an opinion piece. Significant time should be devoted to learning how to peer-edit and peer-revise.

For the following example from grade 3, the theme is “The Living World”:


Students will learn about life in various habitats, such as jungles, rainforests, and the ocean floor. In reading, students will continue to practice comprehension strategies, particularly focusing on summarizing key details and visualizing the habitats they are studying. Students will also learn a variety of strategies for determining the meaning of unknown words. In writing, students will write an informational piece based on a short research project. Students’ research project will include opportunities for gathering information from a variety of resources, note-taking, and sorting information. Students will peer-edit and peer-revise.

This would be fine if the only purpose of academic content were to give students something specific to read and think about while they refine their skills. But that’s not what the research shows. Reading and thinking depend on having relevant knowledge stored in your memory. If DCPS revised its scope and sequence to place far more emphasis on developing broad content knowledge (which also develops vocabulary since concepts and words go together), then students’ comprehension, thinking, and writing would improve.

Here’s how Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has explained misconceptions about the role of knowledge and what knowledge actually does:

“Knowledge is Good.” So read the motto of the mythical Faber College in the 1978 movie, “Animal House.” Those of us who work in education would agree, even if we were unable to express ourselves so eloquently. But why, exactly, is knowledge good? When I’ve discussed this question with teachers, many have used the metaphor “It’s grist for the mill.” That is, the goal of education is seen not so much as the accumulation of knowledge, but as the honing of cognitive skills such as thinking critically. Knowledge comes into play mainly because if we want our students to learn how to think critically, they must have something to think about.

It’s true that knowledge gives students something to think about, but a reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

In an article specifically on reading comprehension, Willingham wrote:

 Teaching reading strategies is a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost, but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job…. Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits, but doing so is more difficult and time consuming. This knowledge must be the product of years of systematic instruction as well as constant exposure to high quality books, films, conversations, and so on, which provide students with incidental exposure to a great deal of new vocabulary and knowledge.

But there is a glimmer of hope for DC’s children. In Gewertz’s most recent piece on DCPS, we see a teacher who strives to teach to the standards, yet sees that something is amiss:

 Today, the class is discussing types of allusions…. Most recognize that a cartoon about the dangers of dating Henry VIII is a historical allusion.


Mikel doesn’t seem clear on the concept. The teacher shows another cartoon, this time of a sad little train engine begging for change near a sign that says, “I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could.”


“What kind of allusion is that, Mikel?” she says. Startled, he ventures: “Pop culture?” No, she says, it’s literary. But she wonders: Did anyone read this story to him as a child?

Probably not. Not at home, not at school. Looks to me like Mikel analyzed the part of the cartoon that was familiar to him—begging for change (which is common in the nation’s capital). He may have also been thinking of the toys and videos featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. Given his likely knowledge base, his answer of “Pop culture” makes a lot of sense.

Mikel does need to increase his skills—but he can only do so by studying a content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum that systematically fills gaps in his knowledge and prevents additional gaps from opening up. That’s what the research shows is effective—and it’s what the CCSS call for.

 The Update from Lisa Hansel:

After the above post was published, I had the honor of speaking with Brian Pick—the man in charge of revamping DC’s approach to curriculum and instruction to meet the new standards.

Pick is, quite frankly, one of the most impressive educators I’ve spoken with in a long time. He gets it. He gets the cognitive science research on what knowledge does for reading comprehension and critical thinking. He gets teachers and teaching. He gets students’ needs—especially the needs of students who change schools frequently. He gets the importance of domain-based, cross-curricular studies for building broad background knowledge.

Some part of the system may have, as I wrote, checklist mentality—but Pick gets the intent of the Common Core standards.

He also has a correction for me: That District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System Resource Guide 2013 that I’m so worried about was published by D.C’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, not the district. I should have noticed that!

He told me about the curriculum that DCPS is writing. Unfortunately, the units developed thus far are only available to those in the school system. But based on the conversation I had with Pick, I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. He agreed with me that the scope and sequence outlines I was able to see, with each unit described with just a bare-bones theme and focus, are too vague and too focused on skills. He explained that the actual units (which are password protected) are very content heavy.

Even better, he told me about a specific change that I found delightful. In my original post, I quoted a second grade “unit focus” that stated, “Students will study the history of, and daily life in, another country (teachers should select which country to study). In reading, students will continue to compare and contrast by making text-to-text connections. Students will also focus on summarizing individual paragraphs and multi-paragraph texts. In writing, students will write an opinion piece. Significant time should be devoted to learning how to peer-edit and peer-revise.” In critiquing it, I noted that this description was far too focused on skills, and not focused enough on the content. I did not add on how bothered I was that the country selection was being left up to each teacher. In other writing I have explained why that bothers me: In brief, I’ve argued that what to teach ought to be a communal, research-based, and experience-based decision. Since knowledge is essential to comprehension and critical thinking, and since there is a body of knowledge that literate adults are assumed to have, I think all of us should be willing to plow through the hard work of agreeing to certain content for each grade. (In contrast, I think that how to teach should be up to the individual teacher.) Finally, the delight: Pick told me that his team has revised that unit. The selection of the country is no longer up to the teacher. They’ve decided to teach about our neighbors, Canada and Mexico.

I am not easily won over, so I quizzed Pick about how the curriculum is being developed and to what extent they are creating domain-based studies. Pick showed that he knows the research on how being immersed in a topic accelerates learning (of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills). He has studied the human body example in the Common Core. And he is driving toward a very rich learning experience for D.C. children.