Policymakers: Stop Being Agnostic about Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
January 29th, 2014

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch, a blog by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

 

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give you all the guidance you need. Between the model on page 33 and the research summary in Appendix A, there’s a clear vision for creating a curriculum that systematically builds knowledge.

Knowledge-driven careers courtesy of Shutterstock.

But if you are a state-level policymaker or district superintendent, the path forward is murkier. You don’t want to mandate a curriculum, but you do need to encourage all schools to adopt, adapt, or create more rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curricula. What to do? Four models are worth considering—two at the state level and two at the district level.

Focus on Alignment: Massachusetts

Starting in the 1990s, Massachusetts began taking the whole idea of a standards-based education system very seriously. The Bay State created instructional frameworks that were (relative to other states, if not to many other nations) very content specific. What students had to learn was clear, which enabled teachers to collaborate on a much deeper level. Policymakers got three big things right: First, they did not mandate pedagogy. Second, they actually based the MCAS exams on the instructional frameworks. (Many other states had standards and assessments, but the standards were so vague that virtually any assessments could claim to be aligned with them. As a result, the standards did not truly guide instruction, setting up an assessment-based guessing game for teachers.) Third, they stayed the course for many years—standing firm against allegations that the standards were too high and the tests too hard and, crucially, being far more supportive than punitive. For many years, the emphasis was on framework-based teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. The results (nationally and internationally) have been spectacular.

Provide a Model: New York

While I can empathize with educators who feel that New York is moving too fast with the Common Core, I must also credit the state for heading in the right direction. New York realized that the standards would mean major instructional shifts, and has been working to provide—but not mandate—curricular resources to help teachers make those shifts. The EngageNY website is a rich resource; teachers throughout the Empire State and far beyond are using it to better understand the Common Core. (Full disclosure: Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen by New York as the model ELA curriculum for preschool–second grade implementation of the standards.) Massachusetts took about a decade to fully implement its standards-based system; I predict that New York will figure out ways to heed educators’ concerns while staying the course.

Build Your Own: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, the District of Columbia realized that the Common Core requires a content-rich curriculum. It also saw many benefits for students and teachers when a district has a shared, specific, curricular plan: Students endure fewer gaps and repetitions when they change schools and teachers are able to learn more from each other. Being large enough to have adequate resources and small enough to engage in district-wide initiatives, the District of Columbia Public Schools has gotten teachers involved in writing Common Core–aligned Scope and Sequence guides for each grade. This is especially important because of the city’s high rates of teacher turnover and student mobility. States that don’t want to follow New York’s path could incentivize districts to follow D.C.’s path. Even a small initiative, such as funding three to five districts, would help the whole state by creating multiple curricular models for other districts to adopt or adapt.

Invest in R&D: New York City

A few years before the Common Core, New York City tiptoed into analyzing the efficacy of different curricula. This is worth mentioning not because of the quality of the study (a small pilot) and not because of the programs being tested (Core Knowledge Language Arts was one), but because comparisons of curricula are desperately needed. As Brookings scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos have explained, instructional materials can have as large an impact on learning as teacher quality—and programs are much easier to change than people—yet little is known about various materials’ relative effectiveness. Large districts like NYC—and all districts with state support—have the capacity to conduct more and better research. To make the most of the Common Core, we need to create content-rich curricula and commit to an ongoing R&D process that drives continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum alone, no matter how good, is no silver bullet. But it should be the foundation for all other education work. From teacher preparation and professional development to assessment and accountability to student remediation and enrichment, the education enterprise is more effective and efficient when it rests on a clear statement of what students are to learn in each grade.

 

What Really Matters Most?

by Lisa Hansel
January 23rd, 2014

This post originally appeared on Peter Meyer’s education policy blog IdeaLab, hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House.

 

When asked what matters most to me, I quickly answer: my family and friends. That’s appropriate, but if I were being accurate, I’d have to start with oxygen. That’s not what anyone wants to hear—but it is true.

I see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. In casual discussions and even serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, appropriate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Now, I’m not going to say these things are unimportant; just like my family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? I think there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.

My hunch is that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy wonks.

For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That’s so obvious that it’s assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what’s essential to a great school. Now, don’t get me wrong: the curriculum doesn’t make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes me live. Both are merely the necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a bad school with a great curriculum, it is no more possible to find a good school with a bad curriculum than a human being who can live without oxygen. When educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.

