Curriculum & Instruction

Call it the Iron Law of Pedagogy: Every good teaching idea becomes a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.

The latest example might be “close reading,” which has become yet another hot-button issue among Common Core critics. But complaints about it bother me less than its potential overuse, or the creeping notion that close reading is what all reading instruction should look like under Common Core. That would be bad for the standards, and even worse for reading achievement in the U.S.

Close reading is “an intensive analysis of a piece of text, in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means,” writes literacy expert Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Sounds simple, benign, even obvious. Would anyone not want students to be able to do this? Close reading for evidence and to support inferences is a...

The Sopranos edition

Common Core reading wars, union endorsements of convicted felons, schools that encourage patriotism, and the health of the charter movement.

Amber's Research Minute

"Examining the Relationship Between Teachers' Instructional Practices and Students' Mathematics Achievement," by Janine M. Firmender, M. Katherine Gavin, and D. Betsy McCoach, Journal of Advanced Academics vol. 25, no. 3 (August 2014).

Kevin Mahnken

Among opponents of the Common Core, one of the more popular targets of vitriol is the standards’ focus on improving literacy by introducing higher levels of textual complexity into the instructional mix. The move to challenge students with more knotty, grade-level reading material represents a shift away from decades of general adherence to so-called “instructional level theory,” which encourages children to read texts pitched at or slightly above the student’s individual reading level. New York public school principal Carol Burris, an outspoken standards critic and defender of leveled reading, recently published an anti-Common Core missive on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog that was fairly typical of the form. Where, she wondered, “is the research to support: close reading, increased Lexile levels, the use of informational texts, and other questionable practices in the primary grades?”

The blog post, which has already been intelligently critiqued by Ann Whalen at Education Post, expanded on remarks delivered by Burris earlier this month at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Fordham president Michael Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education Carmel Martin. There, too, she demanded evidence of literacy improvements arising...

The civics edition

Independence scotched, letting 16-year-olds vote, destructive school boards, think tank journalism, and a deep dive on instructional practices.

Amber's Research Minute

"Examining the Relationship Between Teachers' Instructional Practices and Students' Mathematics Achievement," by Janine M. Firmender, M. Katherine Gavin, and D. Betsy McCoach, Journal of Advanced Academics, vol. 25, no. 3 (August 2014).

Transcript

Michelle:       Hello, this is your host, Michelle Gininger of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. And now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Braveheart of ed reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:           Freedom. How was that?

Michelle:       Eh, not loud enough. See ...

Robert:           Oh, OK, well, best I can do.

Michelle:       So why are we talking about Braveheart? Explain.

Robert:           Scottish independence, which didn't happen, but it could have.

Michelle:       It could have.

Robert:           It could have.

Michelle:       It nearly happened. Everyone was talking about how the vote was a wide margin. I didn't think it was that wide. I think ...

Robert:           Was it 56-44, I believe?

Michelle:       Yeah, that's pretty close.

Robert:           Right.

Michelle:       Like deciding the future of your country.

Robert:           Yep. In my other life I teach civics at a charter school in New York City, and this was a big topic for discussion for us because this was history, our own history, being revisited 250 years later. I think my students thought that they were going to vote "yes," and they voted "no," but still, a fascinating story.

Michelle:       Had they seen "Braveheart"?

Robert:           That's a great question. No, I don't know.

Michelle:       Because they're so young that they might not have seen the movie which is ...

Robert:           They might have missed it.

Michelle:       ... really sad.

Robert:           Might have missed it. Twenty years ago now?

Michelle:       Yeah, it's a long time ago.

Robert:           Back when people knew who Mel Gibson was?

Michelle:       Well, on that note, let's play part on the Gadfly.

Ellen:              Last week, 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Should we do the same in America? Would it encourage schools to do a better job with civics education?

Michelle:       OK, Mr. Civics ...

Robert:           Wow. Those are two very, very different questions, and I think I'm going to surprise you with my answer.

                        "Would it encourage schools to do a better job with civics education?" Yeah, probably.

