First Person

The Role of Curriculum in Education Reform

Despite a growing popular consensus that teacher quality is the most significant factor in academic achievement, as a parent and taxpayer the costs and practicality of this focus concern me. Chancellor Joel Klein focuses keenly on better teacher quality. I agree a strong teacher is crucial, especially for low-income students. But the value of our efforts to identify high-quality instructors and ease the removal of low-quality teachers is questionable.

For starters, the value-added measurements at the core of the relevant evaluation systems are nascent at best, as their developers readily admit. The Department of Education has calculated school report cards three different ways in the last three years; this is appropriate flexibility for a new concept, but not indicative of an established metric. Notwithstanding its motives, the teachers union raises a reasonable complaint that valued-added measurements are not ready for prime time. When reformers deny this, their credibility suffers as much as the union’s.

But still, let’s imagine we build the world’s best evaluation system. The Assembly rescinds the tenure provisions of the Taylor law, and the UFT cooperates.

Brave New World

picture-23Welcome to Education Utopia. The tool is applied, the data are crunched, and the teachers fall out along a normal distribution, shown at right (Wikipedia explains the math here). 

Starting modestly, we focus on 1,801 teachers two or more standard deviations below average: principals’ multi-factor evaluations are fair, and the 1,801 are removed. Now they have to be replaced with better, harder-to-find teachers, and we must also hire for the usual 20 percent annual attrition.

In year two evaluations improve and our rigor increases. Despite retraining the 10,736 teachers who fall between one and two standard deviations below the mean, only half improve: 5,400 more are terminated. Some overlap probably exists between low-quality and teachers who quit, so this 5,400 may not be completely incremental. And we still need to address attrition.

Now the biggest challenge: training those just “slightly” below average. These 27,000 are more capable of improvement. Only a third are jettisoned, about 9,000. Plus attrition. 

In a few years time, New York City is hiring tens of thousands of new (high-quality) teachers. Just like Los Angeles. And Chicago. And Washington, D.C. And every other major city in America, all of which are now on the very crowded teacher-quality bandwagon. 

The Case for Curriculum

Reform focused primarily on teacher quality raises logistical problems we’re not ready to solve. Knowledgable reformers know we cannot build and maintain an army of superteachers ready for 10- or 20-year careers in Red Hook, Mott Haven and Washington Heights. While teacher quality is important, can the city responsibly assume that it will be able to develop effective tools, win (or roll) over the unions and fix today’s Albany disaster?

Curriculum reform must play an equal role in our efforts. A recent Brookings Institution report noted curriculum’s strong impact on student outcomes. Importantly, in a system as large as ours, curriculum can be developed centrally and replicated at almost no marginal cost, earning a far greater return on investment than merit bonuses for every qualifying teacher or hiring 10,000 high-quality teachers. In short, teacher quality is a long, expensive, politically difficult fix. Curriculum is comparatively fast, cheap, and also effective. 

Chancellor Klein and Al Sharpton, sincerely and correctly, identify education reform with civil rights. And this means a good curriculum is even more critical for disadvantaged kids who get less supplemental learning and exposure. For children from non-U.S. backgrounds to succeed, we must introduce them to the common language and ideas the native-born use. Moreover, our poorest students frequently get moved around, so it’s unfair to make them also adjust to multiple curricula at different schools.

Teacher quality advocates may ask: “How does a good curriculum help a poor teacher?”  I would rephrase the question: “Does a good curriculum make a poor teacher worse?” Lesson planning, delivery of instruction and classroom management — how to teach — are daunting enough without having to develop good content every week. A solid, coherent curriculum improves the odds for new or struggling teacher, and allows master teachers to focus on their kids’ needs or mentoring colleagues.

Our school recently rewrote its social studies curriculum. Apart from being inefficient because the investment paid off for only a small number of students and because it’s likely that the work had been done before elsewhere, this involved costly overtime for several teachers. A credible, centrally-developed curriculum would save money, provide critical scaffolding for students and teachers alike, and allow for enrichment by parents by giving them a clearer sense of what their children are learning. 

Long before reformers questioned her loss of faith in accountability, historian Diane Ravitch warned of the dangers of leaving curriculum to the high priests at Teachers College and the University of Chicago, calling out their romantic theories of child-centered development for what they are: theories. More recently the final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, unsparing in its criticism of New York and national curricula and practices, cited as one example our practice of “spiraling” through topics as far less effective than “exposure, then closure” characteristic of high-performing systems like Singapore and Finland. At a well-regarded New York City middle school one math teacher told me, “I spend the first few months of sixth grade ‘unteaching’ what they learn in elementary school.”

Spending more than $20 billion annually to educate 1.1 million children, New York City should use its leverage, as we have on teacher quality, and lead the charge to promote curriculum reform. The content we want our kids to learn is the fraternal twin of teacher quality, and it is high time we stopped treating it like a redheaded stepchild.

Matthew Levey is a former president of the Community Education Council for District 2 and the parent of two elementary school children.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.