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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.