curriculum conundrum

With new focus on curriculum, Gates Foundation wades into tricky territory

PHOTO: PROThomas Hawk

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

It’s part of a revamped strategy for the philanthropy, which has become one of the most influential forces in American education over the last two decades. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Much of that work has been divisive: Gates was a key player in the push for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.

By comparison, focusing on curriculum seems like a less controversial tack. But if history tells us anything about philanthropists’ role in pushing educational changes, it’s that these efforts prove more challenging than initially thought.

Here’s what we know about the curriculum push — and three tough issues the foundation will have to navigate.

First, what is the Gates Foundation actually doing?

Henry Hipps, a deputy director at the Gates Foundation who spearheads its work on curriculum, said the increased emphasis on the topic was driven by an emerging body of research — as well as feedback from educators and advocates — making the case for the importance of curriculum.

The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, Hipps said.

One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.

Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials.

And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

Doing all three means wading into a few key controversies. Morgan Polikoff — a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied curriculum materials — said that he was optimistic about Gates’ efforts, but cognizant of those risks.

“I think it’s probably better than the status quo, which is in essence incoherent curricula in most places,” said Polikoff, who has received funding from Gates. “But then again, I completely recognize that what I’m describing is probably exactly what was said about teacher evaluation in 2007 … and also Common Core.”

Flash point #1: This is all still intertwined with the Common Core, which remains a source of opposition among conservatives and some teachers.

If the Gates Foundation wants to make “high-quality” materials more widely available, someone has to decide what earns a curriculum that label. That’s a tricky and values-laden task.

Hipps says one of the key factors will be whether a curriculum aligns with “whatever locally selected standards exist.”

That’s where Common Core comes back. In most states, “locally selected standards” still means the Common Core, or something very much like it. Polls show mixed support for those standards among both parents and teachers, with Republicans in particular opposing it as it became closely associated with President Obama. (The creation of the academic standards was heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and pushed by the federal government, though states made the ultimate decisions about whether to adopt and keep them.)

Some curriculum creators are aware of this.

“We have issues in places like West Virginia and Texas where the Common Core is a bad word,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, a Gates-funded developer of curriculums that can be freely downloaded. In West Virginia, he said, the organization was asked to a create a virtually identical version of its content without references to the Common Core.

All of that means that quality labels based on a connection to Common Core may not be broadly, or easily, accepted — just like the standards themselves.

Flash point #2: Other ways of identifying a good curriculum are controversial, too.

Educators have debated what to teach and how to teach it since forever. And English, math, and science — the three subjects Gates says it will focus on in the next five years — each have their own fault lines.

Defining a good curriculum is “a subjective call,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “Part of the problem is who’s getting to define quality.”

Some of these issues have already bubbled up with a group known as EdReports, which bills itself a “consumer reports” for textbooks and teaching materials and is supported by Gates. After the group released initial ratings of math textbooks, its approach was criticized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for focusing on only a subset of the Common Core math standards, among other issues. (EdReports said it revised its approach in response to that and other feedback.)

Another way to judge different curriculums is to focus on which materials have been found to make the biggest impact on student achievement. Studies have shown that some textbooks do better than others, though differences tend to be fairly modest, roughly akin to moving a 50th percentile student up several percentage points.

It’s also possible that instructional materials won’t be equally effective in all schools. There’s not much research on this, but one recent study found that students of color in San Francisco benefitted from a class with an ethnic studies curriculum.

Hipps said Gates was aware that different schools and students might need different things. “One of the things that we hope would be included in high quality instructional materials are structured supports that help teachers adapt their material,” he said. “That’s another dimension of quality.”

Flash point #3: Teachers may be wary of curricular changes — and Gates’ influence.

Finally, there’s the question about how all of this will interact with teachers’ sense of control over their classrooms.  

Surveys show that virtually all teachers rely at least in part on materials they’ve developed or selected themselves. Is this a problem to be solved, or an example of teachers adapting materials for their particular context?

Hipps thinks the balance is tilted too far in one direction. “Too often [teachers] are left to scour the internet for hours to curate and tailor instructional materials for their students,” he said.

Many teachers, though, aren’t eager to have more forces pushing them to do specific things in their classrooms. The potential for conflict seems especially clear when you remember that defenders of the Common Core often argued that the standards were not curriculum and thus did not dictate how or what to teach. Now, Gates is diving right into that especially sensitive territory.

“Part of teaching is [using] your own expertise,” said Kathy Dahdal, an English teacher at a middle school in the Bronx who said teachers in her school work together to design a curriculum drawn from multiple sources.

Dahdal is encouraged by increased attention on curriculum, but said she would be skeptical of any efforts to turn ratings or recommendations into mandates. Tom Rademacher, a Minneapolis teacher and former state teacher of the year, recently wrote for Chalkbeat about how counterproductive it has felt to be told to use a standard curriculum.

“Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things,” Rademacher wrote.

José Vilson, a math teacher and author in New York City, is apprehensive about the foundation’s push. “I shudder to think what the Gates Foundation might do,” he said. “I’m always nervous about any organization with that education reform outlet coming into schools … because usually what follows is a lack of teacher input, a lack of student input.”

Hipps said the goal is not to get schools or districts to mandate a best curriculum, but to identify a variety of good choices.

“I don’t think there will ever be a one size fits all,” he said. “There should be some baseline by which those various options are deemed either high quality and good versus not, but there should always be variety.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.