Curriculum & Instruction

Alfie Kohn is the latest to weigh in on ?the pedagogy of poverty,? as he calls it, with his ?How Education Reform Traps Poor Children? commentary in Education Week ? and he does it as crudely as Joe Nocera did it in the Times the other day (see my Education Unbound*): first by distorting ?the proposals collectively known as `school reform,'? then by ignoring the facts. ?(See the letter to the editor of the Times by teacher Neal Suidan, who says that, ?In the absence of an immediate plan to fix poverty, family structure and school funding, the only place where we can influence the fate of these students is in the classroom. That's where the focus should be.?)

Flypaper's Kathleen Porter-Magee jumped all over Kohn for his ?pedagogical strawman? -- ?in fact, she says, ?the pedagogy that is used and encouraged at the most successful urban charter schools around the country? are actually designed to create the conditions where student thinking and learning can actually happen?? -- and Core Knowledge's Robert Pondiscio did an excellent counterpunch by pointing out that ?a lot more damage [is] being done to low-income urban kids in the name of `authentic learning' and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of a knowledge-rich core curriculum.?

Indeed, Kohn sticks the ?pedagogy of poverty? labels on the wrong foreheads.? He confuses cause and effect and, in a typical ruse of rhetoric, blames those trying to fix the problem of...

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This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the...

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In my interview with outgoing New York education commissioner David Steiner, whose passion for curriculum has been no secret, I asked about curriculum and the common core and I think it is worth excerpting some of our conversation:

EN (Education Next): How do we get teachers to see the need for a rigorous, aligned, and common core curriculum?

DS (David Steiner): Oh, I think that by and large they do.

EN: And who should write such a curriculum?

DS: Well, first of all, when I discuss the idea of a state wide curriculum with the leaders of both the NYSUT and the UFT [teacher unions], they were and are enthusiastic.? They are our partners in this work and I think that the key is the design.

You don't want a kind of French straightjacket, where you say that at 11:15 on Monday morning every 11-year-old is opening the same page of the same text.? That doesn't seem consistent with our traditions, our history, and our culture.? On the other hand, it's true that right now we have a total fragmentation and even within the same large high school, within the same grade, you might have teachers teaching at a very different content level and [different] content itself.

So how do you build a really attractive, flexible curriculum that has modules that could be used, not only for students who are on grade level, but for those who may be a year behind, for the

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Liam Julian

A New York Times-Chronicle of Higher Education collaboration yields a story about the lowly undergraduate business department, where slackers slack with impunity. The?unremarkable business school student, the article suggests,?is an unconcerned fellow, missing class or sleeping through it, neglecting his studies, and generally spending his days drinking with buddies and powering through grocery money at his roommate's homemade poker table. And then he graduates with an entirely respectable GPA?a 3.1 or so, ?right in that meaty part of the curve, not showing off, not falling behind,? as George Constanza would say?and goes on to an entirely respectable white-collar job managing this, selling that, or representing the other. The most recent National Survey of Student Engagement, whatever that is, found that business majors ?spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field,? according to the Times-Chronicle piece. They also score less well than any other group on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which tests pupils in writing and reasoning at the start of their freshman year and then again at the end of their sophomore year. And business majors who intend to pursue graduate-level instruction at business school score lower on the GMAT, business school's SAT, than all other majors. Add to this that over 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees issued each year are business degrees, ?making it the most popular field of study,? and the worrying begins.

The article identifies three ?sources of trouble?: first, too many pupils choose their majors by default...

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I was just re-reading sections of The Making of Americans by Don Hirsch, preparing to send out some encouraging words to my local district Board of Ed Curriculum Committee, when a new Rick Hess Straight Up shot across my screen.? Apparently, it's not just the local yokels who don't get the concept of background knowledge.? Et tu, Hess?

Between vague standards ? and standard vagueness in this country ranges from the opacity of White Out to a hole you can drive a truck through (though Fordham's recent report paints a slightly rosier picture) ?? and the tests that everyone wants to write for them is this yawning cavern?where curriculum should be. It is a cup and a lip that has spilled hundreds of thousands of kids onto our streets, including those who are very computer savvy, uneducated. And I'll add my scepticisim to that of Checker about the Finlandization of America that Rick sees in a common curriculum.? He prefers the Balkanization that we've lived with for the last half century?

