Curriculum & Instruction

In his proposed budget , Governor John Kasich calls for the creation of a competency-based education pilot program. Competency-based education is premised on the idea that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills after they master simpler ones. While that sounds somewhat negative at first blush, it also means that mastering current content quickly leads to advancing sooner than the standard march from grade to grade. Kasich’s proposal would provide grants to ten districts or schools that were selected through an application process created by the Ohio Department of Education to pilot the program.

The competency-based model goes by different names in different places. In Ohio, there are schools that already utilize it but call it something different: mastery grading. (Be sure to check out how schools like Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as districts like Pickerington, make it work.) Mastery grading assesses students based on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. Instead of an overall grade that takes homework completion, daily assignments, class participation, and test grades that cover multiple standards into account to formulate an average, mastery grading breaks down a student’s...

Was Phil Jackson really a great coach? Despite his reputation as the Zen master of hoops, I’ve never been convinced. After all, Kobe, Shaq, and His Airness would have made any coach look like a genius, and there’s never been a natural experiment quantifying Jackson’s impact.

Inside the classroom, a similar question lingers. In a recent study of district evaluation systems, Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Katharine Lindquist found that teachers with high-performing students were far more likely to be rated highly by observers than those with low-performing students. Moreover, this pattern was not the result of better teachers being matched with better students. Rather, observers were biased towards teachers with higher-performing students—the Phil Jacksons of the teaching world.

As the authors of the study make clear, eliminating this bias by adjusting for student background characteristics is relatively straightforward. So why aren’t we doing this already? A few weeks ago, Luke Kohlmoos of the Tennessee Department of Education argued against such adjustments, suggesting they were a “disservice to students and teachers” that would take us back to the bad old days of lower expectations for black and brown students. According to Kohlmoos, if we “systematize” lower expectations through...

Editor's note: This post has been updated with the full text of "Don't know much about history."

Pop quiz! Try to answer the following questions without Googling: What is one right or freedom named in the First Amendment? We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? Who is the governor of your state? Easy, right? Here’s a tougher one: How much confidence do you have in your fellow citizens who cannot answer these questions as voters and participants in our democracy?

These are among the hundred questions about history, civics, and government on the U.S. citizenship test, which immigrants must pass as part of the naturalization process. It’s not a particularly challenging exam. Would-be citizens are asked up to ten of the questions; a mere six correct is a passing score.

In January, Arizona and North Dakota became the first two states to make passing this test a high school graduation requirement; South Dakota and Utah have followed suit this month. Similar bills have been introduced in more than a dozen other states.  

“I would submit that a minimal understanding of American civics is of real value and therefore worthy of measurement,” said Arizona State Senator Steve Yarbrough. I...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

There is no shortage of theories to explain how learning works and how teachers, as purveyors of knowledge, should disseminate that knowledge to students (though there tends to be a shortage of supporting evidence for any of them). In The Teaching Brain, doctoral candidate and former New York City schoolteacher Vanessa Rodriguez proposes yet another: Forget learning styles and multiple intelligences; teaching is all about “awarenesses”—of learners as individuals, of teaching practices, contexts, and interactions, and of one’s “self as a teacher.” 

She casts off older theories as antiquated, instinctive, and too student-centered, arguing that they’ve hindered educational innovation and stifled educators’ professional development. How students learn ought not be our only concern, she says. Instead, the book introduces “system-centered teaching,” which aims to infuse instruction with awareness of both how students’ brains work when they learn (“the learning brain”) and also how teachers’ brains work when they teach (the so-called “teaching brain”).

Because this is somewhat uncharted territory, a large portion of the book purports to examine the minds of expert educators. Rodriguez concludes that the brains of teachers differ considerably, which means that one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction are bound to fail. What may work for one teacher might...

Peter Sipe

I’ve always liked Fridays as much as the next guy, but this year I especially like them. The reason is that every Friday, my students and I read an obituary together. If that sounds morbid, let me tell you what I tell the kids: An obituary is the story of a life; death is just the detail that gets it printed.

How do I select the weekly life story we read? I don’t. I have other people do it for me. I’ve been asking folks around town—elected officials, businesspeople, civic leaders, colleagues, and friends—this question: If you could pick one person from the past whom you wish kids would learn about in school, who would it be?

