E.D. HirschTo the best of my knowledge, students at Morningside Academy make the same gains in reading they do in math: two years' progress in one year's time. That is the guarantee Morningside makes to parents. Their child will make two years' progress in one year's time or tuition is refunded.
If you teach English, or you're a school leader — and I'm particularly looking at you, friends in No Excuses charter schools, with our collective student gains in math that are 4x higher than those in English — I think a bare minimum threshold is that you can:
a. Explain E.D. Hirsch's arguments
b. Describe the degree to which your class/school adheres to or rejects his view
c. Justify why
I got turned onto re-reading Hirsch through Robert Pondiscio, who until recently worked for Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation as a blogger.
More specifically, Morningside guarantees that each child will make two years' progress in one year's time in the child's most difficult subject. Since many of students there have diagnoses of dyslexia, presumably the worst subject is reading, often as not. Morningside's students are middle and upper-middle class, but Kent Johnson and his group have worked with disadvantaged populations, too. As far as I know, two-years-in-one applies to low-income students, too.
For (remedial) reading comprehension, Morningside uses Robert Dixon's Reading Success. Dixon's approach to teaching "main idea" is sui generis: his program teaches students to identify anaphora first. Dixon's definition of anaphora: "a pronoun or other words used to refer to some other word or name." (And here's a simple example of anaphora)
Morningside students become fluent at identifying anaphora and their referents in the text. As I recall, they then identify the main idea by counting the anaphora. The main idea has the most. (Still haven't read my Dixon handout...if I'm wrong about that, I'll correct.)
Once students have completed Dixon's curriculum, they continue to improve their reading within the subject areas.
We've talked about this before, so this is a repeat: the idea that you would teach reading comprehension by focusing very specifically on anaphora was a revelation to me. I've been teaching anaphora to my students ever since.
My experience at Morningside makes me skeptical of the claim that lack of background knowledge is the only meaningful explanation for the decline in reading comprehension in the U.S., or for the failure of the good charter schools to make much headway improving reading comprehension.
I was mulling this over, trying to think how one might separate background knowledge from some kind of 'textual knowledge' students also lack, when I remembered the fact that my students can have difficulty understanding fables.
One of my best students -- a bright, capable young woman -- did not understand this fable, which she had read out loud to the class:
A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other. At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveller, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak.When one of my students has trouble understanding a fable, the problem isn't background knowledge.
The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort: but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself.
Then came the turn of the Sun. At first he beamed gently upon the traveller, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders: then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.
Moral: Persuasion is better than force.
I'm not sure what the problem is, but the fact that Morningside Academy achieves such amazing results using a reading comprehension curriculum that teaches anaphora leads me to believe that, at a minimum, cohesion devices should be directly and explicitly taught in English class.
On that subject, here's Sally Hampton: The Importance of Writing Structures, Coherence, and Cohesion to Writing and Reading.