Curriculum & Instruction

  • Even before they start school, inner-city students are often beset by huge learning obstacles—from the infamous thirty-million-word gap to the perils of urban violence—that need to mitigated by overtaxed districts. There’s a morbid irony, therefore, in new findings suggesting that these kids face the additional danger of poisoning once they walk into school. Nationwide testing in the wake of the Flint crisis has revealed distressing levels of lead contamination in school systems from Los Angeles to Newark. The problem has gone largely undetected for years because the only statute governing lead levels in public water supplies is a grossly inadequate 1991 EPA rule. Countless district facilities around the country are exempted from its language, and their lead-lined pipes and water coolers are spreading pollutants that are known to damage children’s bodily organs and stunt intellectual development. Disadvantaged families need to know that their kids are safe at school, not at risk of sustaining irreversible biological harm.
  • We all know the hallmarks of a typical civics lesson: dust-dry soliloquys about the Virginia Plan versus the New Jersey Plan, yellowed daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln, and melodically flaccid episodes of Schoolhouse Rock. If there were any class period that could
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I’m interested but rarely surprised whenever independent research shows strong evidence of curriculum effects. So this study of the efficacy of the Reading Recovery program by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education caught my eye. Recall that Reading Recovery, a short-term intervention program of one-to-one tutoring for low-achieving first graders, was one of the big winners of the Investing in Innovation (i3) scale-up grants back in 2010. The feds allocated $45 million in federal dollars, plus $10 million more raised from the private sector, for the training of 3,675 teachers to offer the oddly named program (how do you “recover” a skill you don’t possess?) to more than 300,000 students.

Created forty years ago by a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Reading Recovery is a series of daily, one-on-one lessons provided by specially trained teachers over a period of 12–20 weeks. Its entire point is to intervene early, before young students’ reading difficulties become too hard to address and reverse. Students who participated in Reading Recovery “significantly outperformed students in the control group on measures of overall reading, reading comprehension, and decoding,” the...

A few years into my experience as a public school parent, I can confidently say that I know what angers moms and dads the most: when a teacher puts on a movie during the school day. I don’t care if it’s the afternoon before winter break or the last minutes before summer recess: If anyone is going to use a video to babysit my kids, it’s going to be me! Allowing our children to have screen time comes with a lot of guilt and shame, and parents feel that we should exclusively benefit from of it.

So I make the following argument with a great deal of trepidation: What if watching videos is good for kids? What if it is so good that it should be part of the regular school day?

I’m not talking about the latest Pixar movie (although Inside Out certainly could be a great resource for social and emotional learning). I’m talking about explicitly educational videos that teach content to kids in engaging and memorable ways.

Here’s why: E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for thirty years—and cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham have backed him up—that teaching content is essential to teaching reading. While children are learning to decode the...

The “college preparation gap” among students graduating from high school is real and persistent. There are some signs that it has been stabilizing in recent years, but the fact remains that too many—arguably even most—holders of high school diplomas aren’t ready for college-level work. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the realm of community college, where 68 percent of students require at least some form of remedial coursework (also known as “developmental education”) just to get to square one. Perhaps four-year colleges should face facts and refuse to admit students who aren’t ready, but we’re not there yet. For better or worse, community colleges have their doors wide open when it comes to “underprepared” students who still want to give college a go. But do they have their eyes similarly wide open? Two recent reports highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly among community colleges’ efforts to build successful students via remediation.

First up, a report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) surveying approximately seventy thousand students from more than 150 of its institutions across the country. The vast majority (86 percent) of the incoming students surveyed believed that they were academically prepared to succeed at their college; yet...

Dina Brulles, Ph.D.

The goal of gifted programs should reflect that of any other educational program: to engage students with appropriately challenging curricula and instruction on a daily basis and in all relevant content areas so that they can make continual academic growth.

Over the past several years, the Paradise Valley (AZ) Unified School District has continued to expand gifted services in response to identified need. The district provides a continuum of services designed for the specific learning needs of gifted students from preschool through high school.

With a student population that is 30 percent Hispanic and 37 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, Paradise Valley uses a multifaceted identification process and embeds a gifted specialist in each of the district’s elementary schools to train teachers and staff to recognize high potential. The result: 32 percent of the district’s gifted population is non-white, a doubling of this portion since 2007.

Strong gifted programs take time to develop and will change over time. Developing sustainable services requires that we continually modify our programs to respond to many factors. Educational trends, district initiatives, state policies, shifting student demographics and staffing all can significantly influence how programs develop and evolve. Embedding gifted services into what...

