Curriculum & Instruction

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...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators. Edreports.org, a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met EdReport.org's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have...

“A spirit of license makes a man refuse to commit himself to any standards....When society reaches this stage, and there is no standard of right and wrong outside of the individual himself, then the individual is defenseless against the onslaught of cruder and more violent men who proclaim their own subjective sense of values. Once my idea of morality is just as good as your idea of morality, then the morality that is going to prevail is the morality that is stronger.”

—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Have all the possible arguments about the Common Core been exhausted? Up until a week ago I would have said yes, but that was before we started talking about moral facts.

First, a little background on the idea of “moral facts.” One aim of a liberal arts or classical education is the search for objective truth. That search is based on the presumption that moral facts (e.g., “all men are created equal,” “murder is wrong”) do exist and that education should focus in large part on imparting the knowledge students need to reason and understand the difference between fact, opinion, and moral facts that are derived from reasoned judgment.

This belief...

This post has been updated with the full text of "No time to lose on early reading"

I’m a fan of the Common Core State Standards, but I recognize there are many reasonable and honorable areas of disagreement about them, both politically and educationally. One recent thread of opposition, however, strikes me as quite unreasonable: the idea that Common Core demands too much by expecting children to be able to read by the end of kindergarten.

recent report from a pair of early childhood advocacy organizations (Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood) makes the argument that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful” and calls for Common Core to be dropped in kindergarten and “rethought along developmental lines.” It’s a really bad idea. Early reading struggles left unaddressed tend to persist, setting kids up for failure. Common Core is not without faults, but its urgency about early childhood literacy is not one of them.

The first red flag in the report is its insistence that Common Core is “developmentally inappropriate.” That sounds scientific and authoritative, but it’s a notoriously slippery concept, harkening back to the day when Piaget theorized that children go...

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