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A harder English curriculum arrives in Memphis elementary schools next week. Here’s how teachers are preparing.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Carolyn Coe prepares her fifth-grade classroom at Winridge Elementary School for the introduction of a new curriculum in English language arts. Expeditionary Learning is aligned with more Common Core learning standards and will offer students more complex texts to read and understand.

Kicking off a lesson using a new curriculum for English language arts, Rachelle Taylor reads aloud to elementary-age students and then invites questions about the text and a few related photographs.

Under Shelby County Schools’ new curriculum known as Expeditionary Learning, the point isn’t for students to understand every little detail, but to get them used to asking good questions. Instead of lecturing, the teacher becomes a facilitator and guide who lets students do most of the discovering.

“This is what good readers do: ask questions,” explained Taylor, a district adviser for elementary English. “We’re building (reading skills) in order to go deeper.”

This year, Shelby County Schools is adding Expeditionary Learning to its curriculum mix as the district seeks to expose its students to more complex reading content. Last school year, only a fifth of them met the state’s expectations in English language arts on the state’s new standardized test known as TNReady.

The change officially starts on Monday for grades 3-5, then in January for grades K-2. Middle schoolers began using Expeditionary Learning at the beginning of this school year.

The goal is to better equip students to take TNReady, which is based on the Common Core learning standards. Ultimately, it’s about giving them a better foundation for college and career by shifting emphasis from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin

“This is going to afford our students the opportunity to see the same type of information and questions every day that they’re going to be tested on in the spring,” said Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin. “We feel really good that exposing the kids to this curriculum will not only help them master the content but that we’ll see those results in a couple of years in our data.”

For middle schoolers, Expeditionary Learning has replaced Journeys, an English curriculum that’s been in place in Memphis schools for several years. For grades K-5, Journeys will remain, but will be supplemented with the new curriculum.

“Journeys was not rigorous enough,” Griffin said. “It had a few complex texts, but we needed our students to be exposed on a daily basis. We’re trying to make sure we’re practicing exactly like we’re going to play.”

Expeditionary Learning was created by a nonprofit network of schools in New York in partnership with that state’s department of education. It’s already being used in the Memphis area by Germantown Municipal School District, which last year had the highest TNReady scores in Tennessee in English. Several Memphis charter schools also use Expeditionary Learning.

For teachers with Shelby County Schools, preparation for and training on the new curriculum has been going on since the end of last school year.

But Carolyn Coe has known the change was coming for a long time, and is excited that it’s finally here. The fifth-grade teacher at Winridge Elementary has been following other states using Common Core-aligned curriculum and began incorporating the approach gradually into her own classroom instruction. Last year, her students were filmed in a training lesson that was led by a district literacy adviser. As she watched her class, she observed that her quieter students were chiming in and her stronger ones were helping those who were struggling, reinforcing their own learning.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

“Before, I was doing a lot of lecturing. But with Expeditionary Learning, the children are doing the bulk of the work,” Coe said. “They’re learning by doing. They’re piggybacking off each other and learning from each other.”

Criticism about the change is based mostly on its November start for grades 3-5. School has already been in session for 12 weeks.

“If you start in the middle of the year, you won’t get through the curriculum before the test,”  said Lisa Jorgenson, a kindergarten ESL teacher who is also a teachers union representative.

Griffin said Journeys has been sufficient for the first few months of the school year. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t just cold turkey snatch the Journeys curriculum,” she said. “Journeys is not a bad curriculum. The amount of complex text just wasn’t enough to take us all the way to June.”

The district had a bumpy rollout of professional development for Eureka Math, which launched this year following several pilots. Some materials arrived late. Griffin said all the materials are in place for next week’s introduction to Expeditionary Learning, and the school board this week approved the purchase of more K-2 materials for next semester.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rachelle Taylor (standing) leads elementary school teachers in a training on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts being introduced in Shelby County Schools.

Teacher training has been happening up to the last minute. Some schools, like Winridge, brought in substitute teachers on Wednesday so that English teachers could plan lessons together and prepare materials.

Schools are also being asked to replace at least one faculty meeting each month with a “collaborative planning” period for educators to practice lessons and work through issues. Collaboration has been a cornerstone of success behind the Innovation Zone, the district’s school turnaround model. District leaders want to see that practice spread.

Teachers for and against the change spoke to board members this week. All agreed the current curriculum has not prepared students well.

“The curriculum we teach is vitally important to achievement,” said Corey VanHuyster, an English adviser who helped implement Expeditionary Learning for middle schoolers. “It will be one of the major factors on whether or not our students perform on end-of-year testing and more importantly if they are literate and well-read students.”

mind the gap

In female-dominated education field, women still lag behind in pay, according to two new studies

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Two University of North Carolina graduate students were curious: Were female school superintendents earning less than their male counterparts?

Considering longstanding gender pay gaps across the economy, they expected to find a disparity. And using data from Pennsylvania, they did. But they also turned up something else when they plugged in data about classroom teachers.

