Curriculum & Instruction

One of the dirtiest words in American education today is ?tracking.? Reformers and ed-school types alike deride the approach as racist, classist, and worthy of eradication. And if they are talking about the practice of confining some kids?typically poor or minority or both?into dead-end tracks with soulless, ditto-driven instruction, they are absolutely right.

But they are dead wrong when they call for elimination of tracking en toto?of removing all ?honors? courses, of putting all agemates in the same class regardless of their level of preparedness. That's a recipe for failure for kids of all achievement levels?and more proof that today's policy discussion is often devoid of common sense.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist?or even a cognitive scientist?to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging?neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="298" caption="Click to play video of AEI debate on student tracking featuring Mike Petrilli"]Click to play video of AEI debate on student tracking featuring Mike Petrilli[/caption]

Thankfully, we're getting close to going beyond tracking?not by grouping all...

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The CCSS ELA standards are, as you may remember, heavily (though certainly not exclusively) skills driven. The choice to focus on skills rather than content was deliberate and the standards authors themselves acknowledged that states would likely want to enhance these skills-driven standards with additional content. In fact, adoption states were told that the existing CCSS standards could comprise 85 percent of the total standards, giving the states the flexibility to add ?15 percent? atop of the final standards.

To date, it doesn't seem like too many states have taken seriously the charge of fleshing out this additional ?15 percent.? It's no wonder, then, that folks are looking to curriculum to provide teachers with more specific details about what content students should learn.

I've already argued against making curriculum decisions at the state or national level. I remain convinced that it would be a mistake to do so for lots of reasons. Among them, in this debate over curriculum, one thing that we shouldn't lose sight of is the important distinction between standards and curriculum. Done right, standards define the outcomes?the knowledge and skills that students must master. Curriculum, on the other hand, helps shape the process through which students will learn that content. In other words, curriculum helps shape (among other things) how the content should be organized, how it should be taught, etc. (Pedagogy gets at this as well, of course.)

We all know how long it takes for states to change...

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I emerged from our Board of Ed Curriculum Committee meeting yesterday smiling.? Despite agreement by Karl Wheatley and John Thompson, regular commenters on Flypaper, about the need to define curriculum before we start talking about it (see Curriculum Confusions), I was heartened by the fact that the dozen teachers and administrators sitting around?our conference table?didn't discuss the definition ? though I'm sure each had a different idea about what it was.? A few years ago, I would have been discouraged by that fact -- but?a few years ago the discussion would have gone like this: We don't have a curriculum. Yes we do. No we don't.? Then again,?a few years ago, we didn't even?have a Curriculum Committee!? As a friend of mine told me recently, you don't have to talk about Hirsch anymore.?

In fact, at the local level, in New York state and many other places, thanks to the tireless efforts of a generation of reformers ? I am lucky enough to have gotten to rub intellectual elbows with some of the best, at Fordham and Education Next and Core Knowledge ? the curricular train is finally on the tracks and pulling into a district near you. And guess what?? The teachers are so relieved!

For the first time in my district, teachers are talking about aligning content, vertically and horizontally. Okay, so it's just a reading textbook (Journeys), but it is the first time that K?6 teachers have ever used the same text!? And they...

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You shouldn't need 3-D glasses to see the need for a good curriculum. So why, then, does Neal McClaskey at Cato think that a national curriculum is ?not possible in this dimension?? ?Or why does former Gates Foundation education honcho Tom Vander Ark say, ?A ?common curriculum' (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we're about ready to develop ?school of one'"?? Which sounds a lot like Sarah Engel's recent New York Times op-ed Let Kids Rule School? (see Liam's brilliant From the Department of Bad Ideas on that one.) ?Or even Fordham's ?Kathleen Porter-Magee's Stop Seeking Curricular solutions to instructional problems.

Curriculum is the newest old question of the hour (see Liam's The Same Thing, Over and Over), brought on by a ?a bipartisan group of [250] educators and business and labor leaders,? according to the NYT, signed on to a Shanker Institute statement in support of a national curriculum. Unfortunately, it shook some old trees, which brought a flutter of dead ideas back to clutter the education sky.?

Could someone explain why educators ? and Cato -- are so afraid of curriculum? I thought we were beginning to overcome our fear of knowledge. I recall the first time I showed my school district's Curriculum Director ? a former psychologist ? a copy of the Core Knowledge K-8 Sequence and her remark was, ?No, we don't do that. Our job is to teach children how to think critically???...

