Curriculum & Instruction

I was just re-reading sections of The Making of Americans by Don Hirsch, preparing to send out some encouraging words to my local district Board of Ed Curriculum Committee, when a new Rick Hess Straight Up shot across my screen.? Apparently, it's not just the local yokels who don't get the concept of background knowledge.? Et tu, Hess?

Between vague standards ? and standard vagueness in this country ranges from the opacity of White Out to a hole you can drive a truck through (though Fordham's recent report paints a slightly rosier picture) ?? and the tests that everyone wants to write for them is this yawning cavern?where curriculum should be. It is a cup and a lip that has spilled hundreds of thousands of kids onto our streets, including those who are very computer savvy, uneducated. And I'll add my scepticisim to that of Checker about the Finlandization of America that Rick sees in a common curriculum.? He prefers the Balkanization that we've lived with for the last half century?

As I pointed out the other day (Habits of Mindlessness), even Ted Sizer got it. As he wrote in Horace's School:

Good schools are places where one gets the stuff of knowledge?that is, crudely, ?the facts? ?where one learns to use that stuff, and where one gets into the habit of such use.

I'm sorry Sizer is not around to help guide us through the Internet revolution (he died in 2009), but...

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Rick Hess strongly implies that I'm a Finland lover just because I signed the AFT plea for better curricular materials for teachers to use in connection with the Common Core standards. Wrong. I don't believe the Shanker Institute folks even mentioned Finland. And all I like about Finland (saunas and reindeer aside) is that it's home to a lot of Finns.

?Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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Liam Julian

The humanities are under attack, writes Nicholas Dames in the latest N+1. What he means, really, is that campus humanities departments are under attack, derided by the masses as comfortable homes for elitist windbags and poked and prodded by college administrators and public officials, who hope either to reshape the departments in ways?that will make them more amenable to economic realities or to withhold money from them, in effect starving them and their tweedy, Marxist denizens into submission, dispersing the rogues hither and yon so that no longer will they draw a paycheck for filling students' minds with nonsense. Dames reviews three ?manifestos,? written, he says, by professors who have sensed that the winds have shifted, that humanities departments can no longer remain aloof, above the fray, and so have plunged in, put pen to paper, to produce defenses of their profession?booklets as barricades.

First up is Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. This is, Dames seems to suggest, a confused book, at once asserting the humanities' independence from quotidian concerns of supply and demand while also pointing out that the very skills the humanities impart are those for which, Nussbaum notes,??modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace? most thirst. ?First of all,??she writes, ?we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality...

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I cried. It was only Babes in Arms, but the kids sang and danced as if on Broadway?and some of them actually had Broadway genes in their vocal chords and gambly arms and legs.? A lazy Sunday afternoon and I caught the last performance of the high school play.? Not being a theater person, I am always amazed by these productions, since they always seem to hang by a slender thread, plagued by scratchy mics, falling props and costumes, and, of course, forgotten lines. ?But the kids'?efforts, backed by dozens of adults in the wings,?working the lights and the sound system,?playing in the orchestra, ?were so innocent and energetic that Yes, you couldn't help but get a little emotional.

But I started to get really teary?thinking of the next day's board meeting ?budget workshop,? the last of a series of painful meetings in which we public servant powerbrokers stare into the?sights of the budget howitzer and start firing, so to speak.??There, a few feet in front of me,?playing the French Horn in the orchestra was a young Intermediate school music teacher.? With a proposal on our plate to cut 12 percent of our teaching staff, his chances of surviving the knife were slim.

But it's not just him or even LIFO. It's where music and art seem to be?in the ?educational pecking order.? For many reasons our little school community, with dismal proficiency scores in STEM subjects, prized art and music.??And?these?intimate and personal?expressions of community values,?and priorities, on...

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Several years ago, then superintendent Roy Romer mandated that elementary teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District use Open Court?a proven literacy program that he believed would help drive reading achievement in the district.

According to an LA Times article, because the program was both unpopular with teachers and didn't yield the student achievement results district officials had hoped for?there were gains, but they plateaued ?in upper classes? and weren't uniform across district schools?the LAUSD school board voted this week to replace it with another program called ?California Treasures.?