“We were like, ‘Oh, we’ll throw these numbers in,” said James Sadler, one of the researchers. “And that’s when our eyes opened wide.”

To their surprise, they found a small but notable gender pay gap for classroom teachers, who are usually paid based on set salary schedules that are designed in part to root out exactly those sorts of disparities.

Virtually no matter how the data is analyzed, female educators earn less than their male counterparts in Pennsylvania, and, according to a separate analysis released this year, Illinois.

In Pennsylvania, disparities are even larger for principals and district leaders. And the gaps actually grow when controlling for factors that might explain the differences, suggesting outright discrimination may be at play.

Together, the two new studies illustrate how even the education field — a female-dominated one where many salaries aren’t open to negotiation — isn’t immune to the gender pay gap, at a time when strikes and walkouts mean extra attention is being paid to teachers’ wages.

“I’m not surprised at all that there’s a pay differential between men and women within the field of education, because men do get promoted more quickly,” said Judith Kafka, an education historian at CUNY’s Baruch College.

What is surprising, Kafka agreed, is the gap researchers found among teachers, considering that salary schedules typically rely on education and experience levels.

Still, in most cases, the pay gap is small relative to educators’ overall salaries — no more than 7 percent and usually less — and the studies can’t definitively explain what’s behind the gap.

The most detailed look at the issue comes from the UNC researchers, who compared the salaries of all public school teachers, school leaders, and district superintendents in Pennsylvania in the 2016-17 year.

In each job category, the raw dollar gap between men and women’s salaries was over a thousand dollars.

Controls account for education, experience, district, and job type. For district leaders, controls only include education and experience. Source: “Documenting Educator Salary Differences by Gender in Pennsylvania.” Graphic: Sam Park

There are a few potential explanations for this. Women teachers had about one fewer year of experience, on average, perhaps because they are more likely to take time off in the middle of their careers. Men may be more likely to take on extra duties like sports coaching, which could show up in the numbers even though the data is only supposed to include base salaries. And male teachers more often worked in slightly higher-paying districts.

Accounting for a teacher’s education, years of experience, and district and school type makes the teacher pay gap shrink to about $600. That’s just 1 percent of the average teacher’s salary, though over the course of a career, that difference could mean thousands of dollars lost.

The researchers say they’re not quite sure why it exists.

“That’s really the main question that is still unanswered,” said Sadler. “It’s something that we’re still still trying to figure out.”

One potential explanation, he said, is that teachers who enter a new district mid-career may find room to negotiate where they start on the salary schedule. This may advantage men.

“The salary scale is not necessarily the panacea for dealing with disparities,” said Jay Carter, the other UNC researcher behind the study.

But to Wythe Keever, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, the finding suggests salary schedules are keeping disparities small.

The gender gap “still appears lower than pay gaps based on gender in many other occupations,” he said.

Researchers also found a gender pay gap in Pittsburgh, one of the only districts in the state to have a performance-based pay system for some teachers. But the gap was present for both teachers who were and weren’t part of the system.

While women made up 73 percent of classroom teachers in Pennsylvania, the study showed they accounted for just 44 percent of school principals and 35 percent of superintendents.

That probably explains a part of the pay gap for all educators, a group that includes both classroom teachers and higher-paid administrators. (Nationally, women make up 77 percent of the public school teaching force but 54 percent of principals; just one in five superintendents in the 100 largest school districts have been women over the last decade and a half.)

“As in with other professions, I think that the education field needs to think a lot about how they promote and how they identify people to be promoted,” Kafka said, pointing to a phenomenon known as the “glass escalator,” when men in female-dominated professions move up the ranks more quickly.

Women who lead schools and districts in Pennsylvania face substantially larger pay gaps than teachers do — and controlling for education and years of experience actually makes the disparities bigger, suggesting that women are more qualified than men but still end up making less.

For superintendents, the pay gap amounted to over $4,000 annually. Here, since salaries are usually not based on a set schedule, differences in negotiations and outright discrimination could explain the results, though factors not accounted for by the researchers, such as size of district, may also be at play.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education laid the blame at the feet of districts. “It is important to note that in Pennsylvania educators’ salaries are determined at the local level,” said Nicole Reigelman, who noted that the state had recently banned state agencies from asking for job applicants’ salary histories.

Some of the Pennsylvania findings are echoed by another study released in March looking at educators’ salaries in Illinois.

Max Marchitello of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm, found that women in the education field made about $7,000 less than men. This lumps together different professional jobs, including administrator, classroom teacher, as well as guidance counselor and librarian, among others. But even in similar jobs and at similar experience levels, woman earned less in most cases.

(The exception was elementary school, where men and women were paid comparably despite the fact that women were typically more experienced.) Unlike the UNC study, this analysis does not try to control for multiple factors at once that might explain the disparities.

Even though some of the gap disappears when you control for differences in role, experience, and other factors, the UNC researchers argue that that doesn’t necessarily make the raw disparities less meaningful. If the roles that women fill or their years in the workplace are influenced by society’s expectations of women, it’s worth noting how that translates into smaller salaries.