                        "Should we allow 16- to 17-year-olds to vote?" This is heresy, but I don't think so.

Michelle:       Why not?

Robert:           Because they're kids, Michelle. Why would you want 16- and 17- ... This is funny. I do civics education. It's one of my passions in this field, so you would think, "Of course Pondiscio's going to want 16- and 17-year-olds to vote." I'm not sure I even want them to drive let alone vote.

Michelle:       You're not for expanding the vote. You want to take away the rights: driving. Anything else you want to add to that?

Robert:           Now hold on a second. I'm not taking away the right for 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. They don’t have it yet.

                        I guess, and this is again a little bit of heresy on my part, the more time I spend doing civic education, the more time I think that our goal should not be to encourage more voting, it should be to encourage more informed voting. And I'm not sure that just creating an entitlement for 16- and 17-year-olds to vote ...

                        On the one hand, maybe it would incentive them to pay more attention. On the other hand, based on just the sample size that I see of high school students, do we want them to vote? Are the paying attention to the news? If you could convince me that we could create boxcar numbers of really deeply informed 16- and 17-year-olds paying attention to the news, civically engaged, then sure. I think we've got to do one before we can do the other.

Michelle:       I agree. I don't know that 16- and 17-year-olds should vote, and I also don't want to get into the "Are these kids ... Do they know enough about civics to vote?" Because what are you going to do, have a civics test? And then are we going to have a voting test? All of those sort of things that's down a rabbit hole we absolutely in no way want to go down.

                        I think the fact that Scotland did not win independence ...

Robert:           And those kids could vote.

Michelle:       ... and those kids could vote I think is perhaps an indication that 16- and 17-year-olds could vote, and it wouldn't drive everything crazy. They wouldn’t be voting for insane candidates or ... Another question is, could we do any worse than we're already doing?

Robert:           If you want to set the bar there, Michelle. I haven't seen the breakdown of the Scottish vote, but I'm assuming that 16- and 17-year-olds broke heavily for independence.

Michelle:       Yes, I would assume so as well.

Robert:           Right.

Michelle:       So if they still didn't even get independence, maybe our 16- and 17-year-olds can vote and not want to legalize marijuana and lower the alcohol age and all these things that perhaps we would assume 16- and 17-year-olds would care about.

Robert:           Lower the age of compulsory education.

Michelle:       Yeah.

Robert:           Do all kind of mischief.

Michelle:       Exactly. All right. Question #2.

Ellen:              A recent "This American Life" episode told listeners about a New York State school board battle that escalated into an all-out war, complete with threats of violence and felony charges. In a democracy, where we respect majority rule, what could have been done to prevent the conflict?

Michelle:       This is not a new story, but "This American Life" just recently covered it, and after you've finished listening to our podcast, I encourage everyone to go listen to that podcast, but not before you reach the end of ours.

Robert:           After you watch "Braveheart."

Michelle:       Actually, it's going to be third on the to do list after "Braveheart."

                        This isn't a new study, but I was listening to it on my morning commute into the office, and I thought the person next to me on the Metro was going to ask if I was OK because I was sitting there just getting so up in arms about the whole thing. Because talk about a breakdown in governance.

                        For too long we haven't focused on the governance aspect of education, and in this civics edition of the podcast, let's take it on. Robert, what's your take?

Robert:           I want to answer a slightly different question. One are the things, and this is a difficult device and story. Makes me a little bit sad, and I'm going to put back on my civics educator hat again.

                        I'm very fond of reminding people ... We talk all the time in our current ed reform era about college and career. The two C's. I like to remind people that it was a third C that started it all, and that was "citizenship."

                        If you go back and you read the work in Don Hirsch, Edie Hirsch's book, "The Making of Americans" talks a lot about this. You go back and look at the founding thinkers of American education, names you never hear any more like Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster, they were not concerned with things like college, career, STEM subjects, etc. They were really concerned with creating what Benjamin Rush called, I think, "republican machines." Small R republican.