Many policy wonks, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don’t even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, I could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world I can’t. In the 100%-proficient-or-else era, what sane educator would encourage policymakers to mess with their oxygen? Unfortunately, omitting questions about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. Why is this?

It’s been almost five years since Russ Whitehurst wrote “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” noting that “policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.” Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: “Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”

This is why I am still trying to mess with the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.

Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matt Chingos published “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” This time, there was a cool graphic tightly focused on curriculum vs. teacher quality, the clear leader in appropriate-but-inaccurate discussions of what matters most:

Since curriculum matters, let’s start acting like it matters:

  • Researchers: do more longitudinal, well-designed studies that compare curricula.
  • Policy wonks: don’t mandate a curriculum, but support efforts—from the school level to the research university level—to constantly improve curricula.
  • Assessment developers: stop pretending like assessments are curriculum neutral. Each test question contains specific content and favors students who happened to be taught that content. So long as assessments are intentionally designed to have the content of the questions be unpredictable, the only way to prepare for them is to systematically and efficiently build broad knowledge.
  • Teacher-quality hawks: realize that sometimes good people are forced to use bad programs and practices. The surest path to better teaching is better curriculum. If a curriculum with strong evidence of effectiveness is not working in a particular classroom, that’s cause for investigation (but not for jumping to conclusions).
  • Educators: within schools, work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.
  • Parents: get a copy of your school’s curriculum and ask how you can supplement it at home.
  • Librarians: get copies of the curricula of the schools in your area and pull together supportive and supplemental resources.
  • Everyone: stop taking our oxygen for granted.

Everyone can and should be an oxygen hawk.

Teaching Martin Luther King, Jr.

by EmmaEarnst
January 20th, 2014

I used to “celebrate” Martin Luther King Day by reading a book to my students on the Friday before they were out of school for the national holiday. After reading it, I would talk about his accomplishments and the impact of his contributions to American culture. I felt like I was really helping my kids to understand the significance of this great man! Once I started teaching using the Core Knowledge Sequence and the CKLA [Core Knowledge Language Arts] program, I realized that as good as my intentions were in years past, I had merely exposed my students to Dr. King and just skimmed the surface.

—Cathy Kinter

As Cathy Kinter, a second-grade teacher turned curriculum coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, notes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides teachers with a timely opportunity to teach about the civil rights leader. But she also raises a crucial point: teaching content according to the calendar can lead to superficial learning.

What to do? By using both the Core Knowledge Sequence and CKLA to create a content-specific, coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum, teachers at Thomas Jefferson have solved the calendar dilemma. Every teacher knows that King and the U.S. civil rights movement are taught in depth twice: in second grade and in eighth grade. As a result, teachers in other grades are free to use the national holiday to celebrate King; they make connections to the content they are teaching without taking on the responsibility of teaching a full unit on King—or worrying that they are just skimming the surface.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

In her kindergarten classroom, for example, Jan Tucker introduces her students to King and extends their recently acquired knowledge of fictional characters by drawing comparisons:

We make connections back to our previous read-alouds from CKLA such as King Midas, Cinderella, etc. We discuss what we must to do accomplish our dreams: the sacrifices and the successes. As the children are working, we discuss how they are not learning all of the information about Martin Luther King and they will learn a lot more about his contributions in second grade.

In first grade, Terrany Wright’s students discover more about King, while building enthusiasm for further studies of him the next year:

I read a book on Tuesday after the students were off for the holiday (I do this because I want my students to begin by making a personal connection to Dr. King before I even read about him). I begin by asking the students if they know why they did not have school yesterday. My line of questioning will vary depending upon the answers they give me, but I always want my students to “figure out” that they were off from school because of the effort and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: the man they are going to hear about in the book. I attempt to increase my students’ attention and enthusiasm by telling them that Dr. King was such an important man in American History that they are going to learn even more about him in second grade!

In second grade, Thomas Jefferson students preview King on his national holiday, and then study him in more detail during the Fighting for a Cause domain. This domain follows a whole series—starting in kindergarten—of U.S. history domains. As such, students use their knowledge of the Constitution, slavery, the U.S. Civil War, and segregation to reach an understanding of how King’s vision and leadership helped (and is still helping) make America more equitable and free. Says second grade teacher Heidi Cole,

If the goal is true understanding of Civil Rights, it is logical to acknowledge the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and inform students that they will soon be learning why this man is such a significant hero to our world. Later in the year, when teaching about him within the context of the Fighting for a Cause domain, students can be reminded that we celebrated his legacy with a national holiday in January.

