Despite safety net, are some students being left behind?

Philadelphia's rigorous core curriculum in practice

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last fall, as the School District rolled out its new core curriculum, the new watchword for instruction was "rigor." Rigor meant teaching to proficiency – teaching the concepts and skills that students are expected to master at their grade level according to state standards.

The adoption of the core curriculum was supposed to signal an end to low expectations and the practice of teaching to the lowest level of students in each class. But the contradiction the District had to confront was that while the content of the curriculum expected students to be proficient (or nearly so), the majority of Philadelphia’s students were performing at significantly lower levels.

A classroom would typically have many students two or more years behind in reading and math. In my own eighth grade classroom at the beginning of the year, fewer than one out of five students read on grade level.

To bridge this gap the District promotes a range of instructional strategies and programs to address the needs of students who are not achieving at expected levels. The success of these approaches is critical to the commitment to teaching at grade level.

This safety net to insure that struggling students do not fall further behind begins with how teachers are expected to teach but also includes other programs in the classroom and school:

Differentiated instruction: Because children have different learning styles, teachers are expected to employ a variety of strategies and materials. Understanding this can allow teachers to present new or difficult concepts in ways that will maximize student progress. For example, some students might respond to a question about a character’s conflict in literature by writing a poem about it, others by drawing a picture and still others by writing an essay.

Cooperative learning: Teachers are encouraged to group students together in a variety of ways, in part to help students with deficiencies in math and reading. For example, two students, a strong reader and a weak one, are paired together to read a particular selection. In math, students work collectively to solve problems.

Small group instruction: Guided reading, in which students are divided into small groups by reading levels and meet several times a week with their teacher, is a mandated part of the literacy curriculum. According to the District’s literacy framework, it is primarily through this activity that slower readers learn the skills that can move them forward. Flexible grouping is also encouraged in other subjects, particularly math.

Diagnostic assessment: Every six weeks, students take "benchmark" tests in reading and math to measure student understanding of the material taught in the six-week cycle. Teachers are expected to use the results of these tests to design instruction that will address weaknesses. Annual TerraNova tests also provide teachers with information for understanding students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Comprehensive Student Assistance Process (CSAP): This is an early intervention program to insure that students who are struggling academically or behaviorally get the help needed. The state requires that all students who are held back a grade go through CSAP. In this process, teachers refer students, and then a team meets to develop a strategy and identify how it will be implemented. If this is not successful, a more high-powered team meets to consider additional remedies, such as referral for psychological evaluation and possible placement in special eduction.

Remedial programs: The extended day and summer school programs offer intensive remediation in reading and math following the core curriculum. Attendance is mandatory for those who are not meeting promotion standards. Schools also have some pullout programs to help struggling students.

Holes in the safety net

This elaborate safety net suggests that the District has made a serious effort to address the problem of low academic achievement in a comprehensive way and has committed more resources to make it happen than in the past, particularly through programs like extended day and summer school.

Still the District is a long way from having a program that will "lift all boats." The primary problem, as is so often the case when it comes to urban education, is a lack of resources.

The instructional approaches advocated by the District are compromised by the high ratio of students to teachers. While there are highly skilled teachers who successfully employ cooperative learning and small group instruction, other teachers are reluctant to even try. This reluctance will not be overcome simply by professional development. Teacher concern with control and the tendency to rely on whole class instruction is a reflection of the real problems associated with large, heterogeneous classes.

Guided reading, the centerpiece of the effort to close the literacy gap, is the source of widespread teacher frustration because of difficulties in engaging those students who are not meeting with the teacher. The problem is exacerbated in many classrooms by the sheer number of reading groups, making it difficult to meet each group frequently (in my classroom I had seven groups). In many schools, rosters have been arranged so that another teacher assists the regular teacher during this time. What’s really needed is a corps of reading teachers to lower class size for the whole literacy block.

The CSAP process is also badly undercut by a lack of resources. A CSAP referral requires a good deal of paperwork, some observation of the student and anecdotal recordkeeping by the teacher, a meeting with colleagues, and contact with a parent. Every student who has serious academic, social or emotional problems should be "CSAPed," and all students who might face retention must be "CSAPed." This places a considerable demand on teachers’ time, but no additional time is made available for this purpose. Many children who should be referred never are, and those who are referred do not get quality attention.

A serious problem with the benchmark testing program is that inadequate technology means teachers often do not get results back early enough to effectively use the data to re-teach and remediate. Teachers have also complained that the tests are not sufficiently aligned with the content they are teaching. While these kinks may be worked out as the program enters its second year, a more fundamental issue is the amount of time spent assessing students rather than engaging them in learning.

In comparison, the extended day and summer school programs are areas of strength and progress. Classes are smaller. Materials – at least in math – closely follow the curriculum and are in a form that is accessible for students. Students can usually experience immediate improvement in their regular classes. Of course not all students who need the extra help attend and not all who do attend are motivated to learn – a problem that underlines the importance of the CSAP process and the interrelationship of these distinct initiatives.

High-stakes testing leaves children behind

Some students are also being left behind because of the way a growing national focus on high-stakes testing pervades and – some would argue – drives the core curriculum. The drive to reach targets for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act leads to a practice called "triage;" certain students are targeted for extra attention because past test performance suggests that their test scores can be bumped up from one performance category to the next – for example, from Basic to Proficient.

A student at the lower end of Below Basic may make dramatic progress and move to the upper end, but this does not help a school meet its performance targets. Students not likely to move up to the next performance category don’t get the extra resources or attention. Faced with limited resources and the threat of punitive measures if they don’t make AYP, schools naturally try to get the most "bang for their buck" and concentrate on certain students at the expense of others.

Some would say a "test prep" mentality infects the core curriculum and promotes the teaching of discrete skills at the expense of the interrelatedness of knowledge. Many teachers argue that the core curriculum, at least as it is interpreted by many administrators, discourages thematic instruction or approaches that develop deeper motivation among students, impacting negatively on all learners, but particularly those who have been failed by traditional schooling.

So while the School District provides what appears to be a good framework for insuring that low-achieving students are not left in the dust in the drive for proficiency, this framework can’t be effective without an infusion of resources – most critically, more trained teachers with fewer students and more time to do the job required of them. Nor can the framework succeed without a serious reevaluation of how we measure student and school progress.