Curriculum & Instruction

Last week, Fordham hosted Robert Putnam for a discussion of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which argues that a growing opportunity gap is leaving many American children behind. Watch the replay of the event, or read the transcript of the event below.

Michael Petrilli:              

Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. My name is Mike Petrilli. I am the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. For those of you that don’t know us, we are an educational policy think tank. We are based here in Washington, D.C. but we also do on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio which also features prominently in Dr. Putnam’s book. You can shout out for Ohio, that’s okay. Yes, and just as long as it’s not Ohio State, that’s another story. But Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist way back in the day in Dayton, Ohio, so we have a mission to do on-the-ground school reform work in Ohio. We push for educational reform out of Columbus and we are...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

I wanted to hate this book.

I’m a bit of an education technology skeptic, but I come by it honestly. No field overpromises and underdelivers more than education. And nowhere within education is that more true than among education tech’s various cheerleaders. For years, we’ve heard innovators, disruptors, and paradigm shifters natter on about twenty-first-century skills, flipped classrooms, and the “school of one.” Meanwhile, the experience of school for most kids remains the same, with the same mediocre outcomes year after year. Read my lips: No new TED Talks.

So I confess that I opened Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes in You with an arched eyebrow. I’m not ready to abandon my skepticism entirely, but Toppo made a persuasive case that games do many of the things we expect schools and teachers to do—differentiate instruction, gather data, and assess performance—and very, very well.

He started to win me over by not making the standard, clichéd education tech enthusiast’s argument about student engagement and “meeting the children where they are.” I don’t think...

A February study from the Center for Education Data and Research aims to determine if National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) are more effective than their non-certified counterparts. Established in 1987, National Board Certification is a voluntary professional credential designed for experienced teachers in twenty-five content areas. Certification is awarded through a rigorous portfolio assessment process consisting of four components: content knowledge; differentiation in instruction; teaching practice and classroom environment; and effective and reflective practices. These components are analyzed via teacher “artifacts,” including videos of classroom lessons, student work, and reflective essays. Across the U.S., more than 100,000 teachers (or roughly 3 percent of the teacher workforce) is National Board Certified.

This study examines data out of Washington State, which boasts the fourth-highest number of NBCTs in the country. Washington provides financial incentives for teachers earning board certification, including bonuses of up to a $5,000 for teachers working in high-need schools. The study finds that NBCTs produce additional student learning gains on state exams that correspond to about 1–2 additional weeks at the elementary level and in middle school reading. In middle school math, the results indicate a whopping five weeks of additional learning, compared to non-NBCTs with similar...

In a previous post, I explained competency-based or “mastery” grading: a restructuring of the common grade system that compresses everything from course tests, homework, and class participation into a system that assesses students based entirely on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. (For a look at how mastery grading works in practice, check out how schools like Columbus’s Metro Early College School and Cleveland’s MC²STEM high school, and even suburban districts like Pickerington, make it work). In this piece, I’ll discuss some additional benefits and drawbacks of mastery grading.

Mastery grading is innovative in that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills once they mastered simpler ones. As a result, the failure to master on the first attempt isn’t “failure.” It’s a chance for students to receive additional instruction and support targeted at specific weak spots, work hard, master key concepts, and move on with a firm foundation in place.

For teachers, the possibility of meaningful achievement data that is disaggregated by child and skill and directly drives instruction should be drool-worthy. Imagine knowing at the beginning of the year—before ever giving a diagnostic assessment—what your new students have fully,...

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...

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met...

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...

Ohio has been a hotbed of education reform in recent years, but two policy areas remain mostly virgin territory: teacher preparation and licensure. I tackled the former previously; now let’s examine three significant problems with Ohio’s approach to the latter.

1. Lack of content tests for early childhood licenses

According to NCTQ’s 2014 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, Ohio is one of only four states in the nation that doesn’t require all elementary teachers to pass a content test prior to licensure (see here for the Ohio details). A list of required assessments shows that early childhood (PK–3) teachers are only required to pass the Assessment of Professional Knowledge: Early Childhood (which tests pedagogical knowledge) and Early Childhood Education assessments. The second of these tests is intended to assess a candidate’s content mastery, but closer inspection reveals that the only core content with its own, separate part of the test is language and literacy development. Math, social studies, and science content are smaller parts of “Domain III” which itself only accounts for 36 percent of the test. This 36 percent is divided among music, drama, creative movement, dance, visual arts, health, safety, and physical activity...

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