Curriculum & Instruction

Lisa Hansel

Harriet Tubman will grace the front of our $20 bill—a long-overdue tribute to a woman who lived up to the best of American values. But do most Americans know who she was? Anecdotal evidence and test scores indicate that they don’t.

She was not some footnote figure that only historians should know. Tubman repeatedly displayed astounding courage—and achieved heroic successes—in two of our nation’s greatest fights for freedom and equality: ending slavery and giving women the right to vote.

But perhaps this widespread ignorance is not our fellow citizens’ fault. When would they have learned of Tubman? A nationally representative survey of elementary teachers shows that in from kindergarten to the sixth grade, an average of just 16–21 minutes a day are spent on social studies (and a mere 19–24 minutes on science). Given students’ utter lack of preparation, our middle and high school teachers would find it challenging to engage students in meaningful or memorable studies in history, geography, and civics.

It’s tempting to blame the elementary teachers. But that’s simplistic at best. Elementary teachers are, by and large, doing what they have been taught and responding to the signals sent by federal and state accountability policies.

The heart of this problem is that...

If you caught your pediatrician Googling "upset stomach remedies" before deciding how to treat your child and home-brewing medications over an office sink, you might start looking for a new pediatrician. So how would you feel if you learned that Google and Pinterest are where your child's teacher goes to look for instructional materials?

Well, brace yourself, because that's exactly what's happening. And no, your child's teacher is not an exception. A new study from the RAND Corporation finds that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary school teachers—draws upon "materials I developed and/or selected myself" in teaching English language arts. And where do they find materials? The most common answer among elementary school teachers is Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). The numbers are virtually the same for math.

But don't blame teachers. These data, for reasons both good and bad, reveal a dirty little secret about American education. In many districts and schools—maybe even most—the efficacy of the instructional materials put in front of children is an afterthought. For teachers, it makes an already hard job nearly impossible to do well.

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional...

Every teacher of low-income children and English language learners has had this moment: You're sitting with a student, working line by line through a text, grappling with what should be fairly simple comprehension questions.

"Did you read it?" you ask. "I read it," the child replies. "But I didn't get it."

This is what reading failure often looks like in a struggling school. A child can read the words on a page in front of him, but he can't always make sense of them. The commonsense solution for both teachers and policy makers has been to make more time for reading instruction. That makes sense, but it hasn't worked, because reading comprehension is not a skill that can be practiced and mastered like a basketball free throw. Children's ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won't be fully literate.

John King made precisely this point last Thursday in a remarkable speech in Las Vegas. The newly minted secretary of education is pushing for schools to take advantage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to give every child the kind of broad background "that...

Michael Hansen

Are we ready to expand career and technical education offerings as the next frontier in education policy? “College- and career-ready” has been an aspirational label in education for years, though many in the know recognize that the label is generally used as a stand-in for the Common Core State Standards—and the focus there is decidedly tipped toward college readiness and away from career preparation. Yet in recent years, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have been promoting the career side of the label more, making the case that technical education is not at odds with academic preparation. With union leadersindustry groups, and researchers joining the list of those backing it, career and technical education appears to be well poised to become the next viable policy lever to help improve the plight of America’s youth.

Last week, the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. released a new report on career and technical education that adds some fuel to this fire. In it, author Shaun Dougherty examines high school, college, and labor market outcomes for three cohorts of Arkansas high school students based on their differential participation in career and technical education coursework. The study stands out for its focus on this array of outcomes,...

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.

The...

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?

MinnPost.com 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 ...

Pages