Benefitting from students’ deeper understanding of King, the civil rights movement, and the larger premise that all men are created equal, third-grade teachers use Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to revisit and reinforce those concepts. Teachers Alenia Scism and Cecelia Greengrass even connect King to what they are learning in the Ancient Roman Civilization domain. Says Scism,

I start by helping the students recall what they learned about Dr. King and his accomplishments in second grade. Then, I read the book March On! by Christine King Farris. The children will write about a dream they have and what they are going to do to make their dream a reality. I connect the contributions of MLK back to the Ancient Rome domain where there were different classes of people (patricians, plebeians, slaves) and they were treated differently and had different rights.

By eighth grade, students have the broad knowledge needed to grasp King’s place in the pantheon of leaders seeking greater equality. History teacher Eric Scriggs explains,

I teach about Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights domain, which is in February. Prior to this, I introduce him in relation to Thoreau and Ghandi. I also connect his achievements in regard to the 15th Amendment as we study the Constitution. We cover Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez in the same unit which ties into the Fighting for a Cause domain from second grade.

The teachers at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy are making the most of their carefully constructed curriculum. By using Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a time to introduce and remember the great civil rights leader, they’ve built their students enthusiasm for a deeper dive into his life and legacy.

What’s Knowledge Got to Do with It? A PISA Roundup

by Lisa Hansel
December 6th, 2013

We’ve all seen the PISA results this week: On reading, math, and science, our 15-year-olds have not made any improvements since 2009—but their peers in many other countries have. Some people question international assessments, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term assessment confirms PISA’s key finding: our teenagers are not improving.

In the chatter about PISA, there’s been a decent amount of good sense, but also a disturbing dance around the in-school factors that most affect what students know and are able to do: masterful teaching of a rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curriculum.

(Bright idea courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Dana Goldstein, writing for Slate, came close, noting that “out-of-school social supports matter, teachers should be empowered, and all kids ought to be exposed to the most challenging material.” And yet, she seemed to assume that America actually has a math curriculum: “Since the Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth in our currently rushed and overstuffed American math curriculum, it probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA.” Bill Schmidt’s research clearly showed that even math courses with the same name don’t teach the same content, so we’re far from an “American math curriculum.” Still, Goldstein’s key points, that all kids should get the same challenging material and that the Common Core could help nudge schools in that direction, ring true.

Adam Taylor, for Business Insider, boiled it down further and also hit on a nugget of truth: “the domination of PISA rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding all the top seven spaces in math, the top five in reading, and the top four in science. Ultimately, this success might come down to something simple and harder to imitate — hard work.” Hard work is part of the picture, and there is certainly a tendency among some American parents and students to prefer stress-free happiness over academic pressure. But hard work alone won’t increase achievement. The content of the instructional materials matters. Adults need to do their hard work—writing the content-rich curriculum that the Common Core standards call for is clearly necessary.

New research from ACT shows that writing a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum aligned with the Common Core would be wise. By having over 2,000 10th graders take PISA and PLAN, ACT’s college and career readiness assessment that is aligned with the Common Core, ACT found that those who meet PLAN/Common Core’s definition of college and career ready also perform quite well in comparison with their peers from around the world.

So, are there any concrete lessons we could take from those countries that perform well on, and are improving on, PISA? Marc Tucker of National Center on Education and the Economy thinks so. Here’s his too-rational-to-be-accepted-in-the-US summary of what the better-performing countries do:

The first thing they do is very simple: they carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.

Second, they provide more resources to the students who are harder to educate than to the students who are easier to educate.

Third, we see that all the top performers have invested heavily in the skills of their teachers.  Some have focused on sourcing their teachers from much higher quality high school graduates, insisting that their teachers have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they will teach (including their elementary school teachers) and insisting as well on solid preparation in the craft of teaching (they do not believe in alternative routes into teaching that skip this step).  Some, most notably Shanghai, have worked very hard to set up systems that have the effect of helping teachers to improve their practice year after year in a very disciplined way.

Fourth, they have all put a lot of effort into building internationally competitive academic standards, intellectually demanding curriculum and examinations built on the curriculum that are designed to measure the full range of complex thinking skills on which their standards are based.

