Curriculum & Instruction

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the Commentary website.

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part...

This is an excerpt from Michael J. Petrilli’s opening comments at the Education for Upward Mobility conference. Read the whole speech here; video from the event is available here; the ten papers that were presented are available here.

One of the most important questions in America today is: How can we help children born into poverty transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults? And in particular, what role can our schools play?

These aren’t new questions.  When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act fifty years ago, he remarked, “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”

Or, as Jeb Bush put it two weeks ago, quoting Horace Mann: “Education is the great equalizer.”

What is new is the nagging concern (shared across the ideological spectrum) that social mobility in the U.S. has stalled. As conservative scholar Peter Wehner wrote recently, “Two-thirds of Americans believe that it will be harder for them to achieve the American Dream than it was for their parents, and three-quarters believe that it will...

Good morning. It’s wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues here today. My name is Michael Petrilli, and in August I took over as the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, one of the nation’s leading education-policy think tanks, as well as an education-reform advocacy organization in the great state of Ohio and a charter school authorizer in the great city of Dayton. Welcome to our “Education for Upward Mobility” conference.

Today is a rare chance for those of us engaged in the raucous and sometimes vitriolic education-reform debate to step back and consider the path we find ourselves upon. The goal is to seek an answer to a fundamental question, perhaps one of the most important questions in America today: How can we help children born into poverty to transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults? And in particular, what role can our schools play?

This isn’t a new question.  When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act fifty years ago, he remarked that, “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”

Or, as Jeb Bush put it two weeks...

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts...

Emily Hanford

Halfway through my senior year of college, I quit. Why? Because I didn’t want to graduate. I had no idea what I was going to do next.

I was one of those students who did everything she was supposed to do. Good grades, good college, all that. But school was all I had ever known, and not once during my sixteen years of education do I recall anyone ever making an explicit connection between what I was learning in school and what I might actually do for a living once I was done. The goal of high school was to get into college. The goal of college was to get a degree. Then what? I wasn’t at all prepared for that question.

I come from a background of abundant educational privilege. I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s in an affluent New England town with great public schools. My parents had graduated from college. My grandparents had graduated from college. On my dad’s side even my great grandfather had a bachelor’s degree. I was on the “college track” before I was born.

But there was another track: vocational...

President Obama’s contempt for the Constitution, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s unfortunate disregard of that document, have been loudly and justly decried by critics of executive overreach. Less heralded, but equally troubling, is the mission creep of the Office for Civil Rights as it works to reshape the education world and to right whatever alleged wrongs it thinks it sees.

All of these officials and agencies are seeking to accomplish policy goals that they believe are good for America, and I’m not impugning their motives. But they are playing fast and loose with their job descriptions and responsibilities under law.

Much has been written and said about Obama and Duncan. Let’s focus here on OCR. Mike Petrilli has already exposed the folly of the agency’s witch hunt for disparate impact in school discipline and explained the challenges it will pose for educators trying to run schools that are conducive to learning. In the matter of sexual harassment, I and others have written about the ill-conceived substitution of university conduct codes, unreasonable evidentiary standards, and star-chamber procedures for longstanding law-enforcement practices. (This carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy, as those whom the government is “protecting” are the selfsame students who ...

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading...

Peter Sipe

“Ambiguous” is a reliably fun word to teach sixth graders. They quickly grasp its essence and utility. I introduce it by explaining how I was once given a keychain with the legend “I Teach. I Make a Difference.I assure my students that I have never used this keychain, for, in keeping with my unyielding commitment to personal excellence, I would only ever boast of making a positive difference. Then we have a lively discussion about the possible meanings of the keychain’s phrase. This discourse was evidently not forgotten by one student, who in June concluded a speech, "Mr. Sipe, you made a difference." Then she smiled wickedly and added, “A big difference!”

At least she didn’t declare this: “He could not disguise from my hourly notice the poverty and meagreness of his understanding.” That unambiguous teacher evaluation was penned by Thomas DeQuincey almost two hundred years ago in Confessions of an Opium-Eater. He dispatches another master as “a blockhead, who was in a perpetual panic lest I should expose his ignorance.” You don’t have to read far to begin to wonder if his...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems...