Curriculum & Instruction

Peter Cunningham

In a provocative piece in Slate recently, Fordham’s executive vice president Mike Petrilli asked why Euro-style tracking isn’t a better strategy for high-school students who are significantly below grade level. Here’s one response.

I do some work with a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Manufacturing Renaissance, which trains high-school students and ex-offenders for manufacturing jobs in the area. Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded in 2007 as a small high school to replace a larger underperforming school. Of the student body, 95 percent are low income, 13 percent are homeless, and 30 percent have diagnosed learning needs. The school’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and the average ACT score is just 14.5 on a scale of 36, well below the level deemed “college ready.” The students are precisely the ones who would be tracked toward career programs in a European-style education system.

APA is also surrounded by hundreds of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies desperately in need of trained workers to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, there are 20,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region alone and 600,000 nationwide.

To meet this need, APA began offering a career-education program that offers students work-ready credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). To date, more than 150 APA graduates have earned more than 250 work-ready NIMS credentials. More than half of the students get paid work experience while in high school, and about two-dozen APA graduates have gotten jobs upon graduation. Starting wages are between...

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Sean Lynch

Upon reading Michael J. Petrilli’s recent article, “Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material,” I was encouraged to see a major publication shining light on some of the many benefits that career and technical education (CTE) has to offer. Petrilli’s facts are absolutely correct: CTE programs open doors to new career-exploration opportunities, lower high-school dropout rates, and can engage at-risk students with interesting curriculum.

However, there is a key point that my colleagues at the Association for Career and Technical Education and I feel is important to emphasize in this discussion: CTE is a component of academically challenging, rigorous education for all students, be they high fliers or at risk. It’s important to balance our attention between acknowledging CTE’s benefits in engaging struggling students with their coursework and ensuring that every student has the knowledge and skills needed for success in both college and careers.

Students should work with their mentors at home and in school to identify their ideal career path and obtain the education they will need to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. School counselors play a crucial role here by building bridges between students and an education that prepares them for the career they want—and oftentimes, those are in-demand careers in CTE related fields that provide respected, high-wage positions. And it’s certainly not a choice between attending a four-year college or participating in CTE, because the majority of students who explore CTE programs...

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In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses...

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Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core,...

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Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: ptatz@edexcellence.net.)

Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: ptatz@edexcellence.net.)

As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can...

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Everyone knows that the Common Core State Standards initiative has turned into a political football. But a more apt analogy might be baseball—spring training, to be exact. That’s because, for all the colorful commentary, the Common Core is still in the very earliest phases of implementation. It isn’t yet time to pay much attention to the score; instead, we ought to work out the kinks and improve the fundamentals.

And to be sure, tons of progress is needed before states, districts, and schools are ready for game day. That’s the upshot of Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, a new in-depth study from our think tank. Along with analysts at the group Education First, we examined initial implementation efforts in four districts that are ahead of the curve: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).

Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:

1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least...

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Perhaps New York mayor Bill de Blasio is starting to see that attacking charter schools is a...

Just because the label on that pint of ice cream says it’s “fat free” doesn’t mean it won’t...

Research has repeatedly found that being a firstborn can come with advantages—they tend to be...

“Grit” is a hot new buzzword—and what some believe to be the key to whether a student succeeds....

Happy but Dumb

Mike and Leo Casey of the Shanker Institute prepare to duke it out over New York’s charter school debate, education finance, and whether positive school trends mean reform is unnecessary—but end up with surprisingly similar conclusions. After studying the effects of birth order, Amber is surprised that anyone on the show (younger siblings all) can string a sentence together.

Amber's Research Minute

V. Joseph Hotz and Juan Pantano, “Strategic Parenting, Birth Order, and School Performance,” NBER Working Paper 19542, October 2013.

Common Core & Curriculum Controversies

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core...

Just because the label on that pint of ice cream says it’s “fat free” doesn’t mean it won’t expand your waistline—and just because a textbook is labeled “Common Core aligned” doesn’t mean it actually covers the material it’s supposed to. In this new study (which has already garnered some serious attention from the press), USC assistant professor (and alum of Fordham and AEI’s EEPS program) Morgan Polikoff studied seven math textbooks aimed at fourth graders, including their work samples and practice exercises. Polikoff found that the content of the textbooks ranged from 27 percent to 38 percent aligned—dismal results. Further, he found that one-sixth to one-seventh of the material in the Common Core standards was not covered in the analyzed textbooks. However, though these findings highlight important Common Core implementation concerns, we would be remiss if we did not point out a significant methodological issue: Polikoff compared the textbooks and the standards using the Survey of Enacted Curriculum, which—while, granted, one of the very few tools available—doesn’t measure content coherence. What’s more, the analysis assumes equal weight for all standards, though school districts, assessments, and common sense dictate that some should receive greater attention than others. For a more nuanced look, stay tuned for a Fordham review of leading “Common Core” curricular materials in the months ahead.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff, “How Well Aligned Are Textbooks to the Common Core Standards in Mathematics?” to be presented...

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