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Catherine Gewertz has a piece in this week's Education Week describing a New York City pilot program that has teachers analyzing the complexity of the texts they will be assigned in their classrooms. As you probably remember, text complexity features prominently in the Common Core standards. In lay terms, text complexity measures help teachers understand at what age- or grade-level particularly texts are best taught.

Most people agree that current measures of text complexity are imperfect. They are frequently quantatitve measures that rely on rudimentary scores of word length, sentence length, or paragraph length and structure to assign appropriate age and grade levels. As part of the Common Core standards initiative, the CCSS authors are seeking to improve these measures of text complexity so that they include both quantitative and qualitative measures (such as themes) to give a more accurate picture of when particular texts should be taught. This is part of a larger effort to help ensure that students across grade levels are exposed to appropriately rigorous literary and informational reading that will help better prepare them for the reading that will be required of them in college.

According to the article, there is a pilot program in New York City where teachers are coming together to analyze texts using quantitative and their own qualitative metrics of text complexity.

This work is welcome if it leads more students to read more rigorous texts across all levels, but particularly in high school.

But before we...

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Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge wrote a very thoughtful response to my post the other day. He says that my point?which was that states would do better to focus their attention on standards and assessments, and allow curriculum decisions to be made as closely to the classroom level as possible?was a bit of a ?strawman-fest.? He argues:

She confuses the core curriculum manifesto's?call for guidance on what students should learn with?a call to?pick winners and losers among published curricula, or?prescribe the methods by which?children should be taught.? The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to?describe the?common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate.

While I will admit to being confused about what, precisely, the Shanker Institute's ?call? is actually advocating (particularly after the latest round of blog posts about it), that may have more to do with the way the manifesto is written than with my larger point. So let me be clear: Prescribing scope and sequence from the state or national level is a mistake. If that is what the manifesto is trying to achieve, then it's a step in the wrong direction.

The details matter in this debate, since they have the potential to impact classroom practice very directly and deliberately. I do think it's entirely appropriate for states to define the scope of content that students should learn. States have for many years defined what students should know and be able to...

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Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales, the Shanker Institute's call for "common content" curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack. There's talk of "bait and switch," of double-cross, of treacherous inconsistency, of blah blah blah?all associated with what is depicted as the dire threat of a "national curriculum."

And yes, I signed onto it, so am said to be personally culpable.

For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies.

Let's keep a few important "knowns" in mind.

First, we know that many teachers crave better curricular guidance aligned with?quality academic standards that in turn are (one hopes) in alignment with the assessments that?their students will be taking and their performance will be judged on.

Second, we know that, absent such guidance and materials, some gifted teachers are willing and able to develop sound curricula for themselves?and some others are able to borrow (often, nowadays, from websites, bulletin boards, and such) from?curricula developed by other teachers who have already done the heavy lifting.

But, third,?we also know that?far too many teachers, unsupplied with decent curricular specifics and materials by their schools, districts, and states, wind up using crummy...

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There continues to be a lot of discussion around the idea of creating a ?common? curriculum to supplement the Common Core State Standards. Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge applauds the move, arguing that, while the CCSS are ?praiseworthy,? they are ?not a curriculum?and are unlikely to amount to much?in the absence of a shared curriculum.? ?Tom Vander Ark cautions that moving to adopt a traditional curriculum is a mistake and that we should be thinking not about common curriculum, but rather about ?uncommon? delivery system that provides ?fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.? (If you haven't already, it's also worth reading Pondiscio's scathing take-down of Vander Ark's idea.)

Unfortunately, I still think that these debates are missing the point, and potentially distracting states from allocating their now very scarce resources towards policies that have the potential to much more dramatically impact student achievement.

It's worth noting that, as a former curriculum director, I am a strong believer in the transformative power of curriculum. It is essential.

But, I sincerely believe that making curricular decisions at the state or?even worse?national level is a mistake. States would do better to create or adopt rigorous assessments and a strong state accountability system, and then to devolve ownership over student achievement results?and that includes curricular decisions?as closely as possible to the classroom.

Heading up the curriculum and professional development team at Achievement First, one of our early missteps was to focus on mandating?or...

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