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.