The top performers have all found ways to give very young children and their parents a lot of support before the children first show up for school.  They pay a lot of attention to vocational education and training and to school to work transition.  Not least important they work hard to build effective systems, the parts and pieces of which are designed to support one another and rely—gasp!—on government to implement those systems well.

 

Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Lisa Hansel
November 18th, 2013

Here’s a far too common sight in middle schools with lots of students from low-income families: adolescents bored with and discouraged by books for elementary students. Bored because the content is simplistic; discouraged because even these kids’ books contain vocabulary they don’t know.

Some school systems assume that students this far behind are “slow” and that this is the best they can do; but very often, the only thing these students lack is the opportunity—not the capacity—to be on grade level.

To understand this, you need to know about two things: the vocabulary demands of written texts and the limitations inherent in typical elementary-grades reading instruction.

As for the vocabulary in texts, it is far more sophisticated than the vocabulary in spoken language. One study comparing spoken and written language found that, “Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the richness and complexity of the words used in the oral language samples paled in comparison with the written texts. Indeed, of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was expert witness testimony.”

This has obvious implications for instruction: To build vocabulary, students must be immersed in texts. Studying vocabulary lists can help a little, but as E. D. Hirsch has explained, the tens of thousands of words that need to be learned must be absorbed bit by bit, through multiple exposures in multiple texts.

I don’t think you’ll find many teachers arguing against a print-rich environment. You will, sadly, find many who have been trained—through teacher preparation programs and mandated professional development—in instructional methods that prevent children from developing large vocabularies.

The culprit is the notion of the “just-right” book. A book that is not too easy and not too hard, a book that a child can read independently. Sounds good. But what happens when a child who is not learning much vocabulary at home is in a classroom where all of his texts are matched to his current level? Growth, but at a glacial pace. Blink and these kids are in eighth grade reading “just-right” third grade books.

The path to college is paved with challenging texts. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

One of the most important instructional shifts embedded in the Common Core standards is to accelerate growth by immersing students in grade-level books. I’ve seen many descriptions and misunderstandings of this. Finally, a clear, concise explanation is provided in a terrific report that Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett published with the Fordham Institute last month:

The CCSS seek to challenge students with texts that are grade-appropriate (on a K-12 trajectory to college- and career-readiness), rather than those that are only as challenging as students can read on their own.

American schools have long attempted to differentiate instruction to meet individual students’ learning needs. In reading, this has often meant selecting texts not according to whether they are appropriately rigorous for the grade, in terms of both content and complexity, but rather according to how well a student could read the text by himself at that point in time. In many classrooms and for many students, this has meant assigning texts to struggling readers, the content and complexity of which are more appropriate to lower grade levels. Done this way, the goal is to assign books that students will be able to read with high degrees of both accuracy (recognizing 95 percent of the words) and comprehension (answering 75-90 percent of the questions). Materials that students can read this well are said to be at their “instructional level,” and materials that are harder are deemed to be at a “frustration level.”

But the Common Core discourages teachers from doing this out-of-level teaching. Instead, the standards demand regular practice with grade-appropriate texts, regardless of the independent or instructional reading level of the student. The idea is that teacher support and explanation, not text difficulty, is what should be differentiated to meet the needs of struggling readers.

Some may question the wisdom of teaching students with texts that they’re unlikely to understand without help. But research suggests teachers can’t pinpoint students’ reading levels with great precision.18 Even if they could, students can learn effectively from a broad range of text levels and giving them a steady diet of relatively easy texts doesn’t support learning effectively.19 In fact, some studies have reported greater learning gains when students were taught with markedly more challenging texts.20 Still, there is a long history of encouraging instructional-level teaching in U.S. schools.21

Shifting from assigning books that students can read independently to works that require more deliberate teacher guidance and support changes the instructional focus of reading class. The time that teachers once spent trying to pinpoint individual student reading levels and match books to them should instead now be focused on providing greater support for students who are struggling to read these texts, including more explanations and rereading.

According to Fordham’s report, nearly two-thirds of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers select texts based on students’ reading level—not their grade level. Even if this one instructional shift is the only thing accomplished by the Common Core, then all the effort will be richly rewarded.

 

In 1492…

by EmmaEarnst
October 25th, 2013

Last week, hundreds of thousands of elementary school children across America celebrated Columbus Day (a federal holiday since 1937) by learning about the courageous but flawed man. National holidays offer unique opportunities to build excitement about historical figures and events. But in elementary school, is teaching a unit about Columbus ideally done around Columbus Day?

