Curriculum & Instruction

Lisa Hansel

In the past two decades, something extraordinary has happened with very little fanfare: The reading ability of our lowest-performing children has increased significantly. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), between 1990 and 2012, the scores of nine-year-olds at the tenth and twenty-fifth percentiles increased by roughly two grade levels (about twenty points). For those children, those gains aren’t just impressive—they’re potentially life-changing.

At the same time, there has been a fourteen-point gain (a little more than a grade level) among fourth graders at the fiftieth percentile and a mere six-point gain among those at the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles.

What’s causing this long-term trend of much greater gains among lower-performing students than higher-performing ones? That’s hard to say. There are many plausible explanations, but one that seems likely is that K–2 teachers have simply gotten better at teaching “decoding” (learning to sound out words). Nationwide, there’s been an increased focus on evidence-based practices, including high-profile initiatives like the National Reading Panel report and Reading First. Both stressed that children must be explicitly taught how to decode, and most early reading programs—and, more significantly, teachers—seem to have gotten the message.

But decoding is only the...

Over the past decade, Tennessee has seen steady growth in math, science, and social studies scores. Those gains have been accompanied, as in many states, by rising high school graduation rates. But all is not well in the Volunteer State. “Reading remains an area where we are putting in substantial efforts and not seeing corresponding improvement,” laments this impressive report from the state’s education department.

English language arts (ELA) is the only subject tested on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) for which less than half the state’s students earn a “proficient” score. State officials are rightly alarmed by the spiral of failure that sets in when children are far behind in reading by the end of the third grade: Only one-third of Tennessee third graders who scored “below basic” on the TCAP in 2013 improved to “basic” two years later. A mere 3 percent reached proficiency by fifth grade. Neither is third-grade proficiency sticky. Twenty percent of students who scored “proficient” in third grade dropped back down to “basic” by fifth grade; more than half of the “advanced” third graders fell back below that level two years later.

So what’s the matter with Tennessee? The state sent literacy experts from TNTP into more...

Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, American education has focused in recent decades on ensuring that all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, attain a minimum level of academic achievement. Yet our focus on the performance of students “below the bar” has been accompanied by a neglect of girls and boys who have already cleared it, and especially those who soar over it. While it’s true that "federal rulemaking must not inhibit the ability of states to continue to focus on the lowest-performing students," as the group Chiefs for Change has stated, our high-performing students deserve an education that meets their needs, and maximizes their potential. Far too few of them, especially the poor and minority children among them, are getting that kind of education today.

We must persuade our educators and policy makers to attend more purposefully to the schooling of our brightest kids. To that end, Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli recently nominated two worthy individuals for the Department of Education’s Negotiated Rulemaking Committee: M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, and Jonathan Plucker, inaugural Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University. “They have the knowledge...

For some, the ivory tower of academia is “ivory” in more ways than one.

Events over the last year showed us that within our educational spaces, racial tension can quickly bubble to the surface. Protests erupted across the country, and college campuses became hotbeds for a new wave of student activism that helped deliver a powerful, inescapable message: As a country, we have failed to address how race fits into American education, and communities of color feel a lack of representation. Whether it was the absence of diversity among faculty members or outright instances of racism, student activists cited myriad reasons for their discontent. Children of color will make up 52 percent of K–12 students by 2021. Will this spike in non-white Americans feel the same alienation from, and even anger toward, what is perceived as a mainstream American education? What can be done today to bridge the gap in achievement—and the gap in classroom representation? We might start with culturally responsive school curricula.

As many have said before me, education plays a major role in framing American culture and identity. Through our schools, we reflect on which “ideas, phrases, and principles...are woven into the fabric of the nation,” argues my...

  • The best coaches are, at heart, excellent teachers. They have to impart tactics and skills to their players, along with universal values like teamwork, leadership, and effort. The U.S. Soccer Federation acknowledged the necessity of sound teaching when it contacted superstar educator Doug Lemov to help train its youth league coaches. The former teacher and administrator (and college soccer walk-on) gained fame for his meticulous research into the methods of successful instructors, which he has explored in a series of bestselling manuals. Now he’s helping professionals construct drills and improve communication with their young charges. Lemov has written about his fascination with the game before (check out his notes on a practice conducted by European juggernaut Bayern Munich), and we can only hope that his contributions help lift young American athletes higher. Because seriously, there’s something humiliating about losing to Belgium—whether on test scores or the beautiful game.
  • Even if they’re stupefied by the content, history teachers probably long for the inarguable authority of mathematical theories and proofs. With a few exceptions, math and science teachers seldom have to bat away charges of imperialism or cultural misrepresentation. In California, where educators are mulling a newly issued framework for
  • ...

If you’ve been keeping up with the Common Core scandal pages, you may be wondering who Dianne Barrow is.

