Curriculum & Instruction

President Obama’s contempt for the Constitution, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s unfortunate disregard of that document, have been loudly and justly decried by critics of executive overreach. Less heralded, but equally troubling, is the mission creep of the Office for Civil Rights as it works to reshape the education world and to right whatever alleged wrongs it thinks it sees.

All of these officials and agencies are seeking to accomplish policy goals that they believe are good for America, and I’m not impugning their motives. But they are playing fast and loose with their job descriptions and responsibilities under law.

Much has been written and said about Obama and Duncan. Let’s focus here on OCR. Mike Petrilli has already exposed the folly of the agency’s witch hunt for disparate impact in school discipline and explained the challenges it will pose for educators trying to run schools that are conducive to learning. In the matter of sexual harassment, I and others have written about the ill-conceived substitution of university conduct codes, unreasonable evidentiary standards, and star-chamber procedures for longstanding law-enforcement practices. (This carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy, as those whom the government is “protecting” are the selfsame students who ...

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading...

Peter Sipe

“Ambiguous” is a reliably fun word to teach sixth graders. They quickly grasp its essence and utility. I introduce it by explaining how I was once given a keychain with the legend “I Teach. I Make a Difference.I assure my students that I have never used this keychain, for, in keeping with my unyielding commitment to personal excellence, I would only ever boast of making a positive difference. Then we have a lively discussion about the possible meanings of the keychain’s phrase. This discourse was evidently not forgotten by one student, who in June concluded a speech, "Mr. Sipe, you made a difference." Then she smiled wickedly and added, “A big difference!”

At least she didn’t declare this: “He could not disguise from my hourly notice the poverty and meagreness of his understanding.” That unambiguous teacher evaluation was penned by Thomas DeQuincey almost two hundred years ago in Confessions of an Opium-Eater. He dispatches another master as “a blockhead, who was in a perpetual panic lest I should expose his ignorance.” You don’t have to read far to begin to wonder if his...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems...

All Hallows Edition

The testing pushback, a college boost for poor kids, adolescent readers, and school-supporting nonprofits.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Rise of School-Supporting Nonprofits," by Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley, Association for Education Finance and Policy (Feburary 2014).

All the world's a stage - October 22, 2014

The benefits of live theater, how and whether to discipline, detrimental reading tests, and relative school costs.

Amber's Research Minute

The Relative Costs of New York City’s New Small Public High Schools of Choice,” by Robert Bifulco and Rebecca Unterman,  MRDC (October 2014).

The enlightenment edition - October 15, 2014

Civil rights, Christopher Columbus, D.C. school spending, and teacher prep.

Amber's Research Minute

"Teacher Preparation Policies and Their Effects on Student Achievement," by Gary T. Henry, et al., The Association for Education Finance and Policy (2014).


Michelle:       Hello, this is your host, Michelle Gininger of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at Now, please join me in welcoming my cohost, the Alicia Florrick of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:           Oh wow. That was such an honor.

Michelle:       I knew you'd love that. I knew it.

Alyssa:           I mean it is kind of our topic of conversation every Monday or Tuesday whenever we get around to watching The Good Wife which airs on Sunday …

Michelle:       Let's be honest, it's never Monday morning because I can't stay up till 10 o'clock at night on Sunday so it's Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday.

Alyssa:           Yeah. Usually, not on football season, I can watch it on Sunday. But on football season, forget about it.

Michelle:       Yeah. Football just ruins The Good Wife for me. I think we should move football to another day and this is the big policy I'm going to be pushing this year.

Alyssa:           Oh good to know but I mean if they were up to, I think, the two of us, television would end by 9 PM every night. We would have to stay up till 11.

Michelle:       That would be fantastic. I think we should promote that but in the meantime let's get back to Ed reform. Ellen, what do you have for us?

Ellen:              Fordham’s own Mike Petrelli recently argued that over the last six years, the Department of Education has been too involved in civil rights. Do you agree?

