Rote Learning Meets Critical Thinking

by Sue Legg

One of the most intriguing articles that I have read lately is Iris Rotberg’s article on The Endless Search for Silver Bullets. Dr. Rotberg, a Research Professor of Education Policy at George Washington University reported the results of the 2012 New York state assessments and the 2013 New York version of the Common Core test.  The results were no doubt disappointing to charter school advocates.  Charter schools in New York City, the hallmark of high achieving charter schools, continued to outperform comparable traditional public schools.  Charters, however, had higher drops in levels of proficiency. See Table 1.

Table 1. Drops in proficiency rates: 2013 Common Core vs. 2012 NY state test results

NYC Charter Schools NYC Public Schools
Subject area 2012 to 2013 drop 2012 to 2013 drop
Math 72% > 34.8% = 37.2% 51.5% >25.0% = 26.5%
English Language Arts 60% > 29.6% = 30.4% 46.8% >26.4% = 20.4%


A dramatic decrease in proficiency was expected for all schools; the standards are different and more difficult. Why these new standards resulted in a greater drop for charters deserves some analysis.

Back in 2009, the New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project reported “for students who attended a charter school for all grades kindergarten through eighth, charters closed about 86% of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap in math and 66% of the gap in English. These gains were associated with a longer school year, a greater number of minutes devoted to English, a small rewards/small punishments discipline policy, teacher pay based somewhat on performance or duties, and a mission statement emphasizing academic performance. This gain was lost in 2013; over seventy percent of Scarsdale students scored at or above the proficiency level; charters scored 34.8%.

Critics of charters alleged that their high scores in 2009 were due to their admission and dismissal practices. They questioned everything from the comparability of the students to the reputed practices that charters discouraged enrollment of children with disabilities and English language learning issues. Strict disciplinary practices, high suspension rates, and other ‘screening’ practices at charters were commonly cited as evidence that charters and traditional public schools are not comparable. See a current critique in the 2014 NY Times article Charter School Refugees. Even though many of these charges are valid, state assessment scores, particularly in math, remain higher than might be expected for low income children in charter schools. The reasons may reflect what is taught and how it is taught.

Concerns about teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum to allow time to raise scores are not only common, they are acknowledged even by supporters of school reform. In  The Guide to Major Policy Studies, the Washington Policy Institute reported that the particular instructional method and the academic focus of charter schools were correlated with student achievement. Two-thirds of the NYC charters used a teaching strategy called Direct Instruction. It required teacher-led introduction of explicit skills, unison responses by students, and testing (e.g. DISTAR). Some researchers call this approach ‘fact accumulation’ at the expense of thinking skill development or ‘focusing on tests’ (Nicholls, 1989). For a startling description of this method by a former charter school teacher see: Annabel Lee’s letter on teaching in a no-excuses charter school published by Diane Ravitch in her blog. In addition to this Direct Instruction strategy, those charter schools that focused on academic achievement rather than on other goals such as Discovery Learning were likely to score higher on tests that emphasized basic skills.

Given that the Common Core Standards are intended to redirect instruction from basic skills to the use of these skills in analyzing and solving problems, it should be no surprise that teaching strategies based on rote learning alone might not stand up. Teachers who combine the study of basic skills with exploratory learning strategies may fare better on critical thinking and problem solving tests. This multi-faceted approach to teaching and learning is not new for high achieving students, but for those children who are ill prepared for school, arguing about which type of test to give misses the point.  The focus has to be on what children need in order to learn.

In our next post, we will feature some ‘what works’ strategies and question the disconnect between the relentless attack on teachers and the need for high quality instruction.

Posted in Achievement, Charter Schools, Common Core Standards, Public Education, Teachers, Testing.


  1. First, let me take umbrage at this comment: “Perhaps they were attracted to education not just because they care about children, but because they sought a career in a world that is safe and predictable.” The teachers I worked with and particularly those involved in the League are some of the most creative, curious and intelligent people I have known. These kinds of criticisms do nothing to encourage progress in education.

