I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Why Is Creativity in Decline?

by Lisa Hansel
August 13th, 2015

For the past 25 years, creativity has been in decline. I’ve just started to look into it, so I won’t pretend to have an answer—but I do have a hunch. We’re trivializing creativity.

First the research. Kyung Hee Kim is a professor of creativity and innovation at The College of William & Mary. She’s found a couple of interesting things. One is that creativity and intelligence are only weakly correlated. The other is that although IQ scores have been rising throughout the last century, since 1990 creativity scores have gone down—and the most significant drop was for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Some people will assume that too much academic work has been pushed into the early grades. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. In the relatively few early grades classrooms I’ve seen in which children are engaged in sophisticated academic topics, they enjoy learning “real stuff” about the world. I could buy that too many schools have pushed boring worksheets and test prep into the early grades, but I haven’t seen much of that before third grade.

As I learn more about creativity, I think part of the issue is that those of us in education—especially elementary education—don’t think about creativity the way researchers do. When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile.

Kids do say the darndest things, but they are very rarely creative.

Kim’s research uses the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is very widely used and the best-available (although perhaps still not great) predictor of future creative achievement. The subscales on the measure are useful for thinking about what creativity involves:

  • Fluency: “ability to produce ideas.”
  • Originality: “ability to produce unique and unusual ideas.”
  • Elaboration: “ability to think in a detailed and reflective manner as well as … motivation.”
  • Abstractness of Titles: “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes and for capturing the essence of the information involved.”
  • Resistance to Premature Closure: “ability to be intellectually curious and to be open-minded.”

In short, creativity seems to be a mix of being able to think of new things and then being able and eager to analyze and improve on one’s thinking. When Ken Robinson touts kindergartners’ ability to think of new uses for paperclips—and then scolds schools for squashing their genius-level divergent thinking—he’s missing the boat on creativity. As Brent Silby wrote, “If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a ‘genius’? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.”

Along these same lines, the very existence of art schools seems to indicate that fluency and originality are merely the starting places for creativity. Originality is the easy part—useful and worthwhile is the high bar. That takes knowledge, but knowledge itself is not sufficient either (as the minimal relationship between IQ and creativity indicates). Practice, reflection, and the drive to improve (including seeking out and acting on critiques) all seem essential.

So why is creativity in decline, especially among young children? Perhaps because our expectations are too low. Perhaps more academics—taught with interesting read-alouds, more challenging projects, and greater emphasis on feedback, reflection, and revision—would reverse the decline. I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.


Was originality all that Van Gogh needed?

Mississippi: Common Core Lite

by Lisa Hansel
August 10th, 2015

Mississippi is a little more than half way through a public comment period on the 2014 Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards for English Language Arts—a document that is co-branded with the Common Core and Mississippi Department of Education logos on every page.

The Common Core squabbles in Mississippi became interesting last week when a state official said that “Almost 92% of the individuals that commented have indicated full approval of the state’s academic standards.”

Conventional wisdom seems to be that Mississippi’s standards are the same as the Common Core (e.g., see here and here). With the high approval rating, I wanted to see if the standards really are identical. Each individual standard might be a copy (I only did a spot check), but Mississippi’s version is at best Common Core lite. It’s almost Common Core gutted.

What did Mississippi drop? Just the most important part: the guidance on developing a content-rich, coherent, carefully sequenced curriculum.


Without a knowledge-rich curriculum, Mississippi’s children have little chance of meeting the standards (inamge courtesy of Shutterstock).


In the Common Core, there are three strong statements on curriculum. None of them appear in Mississippi’s version.

This isn’t an oversight. While two of the calls for content-rich curriculum are omitted entirely, one was edited out. Let’s start with the edit.

The Common Core has a “Note on range and content of student reading.” Mississippi’s version has the exact same note—but for the one key sentence I underlined below:

Note on range and content of student reading

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. 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. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Now on to the omissions. Mississippi’s version omits the entire Common Core section titled “What is not covered by the Standards.” In so doing, it drops this critical statement:

[W]hile the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.

Mississippi’s version also omits the section titled “Staying on Topic Within a Grade & Across Grades.” This one really gets me. This section is the absolute best of the Common Core. In just two paragraphs, it explains how to efficiently and enjoyably build knowledge and vocabulary in the early grades with read-alouds of domain-specific text sets. And in one simple table, it provides an excellent example of how to systematically build knowledge of the human body across K–5. This is the type of guidance educators desperately need to meet the Common Core—or any college-, career-, and citizenship-ready standards.

