Curriculum & Instruction

Catherine Gewertz has a piece in this week's Education Week describing a New York City pilot program that has teachers analyzing the complexity of the texts they will be assigned in their classrooms. As you probably remember, text complexity features prominently in the Common Core standards. In lay terms, text complexity measures help teachers understand at what age- or grade-level particularly texts are best taught.

Most people agree that current measures of text complexity are imperfect. They are frequently quantatitve measures that rely on rudimentary scores of word length, sentence length, or paragraph length and structure to assign appropriate age and grade levels. As part of the Common Core standards initiative, the CCSS authors are seeking to improve these measures of text complexity so that they include both quantitative and qualitative measures (such as themes) to give a more accurate picture of when particular texts should be taught. This is part of a larger effort to help ensure that students across grade levels are exposed to appropriately rigorous literary and informational reading that will help better prepare them for the reading that will be required of them in college.

According to the article, there is a pilot...

Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge wrote a very thoughtful response to my post the other day. He says that my point?which was that states would do better to focus their attention on standards and assessments, and allow curriculum decisions to be made as closely to the classroom level as possible?was a bit of a ?strawman-fest.? He argues:

She confuses the core curriculum manifesto's?call for guidance on what students should learn with?a call to?pick winners and losers among published curricula, or?prescribe the methods by which?children should be taught.? The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to?describe the?common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate.

While I will admit to being confused about what, precisely, the Shanker Institute's ?call? is actually advocating (particularly after the latest round of blog posts about it), that may have more to do with the way the manifesto is written than with my larger point. So let me be clear: Prescribing scope and sequence from the state or national level is a mistake. If that is what the manifesto is trying to achieve, then it's a step in the wrong direction.


Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales, the Shanker Institute's call for "common content" curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack. There's talk of "bait and switch," of double-cross, of treacherous inconsistency, of blah blah blah?all associated with what is depicted as the dire threat of a "national curriculum."

And yes, I signed onto it, so am said to be personally culpable.

For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies.

Let's keep a few important "knowns" in mind.

First, we know that many teachers crave better curricular guidance aligned with?quality academic standards that in turn are (one hopes) in alignment with the assessments that?their students will be taking and their performance will be judged on.

Second, we know that, absent such guidance and materials, some gifted teachers are willing and able to develop sound curricula for themselves?and some others...

There continues to be a lot of discussion around the idea of creating a ?common? curriculum to supplement the Common Core State Standards. Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge applauds the move, arguing that, while the CCSS are ?praiseworthy,? they are ?not a curriculum?and are unlikely to amount to much?in the absence of a shared curriculum.? ?Tom Vander Ark cautions that moving to adopt a traditional curriculum is a mistake and that we should be thinking not about common curriculum, but rather about ?uncommon? delivery system that provides ?fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.? (If you haven't already, it's also worth reading Pondiscio's scathing take-down of Vander Ark's idea.)

Unfortunately, I still think that these debates are missing the point, and potentially distracting states from allocating their now very scarce resources towards policies that have the potential to much more dramatically impact student achievement.

It's worth noting that, as a former curriculum director, I am a strong believer in the transformative power of curriculum. It is essential.

But, I sincerely believe that making curricular decisions at the state or?even worse?national level is a mistake. States would do better to create or adopt...

Of the many dumb ways to close budget holes, perhaps the one most worthy of the title "self-inflicted wound" is the move to reduce the number of extra-curricular activities offered to students (or to pass along the costs to families in the form of fees).

I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect that one of the reasons American kids do so well in life (starting entrepreneurial companies, embracing a spirit of optimism, creating wealth, etc.)--even though they score poorly on international tests--is because of what they pick up from sports, theater, band, student council, and the like. These activities are perfectly designed to teach "the most important things," as David Brooks describes them in his column today, like character, and how to build relationships.

Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of


Today, education leaders from across the nation (including our own Checker Finn) came together to endorse the idea of creating a national, voluntary, common curriculum that would be designed to supplement the national, voluntary, Common Core ELA and math standards. (See here and here for more.) While well-intentioned, shifting the focus right now to a national curriculum?no matter how voluntary?is a mistake.

That's not to say that teachers aren't going to need rigorous and thorough curricula to help them effectively teach to the standards. They are.

Rather, it's a question of what is the proper role of the state in CCSS implementation. And unless the state wants to get in the business of policing schools' proper implementation of a curriculum?whether that ?curriculum? is as detailed as a script or as general as a pacing guide?they would do better to focus the lion's share of their time and attention elsewhere. Namely, on ensuring that there are rigorous, CCSS-aligned summative state assessments in all core content areas.

The easy answer is of course to say that's already being taken care of. Most states have joined one of two consortia and the work on those CCSS-aligned assessments is...

Last week, the National Endowment of the Arts released a new analysis showing a sharp decline in participation in arts education nationwide, with particularly bad news for African-Americans and Hispanics. Here's how Ed Week's excellent Curriculum Matters blog covered it:

Fewer American children are getting access to arts education, whether at school or elsewhere, according to a new analysis of federal data issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. What's especially alarming is that the overall decline is only part of the story: The drop is apparently most severe for African-Americans and Hispanics.

The research, part of a broader look at arts participation by U.S. adults, finds that fewer 18-year-olds surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any arts education in childhood than did those surveyed in 1982, dropping from about 65 percent to 50 percent. The report also includes survey data in 1992 and 2002, and each successive time the overall figure was lower.

The analysis includes a slightly broader pool of adults surveyed in breaking down the results by race and ethnicity, including those ages 18 to 24. Here, the data are most stark. Just 26 percent of African-Americans surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any


Just when I thought we were making progress in devising a national core curriculum, everyone is already talking about tests based on the Common Core, which is still in its infancy.?

In New York State, the Regents recently entertained a proposal to replace their Regents Exams with tests developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).? Those are the folks representing 26 states which educate 60 percent of our K--12 students.?

Rick Hess weighed in last week with an essay wondering whether the common core was ?running off the rails already.?? Hess's worries derive from a recent symposium on ?through-course assessment? that was attended by ?a slew of heavy-hitters from the world of assessment and test development,??including PARCC.

What surprised Hess, as he writes, was ?a seeming disregard for the policy or practical impact of this whole enterprise.?? One problem is that there are laws prohibiting?the use of?federal funds to develop curricula.? Then there's the money problem: who's going to pay for the new assessments?? As mentioned before (here), Rick also has questions about how a national curriculum will impact the experimentation values of the charter school movement....

It's been over two years since I stood in front of a class of high schoolers, explaining the formula for the area of a triangle and what pacifism looks like in practice (I taught at a pull-out special-education school, and my courseload was more varied than that of my students). It almost feels like another lifetime. But lately, as reports come in of teacher-union supporters threatening individuals and vandalizing their property, or engaging in angry, mob-like protests over states' proposed education bills, memories of my tenure at my small urban high school in Boston come flooding back.

I get that teachers are angry at the potential of losing tenure, losing benefits, losing pensions. And that they feel threatened when, after ten, fifteen, or even twenty years in the classroom, someone is just now thinking about coming along to tell them how good they are at their jobs. (As a novice teacher, I simultaneously yearned for and desperately feared that feedback?the feedback that would both make me a better teacher and remind me that, despite my efforts, the long hours, and the stress, I could be doing better.)

But then I remember how much angrier I got...