With their introductions, we’ve made the acquaintance of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor, Ruth Batson, a civil rights activist who helped desegregate our schools, and Tom White, a businessman who gave away his riches to the poor. In upcoming weeks, we’ll be reading about a firefighter, a judge, and a rowing coach. And I’ve got lots more in my pile, all marvelously interesting—and inspiring. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’d never heard of most of these people before, but I’m glad to...

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students?  In a new brief from Fordham, Jonathan Plucker, professor of education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, provides guidance for districts and schools implementing the Common Core.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

Download the brief, read “Can gifted education survive the Common Core?” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern, and watch today’s event to learn more.

Doug Lemov on Teach Like a Champion 2.0

Doug Lemov on Teach Like a Champion 2.0

In 2010, former teacher, principal, and charter-school founder Doug Lemov authored Teach Like a Champion. The book offered a whole new perspective on teacher training—one that has yet to be embraced by ed schools. Since its release, thousands of teachers have adopted its framework as their own, becoming better teachers for it. Now Doug Lemov is back with a new edition: Teach Like a Champion 2.0 offers specific, concrete, and actionable techniques for teachers. But what’s so special about these techniques? And where are ed schools falling short? What does it take to teach like a champion in today’s school system?


Watch this conversation with Doug Lemov on his new book and a panel discussion on what it takes to prepare our teachers to teach like champions.

Meet Mr. Wright

Brandon’s first podcast features Common Core for kindergarteners, America’s new aristocracy, Tennessee’s preposterous teacher evaluations, and the benefits of acceleration.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Katie Larsen McClarty, "Life in the Fast Lane: Effects of Early Grade Acceleration on High School and College Outcomes," Gifted Child Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1 (January 2015). 

Robert:            Hello, this is your host Robert Pondiscio of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. Now, please join me in welcoming my cohost, the Beck of education reform, Brandon Wright.

Brandon:         As opposed to Kanye?

Robert:            Which would you rather be?

Brandon:         I like them both.

Robert:            Ok.

Brandon:         I’m not sure.

Robert:            I’m going to let you finish, Brandon.

Brandon:         Oh, I think Beck’s fine.

Robert:            Yeah. I have to admit, I mean I like Beck back in the day. I mean I’m a lot older than Mr. Wright and I feel like he was kind of my generation.

Brandon:         Oh, he was pretty popular. I think his album was Odelay when I was in maybe middle school.

Robert:            You had to go there, didn’t you?

Brandon:         I think I’ve heard more Kanye than I’ve heard Beck, but I think everyone has.

Robert:            In the last 20 years.

Brandon:         Which I think is part of Kanye’s point there.

Robert:            That Kanye, he’s that guy who’s married to Kim Kardashian, right?

Brandon:         I know.

Robert:            He’s famous and he’s in the Beatles now I think.

Brandon:         Yeah. He’s really helping out Paul McCartney’s career.

Robert:            Yeah. That’s Sir Paul McCartney to you. Ok. Now, it is time to play, “Pardon the Gadfly.” Ellen, what do we have for this week?

Ellen:               Robert, this week, you’re writing about whether Common Core is too hard for kindergartners, is it?

Robert:            No. What’s the next question? Ok, we’ll take this one on. Now, there was a report, Brandon, a couple of weeks ago back in January. I’ll be honest it kind of set my teeth on edge a little bit. I’m an elementary educator, although, you probably wouldn’t want me to teach kindergarten. The report basically and it came out from a couple of early childhood education advocacy groups and it made the case that look, Common Core is asking too much of kindergarten or kindergartners. Kindergarten should be a time for play. You should learn language through play-based techniques. It ended up calling for Common Core to be withdrawn from kindergarten.

                        They made a case which just struck me as odd, so I started researching it that there’s no real research to support the idea that early kindergarten reading leads to long-term success. It just struck me as counterintuitive and the more I looked into it, the more I realize it’s really not true. Now, there’ve been any number of studies and by the time this podcast is heard, you can go online and read the Gadfly and you’ll see this deathlessly long piece that I wrote about all the research.

                        What troubles me most about it is I hate to see as or reports like this communicate some kind of lack of urgency about early reading. I mean the one thing that I think is very clear and [inaudible 00:02:52] ambiguous is that so much is said in motion by early literacy. One piece of data from one report, a child who is struggling in first grade has a 90% chance of also struggling in reading in third grade. A child who is struggling in third grade reading has a 75% chance of still struggling come ninth grade. If you look at high school dropout statistics, if you were a struggling reader, you are something on the order of 4 to 6 times more likely to drop out than if you were reading on time.

