Face to Face: A Conversation with Nancy Romance
The educator discusses public schools and the reforms needed to produce smarter students.

Q. Dr. Romance, what's wrong with primary and secondary public education in America today?

A. I think there are many things that are right about public elementary and secondary education, but I think what we have gone away from is the role and importance of knowledge and content-area learning. And it starts primarily at the elementary level. When we look at other nations as an example, there's heavy emphasis in content learning -- science, history, geography, literature. And that starts primarily in kindergarten. And those content areas have somewhat diminished in emphasis at the elementary level [in the United States], with more focus on reading. What happens then at the secondary level is students get there without the really prerequisite knowledge necessary to do well in high school courses. So it's like one contributes to the other, so to speak.

Q. Does Florida have the same problems as the rest of the country, or are there shortcomings unique to Florida?

A. I think Florida simply mirrors the rest of the country. I don't see anything particularly unique here.

Q. You're a champion of the educational theories of E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge movement. What is Core Knowledge and why is it important?

A. Well, broadly speaking, what makes something an academic discipline is the fact that it is a body of knowledge organized around key concepts and principles. And concepts within any discipline have a relational nature. That relational nature is what enables someone to move and advance and become more in-depth in their understanding of that discipline …What Dr. Hirsch offers us is the valuable notion that there is such a thing as a knowledge base, and knowledge is cumulative, and as we gain new knowledge we begin to build the intellectual capital -- a term he uses -- that propels new knowledge. So it's the rich get richer, or the knowledge-rich get richer. Those that have a base to build are likely to build, and those that don't eventually see the futility of their efforts and drop out of school. . . .

When E.D. Hirsch looked at the whole notion of comprehension, and he said it requires knowledge of words and the world, he's talking about broad knowledge across history and geography and English and science and the arts and music and so on, and he indicates things like fluency are important and vocabulary is important, but he's added a third piece, which I really applaud, and that's domain knowledge. What one knows about a subject is a prime determinant of what else one is going to learn about that topic. So what he does is each year he offers a set of rich content that builds cumulatively across time. And that is how public education probably was when most of us went to school.

Q. So this is the content-centered approach, as opposed to the student-centered approach that had been known as "progressive education"?

A. Right. A total misconception, I might add, OK? The fact of the matter is all learners benefit from a curriculum that is focused, coherent, articulated and sufficient. And you can make any curriculum interesting to learners, so the idea that it would have to be student-centered, of course it would be student-centered, as long as it's focused, coherent, and that's in fact what makes it student-centered. So the notion that children are going to dictate what the topics are makes no sense when you think that there's a logic to the development of one's understanding …

One of my favorite new sources which I hold out is the book How People Learn. It was commissioned by the National Research Council, and it was published by the National Academy Press. It's a synthesis of 20 years of research and learning, and they came up with three major findings, so in particular the first two chapters are quite exciting. The first one gives you the synthesis of 20 years of research and learning . . . and the three major findings were, these are the factors which influence learning most: No. 1, prior knowledge and prior conceptions. What you know about what it is you're learning is the chief determinant of future learning. The second is how do you organize that knowledge around rich concepts, principles and organizing frameworks. And the third is how do you think using that knowledge. So it's prior knowledge, organizing the knowledge, and then cognitively thinking using that knowledge.

Then they studied experts. And when they studied experts, what they found out is experts have highly organized knowledge networks, so that when there's a stimulus in the environment, it doesn't trigger a one-to-one association, but that many ideas are triggered simultaneously, and they act on those ideas in a very comprehensive way. So it's always moving learners on what I call a conceptual journey, from basic understanding to more integrated understanding, finally toward the broader understandings and the interdisciplinary nature of all learning.

Q. It's hard to fault the logic of all this. Why do you think Hirsch's theories haven't taken hold more than they have?

A. Oh, that's a good question. There were some critics of E.D. Hirsch's early work, and this whole notion of Core Knowledge, that basically, from my perspective anyway, there was a serious misrepresen-tation of what he was saying. I believe that they thought he wanted folks to just memorize everything. Well, while I might add, there's some value in memorization … memorization actually has some wonderful contributions to the whole process of learning.

