Curriculum & Instruction

It strikes me, and several others with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, that education reform is at a turning point. It’s not just the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which sends key decisions back to the states. It’s bigger than that—a sense of exhaustion with policy as the primary driver of educational change.

To be sure, there are many policy battles still to fight and win in almost every state: to ensure that school and teacher accountability do not disappear, to defend and expand high-quality charter schools and other forms of parental choice, to do something about chronically low-performing schools, to see that high-achieving poor kids don’t go ignored, and much more.  

It’s as critical as ever that advocacy organizations like the newly merged 50CAN and StudentsFirst attract the funding and talent to ensure that kid-centered laws and regulations are put in place from sea to shining sea. The teachers’ unions—newly energized after their near-death experience in the Friedrichs case and their victory in Vergara—surely have the money and resolve to push hard in the opposite direction. And when it comes to preserving the status quo and not threatening any adult interests, they have plenty of allies. But...

Credit recovery is education’s Faustian pact. We remain not very good at raising most students to respectable standards. But neither can we refuse to graduate boxcar numbers of kids who don’t measure up. Enter credit recovery, an opaque, impressionistic, and deeply unsatisfying method of merely declaring proficient getting at-risk kids back on track for graduation.

This pair of studies from the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looks at more than 1,200 ninth graders in seventeen Chicago public schools who were enrolled in a credit recovery course the summer after failing algebra I a few years ago. Half took the class online, half in face-to-face classes. Providing credit recovery is now one of the most common purposes of online courses; but “evidence of the efficacy of online credit recovery is lacking,” the authors note with considerable understatement.

The first report analyzes the role of in-class mentors in online classrooms, examining whether students benefited from their additional instructional support. They did—kind of. The authors suggest that “instructionally supportive mentors” (those with subject matter expertise, not just a warm body providing “support”) lead to students navigating the course with greater depth and less breadth. They seem not...

Princeton University announced last week that it would preserve the name of Woodrow Wilson on several buildings and programs, though it had plenty of reasons to do otherwise. In his years leading the university and, later, the United States, Wilson acted as a vehicle for racist impulses that right-thinking people now find abhorrent. Outraged undergraduates, marinated in the activist pique so prevalent on American campuses, walked out of class this fall in protest against what they deemed maltreatment of minority students. A handful staged a sit-in in the office of the school’s current president, Christopher Eisgruber, who responded by pledging to study the issue of Wilson’s legacy. By November, the call for change was being echoed in the New York Times editorial page.

Ultimately, it went unheeded. The special committee assembled by Princeton’s trustees to decide the issue recommended against expunging Wilson’s name from a residence hall and the famed school of international relations. Instead, the university will initiate an effort to diversify campus art, encourage more minority students to pursue graduate degrees, and explore the truth of the former president’s impact on American life. His presence at Princeton is secure, at least for now.


In recent years, a few early childhood advocates have blasted the Common Core State Standards for their “harmful” effects on kindergarteners, particularly in reading. While a careful examination of the standards reveals this claim to be overstated—and overheated—the notion that we are killing kindergarten was gaining traction long before Common Core came onto the scene. Until now, this narrative has been informed largely by anecdotal evidenceidealism, and good old-fashioned nostalgia. Noting that “surprisingly little empirical evidence” has been gathered on the changing nature of kindergarten classrooms, this paper attempts to fill the void by comparing kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in 1998 and 2010—capturing the changes in teachers’ perceptions of kindergarten over time.

Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, researchers compared survey response data from public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2010 to investigate changes across five dimensions: teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, curricular focus and use of time, classroom materials, pedagogical approach, and assessment practices.

Overall, researchers found that kindergarten has indeed become more like first grade. When asked to rate the importance of thirteen school readiness skills, 2010 teachers tended to rate all of them as more important than their 1998 counterparts had. This was true for academic skills (identifying letters,...

A recent study released by NCES compares the competencies and skill levels of U.S. adults to their counterparts in foreign countries. The study relies heavily on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which tests three “domains”: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving.

Researchers looked at data from 2012 and 2014 on a representative sample of 8,670 U.S. households—including PIAAC test scores, educational attainment, employment status, and more. They split the sample into three subgroups: unemployed adults (ages 16–65), employed young adults (ages 16–34), and employed older adults (ages 66–74).

Analysts found that, compared to people in other participating countries, U.S. adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have lower average PIAAC scale scores in numeracy and problem solving. American young people are less ready for college and career, and larger percentages of them scored in PIAAC’s lowest level in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving.

Moreover, compared to the international average, U.S. students who graduate high school typically only possess reading, math, and problem solving skills needed to complete brief and simple tasks in the workplace. And 69 percent of unemployed young adults in the United States scored at PIAAC’s lowest level in problem solving. That’s far...