                        Our entire public school system was really about making Americans. Creating this class of citizen who were deeply informed, who were capable of managing their own affairs.

                        This story just says to me how far we have strayed from that, and how much we've simply forgotten that we invest so much money in public education for a reason. We want self-governing, thoughtful citizens. This just shows how easily it can all fall apart.

Michelle:       I think this story is shocking in that it was a total breakdown of the public good and the private good of education.

Robert:           Exactly.

Michelle:       And we talk about that all the time. I want my kids to be well prepared, and have a great life, and be able to go on to college, and get a good career, and raise a family, and all of these great things. But I want all of your kids to do the exact same thing.

Robert:           Sure.

Michelle:       Mostly because it's what's best for our country, but also you can take the very fiscal route of we don't want to pay for people not to be able to support themselves.

Robert:           I wrote a blog post about this not long ago in response to Andy Smarick's very nice series about conservativism and ed reform. And I made what I thought was just a simple point, which is that there's an institutional value to public education that we tend to forget sometimes when we're focused on what you called that "private good," that "I'm going to go to college, I'm going to get a good job, I'm going to be upwardly mobile."

                        There is an institutional anchor purpose that schools serve in a community. On the one hand, we all want schools to perform better, but I worry sometimes that we can lose site of what is essentially a large, important public institution in our communities. And it sounds like the folks that "This American Life" were talking to have completely lost sight of that.

Michelle:       It would be interesting if in this new Common Core debate we're having, we bring that idea into it a little bit. Obviously Common Core isn't breaking down the school system like this example, but it would be interesting if everyone just took a step back. OK, Common Core high standards, what does this mean for the purpose of schooling? And I think we could have perhaps a more productive debate.

Robert:           Yep, and you're never going to hear me argue against civic education. It is that third C: college, career, and citizenship. I always like to remind people of that.

Michelle:       I like it. OK, Ellen, question #3.

Ellen:              On Saturday "The Economist" reported on the rise of think-tank journalism, a trend that's blurring an old line between creating news and distributing it. Is this change a good thing? Are there pitfalls?

Michelle:       This isn't an education story per se, but I think that there's an education angle we can get to.

Robert:           Sure there is.

Michelle:       And there's certainly a civics education angle we can get to [crosstalk 09:03].

Robert:           And here's my second movie reference vis-a-vis journalism. "I keep trying to get out. They keep dragging me back in." Name the movie.

Michelle:       I can't. I'm drawing a blank.

Robert:           Godfather III.

Michelle:       Oh, yeah.

Robert:           Yeah. I started my career in journalism. I still to this day spend far more years in radio news and the magazine business than I have in the classroom or here.

                        Yeah, these lines are blurry, but part of it is ... Look, American journalism has been sort of on a suicide mission for several years. If you're looking for high quality, thoughtful content about any public issue, there's a vacuum that needs to be filled, and folks like us like to think we have a role in filling it.

Michelle:       Absolutely, I think that this isn't necessarily the traditional story that journalism ... there's so few journalism ... journalism is failing and think tanks are filling the void.

                        I actually view it from a little bit of the opposite view. Instead of there being so many beat reporters and straight up journalism where you're just reporting on the story, or even doing an investigative story, so many journalists today are jumping to this commentary aspect. This "what does it all mean?" thing, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and I enjoy reading it, and I sort of appreciate it. But that role is more a role that think tankers have often taken.

                        So I think that it's actually journalism is going more towards the think-tank world as opposed to the think-tank world adapting to the journalism world.

Robert:           That's one, and you alluded to before there's a loss of subject specialty knowledge as well. I'll give you a good example. I worked for years at Time Magazine. Back when I started, we had a dedicated religion reporter, a law reporter, lots of science reporters, an education reporter. Now everybody is a generalist.

Michelle:       On the Media, clearly everyone knows I listen to NPR all day, On the Media just did a story on the loss of the beat reporter, so this is something that's well known and out there. Now within education reporting, Mike Petrilli has an interesting column coming out in the next edition of Education Next about how education journalism seems to be flourishing. So maybe in the local paper in Louisville there's not an ed reporter any more, though don't quote me on that. I feel bad for Louisville now. They're might be an ed reporter.