  • On the day when America’s schooling woes have finally ceased—when all of its children are guaranteed equal access to qualified teachers, enriching curricula, secure facilities, and reliable pathways to higher education and the workforce—Bill de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz will have to find something new to fight about. Maybe their respective choices for the finest Ninja Turtle, or whether Led Zeppelin II rocks harder than Houses of the Holy. Until that distant time, they can keep up their reassuringly constant tit-for-tat over Success Academy’s place in the New York City education system. This week, de Blasio has found himself disinvited from Eva’s prom afterparty for insisting that the charter network sign a contract (and therefore accept some form of municipal oversight) to receive payment for its participation in the city’s universal pre-K initiative. Seeking over $700,000 in reimbursement monies, and evidently concerned with being micromanaged by its archenemy, Success Academy appealed to the state education commissioner. The commish swiftly ruled against them, surprising few. This beef perfectly illustrates the challenges of extending pre-K funds to charters, which Fordham chronicled extensively in our report last year. Normally, the barriers to participation include low funding levels or district monopolies
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Lisa Hansel

Last week, we encouraged state policy makers and educators to rethink what it takes to develop strong readers and the signals sent to schools by accountability measures. The bottom line: reading comprehension is a slow-growing plant, and the demand for rapid results on annual tests may be encouraging poor classroom practice—giving kids a sugar rush of test preparation, skills, and strategies when a well-rounded diet of knowledge and vocabulary is what’s really needed to grow good readers. Assessment and evaluation policy must ensure that these long-term investments in the building blocks of language growth are rewarded, not punished. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to do exactly that.

States also have the freedom to rethink teacher accountability. Because broad, general knowledge builds broad, general reading comprehension ability, school-wide accountability for reading makes far more sense than individual teacher accountability. Every school subject builds the knowledge base that contributes to a child’s reading comprehension ability (you need to know some science to make sense of a science text; history to make sense of a history text, etc.).

Take the comparatively simple task of teaching students to decode. At a minimum, it requires K–2 teachers. For...

Lisa Hansel

In the past two decades, something extraordinary has happened with very little fanfare: The reading ability of our lowest-performing children has increased significantly. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), between 1990 and 2012, the scores of nine-year-olds at the tenth and twenty-fifth percentiles increased by roughly two grade levels (about twenty points). For those children, those gains aren’t just impressive—they’re potentially life-changing.

At the same time, there has been a fourteen-point gain (a little more than a grade level) among fourth graders at the fiftieth percentile and a mere six-point gain among those at the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles.

What’s causing this long-term trend of much greater gains among lower-performing students than higher-performing ones? That’s hard to say. There are many plausible explanations, but one that seems likely is that K–2 teachers have simply gotten better at teaching “decoding” (learning to sound out words). Nationwide, there’s been an increased focus on evidence-based practices, including high-profile initiatives like the National Reading Panel report and Reading First. Both stressed that children must be explicitly taught how to decode, and most early reading programs—and, more significantly, teachers—seem to have gotten the message.

But decoding is only the...

Over the past decade, Tennessee has seen steady growth in math, science, and social studies scores. Those gains have been accompanied, as in many states, by rising high school graduation rates. But all is not well in the Volunteer State. “Reading remains an area where we are putting in substantial efforts and not seeing corresponding improvement,” laments this impressive report from the state’s education department.

English language arts (ELA) is the only subject tested on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) for which less than half the state’s students earn a “proficient” score. State officials are rightly alarmed by the spiral of failure that sets in when children are far behind in reading by the end of the third grade: Only one-third of Tennessee third graders who scored “below basic” on the TCAP in 2013 improved to “basic” two years later. A mere 3 percent reached proficiency by fifth grade. Neither is third-grade proficiency sticky. Twenty percent of students who scored “proficient” in third grade dropped back down to “basic” by fifth grade; more than half of the “advanced” third graders fell back below that level two years later.

So what’s the matter with Tennessee? The state sent literacy experts from TNTP into more...

Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, American education has focused in recent decades on ensuring that all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, attain a minimum level of academic achievement. Yet our focus on the performance of students “below the bar” has been accompanied by a neglect of girls and boys who have already cleared it, and especially those who soar over it. While it’s true that "federal rulemaking must not inhibit the ability of states to continue to focus on the lowest-performing students," as the group Chiefs for Change has stated, our high-performing students deserve an education that meets their needs, and maximizes their potential. Far too few of them, especially the poor and minority children among them, are getting that kind of education today.

We must persuade our educators and policy makers to attend more purposefully to the schooling of our brightest kids. To that end, Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli recently nominated two worthy individuals for the Department of Education’s Negotiated Rulemaking Committee: M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, and Jonathan Plucker, inaugural Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University. “They have the knowledge...

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