“We could probably find enough stuff to control for to get rid of a pay gap,” said Carter. “It’s kind of a philosophical question: How hard should you have to work to explain away why real dollars [differ] between what goes into male households and female households?”

Redefining STEM

‘It’s OK to fail:’ How Indiana teachers are rethinking STEM for the real world

PHOTO: David Marbaugh
Teachers Paula Manchess (left) and Heidi Wilkinson (right) work to detect counterfeit medicines by creating a process to identify the correct color, shape, branding and purity of their samples.

In Kraig Kitts’ biology classes, it’s OK to fail.

“That’s science. That’s the nature of it,” said Kitts, a science teacher at Center Grove High School. “Sometimes we don’t know. As teachers, we have a lot of pressures that everything works, every time, 100 percent.”

This is the message Kitts wants to send to his students. It’s also the message he wants to relay to other Indiana teachers.

Kitts is the mastermind behind the Lilly Experience for Teachers in STEM, a two-day workshop for teachers of STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and math — designed to redefine the field by connecting math and science curriculum to real-world applications.

He interned in Eli Lilly and Company’s structural biology department last summer through a special program for science teachers. As an educator, Kitts was shocked to see how his own classroom lessons reflected in the daily jobs of Lilly’s scientists and engineers.

He immediately wanted to share the real-world applications of STEM with other educators — and his students, too

“I think that’s a big one for me is teaching kids that aren’t honors or AP … that they’re just regular kids,” Kitts said.“Giving them the opportunities to apply real-world skills in places where they may not have an interest in STEM before, but they can be like, ‘OK that’s cool.’”

About 75 teachers and 50 Lilly employees from across the state joined Kitts on Tuesday and Wednesday for the inaugural event. They developed STEM lesson plans drawn from real-world examples and received a number of tools and resources to take back to their students.

Albert White, Lilly’s director of operations and chief of staff, said STEM is about more than being the next doctor or engineer — it’s about life skills.

“STEM is about cultivating curiosity for our children,” said White, who helped plan the event. “It’s also about developing critical thinking skills as well as problem-solving. When you look at the different roles throughout, there are opportunities for all children.”

To understand those opportunities, educators toured Lilly’s manufacturing facilities and discovery laboratories, interacting with individuals at all levels of the company.

White said that by sharing the expertise and exposing teachers to the real-world components, he hopes educators can help students escape the mindset that STEM is only about becoming a doctor or engineer.

That’s teacher Heidi Wilkinson’s plan. Wilkinson, who is preparing to transfer from Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington to Northrop High School in Fort Wayne, recently took a group of STEM students to Lilly’s Indianapolis headquarters where they could see their coursework come to life.

“This is what the subject matter looks like in a job,” she said. “All these things that they’re learning, they actually have an application. Sometimes the best stuff you teach them is the stuff that’s not the required curriculum, but it’s the stuff you let them just get curious about.”

Wilkinson’s team created a lesson plan that focuses on critical thinking and working efficiently. Students will be given a mixture of balls that all look the same but have different weights. They must create a process to efficiently separate the balls into different weight classes.

“We’ve seen so much here that when Lilly creates a chemical they want to extract for some medicine, they have to make sure they have the right chemical,” Wilkinson said. “They have to make sure they have the right chemical and be able to separate it and take all the impurities out.”

At the end of the experiment, students will digest how the experiment can be applied to real life.

Wilkinson said she plans to implement the lesson plan in her own classroom to help students  gain a vision and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Oftentimes, Wilkinson said students complain about a lesson and ask how it applies to their future. Because educators find themselves on a schedule to meet content standards, it’s difficult for teachers to provide an explicit vision.

“To be able to give them that, whether it be, ‘What does this look like as a career?’ or ‘Hey, this is how it’s applicable,’ or ‘Hey, you can actually ask questions about this’ — that pulls them in,” Wilkinson said.

Both Kitts and Wilkinson agree that STEM education is taking a turn in a new direction. While meeting standards still matters, they want to adjust their focus on the skill sets that come as a result of STEM.

Perseverance and a willingness to learn, for example, are traits employers at Lilly look for, Kitts said.

“Someone asked, ‘What do you look for when you hire somebody?’” Kitts said. “[The chief science officer] said a willingness to learn. That’s the guy that’s at the top of the company.”

And on the floor, Kitts asked an engineer whether he ever feels overwhelmed at his job. The engineer said it was his first job out of college, and while he didn’t know a lot about the job at first, he was able to learn along the way.

“To see that from the top to the guy that’s doing the work, that really is valued is a big one because we want our kids to just be active learners,” Kitts said.

“You don’t have to be the A-plus-plus student in AP Biology. You can be the C-plus student in biology, but as long as you try and you have that willingness to learn and you’re interested in science, you don’t have to go to the top, but you can come out here and work and have a good career.”