Connecting the Dots on Equity

by Lisa Hansel
March 13th, 2013

As a young child, I loved those connect-the-dots coloring books. Searching for the next number was sometimes tough (but not too tough) and it was fun to watch the picture emerge from what was, just a few minutes before, a messy array dots.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently as I’ve read, and read the buzz about, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” a.k.a. the equity commission report. The dots are there—but they aren’t connected. They aren’t even numbered. And there sure isn’t a full-color picture of equity and excellence.

The report does highlight serious problems. One in particular—the lack of common curriculum—caught my attention: “unlike in America, teachers in high-performing countries can draw on common instructional materials aligned with rigorous, national curriculum frameworks that all students are expected to master and that form the basis of teacher development and training” (p. 22). A crucial difference between these national curriculum frameworks and the Common Core State Standards is that the frameworks specify lots of academic content knowledge that students must acquire. This content adds depth to teacher training and enables more meaningful teacher collaboration (Japanese lesson study comes to mind).

The members of the equity commission are obviously sympathetic to the benefits of common core curriculum, yet our tradition of local control seems to make enacting such a thing, even on the state level, unthinkable.

Still, the report makes plenty of solid recommendations (i.e., gap-closing early childhood education, the steps necessary to mitigate the effects of poverty, and more). It just doesn’t help us figure out where to start or offer a picture of our destination.

But Jeffrey Litt does.

In an Education Trust webinar yesterday, Jeffrey Litt explained how he turned around P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx, and then went on to help create and lead the highly successful Icahn Charter Schools, also in the Bronx.

When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:

The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.

Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:

The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.

Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Litt may call Core Knowledge the equalizer, but in fact it’s Core Knowledge in the hands of dedicated, collaborative educators that connects the dots on equity and excellence. Just in case your picture isn’t colored in yet, here’s one more lesson from Litt:

Many people say all children can learn. Well that’s true. But a parakeet can learn too. We look for people who believe that children can excel.

17 Comments »

  1. It’s hard for anyone these days to understand the full measure of independent thinking, deep insight and street smarts that enabled Jeff Litt to transform an island of despair in the South Bronx in the 90s to a beacon of hope—all the bureaucrats he had to outwit, the union representatives he had to placate, the self-righteous ideologues he had to brush off, the courage and determination he had to exemplify day after day. Jeff Litt is a true hero and a wonderful man. I’m so glad he is at last getting some small portion of the recognition he deserves.

    Comment by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. — March 13, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

  2. The way Jeff described the curriculum in the school he turned around is exactly like the public schools are here in Eugene, Oregon. I just finished a teacher education program where I observed and taught in a variety of local public schools. I couldn’t believe how arbitrary the instruction was. Nothing was sequenced or cumulative: Purely random. Most teachers used these 10LB textbooks that were painfully dull or else just taught their own version of social justice without much concern for actual content. It came as a huge surprise to me. The other major surprise was when I found out that “Social Reconstruction” is one of the 5 teaching philosophies. Based on the theories of Marxist Paolo Friere the teacher’s role in this philosophy is to make the students realize how much inequality and injustice there is in our society. Issues of gender, sexuality, environmental, social class etc. Everything taught in class is designed to explicate the teacher’s view of these issues. It is a real abuse of the teacher’s position of power if you ask me and goes totally unchallenged. I thought it would at least be done surreptitiously, but it is right there in the open. Crazy!

    Comment by Jim — March 14, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  3. The difference between a school and a school “system” is the existence of well-define and cohesively allocated content for all grades and subjects. When teachers in a school “system” are assigned a course to teach, they can focus on designing instruction knowing that the content has been purposely distributed to achieve vertical alignment and horizontal integration. And, knowing that ideally, students will arrive in the classroom with the prior knowledge to learn the planned course content. Leaving content to be defined by the teachers is doing them and the students a disservice.

    Having common, well-define content enables consistent and meaningful tracking of student learning at the content level. Today’s letter grades only summarize student learning and hide learning gaps that could cripple later learning progress. Tracking student learning at the content level informs instruction, motivates student and engages parents because the data requires no interpretation and is directly actionable.