As I pointed out the other day (Habits of Mindlessness), even Ted Sizer got it. As he wrote in Horace's School:

Good schools are places where one gets the stuff of knowledge?that is, crudely, ?the facts? ?where one learns to use that stuff, and where one gets into the habit of such use.

I'm sorry Sizer is not around to help guide us through the Internet revolution (he died in 2009), but...

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Rick Hess strongly implies that I'm a Finland lover just because I signed the AFT plea for better curricular materials for teachers to use in connection with the Common Core standards. Wrong. I don't believe the Shanker Institute folks even mentioned Finland. And all I like about Finland (saunas and reindeer aside) is that it's home to a lot of Finns.

?Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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Liam Julian

The humanities are under attack, writes Nicholas Dames in the latest N+1. What he means, really, is that campus humanities departments are under attack, derided by the masses as comfortable homes for elitist windbags and poked and prodded by college administrators and public officials, who hope either to reshape the departments in ways?that will make them more amenable to economic realities or to withhold money from them, in effect starving them and their tweedy, Marxist denizens into submission, dispersing the rogues hither and yon so that no longer will they draw a paycheck for filling students' minds with nonsense. Dames reviews three ?manifestos,? written, he says, by professors who have sensed that the winds have shifted, that humanities departments can no longer remain aloof, above the fray, and so have plunged in, put pen to paper, to produce defenses of their profession?booklets as barricades.

First up is Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. This is, Dames seems to suggest, a confused book, at once asserting the humanities' independence from quotidian concerns of supply and demand while also pointing out that the very skills the humanities impart are those for which, Nussbaum notes,??modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace? most thirst. ?First of all,??she writes, ?we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality...

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I cried. It was only Babes in Arms, but the kids sang and danced as if on Broadway?and some of them actually had Broadway genes in their vocal chords and gambly arms and legs.? A lazy Sunday afternoon and I caught the last performance of the high school play.? Not being a theater person, I am always amazed by these productions, since they always seem to hang by a slender thread, plagued by scratchy mics, falling props and costumes, and, of course, forgotten lines. ?But the kids'?efforts, backed by dozens of adults in the wings,?working the lights and the sound system,?playing in the orchestra, ?were so innocent and energetic that Yes, you couldn't help but get a little emotional.

But I started to get really teary?thinking of the next day's board meeting ?budget workshop,? the last of a series of painful meetings in which we public servant powerbrokers stare into the?sights of the budget howitzer and start firing, so to speak.??There, a few feet in front of me,?playing the French Horn in the orchestra was a young Intermediate school music teacher.? With a proposal on our plate to cut 12 percent of our teaching staff, his chances of surviving the knife were slim.

But it's not just him or even LIFO. It's where music and art seem to be?in the ?educational pecking order.? For many reasons our little school community, with dismal proficiency scores in STEM subjects, prized art and music.??And?these?intimate and personal?expressions of community values,?and priorities, on...

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Several years ago, then superintendent Roy Romer mandated that elementary teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District use Open Court?a proven literacy program that he believed would help drive reading achievement in the district.

According to an LA Times article, because the program was both unpopular with teachers and didn't yield the student achievement results district officials had hoped for?there were gains, but they plateaued ?in upper classes? and weren't uniform across district schools?the LAUSD school board voted this week to replace it with another program called ?California Treasures.?

While I don't know much about the new program, I worry that, by simply replacing one program with another, the board hasn't learned two critical lessons.

The first is that, when you mandate a district-wide curriculum in a district the size of LA, school and leaders will inevitably begin to focus their management on compliance rather than student achievement. That is precisely what happened in Los Angeles, according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily Breeze.

[District officials] treated it like the Bible and if you deviated in any way ... you were subjected to an inquisition," said Janet Davis, an LAUSD teacher adviser and former elementary school teacher.

Davis recalled that she was once reprimanded for using the wrong Open Court puppet for a reading lesson.

In education, such compliance-focused management is absurd. It's no wonder that student achievement gains didn't persist over time.

Second, there is no...

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