Michelle:       This is based on a special Op Ed that Mike had in NRO’s education week that they just had this weekend. Robert Pendisi on our team also had one on common core but basically, Mike takes another aim at the Secretary of Education. Alyssa, what's your take?

Alyssa:           Mike gave two examples in the piece of areas in which he believes that Arne Duncan has used the Office of Civil Rights to overreach over local control on several issues and the first, I agree with and the second, I do not.

Michelle:       Oh, I think we might be opposite here.

Alyssa:           Ooh, okay which one do you agree with Mike on?

Michelle:       I agree on the AP testing.

Alyssa:           So do I.

Michelle:       Oh see, I thought that was second in the article.

Alyssa:           I guess it was okay. Well one of the points I agree with and one that I do not.

Michelle:       Here's how we should solve the AP problem. Basically Mike is calling out the department because they are pushing for more minority students to be in AP classes which obviously is a good thing but the on the ground reality is that we're just going to be pushing more students into AP courses who aren't ready for AP course week. The goal should be putting more minority kids in AP courses and having the pass rate of AP courses staying the same. That way, we’re not incentivizing schools to just put kids in the classes they're not prepared for but we are incentivizing schools to get more students prepared and putting them in these AP courses.

Alyssa:           Yeah. I do worry very much about the unintended consequences of pushing unprepared kids into AP whether or not that's colleges deciding AP no longer accounts for college credit which is really important when you're a student who tuition is a big barrier for entry. I also think it's an opportunity for schools to do things like maybe course share or take online courses so kids who are in schools were not … There’s not 30 kids who are ready for AP but there's maybe 5 can still take those classes and have those opportunities. I think there's an opportunity there but the way that the office is being used, I'm a little concerned about.

Michelle:       Now, one thing that I did in … or that happened in my high school once upon a time when I was a young, young high school student was they just offered courses and then at the end of the course, you could opt in to taking the AP exam. There was an AP US history on top of US history. It was just history class and if at the end of the year, you felt prepared to take the AP exam, you could opt in to taking it which was an interesting model. I don't know how if that's necessarily possible in public schools. I did go to a private school and it was pretty small so it was easy. There wasn’t the scale issue that's one interesting thing that might be a good policy recommendation.

Alyssa:           Yeah, that would definitely I think be a solution.

Michelle:       We're not even going to talk about school discipline, sorry Mike. We're just going to go question number 2.

Ellen:              Monday was Columbus Day, a celebration of a controversial often misunderstood figure. Should schools give students a more accurate picture of who Christopher Columbus really was?

Michelle:       I know, Alyssa and I disagree on this one so that's a good thing. I am for Christopher Columbus Day it might just be because I am part Italian. What can I say? But I'm for it. Alyssa?

Alyssa:           I think that there's a better use of students’ time than … I think on American history, we have a tendency to kind of lionize a lot of historical figures who have kind of unsavory pasts. Christopher Columbus, obviously chief among them. I don't think a great use of students’ time is to be out of school. I think they should be in school learning about these figures, learning about different aspects of American history and really debating and discussing these things.

There's definitely a lot of weak history curriculum out there and I think now is the time to push that and have a chance for students to learn about these figures instead of just playing or doing God knows what that day.

Michelle:       First, don't take away any of my federal holidays even though Fordham does work on Columbus Day.

Alyssa:           I was going to say we were the office bright and early yesterday.

Michelle:       So I'm all for that. Would I want to create a Columbus Day if it didn't exist? Probably not but I have 2 strong feelings on this. One, we can't judge yesterday’s historical figures based on today's morals. Now, obviously Christopher Columbus did some horrendous things, but by those standards, it wasn't that bad. I'm not saying what he did is okay, I'm just saying, when we teach this stuff in school and when we do have a good history curriculum which we should, we should say here's what Christopher Columbus did and yet all these drawbacks and horrible things that he did.