                        But we're seeing so much specialized reporting on whether it's Vox, whether it's VentureBeat launching an education channel. The Atlantic has an education channel. There is a focus on education. All the Chalkbeats.

Robert:           Right.

Michelle:       We can list and list and list examples.

Robert:           But hold on, Michelle. Why do you think that's happening?

Michelle:       Well it's foundation funded.

Robert:           And what makes education news sexy from the standpoint of a journalist? What do we have that a lot of other beats don't have?

Michelle:       Conflict.

Robert:           Exactly. We love conflict. And whenever people are willing to beat themselves bloody and get in high dudgeon over something that makes for good copy, you're going to see more attention.

Michelle:       And we have lots and lots and lots of players on both sides who ...

Robert:           Both sides?

Michelle:       ... happy to step up to the plate.

Robert:           There are multiple sides.

Michelle:       Multiple sides.  All right. That's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. Thanks so much, Robert.

Robert:           Thank you.

Michelle:       Up next is Amber's Research Minute.

                        Welcome to the show, Amber.

Amber:           Thanks, Michelle.

Michelle:       Have you seen "Braveheart"?

Amber:           "Braveheart?" As in Mel Gibson?

Michelle:       Mel Gibson. Yeah.

Amber:           Of course.

Michelle:       That's a little out of left field. I'm sorry. But we were talking about the Scottish independent vote.

Amber:           Ah, gotcha.

Michelle:       And that was our pop culture reference.

Amber:           Love that movie. Mel Gibson was phenomenal in it. I think it's a movie that appeals to women and men, which doesn't always happen. But yeah, I really enjoyed it.

Michelle:       Do you think it's because Mel Gibson is so young?

Amber:           He's some pretty good eye candy, right? At least back then.

Robert:           Used to be.

Amber:           Back then. Back then.

Michelle:       All right. What do you have for us today?

Amber:           We have a new study out. And by the way, it's a little long, but I'm going to do my darnedest to get through it quickly, but there's important stuff in here. It's called "Examining the Relationship Between Teachers' Instructional Practices and Students' Math Achievement."

                        Analysts studies two instructional practices in math. One, engaging students in discourse with the teacher and their peers to make sense of problems and explain their answers. We've heard a lot about this with the Common Core math. Explain your answer.

                        #2, using appropriate mathematical vocabulary.

                        Importantly, these practices reflect the mathematical practices of the common core, but that actually wasn't the purpose of the study, which is why I like the study. That was sort of like an afterthought. They realized later, hey, these actually reflect what the Common Core says in little bit different terms. The Common Core talks about constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others. And the Common Core talks about attending to precision, including the use of appropriate mathematical vocabulary.

                        So there was a decent overlap between what they were studying and what the Common Core math practices say.

                        The study occurred as part of a larger evaluation of Project M-Squared, which is an advanced math curriculum covering geometry and measurement in Grades K through 2. I normally don't do evaluations of curriculum, but I like this study.

                        The final sample includes 34 Grade K-2 teachers and 560 students who participated in the field test of the larger evaluation. Teachers were randomly assigned to the intervention and control groups. The intervention group teachers attended roughly 10 days total of PD. That's not chump change. They were observed weekly during the study, which was a big deal. Whereby they were rated on fidelity of implementation to the content and those two instructional strategies.

                        The kids were administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a pre-test and as a control.

                        Bottom line. Teachers' implementation scores for those two strategies significantly predicted math achievement as gauged by the students' gained scores on an outcome measure known as the Open Response Assessment, which had me scratching my head. In other words, a kindergartener who was average on the ITBS standard score, and his teacher was rated "always implementing these practices," basically could be expected to gain about 72% pre- to post-test on this measure.

                        Problem is, at the front of this, it sounds like, wow, this is great data that bolsters evidentiary claims of the Common Core math, which people are always acting like, "let's see the evidence."

