Brian Pick Gets It

by Guest Blogger
June 6th, 2013

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.



  1. This sounds great, but I have two children in the DC Public Schools and I have asked teachers straight up how they feel about central office support for the move to the CC and it is not so laudable. Too much is locked up behind systems you can’t really access on non DCPS computers that don’t work on the in school wifi that does not work. Primary needs like text books or reading materials that reflect these changes are not making it to the classroom.

    No communication has come home to parents about how these shifts will happen, change how their kids learn build and support the system. Maybe I would not be so frustrated, but for the fact that our neighbor Montgomery County has grade by grade sent home clear information on what they are doing to shift within the classroom.

    There is so little trust in DCPS, more openness is warranted for this type of transition.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 7, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  2. If schools really valued academic content, they’d simply adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum and Singapore Math, which already have all the necessary course resources and assessments, and have teachers explicitly teach the material. Oh, and they’d make sure no kids were allowed to disrupt classes, too.

    Comment by momof4 — June 7, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

  3. I fervently hope that the DCPS and others are going back to the future with the kind of content-based curriculum I fondly remember from the early 60s. The above story, however, implies several reasons for the difficulty CCSS will face. To teach it, teachers actually have to HAVE a knowledge base–and not one based on personal whim but on informed, collaborative cooperation plus good arguments for why some content is more appropriate than others. Even without the obvious political problems with getting Americans to agree on ANY common content, there is the deeper problem that for forty years the teachers themselves have been mal-educated and know less than they should about literature, science, history, etc.

    Comment by DR — June 11, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  4. Why is it necessary to password protect content?
    Who is the content password protected from? Parents?

    Comment by Cindy — June 23, 2013 @ 7:19 am

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