In teaching Columbus, content and timing are key. The content piece is personal for me. Like most other students of my time, I was taught the famous couplet (In 1492/Columbus sailed the ocean blue) and the over-the-top story of his initial voyage, but little about Columbus ever fascinated me as a child, or stuck with me to my adult years. Eventually, majoring in history and then working for a history organization, I learned more about his life—one marked by great triumph, but also by callousness and incompetence. The Columbus I knew as a child was (and sometimes still is) treated as a hero—the singular individual whose hard work happenstance-d him into greatness. But the real story is far more nuanced than simply a mistaken discovery propelling Columbus to eternal fame, and for that reason it’s far more interesting as well. That more truthful story is the one that kindergarten teachers using Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) will tell their students this spring.

Why not in the fall, right around Columbus Day? Because interesting, nuanced stories require background knowledge. Before children can comprehend Columbus, they need to know more about the indigenous population of the Americas, the political atmosphere of Columbus’ voyage, the farming that Native Americans practiced, and the plants they and Europeans grew. Therefore, before CKLA’s domain on Columbus, there are domains on Plants, Farms, Native Americans, and Kings and Queens.

This may seem like a lot of information for kindergarteners, so please bear this in mind: All of this learning is done through the use of teacher read-alouds in the Listening & Learning strand. Teachers sit down with their students for roughly twenty minutes and read to them—using engaging discussion questions and images throughout. Students listen to and discuss the stories, gradually building their content knowledge and vocabulary. By the time the class gets to Columbus in the second half of the year (roughly speaking, this would happen in February or March of a 9-month school calendar year), students have built substantial knowledge of plants, farms, kings and queens, and Native Americans, and are better prepared to understand Columbus.

Consider the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain. Over the course of six lessons, kindergarteners will hear about the European desire for spices that sent Columbus (among many others) in search of a faster route to Asia. Columbus appears in the second lesson, when he presses King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to fund his voyage. In 1492, he lands in the Caribbean, mistaking it for the Indies. Though other explorers soon recognize he encountered an entirely new continent, he returns to govern Hispaniola:

His [Columbus’s] greediness and the greediness of his sailors had changed things on the island. The men who had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage also treated the natives badly and were just as greedy for treasure.

Once more, Columbus and his crew took advantage of the natives. They were forced to work for no pay, carving mines into the high mountainsides. “There is gold in those mountains,” Columbus and his men told one another, “and we did not sail all this way to leave it there.” But they did not find as much gold as they had expected.

His mistreatment of natives, inability to find gold, and keeping what gold he found for himself, rather than giving it to the king and queen, eventually landed him in prison. He was released but ended his life in ruin financially, politically, and in reputation. The section on Columbus in kindergarten CKLA concludes:

Today, Americans remember Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas back in 1492. This day is called Columbus Day. Later, you will learn about a group of people called the Vikings who came to North America even before Christopher Columbus did. Historians from many countries have researched and retold the story of Christopher Columbus many times over. It means different things to different people, but one thing we know for sure is that Columbus’s mistake changed the world.

Contrary to the overblown story of Columbus I and many others heard as kindergarteners, those in the CKLA program discover him as the man he was—brave but brutal, courageous and imperfect—and are better equipped to discuss his legacy adeptly in the future.

A Moving Problem

by Lisa Hansel
October 21st, 2013

Terrifying. Half-way through first grade, I was plucked out of a Montessori program that was part of the Montgomery County, MD, school district and dropped into Page Jackson Elementary School in Jefferson County, WV. Everyone was perfectly nice, helpful even—but I was a shy kid in a strange land.

Jarring is too mellow a word. Having gone to that Montessori program for kindergarten as well, I only had one concept of what school was. Page Jackson did not fit that concept. It was bigger and more traditional; finding my way from the front door to my classroom took me weeks to master. Too fearful to speak up for myself, for several days my inability to print was mistaken for an inability to write. No one ever asked if I wrote in cursive, if I had taught younger children some phonics and writing strokes, if I had memorized the times tables up to 10×10.

Lucky me—my mother was there to speak up for me. Soon enough, the ways in which I was ahead were appreciated and the ways in which I was behind were remediated.

