Curriculum & Instruction

Bad ideas in education are like horror movie monsters. You think you’ve killed them, but they refuse to stay dead.

A generation ago, the infamous “reading wars” pitted phonics-based instruction in the early grades against “whole language,” which emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out.

In 1997, the National Reading Panel was tasked to settle the fight once and for all. Phonics won. That should have been the end of it, but whole language never really died. It morphed, grew a new head called “balanced literacy,” and lived on. In New York City, it grew even stronger.

Finally, last year, there was hope: Balanced literacy was left for dead yet when the city Education Department recommended two reading programs for elementary schools as they prepare to meet the rigorous new Common Core State Standards in English: New York State’s Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum and Pearson’s ReadyGen.

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—the balanced-literacy program developed by Prof. Lucy Calkins, which had dominated city classrooms for more than a decade—notably failed to make the cut.

Why? Under the shift to Common Core standards, reading programs are explicitly expected to teach strong foundational skills, including phonics in the early grades, while building background knowledge and vocabulary, which are especially important for low-income children most at risk of reading failure.

To match the Common Core, reading programs must also encourage students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading.

None of these is emphasized in...

In which Mike offers/threatens to kiss Joel Klein

Mike and Brickman talk poor-quality math instruction and the ramifications of this week’s Supreme Court decision on union dues. Mike pitches a new bumper sticker: “Keep NCES boring.” And Amber is psyched about New York’s tenure reforms.

Amber's Research Minute

Performance Screens for School Improvement: The Case of Teacher Tenure Reform in New York City,” by Susanna Loeb, Luke C. Miller, and James Wyckoff, Working Paper 115 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, June 2014).

My chief mentor, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, occasionally warned against “semantic infiltration,” which he correctly attributed to the late arms-control expert, Fred Ikle. It is, of course, the judo-like practice of using terms that are appealing to an audience as fig leaves for practices that the same audience would find repugnant—turning one’s own language against one’s interests, you might say.

Moynihan noted, for example, that countries that style themselves “democratic republics” are almost never either democratic or republics.

So it is with “balanced literacy,” which has reared its head once again in New York City, as schools chancellor Carmen Farina places Teachers College professor Lucy M. Calkins back on the English language arts curricular and pedagogical throne that she briefly occupied a decade ago until Joel Klein learned what a catastrophe that was.

Balanced literacy is neither “balanced” nor “literacy,” at least not in the sense that poor kids taught to read via this approach will end up literate.

Rather, it flies in the face of “scientific reading instruction” (phonics, phonemic awareness, etc.) and reinstates the disastrous approach to early reading known as “whole language.”

“Balanced” is supposed to signal that it conjoins the best of scientifically based instruction with the best of whole language. Indeed, “balanced” is a perfect example of semantic infiltration. Who would want their children taught to read in an “unbalanced” way? (And who would want them not to be literate?)

But “balanced literacy” is, in reality, and especially as interpreted and...

USA! USA! USA!

Brickman and Victoria talk principal hiring, Common Core moratoriums, and charter accountability. Dara tells us about barriers to improving schools.

Amber's Research Minute

Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What's Real and What's Imagined? by Lawrence J. Miller and Jane S.Lee, (Seattle, WA: Center for Reinventing Public Education, June 2014).

In which Michelle admonishes Governor Jindal

Michelle and Brickman discuss pausing accountability while states transition to the Common Core, the perils of playing politics with Eva Moskowitz, and Governor Bobby Jindal’s Common Core bluster. Amber schools us on teacher prep.

Amber's Research Minute

2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs by Julie Greenberg, Kate Walsh, and Arthur McKee, (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

The World Cup vs. Underwear Models

Amber and Michelle talk teacher tenure, selective high schools, and the stunning upset of Eric Cantor. Dara takes over the Research Minute with a study on whether vouchers "cherry pick" the best students.

Amber's Research Minute

Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

Lisa Hansel

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The ninety-day report features six “universal milestones” that are the heart of the task force’s work and recommendations:

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

I have one more to place on that list: learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, recognize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood and the early grades.
Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to the Common Core standards, which—if properly understood—offer sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT test-score data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are behind academically to catch up—and therefore how crucial it is to intervene early.

In his most recent brief, Dougherty shows that at least half of fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic and African American students in the states whose data he analyzed are not doing well in reading—and almost none who...

Here’s a puzzler: Why are the Common Core math standards accused of fostering “fuzzy math” when their drafters and admirers insist that they emphasize basic math, reward precision, and demand fluency? Why are CC-aligned curricula causing confusion and frustration among parents, teachers, and students? Is this another instance of “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” as textbook publishers and educators misinterpret the standards in ways that undermine their intent (but perhaps match the interpreters’ predilections)?  Or are the Common Core standards themselves to blame?

My take is that the standards are in line with effective programs, such as Singapore Math, but textbook publishers and other curriculum providers are creating confusion with overly complex explanations, ill-written problems, and lessons that confuse pedagogy with content.

Many of the “fuzzy math” complaints seem to focus on materials that ask students to engage in multiple approaches when tackling arithmetic problems. But to understand whether the confusion stems from the standards or the curriculum, let’s start by recalling what the CCSS actually require.

1. The Common Core explicitly demand student mastery of the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for both whole numbers and decimals.

Any honest reading of the standards must recognize that in grades 4, 5, and 6, the Common Core demand that students master standard algorithms. In grade 4, students should “fluently add and subtract multidigit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.” By grade 5, they are expected to multiply whole numbers using the standard algorithm. And by grade 6, they are expected...

Now Look What You’ve Done

Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must they wholeheartedly back Arizona’s ESA program. Amber wonders if high-flyers maintain their altitude—and has déjà vu all over again.

Amber's Research Minute

The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” by Eric Parsons, Working Paper, July 2013.

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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