    Lisa, I agree with that the Each and Every Child report is missing a critical element in their 5-part action strategies. Their assumed bookends of CCSS and the Common Assessments are taken as fact and they never consider refinement into clear content definitions. What’s sad is the realization that well-defined content could significantly help solve the problems the report addresses.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — March 14, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  4. I would be interested in how he developed the resources for developing a CK system. When I have looked over your materials, it feels overwhelming in terms of getting materials that can be taught to that depth and most schools cannot afford the cost either in the money to buy or the time it takes to use free resources from places like libraries. To put this in context our principal just told us it would cost $30,000 (to be raised from parents) for us to get an alternative curriculum from the horrible Every Day Math books our district has provided. If every line of inquiry (i.e. science, social studies, ela) costs around that much that is a huge cost transition. I know that DC seems to be stalling on the core curriculum shift because they just don’t have the money for things like books. No one is saying it out loud, but that is what is happening.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 14, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  5. Great piece, Lisa.

    “The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach.” As bizarre as it sounds, this is dead on, the truth. It’s also one of the anti-reform’s mantra, that there was a plan somewhere as to what to teach and when. They just didn’t know where it was.

    This is part of the reason, every November, over 90% (my guess) of elementary teachers nationwide taught “their” unit on the first Thanksgiving. Mind-boggling, but true. I witnessed it first hand, pre-standards based education reform.

    There was literally no plan anywhere, save publishing company textbooks and/or local school district plans which, trust me, were VERY few, and far between. In a September, 2005, a New York Times editorial stated our schools were being run by “default” because there was no plan anywhere prior to standards based reform from NCLB. I’ll never forget that little gem. Talk about a professional embarrassment. Can you imagine there being no plan in the medical, legal, engineering, architectural or any other professional field? And teachers often wonder why they’re perceived in the light they are.

    Jim from Oregon (above) states, “I couldn’t believe how arbitrary the instruction was. Nothing was sequenced or cumulative: Purely random.” What’s amazing is, according to Jim, this is still happening today, almost a decade and a half after standards based reform was enacted via NCLB. Again, talk about an embarrassment for our profession. A joke, except it’s not.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 15, 2013 @ 9:33 am

  6. Dear DC Parent,

    Core Knowledge does offer an array of materials—and I can see how that could be overwhelming and costly. I suggest you start with just two things: the Core Knowledge Sequence and the Teacher Handbooks. The Sequence can be downloaded for free here: http://www.coreknowledge.org/sequence.

    The Teacher Handbooks are not free, but each teacher needs just one and they are truly invaluable: http://books.coreknowledge.org/home.php?cat=330.

    There is one Handbook per grade, preschool – 5, and all of the content a teacher needs to implement the Sequence is provided. Here is a free sample from a Handbook: http://www.coreknowledge.org/mimik/mimik_uploads/documents/364/TH_Grade2_Westward_Expansion.pdf.

    I hope you find these helpful.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 15, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  7. @Lisa I know where to to get these books. I guess I did not make my point, when curriculm is dependent on parent fundraising, there will never be be sequencing of the nature described here. Everything is too topsy turvy, bandaid. It costs too much. This has to be addressed at the superindent & legislative level. Right now for every $1 dollar spent for those under age 25 (thus including college financial aid), $8 is spent on those over the age of 65. There is a profound generational shift happening here in terms of where our society is investing. Maybe that is the reason to focus on CK, but it is also the reason that governing in crisis will remain the norm in education.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 15, 2013 @ 11:39 am

  8. Lisa Hansel wisely points out that: “A crucial difference between these national curriculum frameworks and the Common Core State Standards is that the frameworks specify lots of academic content knowledge that students must acquire…” I would just add that the flight from academic content shows up in U.S. literacy circles as well, where the focus is on rubrics, techniques, guidelines, parameters and the like, not on what students know and might want to communicate—with even one of the most influential literacy teachers in the country saying: “I teach writing. I don’t get into content that much.”

    Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 15, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  9. Will,

    Who is the influential literacy teacher promoting rubrics, techniques, parameters, and the like at the expense of what students know and might want to communicate? Just curious if you’re referencing Lucy Calkins.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 16, 2013 @ 8:04 am

  10. I know the rubric mess is the most common way IB schools grade. Frankly I think the elite obsession with IB is a significant impediment to a knowledge based curriculum.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 17, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  11. Your comment on teachers teaching what they like reminded me of my Grade 8 English Language Arts teacher. This incident happened over 40 years ago but somehow I feel it is still happening. Whenever it was ELA class the students got to choose if they wanted to do ELA or play baseball. What do you suppose the consensus was from that age group? Needless to say, I learned NO grammar whatsoever from that teacher. I wonder now if he just did not know the content and found it impossible to teach.