Most children who change schools are not so lucky. The research is clear: changing schools is strongly associated with lower performance. The more kids move, the less they learn.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Now a new report, The Invisible Achievement Gap, shows that changing schools is devastatingly frequent for some of our most at-risk students: youth in foster care. Here’s a quick summary:

Only about two thirds of students in foster care attended the same school for the full school year. In contrast, over 90 percent of the low-SES [socioeconomic status] and the statewide student populations attended the same school all year. Furthermore, about 1 in 10 students in foster care attended three or more schools during the school year, a level of school mobility experienced by only about 1 percent of the low-SES and general student populations….

Students in foster care, like low-SES students, were consistently more likely than the general population to attend the state’s lowest-performing schools and less likely to attend the state’s highest-performing schools….

CST [California Standards Test] results showed that students in foster care consistently fell far short of achieving proficiency in English language arts, elementary mathematics, and the secondary mathematics courses algebra I and algebra II…. They were consistently outperformed by low-SES students. Test results for students in foster care fell into the two lowest performance levels for English language arts and mathematics—below basic and far below basic—at twice the rate of those for the statewide student population….

Students in foster care were more likely than all comparison groups to drop out.

These results are terrible! Yet these data also point to one major way to help:

The majority of California students in foster care were enrolled in just a small number of districts. Specifically, two thirds of these students were enrolled in 10 percent of the state’s school districts, with each of these districts enrolling at least 100 students in foster care.

I know it’s heresy, but here goes: All of the schools in that 10 percent of districts should teach the same core curriculum. School districts can’t prevent the need for foster care or the school transfers that result. They can make those transfers much easier on their students. If all of the schools in these high-foster-care districts shared a core curriculum, then students could change schools without having to change what they are learning. Any days missed would be easier to address, and teachers would have common ground for helping each other serve these neediest of students.

As the report states, foster care students are already likely to “attend the state’s lowest-performing schools.” This shared curriculum project could be the foundation for a renaissance for these schools. Not only would mobile students have fewer gaps in their knowledge, the districts could collaborate on instructional materials and professional development.

Districts that share students already have shared responsibilities. Why not share curriculum and wisdom too?

 

Of Ostriches and the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2013

All signs point to just one way for schools to dramatically narrow the achievement gap: implement a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, content-rich curriculum that builds broad knowledge and essential skills. That’s the foundation on which high-achieving, more equitable school systems (here and abroad) have built the rest of their educational infrastructure. Specific knowledge and skills for each grade give direction to teacher preparation, enable teacher collaboration, empower parents to better support their children’s learning, increase the quality of textbooks, create stability for students who change schools, etc. When the whole infrastructure is moving in the same direction, students’ education is coherent and learning accelerates.

But seriously, who cares? Let’s just stick our heads in the sand.

 

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s easy. We can pretend that schools are doing the best they can under (very truly) difficult circumstances. We can pretend that the narrowing of the curriculum doesn’t matter, that the past several decades of cognitive science findings do not exist, that comprehension, critical thinking, and learning to learn will arise magically from a scattershot of engaging lessons.

That’s what we’ve been doing—and it’s the mistake most states and school districts are now repeating with the Common Core. Despite the repeated admonitions that the Common Core ELA standards can only be met with a rich, knowledge-building curriculum, most educators and leaders talk of individual lessons with isolated content and skills—not of coherent bodies of knowledge that enable skill development.

If your head is buried, you can’t see the results. Fortunately, there are some clear-eyed participants in this fractured ed reform world who have drawn attention to three of the worst consequences of our collective denial on curriculum.

1) 17 year olds’ reading scores are flat. E. D. Hirsch explains this one in the Answer Sheet:

The reading proficiency of high school seniors has not budged since the great verbal decline of the 1970s, which was well documented by drops in scores on the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Tests of Educational Development. So, why haven’t the short-term early boosts in grades 4 and 8 translated into better verbal scores in grade 12?

Reading tests in later grades are more knowledge-intensive than the tests in the early grades. Emphasis on phonics (which has improved early reading) plus test-prep aren’t enough to do well on these later tests, which require broad knowledge and vocabulary. Scholars of the subject (including the late great reading researcher Jeanne Chall) showed that 12th-grade scores declined in the 1970s and stayed flat, because of a narrowing of the school curriculum.

2) Far too many teachers don’t understand that skills hardly ever transfer from one topic to the next. Paul Bruno tackles this on his blog:

One of my most memorable experiences in my two-year credential+MA program came out of a class discussion of chapter 3 of How People Learn, on “Learning and Transfer”. Much of that chapter was dedicated to discussing the challenges faced in getting students to “transfer” something they’ve learned in one context and apply it successfully in another context….

