Curriculum & Instruction

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily News and City Journal.

Last week, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña demanded that dozens of New York City’s lowest-performing schools adopt and implement a widely criticized literacy curriculum with which she has long been associated. It was the most recent of a growing list of decisions she has made while running the nation’s largest school system that seem to be based not on empirical evidence, but on the chancellor’s personal preference.

In November, the city unveiled its School Renewal Program, a $150 million plan to turn ninety-four chronically low-performing schools into “community schools.” A concept paper inviting community-based organizations to partner with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) noted the approach “is based on a growing body of evidence” showing that “an integrated focus” on academics, health and social services, and other community supports are “critical to improving student success.”

What growing body of evidence? The paper didn’t say—not even in a footnote. Perhaps because the evidence is scant to nonexistent. New York’s initiative is modeled on a similar program in...

James R. Delisle took aim at differentiated instruction (DI) in his commentary in the latest issue of Education Week, noting the challenge of making this nice-sounding idea work with the reality of many of today’s classrooms.

As our own Mike Petrilli wrote in 2011: “[T]he enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom” is the greatest challenge facing America’s schools. The implication is that those teachers seeing success with differentiated instruction—however few they may be—simply have less variation in learning levels among their students and, therefore, have less differentiation to do. (Oh, and that they have the right training, full understanding, endless diligence, and loads of time.)

So what’s the answer? Delisle wants to bring back ability grouping to fully replace DI. It is hard to deny  that America’s classrooms have changed greatly over the last few decades, so perhaps it’s time to toss out “one or the other” thinking and go for something new—a hybrid of sorts.

How about curriculum-based mastery instead? A content sequence with multiple check points along the way (yes, that’s testing). Master it, move on. Don’t master it, remediate until you do. In such a case,...

You may have missed it over the holidays, but NPR ran a fascinating profile of Jason Zimba, one of the primary architects of the Common Core math standards. The piece, by the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, an exceptionally thoughtful education reporter, traces Zimba’s career from Rhodes scholar and David Coleman’s business partner to “obscure physics professor at Bennington College” and unlikely standards bearer for the math standards that he had so much to do with creating.

Garland makes much of the fact that Zimba spends Saturday mornings tutoring his two young daughters in math. We’re told he feels the math his kids are getting at their local Manhattan public school is subpar, and that’s even after the school began implementing Common Core. “Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent,” Garland notes. “He's one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.”

Some will surely see irony in Zimba feeling compelled to supplement what his kids learn in school with breakfast-table math lessons—more schadenfreude for Common Core critics—but there is no irony. As my Fordham colleague Kathleen...

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to...

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s...

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...