Earlier today I had the great pleasure of a blog post that I wrote about the District of Columbia’s approach to the Common Core standards being published on Valerie Strauss’s “The Answer Sheet.” And just a couple of hours ago I had the great honor of speaking with Brian Pick—the man in charge of revamping DC’s approach to curriculum and instruction to meet the new standards.
In my earlier post, I congratulated the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for being dedicated to implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and for tackling the necessary changes in a very open, public manner. I also conveyed concerns about the standards being reduced to a checklist, and saw far too much business as usual in the instructional guidance I found online. It appears skills heavy, and content light. I am thankful to Pick for calling me to share his bigger picture and some of his longer-term goals.
Pick is, quite frankly, one of the most impressive educators I’ve spoken with in a long time. He gets it. He gets the cognitive science research on what knowledge does for reading comprehension and critical thinking. He gets teachers and teaching. He gets students’ needs—especially the needs of students who change schools frequently. He gets the importance of domain-based, cross-curricular studies for building broad background knowledge.
Some part of the system may have, as I claimed, checklist mentality—but Pick gets the intent of the Common Core standards.
He also has a correction for me: That District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System Resource Guide 2013 that I’m so worried about (because it reduces the CCSS to a list with assessment stems and completely ignores the call for a content-rich curriculum) was published by DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, not the district. I should have noticed that!
He also told me about the curriculum that DCPS is writing. Unfortunately, the units developed thus far are only available to those in the school system. But based on the conversation I had with Pick, I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. He agreed with me that the scope and sequence outlines I was able to see, with each unit described with just a bare-bones theme and focus, are too vague and too focused on skills. He explained that the actual units (which are password protected) are very content heavy.
Even better, he told me about a specific change that I found delightful. In my original post, I quoted a second grade “unit focus” that stated, “Students will study the history of, and daily life in, another country (teachers should select which country to study). In reading, students will continue to compare and contrast by making text-to-text connections. Students will also focus on summarizing individual paragraphs and multi-paragraph texts. In writing, students will write an opinion piece. Significant time should be devoted to learning how to peer-edit and peer-revise.” In critiquing it, I noted that this description was far too focused on skills, and not focused enough on the content. I did not add on how bothered I was that the country selection was being left up to each teacher. In other writing I have explained why that bothers me: In brief, I’ve argued that what to teach ought to be a communal, research-based, and experience-based decision. Since knowledge is essential to comprehension and critical thinking, and since there is a body of knowledge that literate adults are assumed to have, I think all of us should be willing to plow through the hard work of agreeing to certain content for each grade. (In contrast, I think that how to teach should be up to the individual teacher.) Finally, the delight: Pick told me that his team has revised that unit. The selection of the country is no longer up to the teacher. They’ve decided to teach about our neighbors, Canada and Mexico.
I am not easily won over, so I quizzed Pick about how the curriculum is being developed and to what extent they are creating domain-based studies. Pick showed that he knows the research on how being immersed in a topic accelerates learning (of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills). He has studied the human body example in the Common Core. And he is driving toward a very rich learning experience for DC’s children.