                        About the last worst thing I think that we could communicate to the field is that there’s a lack of urgency around early childhood reading.

Brandon:         I think I agree entirely. In your piece, you mentioned a bunch of the standards that the reports seems to take issue with, and I don’t, to me they didn’t seem too hard at all. One of the of scary things that one of the authors said is that doing this that early could be harmful when it actually seems to me to be the opposite and kind of not doing it because you think it’s harmful seems to actually be the potentially harmful thing.

Robert:            Yeah. I think I understand the impulse where this comes from. I mean we’ve spoken a lot on this podcast about the deleterious effects in too much testing. I’m not a testing hawk, I think it’s an important principle, but sure, I’m deeply sympathetic for those who say, look, let’s not pressure kids too early. Let them enjoy a play-based kindergarten. I worry that kind of thinking comes from what I would call the educational equivalent of the worried well. In other words, I live in New York City, if you’re on the Upper East Side and you’re educated and affluent, your kid is going to read. It’s not going to be a problem.

                        Kids like the ones that I teach in Harlem and the South Bronx who come from homes whether they’re single-parent homes, less educated homes, they hear less language growing up, let’s face it, those are the kids that ed reform at large is aimed at helping. It tends to be the type of thing where affluent kids sneeze and low-income kids catch cold. If we try to change this for kids on the Upper East Side so to speak that I just worry about the kids from families or some kids like the students that I teach.

Brandon:         Absolutely.

Ellen:               The economist recently ran an article discussing education and class, calling education “America’s new aristocracy.” What’s to be done?

Robert:            What is to be done? The first thing to be done is somebody has to find where Charles Murray is so he can say, “I told you so,” the 4 most beautiful words in the English language. I don’t know if you read Murray’s book a few years ago called, Coming Apart, but this was basically his thesis that educated, affluent people tend to marry other educated, affluent people and they have educated, affluent children. If you grow up less prosperous, we’re creating these kind of divisions and subcultures in America. Now, we’re according to the economist, we’re paying a price.

Brandon:         Yeah. It speaks to a very important problem, but it’s also one that starts seemingly when one gets born. Another economist article quoted that 32 million word thing where if you’re a child of a professional, you hear 32 million more words by the time you’re 4 compared to a child of someone on welfare.

Robert:            Yeah, enough 32 million words, 32 million more words.

Brandon:         Right, yeah. That starts essentially from birth. One of the solutions this aristocracy article suggest is to start early. I think that’s right on point. At the same time, right, these kids aren’t behind just because of their first 5 years. As years go on, they continue to fall behind. This kind of help needs to start young, but it needs to continue essentially through college.

Robert:            Yeah. I’ve described it a couple of different places.

Brandon:         Until they graduate college.

Robert:            Exactly. Something called the Matthew effect which I think was a phrase coined by Keith Stanovich who’s a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto. It takes its name from a passage in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew and I can’t quote it to you, but it’s the one that basically says; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. That is absolutely the case when it comes to language proficiency. That 32 million word gap that you were talking about just primes kids to learn more language. Kids who are in the wrong end of that are primed to learn less language. That gap just grows and grows and grows. It’s a profoundly important issue for those of us who are concerned about raising the prospects for low-income kids.

Brandon:         Profoundly hard to solve.

Robert:            Because what do you do, right?

Brandon:         I don’t know.

Robert:            I mean it’s not as if you’re going to prevent educated people from marrying each other. You can [crosstalk 00:08:03]. I don’t know. Make a case for that.

                        It really is a profound public policy problem, but it may not be a public policy issue.

Ellen:               A teacher’s union in Tennessee just sued the state over its teacher evaluation policies. Do they have a case?

Robert:            What do you think, Brandon? Do they have a case?

Brandon:         I have a blog post on our site now. What I’m about to say probably parrots that. In the state, they just have an absolutely preposterous policy.

Robert:            Preposterous. You have strong feelings about this.

Brandon:         I do.

Robert:            Ok.

Brandon:         When it comes to teachers of non-core subjects.

Robert:            Can you define that for us, meaning?

