Curriculum & Instruction

  • New revelations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights provide some ominous news for both minority students and STEM enthusiasts. According to OCR’s biannual report, fewer than half the nation’s high schools offer calculus; for those with significant populations of black and Hispanic students, the rate is even lower. Among schools where black and Hispanic students made up three-quarters of the student body, just 33 percent offer calculus (compared to 56 percent of schools where black and Hispanics students made up one-quarter or less of the student body). Worse, transcript data from last year suggest that the proportion of black students taking calculus has actually declined since 2009. We also know that black and Hispanic students lag far behind their white and Asian classmates in earning AP credits. This is pretty simple, and very serious: If we don’t provide rigorous coursework to minority students—starting in middle school if not sooner—we’re limiting their potential, undermining society’s capacity to produce upward mobility, and sandbagging the country’s economic growth.
  • There’s a screaming vogue these days for the teaching of so-called “non-cognitive skills”—traits like social awareness, self-control, and resilience (depending on whom you talk to, they can also
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Lisa Hansel

If there were just one thing I could say to fans of open educational resources (OER) and personalized learning, it would be this: “Atomized units of knowledge don’t build anything.” That quote comes from an education reformer who used to teach in a high-powered classical school. She and her colleagues delivered the type of rigorous, well-rounded, and carefully sequenced education that has produced thoughtful leaders and scholars for thousands of years; schooling of that sort is often dismissed as too hard for most kids or too twentieth-century for today.

Sadly, in dismissing the classical or liberal arts approach, we’ve also unintentionally thwarted our most sacred goal: that all students become strong readers. As the last several decades of literacy research clearly demonstrate, reading comprehension requires a very broad base of academic knowledge and a massive vocabulary. In short, to be a good reader, you have to know all of the terms and ideas that writers will use without providing definitions or explanations (e.g., Supreme Court, solar system, David and Goliath, etc.). This base of knowledge, which literate adults are assumed to have and children therefore need to accumulate, is enormous. We must be highly efficient in order to give them all...

In a series of recent posts, I’ve been examining what we reformers (and our friends in philanthropy) might do to spur better outcomes for kids besides obsessing over laws and regulations. I’ve looked at the promise of building new systems through charters or ESAs, as well as "disruptive innovations" that target students directly. Let me continue in that vein by looking at efforts to go around “the system” and put useful tools directly into the hands of parents and teachers.

Power to the parents

A major theme in education reform has always been the imperative to give real authority to the consumers—and, inevitably, take some of it from the providers. Standards, testing, and accountability have been pitched in part as mechanisms to get objective information to parents (and taxpayers) unfiltered by the spin of local administrators and elected officials. School choice, too, is all about vesting parents with a real say in the education of their children.

What else might be done to empower and inform parents? One of the most impressive creations of the reform era is GreatSchools.org. By providing clear, understandable information that is accessed by somewhere between one-third and one-half of the nation’s parents in any given year, GreatSchools has arguably...

A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) investigates San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) new graduation policy requiring students in the class of 2016 and beyond to receive a passing grade on a sequence of college preparatory courses (commonly called the “a–g” sequence, with each letter referring to a different subject area). This aligns the district’s graduation requirements with admissions eligibility at California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) member schools, which officials hope will increase rates of college entry and completion—especially for underrepresented communities.

Authors collected data from student administrative records and conducted a comparative analysis to evaluate the likely impact of the new policy. They used students who graduated between 2011 and 2015—who completed the courses that are now graduation requirements—as a baseline for measuring the impact of the a–g sequence on course-taking patterns, graduation rates, and eligibility to attend schools that make up the CSU and UC systems. Researchers also examined the course sequence’s effect on college access for historically underachieving subgroups in the class of 2016. They used individual student’s grade-six characteristics to determine the likelihood of completing the a–g sequence and then compared these estimates to each student’s actual a–g...

Lisa Hansel

Harriet Tubman will grace the front of our $20 bill—a long-overdue tribute to a woman who lived up to the best of American values. But do most Americans know who she was? Anecdotal evidence and test scores indicate that they don’t.

She was not some footnote figure that only historians should know. Tubman repeatedly displayed astounding courage—and achieved heroic successes—in two of our nation’s greatest fights for freedom and equality: ending slavery and giving women the right to vote.

But perhaps this widespread ignorance is not our fellow citizens’ fault. When would they have learned of Tubman? A nationally representative survey of elementary teachers shows that in from kindergarten to the sixth grade, an average of just 16–21 minutes a day are spent on social studies (and a mere 19–24 minutes on science). Given students’ utter lack of preparation, our middle and high school teachers would find it challenging to engage students in meaningful or memorable studies in history, geography, and civics.

