The Curriculum Reformation

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2012

Sol Stern has a piece in the new issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which echoes a point made on this blog about Common Core State Standards: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever.   “For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement,” Stern writes, “and that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.”

Stern calls Hirsch, the “odd man out in the school-reform movement.”  But with the widespread adoption Common Core standards, “Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards,” Stern writes.  That includes New York State which earlier this year awarded the Core Knowledge Foundation a multi-million dollar contract to produce a pre-K through second-grade ELA curriculum aligned to the standards.

Since a pilot of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program initiated under then-Chancellor Joel Klein began to show strong results according to the New York City DOE’s own research three years ago, Stern has played gadfly ever since, frequently asking why New York City did not more broadly implement a curriculum its own research indicated was more effective than its widely used balanced literacy approach. Stern offers up a scoop:

“Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. ‘I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,’ Klein wrote. He added that ‘the early results’ of the pilot were ‘enormously encouraging.’

“And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was ‘well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.’”

On Common Core State Standards, Stern notes political objections as well as “the far more serious criticism” leveled by Ze’ev Wurman, Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards “are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours.  Massachusetts reformers in particular, Stern notes, “have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993…The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work.”

“Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Stern concludes by arguing—correctly, I believe—that adoption of CCSS by states isn’t enough.  States need to choose effective, specific curricula to meet the standards.  He cites work by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, which demonstrated the effect size of curriculum and instructional materials rival those associated with differences in teacher effectiveness, the go-to strategy in the ed reform playbook.

“The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults,” Stern warns.  “Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of ‘rich content knowledge.’”

“That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory,” writes Stern.

The Fierce Urgency of Eventually

by Robert Pondiscio
December 24th, 2010

A version of this piece appears in the most recent edition of Fordham’s Education Gadfly.

Last Wednesday in New York City, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award.  In her acceptance speech, the former Washington, DC Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was “playing the wrong game.” 

“I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns.  So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with?  The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids?  Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?”

Fordham’s Checker Finn see Rhee’s move from educator to advocate as part of a broader trend.  There has been, he notes, a “profound shift” away from the research and education agenda of non-profit groups toward “political hardball—cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms,” Finn wrote.  It is, he observes wistfully, not an entirely welcome development.

“Part of me wishes this weren’t happening in education, as it has and is in just about every other sector of American life. Part of me wishes the old model would endure and in time prevail by virtue of its powerful analyses, moral superiority, and irrefutable arguments.”

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning.  I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all. 

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.” 

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it.  The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school.  Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20?   Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure  is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?

It is not my intention to single out Michelle Rhee.  She is merely the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm.  I have no illusions:  Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not.  It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek.  We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise one billion dollars to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though, for high-mobility, low-income children in particular, it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer. 

What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.”  To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day.  It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech.  That’s one diagnosis.  Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum.   Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum.  “This stuff is really important,” she replied.  “And it’s really boring.” 

Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is.  But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play.  It does nothing to effect change today, and essentially writes off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance.  It represents the fierce urgency of eventually. 

It is the perfect right of Michelle Rhee and others committing their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups to play whatever games they wish, under whatever terms they choose.  But forgive me if I don’t see this as the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.”  The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum. 

Call it what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game.