[Studies] suggest very strongly that the sort of transfer many teachers claim to want is at best much more difficult than we typically acknowledge and at worst largely impossible….

In my graduate school classroom … rather than challenging our conceptions of transfer, the finding simply represented a puzzle: Why did students not transfer the problem-solving strategy from one situation to the other and how could teachers have taught the strategy differently to promote such transfer?

For what feels like the billionth time: Skills depend chiefly on knowledge! If you want to read with comprehension and think critically about the Bill of Rights, you have to learn a lot about the Bill of Rights. Your resulting ability to think critically about the Bill of Rights will not help you in the science lab or at the art museum. It won’t even help very much if you want to analyze the Civil War—there’s a bunch of stuff between the Bill of Rights and the Civil War that you have to learn in order to analyze the Civil War.

3) Our assessment system is less helpful—especially for our neediest students—than it should be. Marc Tucker brings clarity to this one. Technically he’s interviewing Jim Pellegrino, but it’s more like a conversation—and Tucker’s pointed summaries make me smile:

In the United States, there is strong resistance to the idea that the federal government or even the states should specify what the curriculum should be, or, for that matter, what instructional techniques should be used…. But what I thought I heard you saying is that how one teaches fractions actually defines what the curriculum is and it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean.  The standards might say that the student will learn to do fractions, but there is a world of difference between simply teaching the algorithms needed by students to do standard fraction problems and teaching ratio and proportion at a fairly deep level.  Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?…

It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries.

 

The High Price of Willful Ignorance

by Lisa Hansel
October 3rd, 2013

Joe Nocera’s op-ed for the New York Times last week, “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s),” is about the radically different experiences three teachers (actual sisters) had in learning to teach. For all three, teacher preparation was, well, less than useful. Nocera’s piece is about the need to greatly improve teacher preparation—and I fully agree with him, and with NCTQ, that an overhaul is desperately needed.

But far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the sisters’ experiences once they started teaching.

Two of the three, Edel Carolan and Melinda Johnson, “have undergraduate degrees in elementary education, yet they both recalled how lost they felt when they first stood in front of a classroom.” One was so desperate that she asked a former professor for help. The other “recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job—classroom management, organization, lesson planning—were things she had to figure out on her own.”

The third, Denise Dargan, did not have a teaching degree. She too felt unprepared in the beginning, but then “she made it sound as if learning on the job was relatively easy.”

What’s the difference? Dargan taught at Icahn Charter School. She was hired by Jeff Litt, who was then the principal and is now the superintendent of the seven Icahn Charter Schools. Litt made learning to teach easy because he “was such a gifted teacher himself.”

I don’t doubt that’s true, but I do know it is only part of the story. Litt is not just a gifted teacher, he is a brilliant educator who understands the full enterprise. He knows that schools need a strong curricular and organizational foundation on which to build student and teacher learning. Litt has used the Core Knowledge Sequence as his curricular foundation, and he has created a supportive structure for teachers and administrators in all of the Icahn schools to solve problems and grow together.

Dargan’s work was still difficult, as teaching children whose home life is not filled with books and museums will always be. But she was not left to struggle in isolation like Carolan and Johnson were.

Nocera may think he’s writing about teacher preparation, but in fact his op-ed is about our nation’s approach to education. I’m not one to say the schools are failing. Even our lowest-performing schools are accomplishing some good things. But I’m not all roses either. Most schools are far less coherent, systematic, efficient, and effective than they should be.

So long as states refuse to specify a core of content students ought to learn in each grade, K – 12 education, teacher preparation, instructional materials, professional development, and students will suffer. Holding on to mistaken ideas about the nature of reading comprehension and critical thinking, far too many professors of education, textbook developers, and professional development providers are willfully ignorant of decades research in cognitive science.

It boils down to this: Any topic a student needs to be able to read and think about is a topic that student must know something about. Take Nocera’s title, for instance. How many readers understand the reference to Anton Chekhov’s play?

Broad literacy requires broad knowledge. That means students have a lot to learn. Some students have the great luxury of learning much of the college-, career-, and citizenship-enabling knowledge at home. Some don’t. For them, anything less than a grade-by-grade, content-specific, cumulative curriculum will not be efficient enough to get the job done.

The price we pay for this willful ignorance is our massive achievement gaps. It is too high.

 

We all value education. Is eschewing a core of content truly worth the cost?

 

Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.