Years after Common Core's arrival, reading overhauls continue at top charter networks

After Nilda Solomon’s seventh-grade literature class silently read a soldier’s account of the capture of John Wilkes Booth and his henchman, she told her students to discuss.

“Let me hear your deep understanding about how the henchmen were captured,” she instructed her students at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School a few weeks ago. Then she walked to the back of the room and watched.

With that, the students spoke one after another, debating why the henchman had given himself up to the Union troops and whether it was bravery, loyalty to the Confederacy, or simply stubbornness that drove Booth to fight to the death. They cited details from the story to make their arguments and snapped their fingers when they agreed with their classmates.

Literature class didn’t always look like this.

Across the Achievement First network, reading classes were teacher-driven affairs where students were taught reading strategies but rarely dug into texts, the network’s co-CEO Dacia Toll told a group of charter school leaders at a workshop in March. After playing a video clip from a 2011 reading class, Toll admitted to the group that the old style of instruction “makes me almost nauseous to look at.”

The student-run reading discussions are just one example of the way Achievement First has revamped the way it teaches students to read and write since the advent of the Common Core standards, which call for more critical thinking and tougher texts. Other large charter school networks with schools in the city, including KIPP, Public Prep, and Uncommon Schools have made similar shifts.

But in the past year, declining test scores have prompted network officials to move with new urgency, often in collaboration with each other and in consultation with the same experts, such as David Coleman, an architect of the new standards.

The city’s Department of Education has been making similar top-level changes. Last year, it recommended new Common Core-aligned curriculums that individual schools could choose from, and has expanded its teacher training. But charter schools are responsible for their own academics, so the largest networks have devoted significant resources to developing new teaching materials and approaches.

In the process, they have arrived at some of the same conclusions about what works best. And as they do, charter schools that have fewer resources but are equally eager to adapt to the new standards are closely tracking the larger groups’ moves.

“They set the trends in direct and indirect ways,” said Nina Rees, who heads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’s something a lot of other charter schools are paying attention to.”

According to interviews with network leaders, principals, and teachers, the large charter networks are attempting to remake their curriculums, retrain teachers, and restructure their English classes, though not all of the changes have taken hold in classrooms yet.

Pointing to the standards’ call for a “content-rich” reading curriculum, the networks are trying to weave together literature, social studies, and science to a new degree. Officials from several networks have studied an interdisciplinary curriculum called Core Knowledge, which Coleman has endorsed. Next year, Achievement First will adopt that curriculum for its early grades, and Public Prep will begin phasing in its own “knowledge-based” curriculum that is similar to Core Knowledge.

During English class, they are pushing student-led text conversations, such as the “hands-down discussion” in Solomon’s class (when students speak without being called on) or weekly literature seminars at some Uncommon schools.

In past classes, teachers might demonstrate a reading skill, and then students would practice it while reading individually. Now, teachers are being urged to have students spend more time analyzing, or “close reading,” challenging texts together as a class, said officials from a number of networks.

Achievement First’s Toll said she discussed the shift from skill to text-based lessons with Coleman recently, who told her the whole-class approach is more straightforward.

“The text is more complex,” Coleman said, according to Toll, “but reading instruction itself is actually simpler.”

Leaders from KIPP and Public Prep also spoke with Coleman, who helped develop the Common Core standards and who now oversees the College Board. Some also brought in the nonprofit Common Core consultancy he co-founded, Student Achievement Partners.

They also visited other district and charter schools, including Success Academy, which outperformed every other network on last year’s tests. (Some critics chalk up the network’s impressive results partly to test prep.) And the networks shared their findings with one another along the way.

“We’re in constant dialogue,” said Jen Keyte, KIPP’s director of curriculum and instruction.

The latest changes come after the networks all watched their students’ proficiency rates plummet on last year’s state English tests, the first tied to the new standards. The top-performing networks (except KIPP) still had higher passing rates than the city’s 26 percent average — an outcome some critics say stems from charters serving fewer challenging students than many district schools. But the gap between those networks and the city average narrowed after the Common Core tests. At Achievement First, for instance, the difference shrank from 11 to 2 percentage points, according to data from the New York City Charter School Center.

For the networks, which have long struggled to boost their English scores and must hit certain test-score targets to remain open, the new exams were a wake-up call.

“Common Core has intensified the understanding that you will either get kids to read, write, and speak well,” said Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, “or you’re done.”

The largest charter networks have sizeable budgets for developing teaching materials and methods, which they push out to all their schools. These networks, some with schools in several states, can afford to devote many staff members or pay outside groups to do that work. KIPP, for instance, is paying an outside organization to create a customized, Common Core-aligned literacy program just for the network and has developed online courses to help its educators adapt to the new standards.

Smaller networks and individual charter schools that cannot fund such research and development are trying to learn from the bigger groups. For example, the leaders of Public Prep and 10 smaller charter networks from around the country joined a training program led by Achievement First and two other large charter school organizations. And more than 100 groups have toured Success Academy schools this year.

Still, even the top-performing networks admit that they have yet to crack the code of reading and writing instruction under the Common Core.

“We have been on a multi-year journey,” Toll said at the workshop. “And we’re still in motion.”