Q. I don't know how you can do higher math without knowing the multiplication tables.

A. That's right, there are certain things that -- in fact, there's another excellent researcher, John R. Anderson at Carnegie Melon, that basically talks about the whole notion of automaticity. A certain amount of knowledge needs to be automatic … Automaticity means that you don't have to use working memory to use enough knowledge to understand new information. If every last bit of working memory is trying to recall all the steps in driving a car, you'd never get the car out of the parking lot.

Q. Tell us about the Science Ideas project you're involved in.

A. Ah! Near and dear to my heart. What's fascinating is a project that started in 1988-89 with a principal who said, "Gee, Nancy, isn't there a way we could do science and reading together?" Seemed to make perfect sense. We started very quietly, with three fourth-grade teachers at Silver Ridge Elementary School in Davie. And that year we actually put the Basil Reader on the shelf and did two hours of science every day. That gave us a wonderful opportunity for hands-on learning, for meaningful conversation, for writing about what we're learning, for inquiry, for content-area reading.

At the end of the year, Broward schools tested, and what they basically were able to demonstrate was that the children who were in Science Ideas made not only statistically significant gains in science, as might be expected given how much we were focusing in on it, but on general reading comprehension also. They outperformed comparable youngsters. It was like, whoa, we didn't even touch the Basil and we're getting reading comprehension outcomes. We did it a second year. We continued to get the same great results at that school. We also watched the previous fourth-graders, who were now fifth-graders. They continued to do very well. So we started working with small Eisenhower grants, when the state had these Eisenhower grants, and ultimately worked with 50 classroom teachers and 1200 children. And we were able to demonstrate that each year the children were in the project they were able to make statistically significant gains in both reading comprehension and science. We were very, very excited about that.

The first research article was published in 1992, and it won all kinds of awards for really quality research. The second total of the five years was published in 2001. As a result of that, we were able to apply for an NSF [National Science Foundation] grant … The net effect was because we had five years of evidence, we were able to first apply for a planning grant, and then actually have a full-fledged $6 million grant for five years.

So we're implementing Science Ideas across a variety of schools both in Broward and in Palm Beach. And there we have a two-hour instructional block. Now, in order to do this, we needed approval of the superintendent and the district people, so we worked very closely with both school districts. So boys and girls have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful science and to read about what it is they're learning about, and to learn more about what it is they're learning about, and to write about what it is they're learning about, and then even to enjoy literature related to what they're learning about … So as a result, as I said, we were able to be successfully funded, one of nine projects nationally in the United States. So we're just ending the second year now.

Q. The United States doesn't fare too well on international comparative tests. What are other countries doing right that we can learn from?

A. Basically, I think Bill Schmidt [U.S. director of the Third International Math and Science Study] summed it up very nicely when he said the difference between the nations that outperformed us and us turned out to be curricular. And in the nations that outperformed us, it was focused, it was coherent, it was articulated and it was sufficient. So each year there was that cumulative building of knowledge, and that's what he was able to see.

A group of educators from Palm Beach County, including faculty, students and teachers from Palm Beach schools, went to visit Bratislava, Slovakia. This was very eye-opening, as we got to see classrooms with little ones, middle-sized ones and high school kids. And in the primary grades, what you could see was the rich content that the children were learning. And in first grade they were all using pen, they were all writing in cursive, not just printing, and they were actually studying a variety of subjects. They all study one additional foreign language starting right at the beginning of school, so that by sixth grade they then make a choice to continue with that language or pick up a third language. So by sixth grade they're on their third language. We visited middle school classrooms -- what would be akin to our middle school -- throughout Slovakia, and what we saw was wherever we went there was a common, focused curriculum, because they were all learning Pascal's Law … they were learning not only Pascal's Law but the mathematical calculation of Pascal's Law.

There's a logic to learning. There's a logic to the development of knowledge, and that logic ought to dictate what comes first and what comes second and what comes third, not somebody's whim about what it ought to be.

Q. How optimistic are you that American public education can be reformed based on the principles of Core Knowledge and content-based, coherent curriculum?

A. I think that there's growing consensus about what is necessary for educational reform to take place in a way that makes sense … It's coming from a variety now of interesting, somewhat diverse perspectives, all converging on the importance of and the need for prior knowledge for all new learning. So I believe when you have consensus research findings, it's going to find its way into public education sooner than later.