I think that it's just turned into a political fight as opposed to a constructive conversation of how we should actually deal with historical figures that don't live up to today standards and morals. Obviously, you already mentioned Thomas Jefferson owned slaves but pretty much everyone historically did not respect women as equal people, which we do today hopefully. That is a more important conversation than one day off at school and should it be Christopher Columbus Day or another day, I think that conversation’s a little [mute 00:06:17].

Alyssa:           Yeah. All right, Ellen question number three.

Ellen:              With Fordham's new Metro DC school spending explorer, Mike Petrelli and Matt Richmond note that Arlington and Fairfax counties are spending much more on their high poverty schools than Montgomery County which prides itself on its strong commitment to social justice and Prince George's County with high levels of students in poverty. What's going on here?

Michelle:       Before I get on my high horse that Virginia is totally more awesome than Maryland.

Alyssa:           I knew you were going to be saying that.

Michelle:       I know, I know. I'm a lifelong Virginian. Let me explain what this awesome project this. Basically, we had the3 question of how much do DC area schools spend per people at the school level. Obviously, we know that there's going to be spending differences between districts. What's interesting in that portion was that PG County in Maryland spends so much less than the other districts that we studied. But also perhaps more interesting is that within districts, the funding levels are different even if you look at schools that should be on par with one another.

You're can have 2 public elementary schools in the same district that receive vastly different funding levels or spending levels, excuse me, Dara would [chide 00:07:27] me for seeing funding instead of spending. That's what the project is. It's really awesome. I encourage folks to look at our interactive map, but to the question at hand, Mike and Matt took a look at how districts spend for their highest needs students, the highest poverty schools. What they found is that for extra spending for low income students, Arlington hit it up out of the park with 81% followed by Fairfax County with 34 while Montgomery County which prides itself as Ellen noted on being social mobility friendly, not so much in MPG County was with 2%. A few caveats there, school don’t necessarily have a lot of control on the spending. Most of it is teacher salaries. Arlington only actually had 2 high poverty schools while PG County had 50 high poverty schools. That's a lot of nuance here but it's certainly really interesting.

Alyssa:           Yeah. I feel like that kind of undercuts your Virginia is for everyone and Virginia is the best argument but as a DC person, I was particularly interested in the spending differences between DC charter schools and DC public schools and noted that DC charter schools spent a bit more per pupil and this is obviously taking out the discrepancies in building and construction funding which is a huge issue inside DC but DC charter schools are spending more per high poverty pupil than the DC public schools are even though DC charter schools have incredibly high student poverty in most of them.

In terms of Prince George's, I was not super surprised having been around DC for a while. I think there, it's just such a tax-based issue and it's so hard to build up the tax base whereas Arlington and Fairfax have kind of a more affluent population that they're working with in general. I think that PG County stories of concern to the local area because as more and more poor families are being kicked out of DC because of gentrification, they're going from perhaps … They're going from one school in DC that's pretty well-funded to a school that isn't as well-funded. That's of concern.

Of course, there's no direct correlation between funding and student performance so there's a lot of nuance here but I think it's important to look at this and one of the things that I find most interesting about the project in total is that state average, that district average that is touted doesn’t tell the story and this map I think will be an eye-opener for certainly the parent advocacy contingent in the area.

Michelle:       I'm sure Mike's going to just love that. But yeah no I think the map is super cool. I spend, when I was looking at the beta version, almost an hour I'd say just clicking in, clicking out seeing all of the different categories. It's a very cool project to check out.

Alyssa:           Being a local, I got to look at what my district in public high school would have been back when I was a young teenager. That's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. Thank you Ellen. Up next is everyone’s favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

                        Welcome to the show Dara.

Dara:              Thank you.

Alyssa:           Bravo on your DC Spending Explorer Map out today.

Dara:              We'll call that a labor of love.

Female:         We’ll call it a labor of something.

Dara:              Labor of something. We are super excited that we're able to share this with everyone. It's been literally months and months and months of work doing the analyses, getting the website out the door so we're super excited.

Female:         What is your favorite take away from this project? On the data, not on the process.

