Sara Mead Gets It

by Robert Pondiscio
June 9th, 2009

This blog has long noted the strange indifference of the ed policy community to curriculum.  In wonk world it’s all about structures, and all will be well as long as a child has a great teacher, held accountable by testing, incentivized by merit pay, and serving at the pleasure of a principal in a charter school (or variations on that theme).  Curriculum?  The invisible hand will presumably see to that. 

sara-meadThe New America Foundation’s early ed specialist, Sara Mead, is a notable exception.  Writing last week about the Administration’s proposed $300 million Early Literacy Grants, Mead praised the program, but registered concern that its “emphasis on reading comprehension could lead many schools to devote excessive time to teaching so-called ‘comprehension strategies.’

As we’ve written here before, and as Daniel Willingham compellingly argues here, the best way to strengthen children’s ability to comprehend what they read is to expose them to rich and diverse content across various domains, so that they have the general knowledge to easily understand written passages on a wide variety of topics. That requires less time spent drilling comprehension strategies, and more time reading a variety of texts (especially non-fiction), and studying science, social studies, music, and the arts. If this program can help school districts move in that direction—while also maintaining a focus on strengthening students’ decoding skills and helping them gain fluency and vocabulary—that could be a really good thing.

Mead, who has clearly invested considerable time on the mechanics of teaching and learning, was at it again yesterday on her Early Ed Watch blog.  Commenting on last week’s Common Core report linking high academic achievement in other countries with a rich, broad curriculum, she highlighted Lynne Munson’s observation that the content of a student’s education has a greater influence on his level of achievement than does delivery or accountability systems. 

As research by both the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has shown, the early elementary school years are home to some of the weakest areas in existing state standards, and the early grades curriculum — particularly for low-income students — is too often a “content-free zone.” What can we learn from other countries about improving children’s access to high-quality, rich content — in a full range of academic subjects, including music and the arts — in the early grades?  

Perhaps there should be a conference of ed policy types who are as concerned as Sara Mead about early elementary curriculum.  We can book the washroom of a 737 for the meeting.


  1. At a meeting on June 9th another education advocate and I calling for better performance by our largest local school district we ran into the “structure” attitude full force.

    Our object for the meeting was to express our concern about the abysmal performance of the district in math. Their tenth grade proficient or better result for the last state testing cycle was 32% in math. Hardly an acceptable performance. During the discussion we wanted to focus on the poor curriculum choices of the district and they told us curriculum doesn’t matter. We strongly disagreed but that is like talking to a post (education expert).

    We could have as easily been talking about science, literature, etc. The attitude is the same. It became very clear that the ed schools emphasis on process to the exclusion of subject knowledge among teachers is a huge problem. Kids must understand the subject moderately well before any of the vaunted strategies so valued by the vast majority of educators are of even minimal value.

    Comment by Paul Richardson — June 20, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  2. Amen.
    When our administration made a schedule change in the middle of last year, our students lost their science and social studies time. Instead, they got social skills time twice a week, and “study hall” the other days. Curriculum DOES matter, in spite of what they say.

    Comment by Susanne Meredith — June 21, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  3. When I was still teaching our supervisors and the administration wanted us to do hands-on and group work and and other processes; they called it “curriculum.”

    Comment by Susan T. — June 22, 2009 @ 8:37 am

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