First Person

Curriculum, Part III: On Core Curriculum And Standards

This is the third post in a series exploring the concept and role of curriculum. Read Part I and Part II.

In my last post, I discussed how leaving the critical components of emotional/social literacy and character development out of our curriculum (the so called “hidden curriculum”) furthers inequity. I believe that inequity is also perpetuated by leaving what we teach our children up to chance, when we know quite firmly that there are foundational core components of academic knowledge. In national discussions and debates on public education, both reformers and their opponents are busy focusing on external factors such as poverty, human capital mechanisms (hiring & firing), and accountability. We have been largely ignoring one of the most easily and cheaply modifiable components of education: the curriculum. And this is the component that has arguably the most immediate and direct impact on a student.

When I began teaching fifth grade two years ago, though I knew I would be working with students presenting significant academic delays, I was still taken aback by how drastically far behind my students really were. I recall the moment in September of my first year when I introduced students to their fifth-grade Everyday Mathematics student reference books to review use of a table of contents and index. I was then awakened to the fact that the majority of my students not only did not know where a table of contents was located — nor even what a “table of contents” referred to — but furthermore had difficulty locating information in alphabetical order (not simply due to a difficulty with decoding words but more fundamentally from a difficulty alphabetizing). I had many such revelatory moments in my first year, in which I realized that I had to delve far back into the essential foundations of academic knowledge to provide access to our curriculum, such as via teaching phonemic awareness and phonics, or how to line up numbers for addition and subtraction using place value.

Teachers know that there are essential foundations underlying content knowledge that is requisite in advancing towards mastery. That’s what we teachers are paid to do, after all: break down complex subjects into the foundational procedural and/or conceptual components required for students to gain access to content and render these components memorable and imminently applicable to our students. I don’t know if folks who have not actually taught something understand just how difficult doing this kind of task analysis and explicit teaching can be. As an example of breaking down a seemingly simple concept into its relatively complex and explicit procedural components, refer to “Technique 13: Name the Steps” in Doug Lemov’s excellent “Teach Like a Champion,” in which teacher Kelli Ragin outlines the steps required in rounding. (I had originally written my own procedural outline, but it was kind of tedious and Ragin does a much better job of it.)

In math, there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target quite precisely where a student is struggling based on the evidence or explanation of their work. Different teachers will have different methods of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations underlying the content are there. When we discuss historical content, it might appear at first glance that such foundations are purely subjective. At a higher level, it may be to some degree in terms of the topics one chooses to focus on, but when we discuss elementary schooling, it becomes more easily apparent that there are fundamental concepts of community, essential skills such as reading maps and spatial awareness, and basic facts that are essential in understanding our common national and global history. When we look closer at high school-level historical studies (and beyond), I believe that we will find the same necessity for core facts and understandings behind different historical forces and events.

Why would we pretend the core foundations underlying content do not exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from leading teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations and background knowledge required to build towards mastery of that content?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another construct aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch, Jr.‘s activism on the necessity for core facts and domain specific knowledge in public education. In “The Knowledge Deficit,” Hirsch argues that “the only way to improve scores in reading comprehension and to narrow the reading gap between groups is systematically to provide children with the wide-ranging, specific background knowledge they need to comprehend what they read.” Hirsch’s concepts, developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation, were rendered into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for free download.

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence this year to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a potential reference to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected either a lukewarm or even resistant reception. On the contrary, however, teachers were overwhelmingly excited by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! I feel like teachers — just like students — are desperate for guidance, given the superhuman demands made upon their time and energy. Why would we deny such explicit and systematic guidance to them?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative has impelled the process of acknowledging the central foundations underlying content knowledge and in establishing a unified consensus that states can adopt as firm guidance. This process has been ridiculously politically contentious, as has any movement in the past to establish national standards (read Diane Ravitch’s “The Life and Death of the Great American School System” for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement). Ask any teacher who has actually examined and applied the CCSS: the new standards are well-written, more accessible and focused than our prior New York State standards, and an extremely useful guide for developing instructional lessons. Furthermore, as a special education teacher, I’ve found the new standards invaluable in developing my students’ annual goals on their IEPs. The language of the core standards is simultaneously specific and yet encompassing, allowing for easily tweaked goals that can target an individual student’s needs without being overly prescriptive.

There has been some criticism of the CCSS in that they aren’t necessarily more rigorous than what a few states already had in place, such as Massachusetts and California. However, what this criticism fails to take into account is that having a unified set of standards provides a critical opportunity in the development of a unified curriculum: We can now develop content matched to the standards across state boundaries with the confidence that this content can be applied without great modification. This is an outstanding opportunity for instructional innovation and collaboration on a national level.

The CCSS was a crucial and promising step forward. But let’s be clear about something: standards are largely guideposts and objectives, not actual content. In the words of the Common Core State Standards website, “the Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed.” In comparison to actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what topics will be focused upon within each grade. In reading, social studies, and science, however, the standards are probably intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

But these contentious conversations around the actual content we teach our students are exactly the conversations that we should be having, if we are truly committed to equity. No teacher wants to be told what to teach. But every teacher – most especially teachers-in-training – would love having a guide to the underlying foundations required to gain the background knowledge necessary for mastery of content. This is why I was excited to discover the Core Knowledge Sequence. It doesn’t tell me how to teach and what to teach on any given day — it rather provides a clear outline of what topics would sequentially build the background knowledge necessary for my students to gain academic fluency. Problem is, the Core Knowledge Sequence is useless if every other teacher in my school isn’t following the same sequence for their respective grade levels. Which brings me back to my main point of this post: Without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.

The Albert Shanker Institute recently put out a call for establishing a common core curriculum, in which they argue that “our nation must finally answer questions it has avoided for generations: What is it, precisely, that we expect all educated citizens to have learned? What explicit knowledge, skills, and understanding of content will help define the day-to-day work of teaching and learning?” In response to this, critics of national standards put forth a rebuttal against the idea of a core curriculum, stating, “we do not agree that a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject makes sense for this country or for any other sizable country.”

Aside from an obvious misconstruction of the Shanker Institute’s intent, I think that these skeptics present two valid points that I agree with. If we are to have a unified curriculum, it must be flexible and able to encompass a great diversity of student needs, and it cannot be centrally controlled. But to create a unified core curriculum does not necessitate either of these things. We can agree to fundamental, core essentials of content without making curriculum one-size-fits-all. And we can develop a unified curriculum without it being centrally controlled.

We need to stop being political (and ethical) cowards and hold the necessary public discussion over essential core content and come to a consensus. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ time, knowledge, and ability to the wolves?

In my next post, I will propose a potential method for developing a unified core curriculum from the ground level up. By the teachers, for the teachers, in conjunction with content experts. I will suggest the open-source process utilized in software development can be applicable to curriculum development, thus presenting a viable model for decentralizing curriculum development and addressing one of the main objections of those who are opposed to the idea of a unified core curriculum. Thank you for sticking with me thus far, and I welcome your feedback and constructive criticism!

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.