Until this month, the answer would have been, “An anonymous functionary scuttling about the publishing behemoth known as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.” That was before Barrow, who now finds herself a cog without a machine, was featured in an eight-minute video produced by Project Veritas and its merry prankster front man James O’Keefe. In it, she explains how entities like HMH and Pearson view Common Core as a chance to sell second-rate books to schools suddenly required to teach from standards-aligned materials. (She also mouths off about home-schoolers, but that’s basically included as bonus content.) “You don’t think that educational publishing companies are in it for the kids, do you? No, they’re in it for the money,” she says.

Take a coffee break and check out the video. Not because it contains any footage of journalistic merit, or because its makers are especially credible. In fact, the opposite is true. O’Keefe is one of those charming types whose mugshot pops up if you google him, a memento of his arrest and guilty plea following a bungled attempt to break into a U.S. senator’s office and tamper with phones....

A new study from the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences provides results for fourth-grade students on the 2012 NAEP pilot computer-based writing assessment. The study asks whether fourth graders can fully demonstrate their writing ability on a computer and what factors are related to their writing performance on said computers.

A representative sample of roughly 10,400 fourth graders from 510 public and private schools composed responses to writing tasks intended to gauge their ability to persuade or change a reader’s point of view, explain the reader’s understanding of a topic, and convey a real or imaginary experience. Students were randomly assigned two writing tasks (out of thirty-six) and were given thirty minutes to complete each one. The study also references results from a 2010 paper-based pilot writing assessment and 2011 NAEP results for eighth- and twelfth-grade computer-based writing assessments—all of which came from different groups of kids. They also present results for an analysis of fifteen tasks that were common to both the paper and computer-writing pilot.

There are five key findings. First, 68 percent of fourth graders received scores in the bottom half of the six-point scoring scale on the computer-based pilot. Second, the percentage of responses...

Education reform has been a specialty of Jeb Bush’s, and his track record on this issue in Florida is unbeatable. He knows the topic up, down, and sideways. But he’s never had to deal directly with federal policy before, so I picked up his “education vision” paper with interest to see how he and his team would approach it.

In my view, it deserves at least two and a half cheers—which is a cheer or two more than any other candidate has earned on this issue, mute as they’ve been on the topic. He has perfect pitch on K–12 issues and the (limited) federal role therein. Here and in the pre-K realm, the quality of what kids end up getting will depend—as it must—on how states manage their newfound authority and how well parents select among the choices before them.

On the post-secondary side, Governor Bush has made some smart and creative suggestions, such as replacing student loans with lines of credit that college-goers pay back over time with a set share of their future income, as well as eliminating defaults and collection agencies by using tax withholding to collect repayments. I applaud his wisdom in looking beyond...

Nearly thirty years ago, a then-obscure University of Virginia professor named E.D. Hirsch, Jr. set off a hot national debate with the publication of Cultural Literacy. The book was an out-of-nowhere hit, spending six months on the New York Times best seller list on the strength of its list of five thousand people, events, books, and phrases that Hirsch declared "every American should know."

Eric Liu, the executive director of the Aspen Institute's Citizenship and American Identity Program, wants to revisit Hirsch's list. Building on his recent essay, "How to Be American," Liu argues that the United States needs such common knowledge more than ever, but that “a twenty-first-century sense of cultural literacy has to be radically more diverse and inclusive.” Liu has launched an intriguing effort to crowd-source a 2016 version of Hirsch's famous list—which, in retrospect, was a double-edged sword: It made Cultural Literacy a best seller, but it also resulted in the book becoming what Dan Willingham has called "the most misunderstood education book of the past fifty years." It also came out the same year as Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, an equally unlikely success. Both were tarred with a "conservative" label. (For his part, Hirsch recently insisted, "I'm...

In a perfect world, all children would have access to an inspiring, well-rounded education, especially in pre-K and elementary school. They need a solid grounding in history, science, art, music, and literature. This is the period when their minds, like little sponges, are most receptive to learning about faraway times and places, hearing the classic stories from cultures around the world, understanding how the universe works, and unleashing their mini-Picassos and Beethovens. Plus, cognitive science tells us, these “extras” help our kiddos become excellent readers to boot—setting them up for a successful academic career from pre-K to college. (That’s because, along with learning to decode the English language, their reading ability is mostly determined by their store of vocabulary and content knowledge.)

Unfortunately, the vast majority of American elementary schools continue to eschew the type of well-rounded education that builds children’s knowledge. They see such an education as prioritizing “mere facts” at the expense of play, “natural learning,” or social and emotional development. That’s wrongheaded thinking. Studying topics like ancient Egypt, the constellations, or Greek myths provides ample opportunity for lessons on feelings, fun, play, and the ethical treatment of others. Lessons in these areas never have to consist only of...

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