Each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

This month I have the pleasure of interviewing Robert Pondiscio, writer of the always thought-provoking Core Knowledge blog.

1. Can you explain what Core Knowledge is and what Core Knowledge schools are?

At its heart, Core Knowledge is an approach to building language competence—reading, writing, speaking and listening. It’s built on the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who has for several decades championed the idea that the key to reading comprehension is the reader’s background knowledge. Research is quite clear that “poor” readers are often stronger than “good” readers when reading about topics they know about (where the “good” readers lack the same knowledge). Likewise, disadvantaged students read just as competently as more affluent kids when reading on topics they both know about. Thus the achievement gap is best understood as a knowledge gap—if you want kids to read with understanding, you have to increase their store of knowledge across a wide variety of domains. Core Knowledge schools seek to address this through a rich, rigorous curriculum in history, geography, science, math, art, and music.

Dan Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist has a phrase that I quote all the time: “Teaching content is teaching reading.” That’s a pretty good a five-word summary of what Core Knowledge is all about.

2. What drew you to education and, specifically, to Core Knowledge (and to writing the Core Knowledge blog)?

I’ve joked that education is a kind of high-functioning mid-life crisis for me. I spent more than 20 years in the news business. Shortly before I turned 40, I was seduced by one of those subway ads, familiar to New Yorkers, for the New York City Teaching Fellows. (“You remember you first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours.”) This was not long after September 11 when a lot of us were thinking about doing something more meaningful. I’ve also been on the board of East Side House Settlement, an education-focused South Bronx nonprofit, and I’d written several books for kids about the Internet. So in retrospect, a lot of things pushed me in the direction of teaching, and doing so in the South Bronx.

I came to Core Knowledge on my own. My elementary school was the furthest thing from a Core Knowledge school. District 7, the South Bronx, was the lowest scoring district in New York City. My school had the lowest reading scores in District 7. Literally, the worst of the worst. But it was filled with well-intentioned people, all working incredibly hard for kids. It was not some hellhole that you might have been led to expect if all you know about inner city schools is the hysterical stories you’ve heard and read.

That said, I wouldn’t call it a successful school. But the failures had more to do, I believe, with ill-informed notions about what kids need to succeed. For example, when I heard that fewer than one in five of my 5th grade students could “read” based on the previous years’ ELA tests, I expected, having never taught before, to find a class full of kids who couldn’t decode—literally unable to make the sounds of the letters on the page. In five years I had not one single student who couldn’t decode. They could all “read” but they couldn’t comprehend. And the steady diet of reading strategies, think-alouds and modeling competent reading behaviors didn’t seem to make much difference. It certainly didn’t resemble my elementary education, but what did I know? I was 30 years removed from elementary school.

When I read E.D. Hirsch, suddenly there was a plausible explanation for what I was seeing in my classroom every day. My kids’ lack of background knowledge was truly appalling. One of my brightest girls though New Jersey was another country—that kind of thing. When I would invoke Hirsch’s work in my grad school classes, I would always get an eye-roll and some variation of “Oh, that dead white guy stuff? No one takes that seriously.” Of course, that had nothing to do with Hirsch’s work at all. It’s not about imposing a canon. It’s about giving kids a broad base of knowledge that makes reading comprehension possible. I think people who assumed they knew what Hirsch and Core Knowledge were all about based on that mischaracterization are starting to give it a second look. I hope the blog has helped that a little. It’s a way of getting a discussion going among educators about the neglected role of curriculum in education and, more specifically, education reform.

3. What are two things you’re very excited about that you see happening in education today and, on the other hand, what are two things that might be getting your blood boiling?

I’m pretty excited about the Common Core State Standards. I’m not naïve about standards, mind you. As a teacher I never took out the New York State standard to plan a lesson. But the genius of the CCSS is the care the drafters took to differentiate between standards and curriculum, and to make clear that the standards won’t work – can’t work—without a coherent curriculum. In the elementary grades, language arts is completely dominated by fiction and poetry. The CCSS is a badly needed rebalancing in favor of coherence if people take the time to really look at it closely and act on it.

I’m excited about the Core Knowledge Language Arts program that we’re developing. As of right now it’s been developed and field tested in K-2. The results from the New York City pilot tests have been very encouraging. It blends a synthetic phonics “skills” strand with a “listening and learning” strand designed to begin systematically building domain-specific content knowledge from a very early age. I don’t think you can overstate how important this is. As a teacher, I used to bemoan my students lack of content knowledge and our lack of emphasis on subjects other than reading and math. Several of my colleagues used to say things like “I agree that science and history are important, but it can wait until kids learn to read.” No! Reading is not a “skill” per se. You’re never going to be a strong reader without a broad education.

At the risk of sounding overly cranky, there are way more than two things in education reform that get my blood boiling. But I’ll divide it into two broad categories. First, ed reform worships almost exclusively at the altar of structures while ignoring teaching and learning. The idea seems to be that if you have the right pay structures, accountability measures, types of schools, etc. all will be well. In my experience, that’s completely backward. The structures don’t matter unless we’re clear on what quality instruction and curriculum look like. You end up with two different flavors of bad. I’m loathe to waive the bloody shirt, but I think there’s a certain short-sightedness that comes from education policy championed by people with no classroom experience.

I’m also concerned that everything in ed reform is about tomorrow. Improve teacher quality! Lift the charter cap! Drive change with accountability! Regardless of what you think of any of these mainstream “reform” ideas, they’re all predicated on the pulling levers today to create change tomorrow. I’m getting less interested in mainstream “reform” over time and more interested in helping low-income parents become more critical consumers of the education their children are receiving right now. That’s probably the most potent lever for change that I can think of.