                        But they developed because there's nothing. And they're kind of like you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't because there's no good measure for geometry and measurement in Grades K-2, so they had to develop their own. So they developed both outcome measure, and they developed the classroom observation measure.

                        Lo and behold, the teachers who scored well on these measures, the kids did well, and so you kind of have to call into question the validity and the soundness of the findings because the analysts and the researchers themselves both created and evaluated the ... created the measures and evaluated the outcomes for the curriculum.

                        I didn't like that, but at the same time, I thought, wow ... What gave it credibility at the outset in my mind, they didn’t go into this thing saying we're going to measure these two Common Core math practices. It was just sort of an ah-ha moment was kind of how I read it when they reflected back on the evaluation.

Robert:           But I'm going to push you on something that you said early on. You said you don’t like to do evaluative studies of curriculum and instruction? Why?

Amber:           Sometimes they just really, really micro-level in some ways, so if you look at what works clearinghouse, a six in math ...

Robert:           What doesn't work in clearinghouse?

Amber:           You've got about 50 different nuances that you can't cover. Granted I do 2 minutes around here, but, you really can't give justice to, and I think in some ways a lot of these studies are supported by the curriculum developers themselves. So unless it's an external evaluation by a third party, I ...

Robert:           I'm just always going to be the guy that wants to see more study of curriculum and instruction because I'm always going to be that guy who says, that's what really matters.

Amber:           I think around here we care more about curriculum obviously now than we used to. But there are scads of evaluations. I used to work at a firm that did this for a living. And obviously, any developer of anything wants to have their product evaluated. But obviously it's always best if they're not paying for the evaluation. That's usually the nature of the beast. And if you hire a qualified evaluator, then that's half the battle of making sure you've got some reliable information from reliable evaluators.

Robert:           But am I also not right to say that the effect sizes that we know of are larger for a curriculum than for most other factors?

Amber:           I think it depends ... I know that the success for all has posted some pretty impressive research. I'm not so sure ... When you look at What Works Clearinghouse, I'm actually surprised there are more evaluations of curriculum. I don't know if you've looked at it.

Robert:           But to your point, that has to do with the nature of the studies as opposed to the curriculum, generally.

Amber:           Right. Yeah. If it's a well done study. Yeah, and you've got a decent sample size, and all that good stuff.

Robert:           More well done studies of curriculums, please.

Amber:           Yes. And I was hoping this was one. And it sorta, kinda was, but then once I read that they had developed all the measures, I wasn't as enamored. But regardless what I liked was that they really went down and got into a specific practice. You know how, Robert.

Robert:           Absolutely.

Amber:           Sometimes you just look at the curriculum writ large, and you don't really know what is the "it" about the curriculum that actually is doing something good.

Robert:           Yeah, look, you've got me excited. Ten days of PD, measuring implementation weekly, I thought, yes, this sounds great.

Amber:           Yeah, and these two defined strategies. They just didn’t look at Project M-Squared, like what's it? And looked at these two specific things, so, that's the kind of detailed information that useful for teachers on the ground.

Robert:           Absolutely.

Amber:           Anyway.

Robert:           It was a disappointment.

Amber:           Yeah.

Robert:           Just like "Braveheart."

Amber:           Sorry, Michelle, I got a little wonky today.

Michelle:       No, I like it, and you know, any time you mention curriculum in front of Robert, you know where the conversation's going to go.

Robert:           Sorry, ladies.

Michelle:       All right. Thanks so much, Amber.

Amber:           You're welcome.

Michelle:       And that's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Til next week.

Robert:           I'm Robert Pondiscio.

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

It was back-to-school night last week at my son’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, which meant that we moms and dads got a first look at “Learning for the Future: A Parent’s Guide to Grade 1 Curriculum 2.0.” (I would link to it online, but it’s not online, ostensibly to protect its value as a commercial product. [UPDATE: The parents' guide actually is available here, as the good folks at MCPS kindly pointed out.] Several years ago, MCPS sold the curriculum to Pearson. Which is rather bizarre, but that's a subject for another post.)