I wish I could claim that this Common Core lite is limited to Mississippi. I don’t know why or how teachers in other states are being prevented from reading the full standards, but it appears to be a widespread problem. A couple of months ago, a colleague who does professional development on the Common Core across the country told me he has yet to encounter a single teacher who is familiar with what Robert Pondiscio has dubbed the “57 most important words in education reform”:

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. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

Common Core is supposed to be rich and rigorous, well sequenced and well rounded. Even with a knowledge-building, carefully articulated curriculum, meeting these standards will be tough. Without such a curriculum, all hope is lost.

Seeking Confirmation

by Lisa Hansel
July 9th, 2015

Of all the problems with school reform, one of the biggest seems to be the tendency to seek bits of evidence that confirm preconceived notions. Silver bullets, tunnel vision, blind faith—call it whatever you want—somehow, those of us interested in school improvement have to stop searching for THE change. There is no one change that will get the job done.

The whole system has to improve.

Curriculum, materials, instruction, leadership, preparation, and professional development all matter. Funding, facilities, parental involvement, and community support all matter. Health care, nutrition, after school, and summer learning all matter.

Once we give up on searching for the one most important factor, we can make a long-term plan and finally achieve our goals. Just like Finland did.

Huh? Didn’t Finland just tackle teacher quality? Or just minimize assessments? Or just create a strong family welfare system? Or …

No. Unlike the US, Finland spent more than three decades pursuing a coherent, comprehensive improvement plan. But, to put it politely, many reformers eyeing Finland are missing the forest for their favorite trees.

In a recent policy paper, the director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment, Tim Oates, puts it less politely:

Due to myopia and elementary errors in enquiry, what foreign analysts have taken from Finland frequently has amounted to ‘Finnish fairy stories’….

In the course of the 2010 UK Curriculum Review, a number of high-performing jurisdictions were scrutinised for the form and content of their national curriculum specifications. Following its emergence at the top of the first PISA survey in 2000, Finland was included in the countries examined….

The children in PISA 2000 were 15 years of age. We assumed that it was unlikely that 1985 was the first year of the school system being of an interesting form, so we looked back at what was happening in the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1970s. What we found was a period of genuine improvement in educational outcomes and a determined set of reforms to schooling – but what we discovered was that the vast bulk of educational tourists had arrived in Finland 2001 and made a serious error. They got off the plane and asked the Finns about the system in 2000 – not what it was like during the 1970s and 1980s, when standards were rising. During the time of sustained improvement, the system was very different; policy formation was distinctive, the way in which this policy was implemented was distinctive – and very different from the way things were in 2000.

This elementary error of analysis has been compounded by non-Finnish analysts who have asked questions only about the things in which they are interested; they have ‘found’ what they have been looking for, and not understood the importance of things which they have not asked about. Combined together, these two errors have given a very misleading picture of what Finland genuinely appears to have achieved, and how.


Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

Oates goes on to explain that Finland’s transformation was centrally planned, implemented, inspected, and evaluated. From teacher preparation to curriculum to school leadership to measurement, the national government was conducting the orchestra. While the US is too large and too different from Finland for national or federal education reform, state leaders could learn a great deal from Finland (and from the one state that undertook a multi-decade, planned reform: Massachusetts).

Putting what some mistake for autonomy into its Finnish context, Oates adds, “Finland has a 120-year history of structured educational reform, using centrally specified curriculum requirements. Far from a history of autonomy, there is a culture of negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.”

Pause there: “negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.” While it’s easy to focus on the “centrally specified” part, the “negotiated … agreement” is equally important. Perhaps central planning works in Finland because it is actually collective planning. The path forward is neither autonomous nor top down. It’s mutually agreed-upon action.

Finnish educators Pasi Sahlberg and Jukka Sarjala see such agreement as essential. They trace Finland’s educational improvement to the new consensus that emerged after Finland was devastated in World War II. Finland never tried to attain the highest scores; it built an education system devoted to supporting democracy, ensuring economic sustainability, achieving equality, and increasing cooperation. It saw centrally planned, consensus-driven curriculum, materials, teacher preparation, assessments, and family supports as necessary elements. And it recognized that systematic changes would take many years and much support.

Such comprehensive, collective transformation would be a struggle in any US state (perhaps that’s why none has followed in Massachusetts’s high-performing footsteps). But there’s no solid evidence that anything less is effective at scale.

