Knowledge Equalizer: Jeff Litt

by Lisa Hansel
June 15th, 2015

In my last post, I called for knowledge equality. My hope is all educators and concerned citizens—and policymakers with counter-productive, curriculum-narrowing mandates—will see that broad, shared knowledge is essential to equality of opportunity.

Today I have the great pleasure of highlighting an educator who truly is a knowledge equalizer: Jeff Litt. Litt spent over 30 years in the traditional public schools, but he’s far from a traditional leader. He transformed P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx from a graffiti-covered nightmare into a loving, high-achieving community of learners. The Core Knowledge Sequence provided a platform for the change, but the heart of it was Litt’s vision for what all schools should be: rigorous and nurturing. As the Chicago Consortium on School Research showed years ago, the combination of high “academic press” with social support  yields striking gains in achievement among disadvantaged youth.

After his success at P.S. 67, Litt launched the Icahn Charter Schools, which is now the second-highest-achieving network in New York City—even though it welcomes new students in the upper grades who are far behind and has almost no suspensions. But neither Litt nor the Icahn schools are famous; they eschew the spotlight to stay focused on their students.

With a terrific video and article, Reason magazine gives us a rare look at Litt’s extraordinary work. Here are just a few highlights:

“These kids are like my flesh and blood, and I would do anything for them,” says Litt, who walks the halls of his schools reminding students with motherly consternation to take off their warm coats, tie their shoes, and not to come to school without socks to avoid blisters….

One reason Icahn gets so little attention in the press is that it has been overshadowed by Success Academy…. But while Icahn’s scores are not as good as Success’, the comparison between the two organizations gets hazier when you take into account what’s known as “backfilling.”

When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn’s overall scores….

“I think it’s no fluke that they’re the two highest performing charter networks in New York City,” says Charles Sahm, who’s the education policy director at the Manhattan Institute. Sahm has been researching and writing about both Success Academy and Icahn, and he says the reason they’ve done so well is sort of a no-brainer: It’s their rich curricula. “Success and Icahn both focus like a laser beam on what kids are being taught and how,” says Sahm. “It sounds very simple, but actually doing it is quite difficult.”

Reason video

Don’t miss Reason’s terrific, 8-minute video, highlighting Litt’s dedication to finding successful, experienced leaders.

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?


Connecting the Dots on Equity

by Lisa Hansel
March 13th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

But Jeffrey Litt does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CK School is NYC’s Top Charter

by Robert Pondiscio
April 14th, 2009

The Carl C. Icahn Charter School in the Bronx was New York City’s toughest charter school to get into this year.  The school had spots for less than 3% of its 868 applicants, the Daily News reports.  On last year’s state ELA test, 85.1% of students were proficient, more than double the rate of the surrounding district–as good an argument for the efficacy of a content-rich curriculum on reading achievement as one could want.  Math proficiency is even higher–over 97%. 

The paper doesn’t mention it, but Carl Icahn is a Core Knowledge school.  The school’s mission statement is “to use the Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by E.D. Hirsch, to provide students with a rigorous academic program offered in an extended day/year setting. Students will graduate armed with the skills and knowledge to participate successfully in the most rigorous academic environments, and will have a sense of personal and community responsibility.”

“The first class of eighth-graders who graduated last year all went on to top-tier high schools,” the paper notes, ”including the specialized high school Brooklyn Tech, the elite private school Phillips Exeter on a scholarship, and parochial schools also on scholarship.”  The school is run by Jeffrey Litt, who is something of a legend in Core Knowledge circles.  Many years ago a South Bronx public school run by Litt became only the second in the nation to adopt the curriculum.

The huge surplus of applicants suggests there’s some serious untapped demand in the Bronx.  Do the math.  Or ask the kids at Icahn to do it for you.