Curriculum & Instruction

Robert Schwartz

Let’s begin with some data. Fewer than 33 percent of young people succeed in attaining a four-year degree by age twenty-five. If you disaggregate by income, only about 15 percent in the bottom third of the distribution attain a degree. In the bottom quintile, it’s half that. If you look at graduation rates among those who enroll, only about 30 percent in the bottom two income quintiles complete within six years. The economic returns of “some college” (i.e., those who drop out with no degree or occupational certificate) are no different than for those with only a high school diploma.

Finally, nearly half of those young people who attain a four-year degree are struggling in this labor market: 44 percent are underemployed, working in jobs that historically have not required a four-year degree, or working part-time while seeking full time employment. Meanwhile, there is rising evidence that those with two-year technical degrees (AAS) are out-earning average young BA holders.

It’s no longer a matter only of how much education you have, but what skills you have acquired and how well they match up with what the economy requires.

While it obviously should be a critical national priority...

  • Sure, you might die for your kids…but would how long would you sleep outside for them? That’s the question one Cincinnati dad had to answer when it was time to enroll his children in a coveted local school. The Fairview-Clifton German Language School, one of a handful of the city’s high-performing magnet schools, awards most of its kindergarten seats on a first-come, first-served basis rather than doing so exclusively via lottery. The result is a prolonged, nightmarish waiting game (on school grounds!) that now stretches over two weeks, with parents camping in tents and braving sub-freezing temperatures for a chance at one of a few dozen slots. The pageant of endurance is great for Fairview-Clifton, which ultimately selects it students from the most dedicated families in the city; but it’s terrible for parents who lack the resources to take time off work and pull a Grizzly Adams on behalf of their children. Going forward, the city (and every city) needs to offer more high-quality kindergarten seats. Until then, they should at least end this pathetic spectacle.
  • Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton drew a lot of headlines for her economic speech on Monday, predominantly for embracing liberal
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June marked the end of my first year as superintendent of Partnership Schools, a nonprofit school management organization that (thanks to an historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York) was granted broad authority to manage and operate six K–8 urban Catholic schools. Our work is one part of a nationwide effort to help save urban Catholic education. It’s a mission that has brought together an amazing group of Catholic educators and philanthropists with a common commitment: to not let this essential element of American education disappear from the communities our schools serve.

The urgency of this work is grounded in the seriousness of the problems our schools face. The Partnership Schools—three in the South Bronx and three in Harlem—have been struggling. Like so many urban Catholic schools subsisting on tuition payments or private philanthropy, our teachers and leaders have been forced to operate on austerity budgets. Salaries have been low. Textbooks have been sorely outdated. Professional development has been thin, and our principals have faced the almost impossible job of juggling tasks ranging from operations to fundraising to parent outreach to managing union grievances—all virtually on their own. They had scant time to serve teachers as instructional leaders and...

Lisa Hansel

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Core Knowledge Blog.

Education Week noted recently that there is an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to comprehensive programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to...mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curricula. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials that best meet their students’ needs on each topic. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such curricula. In schools that aim to instill skills without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate them, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. No matter who is choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting bacon-wrapped sausage and others getting mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet....

I taught fifth grade for many years at P.S. 277, in New York City’s South Bronx. But the school's full name was the Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty Children's Literacy Center. I'd wager heavily there's not a student in that elementary school, or more than two or three adults, who could tell you a single fact about Lopez-Antonetty, whose name is on the door they walk through every morning and whose portrait (last time I looked) hangs in the school auditorium. I always found this odd and irksome. If it's important enough to put someone's name on a public building, it should be important enough to know why.

In the wake of the horrific, racially motivated shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, there have been demands to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Charleston and wherever else it appears. Activists are demanding the removal of statues of Confederate Civil War figures and the rechristening of roads, bridges, and military bases bearing their names. There are nearly two hundred K–12 schools in America named after Confederate leaders, and now the calls have begun to strip the names from those buildings as...