Teachers Want to Learn about Curriculum Design

by Lisa Hansel
July 7th, 2015

The July 2nd SmartBrief has a little reader poll that doesn’t appear scientific or representative or trustworthy at all. But still, it brightens my day. More than a host of trendy topics, educators want to learn about curriculum design:

Which topics are you most interested in learning about in your self-directed PD this summer?

Curriculum design: 25.89%
Differentiated instruction: 22.33%
Teacher leadership: 16.15%
Children living in poverty: 10.93%
Classroom management: 8.31%
Common Core and other state standards: 8.31%
Lesson planning: 8.08%

Let’s hope they’re learning about knowledge-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum design.



Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Life Is a High-Stakes Reading Test

by Lisa Hansel
July 2nd, 2015

Life is a high-stakes reading test. Those who pass gain entry to the best humanity has to offer—great literature, active and effective citizenship, fascinating dinner debates, meaningful connections with people across time and space, jobs that are both interesting and high paying, genuine capacity for self-directed learning, etc.

The key to passing is broad knowledge.


Knowledge enables comprehension and creates opportunities (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

That fact is the driver behind the Common Core standards’ requirement that K–12 schooling include dramatically more nonfiction reading, reaching 70% by twelfth grade. I’ve never understood the backlash against this mandate. There is no call for 70% of the reading assigned in English courses to be nonfiction. If students are taking English, history, and science, then two-thirds of their reading should already be nonfiction. Add in some biographies of artists and musicians (in art and music classes) and the 70% requirement is easily met. High schools with solid electives would likely have most students reading 80% nonfiction.

Nonetheless, many English teachers seem to be trying to draw far more nonfiction into their courses. Why? Do they not know that the 70% requirement applies to the whole day? Do they know that their colleagues in other disciplines are not assigning enough reading, so they are trying to fill the gap? Do they fear that whatever their colleagues are doing, they must do more to prepare for the high-stakes tests (since accountability policies unfairly attribute reading scores to ELA teachers alone)? Do they simply not know what their colleagues are assigning because they don’t have time to collaborate?

If only schools would see the 70% mandate as a call for collaboration: English and history teachers could pair great novels and poetry with studies of particular time periods, giving students an understanding of the author’s worldview. English and science teachers could pair science-fiction stories with analyses of the accuracy and potential of the scientific ideas they contain.

If a recent New York Times article is at all representative, such pairings are rare. Working alone, some English teachers seem to be struggling to effectively incorporate nonfiction. One assigned the G.I. Bill along with The Odyssey, which might inspire an interesting discussion, but would likely be based more on opinion than expertise. Others have turned to short pieces on banal topics like cell phones and cheerleading. These anecdotes indicate that teachers are trying to build some set of nonfiction comprehension skills—under the mistaken belief that they could be applied to any nonfiction text—instead of building the knowledge that would make comprehension effortless.

Faith in comprehension strategies is so strong that some teachers don’t seem to have broadening students’ horizons as a goal at all. As the Times reported:

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn … some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.

But there was one glimmer of hope in the article:

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

These two examples are promising because they reveal a dedication to building knowledge of important topics. But they are not as coherent as I’d like. Refugees and women’s rights are very broad themes; there’s a risk of exposure to a great deal and retention of very little. Focusing on a narrower topic, such as the Vietnam War or Sojourner Truth, might give students a more meaningful opportunity to build vocabulary and knowledge. Indeed, the need for background knowledge is likely why students found the unit on women’s rights—a familiar topic anchored with a sports star—more interesting than the unit on Vietnam and refugees.

Knowledge increases curiosity, enables comprehension and other forms of critical thinking, and ensures students pass life’s most important high-stakes tests.

Tapas-Style Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
June 29th, 2015

Education Week noted recently that there’s an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to coherent programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to … mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials on each topic that best meet their students’ needs. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such a curriculum. In schools that aim to instill skills, without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate skills, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. Whether teachers or students are choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.


This just isn’t what kids need (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet. Kids get plenty of fried cheese outside of school. In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Marc Tucker wrote:

The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days.  But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly.  We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.  The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge.  But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level.  As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them.  Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

In short, cognitive science tells us that broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are necessary for learning and thinking. And both science and common sense tell us that shared knowledge is necessary for effective communication. A tapas-style education might get us there, but only if we remove the fried cheese from the menu and agree to a content-specific plan to guide and balance our selections.


DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.


Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.


A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2015

“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!


A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.