    Comment by SPRD — March 20, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

  12. What an interesting perspective on common core curriculum and its beginning success in the 1980s, in New York. The state of California is adopting the Common Core curriculum in the next two years. Teachers in California are attempting to make changes, with much trepidation though (at my school site). I am glad to read that teachers at P.S. 67 were still able to use their imaginations and be creative.

    Comment by Sarah Davis — March 20, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

  13. My earlier comment rambled, but when I spoke about teaching philosophies I was suggesting that there is zero consensus WHAT should be taught today. I don’t think in 2013 any type of curriculum standardization is even possible. The Language Arts common core standards are so vague that teachers are free to use whatever content they deem necessary toward vague ends. I have no faith that they will change anything.

    My point is that the last 30-40 years has seen our culture lose any type of consensus. People get their news from whatever source they choose. There is no Walter Cronkite anymore. There is no agreed truth or even set of facts anymore. Trying to implement a common core of curriculum and standards is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s impossible.

    I just applied for a job at a local private high school and I asked them about how their curriculum was sequenced and cumulative. Well, all got was, “teachers are allowed to teach to their individual strengths” meaning teach whatever you want. It seems impossible today to get a whole department of unlike-minded teachers on the same page about how to design a curriculum.

    I think the only hope is to break up the entire public system. I’m a liberal, but I have seen it up close and our schools are run so inefficiently that they make the local DMV look like Apple in comparison.

    Comment by Jim — March 21, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  14. Lisa, I really enjoyed your piece and loved the connect the dots reference, very original.
    I also believe common curriculum is a big issue in the educational field. I can relate greatly because in my campus we are provided with an abundance of amount of materials that could be useful to the students yet it is not used. Every year the district adopts a new book, or program that is placed above the rest. We do not have consistency with a common curriculum, and it is frustrating for many educators. Although it is horrible to imagine, many teachers do not know what to teach in the classroom. It is mind bogging to imagine how our students are expected to succeed when no plan of action has been established.

    Comment by Amy Trevino — March 21, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

  15. Jim, In our school district the LA teachers have to choose among a selection of readers for middle school students. The one book that they often choose is “The Giver” for Grade 8 curriculum. Unfortunately, I have had to read this story twice and it was painful both times. I am not sure who chooses the curriculum content or how they make the decisions. Not only do I not like the story or the content but I have not heard one student mention enjoyment in reading this book. If there is so much resistance to reading a selection, why, oh why do the teachers continue to pick this selection? If the students were reading a story that interested them and that they were motivated to delve into would they not be improving their skills? Many of the students are Learning Disabled and still have to read this selection. What is wrong with the powers in government that think they are doing anyone a favor by insisting that students be forced to read this type of material. They would be better off reading a comic book and learning to read than reading The Giver and not wanting to open it.

    Comment by SPRD — March 23, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

  16. I agree SPRD. A lot of deciding what content to teach depends on the particular group of students you are teaching. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. There has to be, it seems to me, an overall guiding set of requirements and then some freedom how to arrive at defined outcomes. I had professors in my graduate teaching program telling me that we don’t teach grammar and punctuation anymore. Why learn to spell, they say, when computers have spell check? There is a reluctance to make students do anything they don’t want to do: that isn’t “engaging”. The result is students who can’t concentrate for long, and who have no endurance or tenacity. I think we should be teaching kids how to be tenacious and find ways to increase their concentration and tenacity. Here is an example off the top of my head. Memorization for spelling is valuable to learn spelling, but it might even be more valuable as a process. Students under go the “not very engaging” process of memorizing which requires tenacity and concentration.

    But I agree with you about giving the students something to read that is interesting to them. Gerald Graff is a writer whose ideas on this subject I really agree with. I had my public middle school students reading Shirley Jackson and Jack London short stores. I think that is the teacher’s job: to make somewhat distant material interesting and engaging.It can be done. I remember taking Shakespeare as an undergrad. The first class I took was hard and boring, but the second one had a great professor and Shakespeare came alive for me. There is a point, however, when the reading material can be of little value academically, or maybe even harmful. My earlier post was just lamenting the fact that giving teacher free reign what to teach can often be a bad idea, but your example shows the other side of it. Thanks!

    Comment by Jim — March 23, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  17. [...] Developing and teaching a content-rich, coherent curriculum is hard to do, but it’s also the only approach that works. [...]

    Pingback by Why Reading Is the Tougher Nut « The Core Knowledge Blog — June 3, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

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