  • Teachers have been complaining about it for years: American students are just too hopelessly infatuated with Sophocles, Shakespeare, and George Eliot to buckle down and read nonfiction. Oh wait, no one ever actually complained about that. But schools are nonetheless attempting a shift in reading instruction away from fiction and toward journalism, essays, legislation, and speeches. The move is a signature feature of the Common Core State Standards, which set out to shift the classroom focus to the kinds of informational texts that students will be faced with in college and beyond. Though pairing Romeo and Juliet with articles about teen suicide may seem quixotic, the new method has its proponents. Susan Pimentel, who helped author the standards, claims that “there is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting” between novels and newspapers. And traditionalists can take heart in the fact that eighth graders will hate reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as much as they used to hate reading Silas Marner.
  • When it comes to all the really sweet gigs, high school ends up being a little like Highlander—there can be only one prom queen, one first-chair piccolo, one class treasurer,
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Those of us who have hoped Common Core would hasten the demise of dry and deleterious skills-driven literacy practices at the elementary level can only be heartened by Education Week’s recent in-depth report on building early literacy skills. The package is deeply practice-based and will cheer those who have championed the cause of content knowledge and vocabulary development as a means of raising proficiency—particularly among low-income kids, for whom early reading success (or lack thereof) establishes a trajectory that is devilishly hard to alter.

Highlights include Catherine Gewertz’s first-rate dispatch on the transformation of early-grade read-alouds: Teachers increasingly ask “text-dependent” questions that can only be answered with “detailed understanding of the material, rather than from students’ own experience.” She focuses on a collaborative effort of more than three hundred teachers called the Read-Aloud Project, which was launched by the Council of Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners.

One of the most important pieces in the package ever-so-slightly misses its mark. Liana Heiten’s report on vocabulary development correctly notes—heavens be praised—the limits of direct vocabulary instruction. (Do the math: there’s not enough time to grow the fifty-thousand-word vocabulary of a literate adult by memorization or word study...

Contractors removing old chalkboards from an Oklahoma City high school last week uncovered a second set of chalkboard drawings still covered with lessons and student work from a school day in 1917. The Thanksgiving-themed drawings, multiplication problems, musical scales, and lessons on cleanliness offer an eerie, time-capsule glimpse into the past. But the discovery was important for another reason: Researchers finally have tangible evidence of what kids were learning in at least one American school.

I’m not entirely joking. Pop quiz: Can you name the English language arts curriculum in the public schools where you live? How about the math program? If you can name them, are they any good? How do you know? Do you have student performance data on the program or textbook? Or is your opinion just based on philosophy and preference?

I’ve long lamented the general lack of curiosity within education reform about curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes, despite good evidence that curriculum effects are larger than teacher effectiveness, chartering, standards, and other beloved reform levers. Likewise, I’ve expressed the hope that Common Core might spur something of a golden age in curriculum development (hell, I’ll settle for bronze)....

I like the Common Core State Standards just fine, but let me confess a little secret: standards have never interested me very much. As a teacher, I would no sooner reach for state standards to decide what to teach than an architect would look to building codes for inspiration when sketching a skyscraper. Likewise, I suspect chefs never start with safe food handling procedures when planning a tempting menu. Of course, I want my students to be able to “determine two or more central ideas of a text” (that’s a standard). But deciding which texts are worth reading is far more interesting. And that’s not a standards question—it’s a curriculum question.

Much of my enthusiasm for Common Core has been predicated on the assumption that raising our game on teaching and testing can’t be accomplished without taking a long, hard look at curriculum—the course content and class materials we put in front of students. Curriculum is largely beyond the reach of Common Core; it’s strictly (and correctly) a local concern. But it’s been widely hoped the new standards would create a robust nationwide market for innovative new materials—especially in English language arts (ELA), where Common Core explicitly states the standards...

Achieve has spent a decade relentlessly tracking and reporting on states’ progress in adopting “college- and career-ready” (CCR) policies and practices across multiple fronts. Sometimes we’ve found their reports too rosy, or at least too credulous, with a tendency to credit state assertions that they’re doing something rather than looking under the surface to see whether it’s really happening.

This year’s report is more solid, more fact-based—and more worrying. Consider, for example, its list of fourteen states that “still do not have any form of statewide graduation requirements that require or even suggest (as states with opt-in CCR courses of study do) that students take particular courses (or the content) so that they can graduate college and career ready.”

Pretty grim, no, this deep into the era of standards-based reform and mindful of our multi-year fixation on everybody emerging from the K–12 system ready for something respectable after high school?

Also worrying: Only thirteen states even collect district-level course requirements for high school graduation, and just three make public “the number of credits by subject area by district” required for graduation.

And this: “35 states use end-of-course exams [for some high-school subjects] to help ensure rigor and consistency statewide. However,...