Dara:              Besides the fact that the way that schools account for the way that … The way that districts account for dollars spent is absolutely insane. I don't know if anyone has tried to actually read a school district expenditure report.

Female:         No.

Dara:              It's a bit nuts. That's why we did this project so you don't have to.

Michelle:       That's why we have researchers do this sort of thing.

Dara:              The biggest take-away I think is that there is predictable variation between districts. We know that districts spend the money that comes in so Montgomery County, lots of local funds, spends more per pupil than Prince George's County even though they're in the same state. They're receiving the same state revenue. That was predictable. What is really interesting is the variation between schools in the same district and that really is the result of district leaders making choices about what dollar goes to what school and so you can poke around on the website, click on each schools, see all their demographics and special education students and free and reduced lunch students and see how each schools spends its dollars.

Michelle:       Great. We won't have you research minute our own projects so what do you have for us today?

Dara:              Something completely different from that. Today, it's a study from this month's Association for Education Finance and Policy Journal from a team of researchers led by Gary Henry at Vanderbilt University. It asks a question that has already received a lot of attention in the past which is how does teacher preparation affect student achievement but this study is way more robust than any of the other research out there that examines similar questions.

One of the reasons is because of the way that it divided up teachers. Instead of lumping teachers into two groups, traditional versus alternative certification, instead it made many more nuanced comparisons which I’ll talk about in a second. The data consisted of over 22,000 North Carolina teachers in their first, second or third year of teaching and 1.18 million students.

To get the data, the authors use administrative data to get teacher characteristics, how long a teacher was teaching, how a teacher was prepared, characteristics of the school where they taught. They combined this with 5 years of student test score data. This is an incredible data set. The analysis used a value added model with school fixed effects. To answer the question how does teacher preparation affects student value added on state tests for eight combinations of grade levels and subjects. We've got Elementary Math, Elementary Reading, Middle School Math, Middle School Reading and High School Math, Science, English and Social Studies.

That was a big buildup. Here are the results. First, comparing teachers who were traditionally prepared to those who received alternative certification but not TFA. This is why this study is unique. First of all, it separated out alternative certification as in the day you step foot in the classroom, you don't have your full license. It separated those out from TFA. Traditionally prepared with non-TFA alternative certification, alternative entry teachers are significantly less effective than traditionally prepared teachers in Middle School Math and High School Math and Science but no different in any of the other subjects.

                        Second, traditionally prepared teachers compared to TFA teachers. TFA teachers are more effective in six of the eight categories, Elementary Math, Elementary Reading, Middle School Math, High School Math, Science and English. Third, comparing teachers prepared out of state versus those prepared in-state. Out-of-state teachers are less effective in Elementary Math and Reading and in High School Math.

Fourth, teachers who began teaching with a graduate degree or less effective in Middle School Math and Reading and more effective in High School Science than teachers who did not have a grad degree. Fifth and finally, no difference in any grade level or subject between in-state teachers who receive their certification at a private school versus a public school. One additional finding if that wasn't enough, the study confirmed previous research that showed that there is significant variation within different preparation categories. TFA teachers as a group first, second and third year TFA teachers more effective in 6 out of those 8 categories but within TFA teachers, there is significant variation.

Female:         That's fascinating. I'm excited about this. This is a cool study.

Dara:              I think so. Like I said, this is a question that has been asked a lot but because the researchers had such a enormous data set, they were able to make these much more nuanced categories for example not lumping together all alternatively certified teachers into one category.

Alyssa:           A few things based on what you said. Out-of-state prepared teachers performed worse … Or students performed worse than in-state? Does that go away with dare I say it, common core?

Michelle:       That was my question as well actually.

Dara:              I can only speculate because the student data, the five years of student data stopped with the 2009, 2010 school year. It's possible that if you have more … Teachers who are more familiar with the state standards and if the standards are common, that should theoretically be the case, then it is very possible that that variation could go away.