4. Who are some people you think are doing the best thinking, researching, or teaching about or in schools these days and why would you pick them?

Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia is at the top of my list. Too much of what happens in our schools is driven by politics and philosophy. Dan’s a cognitive scientist. He has a winning way of saying, “Look, here’s what the research shows.” It turns out that a lot of what Hirsch has been saying for 30 years – knowledge matters, reading comprehension is not a transferable skill, there are limits to reading strategy instruction – Dan says too. But the field seems more receptive to it coming from someone so well-grounded in research. And he’s a relatively young guy. I think he’s poised to have an enormous impact on education.

I’m really excited by what the state education commissioner David Steiner is doing here in New York. He brought it Dan Koretz, the testing expert from Harvard, to take a close look at whetheror not New York’s state tests have been dumbed down in recent years. I don’t think it can seriously be questioned. When I was in the classroom it absolutely infuriated me that so many of my students tested on grade level in reading and math when I knew damn well they were nowhere near where they needed to be to succeed in high school or college. The sins of the education system are many, but the worst one is allowing poorly educated children and families to think they’re where they need to be because they “pass” a dumbed-down state test where cut scores have been lowered and grading rubrics so generous that it’s all but impossible to fail. For students like mine, it’s an intellectual death sentence. They get a content-free curriculum, meaningless measures of progress and annual assurances that everything’s fine. They do everything we ask, get nothing in return and don’t realize they’re been screwed until it’s too late. This is another reason to support national standards and assessments by the way. It reduces the likelihood of playing games and harming kids.

I also greatly admire the work Russ Whitehurst is doing at Brookings. He’s consistently notes that curriculum effects dwarf other preferred reform levers such as charter schools, early childhood initiatives, teacher quality, etc. He very reasonably points out that since we know curriculum effects are substantial, we should be funding research into effective curricula, which are cost neutral. Schools are going to pay for something so let’s help them figure out how to get the most bang for the buck. Makes sense right?

:::cue sounds of crickets chirping:::

Curriculum is a lonely passion.

5) Many teachers, including myself, are feeling that teachers are being unfairly scapegoated (the Newsweek cover story, the firings in Rhode Island). Do you agree with that assessment? If you do, why do you think it’s happening and what should teachers do about it? If you don’t, why do you think the critiques are justified?

I worked at TIME Magazine for years, and I’ve seen stories like this dreamed up dozens of times. The newsmagazines too often give in to the temptation to be provocative and make a bold statement to set tongues wagging—the journalistic equivalent of trying to hit a three-run homer with one man on base. So the solons at Newsweek, wanting to create “buzz” more than anything else, come up with this sausage stuffed with every anecdote imaginable—Teachers sleeping at their desks! Convicted abusers! Rubber rooms!—that fits the thesis. They also probably assumed no one would get too upset at bashing teachers, since the unions get no love from “those in the know” on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or Georgetown. Then they congratulate themselves for being so bold and brave, and dismiss those who disagree or see things in a more nuanced fashion as soft-headed union apologists. In short, a microcosm of every ed reform debate of the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, it’s become virtually impossible to have a nuanced conversation about teacher quality. Are there bad teachers? Certainly. But to suggest that “removing bad teachers” is The Answer is comically simple-minded. One should never assume that one’s personal experience is universal, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything I learned in ed school that helped me in the classroom. I think I received only two formal reviews in five years, and I had very little professional development that added value to my work. I had no real curriculum—I had to decide what to teach—and inconsistent support on discipline issues. On the other hand my classroom was sloppy with consultants who wanted to tell me how to teach. And if it fails it’s my fault? Seriously?

I’m tempted to suggest there are two competing metanarratives that color perceptions of education. People either see teachers as first-rate professionals struggling against third-rate institutions. Or they see them as third-rate people damaging a first-rate institution. Neither is a particularly nuanced view, but I fear we aren’t able to see and appreciate the incredible complexity of education. At the same I viscerally understand the frustration and impatience people have with education. Trillions of dollars spent to accomplish…what, exactly? That anxiety has to find a place to affix itself. Too often it’s to teachers who are breaking their backs armed with little more than good intentions.

6) What are you reading these days?

I have a habit of reading books long after everyone else has picked them clean. I’ve become interested in college readiness, so I just read Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, which came out 15 years ago. Since that book came out, we’ve had a flowering of “no excuses” charter schools that are specifically aimed at getting kids like Cedric Jennings, the protagonist of the book, “college ready.” I’m interested in what that means exactly and how we define it for low-income urban kids. I suspect that while creating a high expectations school culture matters, curriculum matters at least as much. In short, raising expectations may not mean a lot if kids aren’t academically prepared.

I’ve also been reading Dan Koretz’s Measuring Up. It’s of a piece with college readiness. If three out of four kids who take the ACT nationwide aren’t prepared to do C-level college work in all tested subjects, clearly there’s no cause-and-effect relationship between passing state tests and being college ready. I’m interested in the idea of diagnostic assessments that can tell if a child is academically on-track for college, at any given point in their K-12 career. I know what you’re thinking: assessments to evaluate students, not teachers? I know, it’s a radical idea. I’m just an oddball, I guess.

7) If you were Secretary (or even Emperor) of Education, what are a few things you’d do?

Easy. I’d name Dan Willingham my Deputy Secretary and call in sick every day for the next eight years.

Thanks, Robert!