While I don't know much about the new program, I worry that, by simply replacing one program with another, the board hasn't learned two critical lessons.

The first is that, when you mandate a district-wide curriculum in a district the size of LA, school and leaders will inevitably begin to focus their management on compliance rather than student achievement. That is precisely what happened in Los Angeles, according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily Breeze.

[District officials] treated it like the Bible and if you deviated in any way ... you were subjected to an inquisition," said Janet Davis, an LAUSD teacher adviser and former elementary school teacher.

Davis recalled that she was once reprimanded for using the wrong Open Court puppet for a reading lesson.

In education, such compliance-focused management is absurd. It's no wonder that student achievement gains didn't persist over time.

Second, there is no...

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Today, Jay Greene has an Ed Next column arguing against government mandated standards and curriculum. ?Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized,? he argues.

No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation?.Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That's how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry. ?VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it. ?If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country?

Of course, many people agree that Betamax had the superior technology (the picture was sharper, the cassettes were smaller, it was better at high-speed duplication, etc.). So, in effect, market forces standardized the inferior...

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One of the many reasons I think that states should get out of the curriculum- and textbook-adoption business is that, when state governments start to dive too deep into the implementation weeds, they tend to do far more harm than good.

Take, California for example. In response to the 2009 budget crisis, the state passed a law that suspended all work related to the updating or adoption of instructional materials, including textbooks, for five years. (According to ?California Watch,? a bill currently awaiting Gov. Brown's signature would delay the adoption of new textbooks even longer.)

Unfortunately, while the intention of these bills?to save money during a fiscal crisis?is good, the execution is a disaster.

Now the state had adopted new standards for its schools?standards that will begin to inform statewide assessment in 2014. But, thanks to the state's convoluted textbook adoption laws, teachers won't have access to CCSS-aligned instructional materials until after their students begin taking CCSS-aligned assessments. (That is, unless districts are able to buy such materials with something other than state money.)

This is, of course, absurd. And, while this may be an extreme case of state incompetence, it's a good warning for anyone looking to mandate a ?shared curriculum? at the state or national level.

Decisions made in the statehouse are inevitably protracted. If states really want to help districts and schools implement the Common Core effectively, they should learn from California's mistakes and look for ways to simplify, not complicate,...

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Catherine Gewertz (via John Fensterwald of the "Educated Guess" blog) has a post today about a group of seven California districts who are coming together to draft Common Core-aligned curriculum resources for their teachers.

?a group of school districts in California isn't waiting around for the state to build curriculum frameworks...[instead] CORE, a group of seven districts that pushed forward California's Race to the Top application, is rallying teachers to build instructional materials and formative assessments for the standards, which California and most other states have adopted.

At last! Districts taking the lead on curriculum and instructional decisions rather than waiting for the state to tell them what to do. Hopefully other districts across the country will follow suit.

Of course, let's also hope that the assessment consortia start releasing some more specific details (sample assessment items, perhaps?) about their summative assessments so that teachers can be sure that standards, curriculum, instruction, and formative and summative assessments are all properly aligned in terms of both content and rigor.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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While having a very interesting conversation over at my post about The Digital Divide and the Knowledge Deficit (about the recent MacArthur sponsored conference at Hechinger), I noticed a fascinating story by Sharon Begley at Newsweek called ?I can't think!? that deserves special mention.? There seems to be new evidence to suggest that information overload is just that ? and the bombardment harms our decision-making faculties. Writes Begley:

The research should give pause to anyone addicted to incoming texts and tweets. The booming science of decision making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. And it has shown that decisions requiring creativity benefit from letting the problem incubate below the level of awareness?something that becomes ever-more difficult when information never stops arriving.

Decision science, as the new field is called, would seem to raise many questions for educators, since the emphasis on "critical thinking" and "self-expression" has a great deal to do with the interchange between information and decision-making.? "[D]ecision science," writes Begley, "has shown that people faced with a plethora of choices are apt to make no decision at all."??And the alert for ciritical-thinking and self-expression adherents is this:? "One of the greatest surprises in decision science is the discovery that some of our best decisions are made through unconscious processes."?

...

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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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