Curriculum & Instruction

The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.

I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”

I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who...

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a teacher in the Buckeye State? Wonder no more! In this policy brief, we outline the entire process—from acceptance to a preparation program all the way to advanced licensure. We even take a look at alternative pathways and out-of-state educators.


During a high-visibility Supreme Court hearing last week on the Fisher v. University of Texas admissions case, Justice Scalia made some ill-considered comments on race in higher education: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well." Then, referencing a case filing, he added, “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Myriad commentators went after him. Others came to his defense. And still others landed somewhere in-between. We don’t view Scalia as a racist, but there’s no denying that his statements can be interpreted as suggesting that black kids are inescapably destined for the slow track. It’s not surprising that people are offended.

It ought to go without saying, but of course there is nothing inherently inferior about poor and minority...

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. But if you’re pressed for time and want to end all intelligent life quickly, nothing beats a task force.

In New York last week, a task force chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued its report on Common Core. In a model of stunning governmental efficiency, the group managed to “listen” to 2,100 New York students, teachers, parents, and various other stakeholders. They then retreated to their chambers to write, edit, and publish a fifty-one-page report a mere ten weeks after they were impaneled. But clearly that was time enough for these solons to learn and thoughtfully consider what the Empire State needs: to adopt “new, locally driven New York State standards in a transparent and open process.” The report has twenty recommendations on how to bring this about.

It should be noted (speaking of governmental efficiency) that God himself was content with a mere ten modest suggestions to govern all known human activity. Cuomo’s task force has double that number—just for Common Core in a single state. But God acted alone. On a task force, every voice must be heard, every grievance aired. And they were, in all their...

Morgan Polikoff

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of visiting Success Academy Harlem 1 and hearing from Eva Moskowitz and the SA staff about their model. I’m not going to venture into the thorny stuff about SA here. What I will say is that their results on state tests are clearly impressive, and I doubt that they’re fully (or even largely) explained by the practices that cause controversy. (Luckily, we’ll soon have excellent empirical evidence to answer that question.)

Instead, what I’m going to talk about are the fascinating details I saw and heard about curriculum and instruction in SA schools. Right now, of course, it is impossible to know what’s driving their performance, but these are some of the things that I think are likely to contribute. (I’d initially forgotten that Charles Sahm wrote many of these same things in a post this summer. His is more detailed and based on more visits than mine. Read it!)

Here's what I saw in my tour of about a half-dozen classrooms at SA 1:

  • The first thing that I observed in each classroom was the intense focus on student discourse and explanation. In each classroom, students are constantly pressed to explain their reasoning, and other students respond constructively
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It’s not difficult to see what parents find so appealing about religious schools. Some put stock in the inherent academic superiority of private academies, but many others prioritize what they see as their character-building edge over traditional district schools: tighter discipline, a unitary culture, and strong ideological foundations. Of the many virtues imparted to students by religious education, though, few would have guessed that one would be religious tolerance. This new white paper suggests that Americans who have attended some form of religious school are less likely to harbor anti-Semitic animus as adults.

The study cleverly combines multiple strands of inquiry from the Understanding America Study, a nationally representative sample of 1,300 American adults conducted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research. That survey’s administrators queried their subjects on the variety of their K–12 schooling experiences—but also asked them to respond to a series of eleven anti-Semitic stereotypes, which were selected from the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 analysis of anti-Semitic attitudes around the world. After striking from the sample those participants who had been homeschooled or received the bulk of their education abroad, the authors were left with a healthy data set of adults...

  • To everyone except the students and educators who labor to start them, high-performing charter schools must seem like fully formed miracle factories. They sprout from Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse, produce outstanding academic results, and win facilities conflicts with crusading big-city mayors. This week, the Hechinger Report spins the incredible (and incredibly detailed) story of how these places actually come together. In three interlocking narratives focused on a first-time principal, a veteran teacher, and an incoming freshman, the account details the emergence of Brooklyn Ascend High in the daunting Brownsville neighborhood of New York City. The school, organized around an ideal of civic service and employing a nontraditional discipline structure, offers an ideal backdrop against which to examine the challenges of establishing an academic culture and galvanizing a faculty. For readers who wonder why more charter profiles can’t offer the fractured perspectives and compelling mystery of Rashomon, here’s your (regrettably samurai-less) answer.
  • The Texas Board of Education rules over the state’s textbooks like a juice-drunk toddler rules over his sandbox: utterly, and hilariously. If they’re not pondering the knotty question of whether to include creationism in science curriculum (guess I thought Spencer Tracy settled that one), they’re helpfully reinserting
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Nancy Brynelson, Corley Dennison, Daniel Doerger, Jacqueline E. King, William Moore, and Faith Muirhead

As states have implemented college and career readiness standards, it has sometimes been assumed that most of the work and attention has occurred at the elementary grades. In truth, many states have been working for some time to ensure that grade twelve prepares all students for post-secondary success. Programs like AP, IB, and dual enrollment are the most touted offerings for well-prepared students. But there has also been a great effort to create courses for students who are not yet college-ready and who can use senior year to close academic gaps and avoid the remedial instruction that so often acts as a drain on the time, finances, and morale of ascending college students. Just last month, the Fordham Institute held an event called “Pre-medial Education” that discussed ways to bring high school-based college readiness programs to scale.

For colleges and universities, “fixing” remediation is a major priority. According to Complete College America, three out of five students entering community colleges and one out of five students entering four-year institutions require remediation. The vast majority of these students (78 percent at community colleges and 63 percent at four-year institutions) do not go on to successfully complete gateway credit-bearing courses....

Laura Overdeck

We’ve seen a lot of hand wringing over math achievement in this country. Our students continue to underperform against their peers in other countries, lighting a fire under educators and politicians to push new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programming in schools. While these panicked efforts have admirable intentions, they are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Kids spend vastly more time outside school than in it—four or five times as many waking hours—and one-on-one attention during that time is a major unpulled lever for generating change. Sadly, the large majority of our population misses out on that opportunity completely.

It begins with parents, who are their children’s first teachers. Kids respond to the in-person presence of their parents more strongly than to anyone else. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) has shown that when a baby sees someone touch her mother’s hand, the same region of the baby’s brain lights up as when someone touches the baby’shand. But when the baby instead watches a video of the person touching her mom’s hand, those regions don’t light up. Nor do they light up when a stranger’s hand is touched. Moreover, babies respond more strongly...

All right, first things first: What do we mean when we use the phrase “Response to Intervention” (RtI)? Its utterly functional label—surely all interventions are designed to provoke a response—lends itself to a host of vague interpretations. Education Week has produced a useful overview of its growth and effects, and Fordham attempted the same in its 2011 exploration of trends in special education, but the general points are these: RtI emerged around the turn of the century as a way to identify kids with learning disabilities as early as possible, provide them with a series of gradually intensifying academic interventions, and monitor their progress throughout. Spurred in its expansion by the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (which permitted districts to use up to 15 percent of their Part B dollars on early intervention services), RtI supplanted IQ-focused “ability/achievement discrepancy” models of learning disability screenings, and it eventually came to be adopted as a general education framework. In the words of Alexa Posny, the DOE’s assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services, the approach “hasn’t changed special education. It has changed education and will continue to do so. It is where we need to...