Curriculum & Instruction

Curriculum nerds

Kathleen Porter-Magee makes her podcast debut, debating reading requirements with Mike and explaining why the new science standards need improvement. Amber wonders whether upper-elementary teachers outshine their K-2 peers.

Amber's Research Minute

School Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School by Sarah C. Fuller & Helen F. Ladd - Download PDF

In July 2011, the National Research Council released its Framework for K-12 Science Education, intended to serve as the basis for a new set of “next generation” science standards (NGSS) for primary-secondary-school science in the United States. Since then, twenty-six states came together, working with Achieve and a vast team of writers, to develop those new standards. They hope to do for science what the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association did for English language arts and math: develop expectations that are at least as clear and rigorous as the best state standards and that many states may adopt in common, presumably then to be joined by common assessments. Unfortunately, a careful review of version 1.0 indicates that this laudable but ambitious goal remains a considerable distance away.

There's still work to be done on the NGSS.
Photo by Andrew Magill.

It’s important for the country that the NGSS endeavor yields a high-quality result, which is why we set out to...

Thanks in part to the Common Core, there is broad (though not yet universal) agreement that we need to raise the level of rigor in the reading that’s assigned to all students. Unfortunately, the guidance that’s starting to emerge about how teachers can best select “grade-appropriate” texts is overly complicated and may actually end up undermining the Common Core’s emphasis on improving the quality and rigor of the texts students are reading.

Take, for example, the book recently released by the International Reading Association entitled Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. The first chapter of the book (blogged here), made a strong argument against the practice of assigning “just right” books and in favor of selecting more rigorous texts.

Having made a persuasive case for upping the rigor of readings, the authors devote the better part of the remaining eighty pages to showing, in great detail, just how complicated this process can become when put into practice. What unfolds is a dizzying array of quantitative and qualitative measures that teachers can use to select appropriate texts. 

The authors warn teachers that relying on quantitative measures alone...

The central idea behind standards- and accountability-driven reforms is that, in order to improve student learning, we need to do three things:

  • Clearly define a minimum bar for all students (i.e., set standards).
  • Hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable for meeting those minimum standards.
  • Back off: Give teachers and leaders the autonomy and flexibility they need to meet their goals.
The push for greater accountability has often been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control.

It’s a powerful formulation, and one that we’ve seen work, particularly in charter schools and networks where teachers and leaders have used that autonomy to find innovative solutions to some of the biggest instructional challenges.

Unfortunately, in far too many traditional school districts, the push for greater accountability has been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control. That is a prescription for a big testing and accountability backlash. 

You needn’t look far for examples of how traditional districts have gotten the accountability balance all wrong. There are a host of stifling district practices that unintentionally hamstring, rather than free, our teachers and leaders. And that unintentionally encourage precisely the kinds of practices most testing critics loathe.

Many of these...

Bah humbug

Checker and Mike explain why individual charter schools shouldn’t be expected to educate everyone and divide over Obama’s non-enforcement policies. Amber analyzes where students’ science skills are lacking.

Amber's Research Minute

The Nation’s Report Card: Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks from the 2009 Science Assessment - National Center for Education Statistics

Today’s “exquisitely timedGAO report has set off an avalanche of accusations at charter schools for “discriminating” against students with disabilities. George Miller, who requested the study, told the Washington Post that the news was “sobering.”

No single public school is expected to serve students with every single type of disability.

Everyone already knows, as Eva Moskowitz told the Wall Street Journal, that the best charter schools try to help students with mild disabilities shed their labels (and Individual Education Plans) by improving their math and reading abilities. That could explain a significant part of the discrepancy.

But there’s another point that’s overlooked entirely: No single public school is expected to serve students with every single type of disability. In fact, traditional public schools regularly “counsel out” students with severe disabilities because they don’t have the resources and expertise to serve them. Many school districts operate separate schools (or programs) precisely for those kids.

To test this argument, I just spent 30 minutes on the Office of Civil Right’s Data Collection website. I pulled up the special education data for Montgomery County, Maryland—where I happen to live, and a system that’s widely considered one...

Guest blogger Paul Gross is an emeritus professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia and former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Yesterday in Ed Week, an article by Nora Fleming highlighted the results from a recent NAEP assessment of “hands-on” science skills, which demonstrated that “elementary, middle, and high school students failed to demonstrate a deep understanding of science concepts when they performed activity-based science tasks and investigations…” This breathless account hardly merits close attention. The NAEP data will receive it in due course. But the remarks of the NAEP Governing Board’s spokesman, here quoted, are disturbing. They call for a response not much longer than statements quoted in Nora Fleming’s article.

Cell Culture
All scientific "situations" are "real life."
Photo by Umberto Salvagnin.

First, the comment attributed to Alan J. Friedman implies that, until now, K-12 science education has consisted of “rote memory and how to follow instructions.” Abandonment of this canard by science teachers (and their teachers) is long...

Common practice and conventional wisdom among many literacy experts suggest that the best way to help improve student reading comprehension is to assign “just right” texts—those that are pitched at a student’s instructional reading level. The theory is that you want to challenge students to read books that are just hard enough to push their comprehension, but not so difficult that they’ll throw up their hands in frustration.

Does a focus on “just right” texts adding to the gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering whether this focus on “just right” texts was doing a disservice to our most-struggling students, even adding to the already large reading and content gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers.

A new book published by the International Reading Association and written by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Diane Lapp provides yet more evidence that the focus on “just right” books may in fact be undermining student learning in three critical ways:

1. Assigning “just right” books makes reading too easy.

“Perhaps one of the mistakes in the past efforts to improve reading achievement has been the removal of struggle,” the authors argue.


Nuggets of wisdom are often found in unexpected places. I’ve found wisdom—not in columns of the Acropolis, in the stones of Sinai, or in the lecture halls of the Sorbonne. No, instead it’s hidden in the recesses of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).

The age-old debate about what kids should be reading attracted my attention this week. As my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee observed last week, two camps seem to have emerged in the “what kids should read” debate: those who want more literary fiction in the classroom and those who want more informational non-fiction.

But should what kids read supersede the question of why kids read? ODE’s English language arts’ 11th and 12thgrade model curricula elegantly answers this question:

“They [students] must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, challenging texts and develop the skill, concentration and stamina [emphasis in original] to read these texts independently and proficiently.”[1]

Notice that ODE doesn’t prescribe book lists or even specific genres to read—there’s no specification of what kids read—so long as the texts are of “high-quality.”[2] Even more importantly, notice the statement’s purpose clause: “to develop the...

Rick fades in the fourth quarter

Mike and Rick ponder the future of teacher unions and the College Board while Amber provides the key points from a recent CDC study and wonders if the kids are alright after all.

Amber's Research Minute

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2011 by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Centers for Disease Control and Prevention