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’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.