Brandon:         Meaning teachers who instruct classes that aren’t tested on Tennessee’s standardized test, so things like world languages or fine arts or gym.

Robert:            Hey, gym was a core subject for me. Just saying.

Brandon:         I love dodgeball, yeah.

For these folks or for all teachers there, their annual evaluation where they’re given a 1 through a 5 with 5 being the best is based half on observation and essentially half on something based on test scores. For these core folks, the science teachers for example, their test scores are primarily based on how their kids do on that subject on the standardized test. Those subjects right there, yeah. For the non-core folks, they don’t have these test scores.

Robert:            Ok.

Brandon:         For them, the bulk of this almost half is composed of school-wide performance. What the state does is it sees how well all the students in that school does on all of the subjects on the standardized test. Then they assign them essentially that score.

Robert:            In other words, the gym teacher is being scored on how the entire school does on reading tests.

Brandon:         Right. Say it’s the best gym teacher in the whole world, right? He’s at a school where all of the students there did really poorly in a given year on every subject and on every test.

Robert:            Yeah.

Brandon:         He would essentially be given a 1 and his overall score would drop to I don’t know, a 3.

Robert:            Yes. That’s just goofy.

Brandon:         It’s absurd.

Robert:            Ok. Wait a minute, this means you’re taking the side of the teacher’s union here.

Brandon:         Here, yeah. I mean I’m all for kind of learning-based evaluations when they’re done smartly. Here though, if this is anything for learning-based evaluation, it harms them.

Robert:            Let’s think about this. Here, this is your first Gadfly podcast and right out of the box, you’re going soft on accountability.

Brandon:         No, I’m going smart on accountability.

Robert:            Nicely put.

Brandon:         Right.

Robert:            All right. That’s all the time we have for this segment. Now, it’s time for Amber’s Research Minute.

                        Hey, Amber, how are you today?

Amber:            Hey, Robert, doing great, thanks.

Robert:            Good. Did you watch the Grammy’s?

Amber:            I watched a little bit of the Grammy’s, just a slice.

Robert:            All right. We were referring to Mr. Wright here as the Beck of education reform.

Amber:            Yes. Kanye might not appreciate that, but yes, I think Beck was a deserved winner.

Robert:            Was he? I have to confess, I did not hear his album.

Amber:            Yes.

Brandon:         I’m not sure anyone did. I'm just kidding.

Amber:            I just heard he plays 16 instruments and writes all the songs, so like all right, that’s worthy.

Robert:            At least 2 or 3 people who were given out the award must have heard the album and maybe they just decided they didn’t like Beyoncé.

Amber:            That’s right. She’s won.

Robert:            Look, it’s Kanye West. He’s going to come in here.

Amber:            I know, but she’s sort of over awarded, right, from what I gather.

Brandon:         Her album though was from what I hear was pretty groundbreaking.

Amber:            Oh, really.

Brandon:         Yeah.

Amber:            She’s the one that shows her backside a lot, right?

Robert:            That’s Kanye’s wife.

Amber:            Both of them I believe are backsiders.

Robert:            We’re digging ourselves in much, much too deep of a hole here. Amber, help us out here. What do you got there?

Amber:            We got a new study out. It’s in the latest issue of Gifted Education Quarterly which is kind of a neat journal. We haven’t looked at that one lately. It examines the long-term impact on young adults of skipping a grade, otherwise known as acceleration on subsequent academic outcomes. The analyst used a database called NELS and that tracks a nationally representative cohort of students in 1988 when they were in grade 8. That tracks these kids through high school and then at 2 and 8 years out after high school, so we’re going through year 2000.

                        A variety of high school outcome data were collected like the PSAT scores, the SAT, the ACT scores, their GPA, their college aspirations. Then in college, they looked at the selectivity of the institution, the GPA for every year they were in college, and whether or not they attained a degree, so pretty good robust data sources. All students who had ever skipped a grade prior to eighth grade comprise acceleration group. Ok, it’s kind of a good factoid. The sample included kids who range from grade 9 to age 13 in eighth grade, so it’s a broad range.

                        The students were then matched with a set of older non-accelerated eighth grade peers from the same database. They matched them on gender, race, class, and eighth grade achievement.

Robert:            Ok.

Amber:            Then they look after the match to make sure the matches were good and they basically said that the accelerated and non-accelerated group were identical on those variables. Ok. They’ve put some thought into a comparison group because that’s really important, right?