Let me start by saying that MCPS does a lot of things right. My son’s teacher, who has her own classroom for the first time this year, seems great (and graduated from one of the best teacher prep programs in the country, according to NCTQ). She also gets a ton of support from her fellow teachers, and from the central office, which is simply not available in the typical American school. (And that is the sort of support that both Dana Goldstein and...

In many school districts, classroom observations make up as much as 75 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores, according to a new study published in Education Next. And these scores predict a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following year, as measured by value-added models. With that in mind, analysts did a deep-dive into the observation practices of four school districts. They found that score stability and the quality of the information gathered improved as the number of individual observations increased, and that evaluations by trained, independent, outside evaluators (instead of principals) were more predictive of the following year’s value-added gains. The report recommends that districts observe teachers at least two or three times annually, using an outside observer at least once. Moreover, the study draws attention to the latent bias against teachers with lower-achieving students or who teach in struggling schools. Although value-added models are careful to control for students’ backgrounds and achievement levels, there’s often no such adjustment for classroom observations. (Simply put, it can be much harder to teach a great lesson when the kids are below grade level or unruly.) Unchecked, this can push teachers to avoid assignments at more challenging schools where the need...

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.

Over the last few years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to incorporate character development into school curricula, and various efforts to do so have received wide attention. Perhaps the best-known effort is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which has been implemented in close to 150 charter schools across the country.

KIPP is aimed at children and teenagers from low-income families. Its explicit goal is increasing college enrollment by combining an emphasis on factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction) with a novel focus on developing seven character strengths—zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence. These strengths are tracked on a “character growth card” and encouraged through classroom discussions and assignments that incorporate lessons about character into more conventional academic activities. Teachers also go out of their way to both model and praise displays of good character.

KIPP has a long record of impressive accomplishments that have garnered much media attention, including Paul Tough’s bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Students attending KIPP schools have higher rates...

Fuzz-free math

CCSS myths, noncognitive skills, Dana Goldstein, and gifted ed.

Amber's Research Minute

Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?, by David Card and Laura Giuliano, National Bureau of Economic Research (September 2014).

For over a year, I’ve been encouraging Common Core advocates to stop endlessly re-litigating the standards and instead to focus on getting implementation right. Taking my own advice last week, I traveled to Reno to see first-hand the work of the Core Task Project, the initiative driving implementation of the standards in Washoe County, Nevada.

It was a refreshing and invigorating visit. Common Core is not without controversy anywhere. But Reno seems to have largely sidestepped some of the more heated battles. Washoe County’s implementation has become something of a national model—being one of four case studies highlighted in Fordham’s report Common Core in the Districts, published in February 2014.

Reno’s relative peace can be explained, I think, by several factors. First and foremost, under the leadership of curriculum and instruction specialist Aaron Grossman, implementation has focused on the right things—including building a coherent body of knowledge across and within grades (one of the broad “instructional shifts,” along with reading for evidence and a greater focus on complex and nonfiction text)—that are easy to rally around and hard to dismiss as unimportant.

But more importantly,...

In many school districts, classroom observations make up as much as 75 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores, according to a new study published in Education Next. And these scores predict a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following year, as measured by value-added models. With that in mind, analysts did a deep dive into the observation practices of four school districts. They found that score stability and the quality of the information gathered improved as the number of individual observations increased, and that evaluations by trained, independent, outside evaluators (instead of principals) were more predictive of the following year’s value-added gains. The report recommends that districts observe teachers at least two or three times annually, using an outsider at least once. Moreover, the study draws attention to the latent bias against teachers with lower-achieving students or who teach in struggling schools. Although value-added models are careful to control for students’ backgrounds and achievement levels, there’s often no such adjustment for classroom observations. (Simply put, it can be much harder to teach a great lesson when the kids are below grade level or unruly.) Unchecked, this can push teachers to avoid these roles, widening the achievement gap. The authors...

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