    You are correct that Google does know almost everything, but the person using it must be able to think critically, evaluate the sources, and synthesize what they read. Critical reading and thinking, analytical skills and media literacy should be at the top of current curriculums, in my opinion and I think you would agree. However, students do need high levels of basic skills in order to be able to use the information they find.

    You commented: “This type of iterative learning, enabled by technology, is more powerful than learning that is directed by state mandates, which create complacency and mediocrity.” I believe the Common Core is an effort to change the curriculum to a more sophisticated level. I had to look up the meaning of “iterative learning” which seems to mean learning by repetition to yield results closer and closer to a desired result. If this is iterative learning, I’m not sure that isn’t what education has been doing for years.

    I agree that it is time for changes more dramatic than the Common Core. I’ve thought a good idea would be to call students first year, 2nd year etc. to indicate their years in school, but what they were learning would be dependent on their progress. Perhaps the goal would be to read a particular set of books, websites, whatever and be able to analyze them and express themselves in writing, speaking, etc. As they reached the defined goals they could move on to their own interests and advanced topics. Some might meet the goals by their 4th year some might never meet them.

    You are right that we need to define the problem and that has always been the issue in education. If the goal were to teach everyone to read at a particular level and not worry about grades, emotions, family opportunities, etc., it could be done. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with human beings. We also need to face the fact that there are no silver bullets. The desire to have every child, no matter the background, meet the same standards at the same rate is laudable, but not realistic.

    It is wonderful to have a parent join in a discussion about education. We need more discussion to improve what I hope will remain a powerful public education.

  2. Krista,
    I particularly liked your information about Brian Setser’s definition of the problem. This blog is intended to be a resource for clarifying education issues and approaches to improving public education. The blog is brand new, and it will become as good a resource as people like you want it to be. Thank you for contributing.

  3. After scrolling through this blog, I was disappointed to see scant attention paid to the major disruptive challenges we are facing in education in the 21st century. The challenges are so great and transformational that they will fundamentally alter the process of how we do education for the first time in 1000 years. My sense is that the League members interested in education and legislation are retired teachers, who have graduated from years of teaching in traditional schools and want to bring insights and well meaning reform to the educational system. Perhaps they were attracted to education not just because they care about children, but because they sought a career in a world that is safe and predictable. But as a mother of 3 children, close to the pulse of the global and technological economic forces affecting my husbands career, I can no longer safely predict what future skills, I am preparing my children for. The skills that traditional schools are teaching no longer make sense. The culture of industrial age schools still teaching the three R’s is on a collision course with the world where google knows everything, knowledge is dynamic and has flow, and learning is self-organized. This type of iterative learning, enabled by technology, is more powerful than learning that is directed by state mandates, which create complacency and mediocrity.

    What we really need to do here is to define the problem. And that is going to require a lot deeper level of thinking, to get to the root of what is happening in the world. Incremental changes like charter schools just perpetuate the status quo. We need to pivot here from charter schools and have a conversation that speaks to our immediate problem. To define the problem it will require us to think backwards. First describe the phenomenon thats happening the world, how thats affecting the workplace, the skills that we need for those jobs, how those changes are affecting preparation in the universities and how that is going to affect the K-12 system. That is the conversation we should be having. We all know we don’t need students that are college-ready. Forty-one percent of college graduates are in low paying jobs that do not require a college degree, according to a Federal Reserve report, Spring 2014. Nobody cares what you know these days. We need students that are innovation-ready and that requires a radically different educational model.

    If I were going to explain the problem we are facing, I would borrow Bryan Setser’s definition from the 2 Revolutions website:

    The education model used in many classrooms across our country can find its roots in the 20th century-in which students, organized by age move at the same time and pace through their learning experience. Yet after decades of research and experiences in the K-12 classroom, coupled with a world where technologies have transformed the opportunities available to us, this system no longer makes much sense. Competency-based education transforms this traditional model. It shifts the focus of learning from time to mastery, from purely summative assessments to formative experiences and most important, creates personalized pathways for each student to move at their own pace and ability to meet their learning needs.

    Because of the tremendous leadership challenges this presents, we need the advice from national experts like Bryan Setser to help us create a roadmap for the future of learning.

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