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

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.