Katherine Kersten

It should be great news: Graduation rates for Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students—which have long lagged the rate for white students—are on the rise.

But how much do these new graduates actually know? What skills have they mastered? In other words, what is their high school diploma really worth? recently profiled a new “Spanish Heritage” program at Roosevelt High School that Principal Michael Bradley credits with helping to boost the school’s Hispanic graduation rate by about fifteen percentage points in 2015. The program features “culturally relevant pedagogy” and focuses on developing Hispanic students’ sense of “cultural identity.”

What precisely do students learn in the Spanish Heritage program? The article explained that students “see themselves in the curriculum,” “find their voice,” and “become their own advocates.” But it says little about whether they acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to become well-informed, productive citizens.

Why is this important? In searching the Minnesota Department of Education’s website, I discovered a disconcerting fact: Though Roosevelt’s Hispanic graduation rate increased to almost 75 percent in 2015, only 6 percent of the school’s Hispanic students were proficient in reading and only 10 percent in math, as measured by state tests.

MinnPost’s profile concluded with ...

This study examines the impact of achievement-based “tracking” in a large school district. The district in question required schools to create a separate class in fourth or fifth grade if they enrolled at least one gifted student (as identified by an IQ test). However, since most schools had only five or six gifted kids per grade, the bulk of the seats in these newly created classes were filled by the non-gifted students with the highest scores on the previous year’s standardized tests. This allowed the authors to estimate the effect of participating in a so-called Gifted and High Achieving (GHA) class using a “regression discontinuity” model.

Based on this approach, the authors arrive at two main findings: First, placement in a GHA class boosts the reading and math scores of high-achieving black and Hispanic students by roughly half of one standard deviation, but has no impact on white students. Second, creating a new GHA class has no impact on the achievement of other students at a school, including those who just miss the cutoff for admission. Importantly, the benefits of GHA admission seem to be driven by race as opposed to socioeconomic status. They are also slightly larger for minority...

If I had to pick just one reason to support Common Core, it would be to address the paucity of nonfiction texts read by students in elementary and middle school reading instruction. Gaps in background knowledge and vocabulary make it stubbornly difficult to raise reading achievement. Conceptualizing reading comprehension as a skill you can apply to any ol’ text broadly misses the point. By encouraging reading in history, science, and other disciplines across the curriculum, Common Core encourages “a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.”

Thus, it is great good news that the 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education finds the dominance of fiction waning in the fourth and eighth grades. The standards call for a 50/50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in fourth grade. In 2011, 63 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported emphasizing fiction in class, while only 38 percent said they emphasized non-fiction. A mere four years later, the gap is down to just eight percentage points (53 percent to 45 percent).

On the math side, CCSS asks for fewer topics or strands, as well as a focus on whole number arithmetic from kindergarten...

  • Even before they start school, inner-city students are often beset by huge learning obstacles—from the infamous thirty-million-word gap to the perils of urban violence—that need to mitigated by overtaxed districts. There’s a morbid irony, therefore, in new findings suggesting that these kids face the additional danger of poisoning once they walk into school. Nationwide testing in the wake of the Flint crisis has revealed distressing levels of lead contamination in school systems from Los Angeles to Newark. The problem has gone largely undetected for years because the only statute governing lead levels in public water supplies is a grossly inadequate 1991 EPA rule. Countless district facilities around the country are exempted from its language, and their lead-lined pipes and water coolers are spreading pollutants that are known to damage children’s bodily organs and stunt intellectual development. Disadvantaged families need to know that their kids are safe at school, not at risk of sustaining irreversible biological harm.
  • We all know the hallmarks of a typical civics lesson: dust-dry soliloquys about the Virginia Plan versus the New Jersey Plan, yellowed daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln, and melodically flaccid episodes of Schoolhouse Rock. If there were any class period that could
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I’m interested but rarely surprised whenever independent research shows strong evidence of curriculum effects. So this study of the efficacy of the Reading Recovery program by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education caught my eye. Recall that Reading Recovery, a short-term intervention program of one-to-one tutoring for low-achieving first graders, was one of the big winners of the Investing in Innovation (i3) scale-up grants back in 2010. The feds allocated $45 million in federal dollars, plus $10 million more raised from the private sector, for the training of 3,675 teachers to offer the oddly named program (how do you “recover” a skill you don’t possess?) to more than 300,000 students.

Created forty years ago by a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Reading Recovery is a series of daily, one-on-one lessons provided by specially trained teachers over a period of 12–20 weeks. Its entire point is to intervene early, before young students’ reading difficulties become too hard to address and reverse. Students who participated in Reading Recovery “significantly outperformed students in the control group on measures of overall reading, reading comprehension, and decoding,” the...