Michelle:       We'll see. Here's another question that I picked up. Exciting news on TFA or first up exciting news on TFA even though there are some variation when you look within TFA. It sounds like only in TFA were we seeing improvement in Reading and English which traditionally is so hard to get those scores up. What do we think could be the cause of that? I know again speculation.

Dara:              Right. I mean one of the things that's important to note is North Carolina is one of the original TFA focus areas. They have spent a very long time developing the infrastructure to train their teachers there. It's the same theoretical structure that the five or six week boot camp summer institute as you have with TFA everywhere else but because it is so well established in North Carolina, it's very possible that it's not just the way that TFA is recruiting its teacher but also because it's very well established, they know what they're doing.

One thing that the study didn't do is it didn't look beyond the third year of teaching. They would've had to go too far back in the data but the idea is that it's likely that preparation affects sort of fuss over once you get past the first couple of years, so take that as you will.

Michelle:       Alyssa, as a former TFAer, thoughts?

Alyssa:           I was very happy to hear that. I think I was doing a little bit of a happy dance right there. What was most interesting to me was that alternative certification teachers who were not TFA did not do so hot with Middle School Math and High School Math and Science which we know that those are traditionally hard subjects and those are areas where it's compelling to say this person is maybe a career changer or this person has a background in [STEM 00:18:55] subject. Let’s put them in front of the classroom. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that Dara.

Dara:              It's a constant tension between lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession because you have this hard staff grade levels and subjects so you lower the barriers to entry, how do you maintain quality control. This article, this study seems to speak to the fact that lowering barriers to entry via alternative certification and via allowing out-of-state teachers reciprocity with their credential is not a good thing because those teachers don't do as well.

However, it doesn't mean that you have to keep those barriers high, it just means that you need to have quality control either with entry or evaluation systems that allow for the removal of an ineffective teacher as soon as they prove themselves ineffective especially if the barriers to entry are low.

Michelle:       All right fascinating stuff. Thanks so much Dara.

Dara:              My pleasure.

Michelle:       That's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Till next week.

Alyssa:           I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Michelle:       I'm Michelle Gininger for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

Without a doubt, and in the main, testing has done more good than harm in America’s schools. My Fordham colleague Andy Smarick is absolutely correct to argue that annual testing “makes clear that every student matters.” The sunshine created by testing every child, every year has been a splendid disinfectant. There can be no reasonable doubt that testing has created momentum for positive change—particularly in schools that serve our neediest and most neglected children.

But it’s long past time to acknowledge that reading tests—especially tests with stakes for individual teachers attached to them—do more harm than good. A good test or accountability scheme encourages good instructional practice. Reading tests do the opposite. They encourage poor practice, waste instructional time, and materially damage reading achievement, especially for our most vulnerable children. Here’s why:

A test can tell you whether a student has learned to add unlike fractions, can determine the hypotenuse of a triangle, or understands the causes of the Civil War—and, by reasonable extension, whether I did a good or poor job as a teacher imparting those skills and content. But reading comprehension is not a skill or a body of content that can be taught. The...

I confess I’m somewhat bewildered by the passionate arguments over the Common Core State Standards. Getting in high dudgeon about K–12 learning standards, which say almost nothing about what kids do in school all day, makes no more sense to me than getting apoplectic about food-handling procedures, which I seldom think about when pushing my cart through the grocery store. In New York City, where I live, architects seem grimly determined of late to litter the skyline with strange new monstrosities, each a greater eyesore than the last. It had not occurred to me to blame Gotham’s building codes. 

I expect an argument when I assign my students Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Hayek. But standards? They are dry, unlovely things.

But no matter. I come neither to praise nor bury the Common Core State Standards, now widely regarded as a “damaged brand” and a political piñata. But I do wish to point out that the standards enshrine several sound education ideas that have long been near and dear to conservatives. If Common Core disappears tomorrow, the considerable energy that has gone into fighting the standards ought to be redirected toward ensuring their survival. If not, conservatives may win a pyrrhic...