Robert:            Sure.

Amber:            Key findings; accelerated students who scored significantly higher on the math sections of the PSAT, SAT, and most of the ACT; they also earned higher grades in high school. Once at college, accelerated kids also earned higher grades in their second year and overall. I don’t know what happened in the first year. It’s a little strange.

                        Both groups were admitted to similarly selective colleges and both had similar rates of graduate degree completion. Though accelerated kids were slightly more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree.

                        Finally, accelerated students also took more accelerated courses and advanced courses and participated more often in various educational opportunities. I mean the bottom line is I mean most people would agree that accelerated kids by virtue of being accelerated have something different about them, right.

Robert:            Sure, right.

Amber:            They’re potentially more self-motivated. I think the findings sort of bear that out because you find that accelerated kids keep doing stuff that accelerates them. It’s sort of like a cycle. That’s a good thing, right?

Robert:            Maybe this was beyond the scope of the study, but no social issues. In other words, a lot of times, parents get concerned when their kids have the opportunity to be accelerated. They don’t want to be the youngest kid in their class.

Amber:            That’s right. They did not look at that at all. It was completely quant study, but yeah.

Robert:            Didn’t seem to have any ill-effect.

Amber:            Right. I mean apparently, who knows whether these kids were joked on or I mean certainly, there could be some social consequences, right, to sort of being the youngest in the class or maybe it’s the opposite way and kids are like wild, this kid’s really bright or whatever.

Robert:            Right.

Amber:            Academically, right, it looks no negative effects if only positive or in some cases, no effect at all. Yeah, I mean I think it was a well done study. I mean I think like most of these studies, we can’t get at what the “it is” that might be driving some of these impacts. I mean they do their best they can to measure on all the observables, but there’s a whole set of unobservable stuff that’s not being measured. Still, it was a reasonable comparison group. These kids overall performed just well on these various robust measures.

Robert:            How common is acceleration?

Amber:            Yeah. It’s a great question. It was 1% on NELS database.

Robert:            Oh, wow, very small.

Amber:            Yeah, very small. They had a question there where they were asking parents whether their child had been accelerated when they found that those data were less reliable than just looking at the age of their kids and where they should be respective of their grade level. Yeah, not too many, I mean I feel like I mean my experience in schools, I just didn’t see this too often. Did you guys see it in your own?

Robert:            You see the opposite quite often where kids were retained, but they were not accelerated, sure.

Amber:            Yeah.

Brandon:         It probably seems to depend on whether a state or a district allows this, right? It seems like from this states that don’t or districts that don't should.

Robert:            There’s no good reason not to.

Amber:            Yeah. That’s right. It’s a good point and I know we’re doing a gifted study on state policies and you’re making me wonder how much of this is actually in or not in the state law in terms of whether they’re allowed to do this. You’d think it’d be one of those things that state law would be silent about or definitely encouraged. Can’t imagine why they want to prohibit this.

Robert:            Or at least open it up to a lot more kids. We’ve spent a lot of time in this podcast and then our blog’s talking about differentiation. This is one way to do it, right, to the accelerated kids.

Amber:            Yeah. That’s right.

Robert:            It’s a challenge, good. Thanks, Amber. That’s all the time we have for this week’s Gadfly Show. Till next week.

Brandon:         I’m Brandon Wright.

Robert:            I’m Robert Pondiscio for The Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

Speaker 1:       The Education Gadfly Show is a production of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute located in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit us online at edexcellence.net.

Imagine you are a first-year social studies teacher in a low-performing urban high school. You are hired on Thursday and expected to teach three different courses starting Monday. For the first two weeks, you barely eat or sleep, and you lose fifteen pounds you didn’t know were yours to lose. For the first two months, your every waking minute is consumed by lesson prep and the intense anxiety associated with trying to manage students whose conception of “school” is foreign to you. But you survive the first semester (as many have done) because you have to and because these kids depend on you. You think you are through the worst of it. You begin to believe that you can do this. Then, the second semester begins…

Your sixth-period class is a nightmare, full of students with behavior problems that would challenge any teacher. But as hard as sixth period is, your third-period class is the most frustrating and depressing, because (for reasons only they are privy to) the Powers That Be have seen fit to place every type of student imaginable into the same classroom: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids...

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