It’s tempting to blame the elementary teachers. But that’s simplistic at best. Elementary teachers are, by and large, doing what they have been taught and responding to the signals sent by federal and state accountability policies.

The heart of this problem is that...

If you caught your pediatrician Googling "upset stomach remedies" before deciding how to treat your child and home-brewing medications over an office sink, you might start looking for a new pediatrician. So how would you feel if you learned that Google and Pinterest are where your child's teacher goes to look for instructional materials?

Well, brace yourself, because that's exactly what's happening. And no, your child's teacher is not an exception. A new study from the RAND Corporation finds that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary school teachers—draws upon "materials I developed and/or selected myself" in teaching English language arts. And where do they find materials? The most common answer among elementary school teachers is Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). The numbers are virtually the same for math.

But don't blame teachers. These data, for reasons both good and bad, reveal a dirty little secret about American education. In many districts and schools—maybe even most—the efficacy of the instructional materials put in front of children is an afterthought. For teachers, it makes an already hard job nearly impossible to do well.

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional...

Every teacher of low-income children and English language learners has had this moment: You're sitting with a student, working line by line through a text, grappling with what should be fairly simple comprehension questions.

"Did you read it?" you ask. "I read it," the child replies. "But I didn't get it."

This is what reading failure often looks like in a struggling school. A child can read the words on a page in front of him, but he can't always make sense of them. The commonsense solution for both teachers and policy makers has been to make more time for reading instruction. That makes sense, but it hasn't worked, because reading comprehension is not a skill that can be practiced and mastered like a basketball free throw. Children's ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won't be fully literate.

John King made precisely this point last Thursday in a remarkable speech in Las Vegas. The newly minted secretary of education is pushing for schools to take advantage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to give every child the kind of broad background "that...

Michael Hansen

Are we ready to expand career and technical education offerings as the next frontier in education policy? “College- and career-ready” has been an aspirational label in education for years, though many in the know recognize that the label is generally used as a stand-in for the Common Core State Standards—and the focus there is decidedly tipped toward college readiness and away from career preparation. Yet in recent years, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have been promoting the career side of the label more, making the case that technical education is not at odds with academic preparation. With union leadersindustry groups, and researchers joining the list of those backing it, career and technical education appears to be well poised to become the next viable policy lever to help improve the plight of America’s youth.

Last week, the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. released a new report on career and technical education that adds some fuel to this fire. In it, author Shaun Dougherty examines high school, college, and labor market outcomes for three cohorts of Arkansas high school students based on their differential participation in career and technical education coursework. The study stands out for its focus on this array of outcomes,...

It strikes me, and several others with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, that education reform is at a turning point. It’s not just the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which sends key decisions back to the states. It’s bigger than that—a sense of exhaustion with policy as the primary driver of educational change.

To be sure, there are many policy battles still to fight and win in almost every state: to ensure that school and teacher accountability do not disappear, to defend and expand high-quality charter schools and other forms of parental choice, to do something about chronically low-performing schools, to see that high-achieving poor kids don’t go ignored, and much more.  

It’s as critical as ever that advocacy organizations like the newly merged 50CAN and StudentsFirst attract the funding and talent to ensure that kid-centered laws and regulations are put in place from sea to shining sea. The teachers’ unions—newly energized after their near-death experience in the Friedrichs case and their victory in Vergara—surely have the money and resolve to push hard in the opposite direction. And when it comes to preserving the status quo and not threatening any adult interests, they have plenty of allies. But...

Credit recovery is education’s Faustian pact. We remain not very good at raising most students to respectable standards. But neither can we refuse to graduate boxcar numbers of kids who don’t measure up. Enter credit recovery, an opaque, impressionistic, and deeply unsatisfying method of merely declaring proficient getting at-risk kids back on track for graduation.

This pair of studies from the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looks at more than 1,200 ninth graders in seventeen Chicago public schools who were enrolled in a credit recovery course the summer after failing algebra I a few years ago. Half took the class online, half in face-to-face classes. Providing credit recovery is now one of the most common purposes of online courses; but “evidence of the efficacy of online credit recovery is lacking,” the authors note with considerable understatement.

The first report analyzes the role of in-class mentors in online classrooms, examining whether students benefited from their additional instructional support. They did—kind of. The authors suggest that “instructionally supportive mentors” (those with subject matter expertise, not just a warm body providing “support”) lead to students navigating the course with greater depth and less breadth. They seem not...

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