It's the curriculum, stupid

Improving curriculum would provide more reform for less money than anything else pushed by reformers, writes Robert Pondiscio of Core Knowledge. He cites Russ Whitehurst’s research showing teacher quality, early childhood education, charter schools and standards don’t provide the brains for the bucks of better curriculum.

“We conclude that the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers,” writes Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences. He recommends the administration “integrate curriculum innovation and reform into its policy framework.”

The wonks went wild about Nicholas Kristof’s attack on teachers’ unions for protecting “inept and abusive teachers,” Pondiscio complains, while Whitehurst’s views got little notice.

Writing classes should teach writing

Grading papers for a graduate literature course, Professor Stanley Fish “became alarmed at the “inability of my students to write a clear English sentence,” he blogs at the New York Times. Most were instructors in the college’s composition program.  He discovered that only four of 104 composition sections focused on the craft of writing. In the other 100, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”

. . . I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.

Fish cites What Will They Learn? by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which criticizes general education requirements that let students earn math, science or foreign language credit for courses that don’t teach competency in the subject. As for writing, ACTA opposes giving credit for courses that require writing but don’t teach writing.

In order to qualify, a course must be devoted to “grammar, style, clarity, and argument.” The rationale behind these exclusions is compelling: mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject. You can tell when you are being taught a mathematical function or a scientific procedure or a foreign language or the uses of the subjunctive and when you are being taught something else.

The damage is done long before college, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Writing instruction – especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically.

The first step in good writing is to figure out what you want to say. But it’s not the only step. I worry about the journal fad, which encourages students to practice writing to themselves but doesn’t teach them how to communicate with other people.

Guess pass

New York students can score in Level 2 — good enough for promotion to the next grade — by guessing on the end-of-year exam, claims Diane Ravitch.

Is this really true? The guess pass works, concludes Diane Senechal on Gotham Schools.  She answered randomly on the multiple-choice question on the sixth-grade English test. She filled in A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D and so on. She left the written portions of the test blank, earning a zero for that section. Final score: Level 2.

She tried the seventh grade math test using her A, B, C, D method. Final score: Level 2.

While this approach does not result in a 2 for all the tests, it comes a bit too close for comfort, and another guessing system might work. A fifth grader told me that his father had told him, “Just mark ‘C’ for all of the answers, and you will pass.” On the fifth grade ELA test, this would indeed have resulted in a 2.

Via Core Knowledge Blog, which is back in action after a long lay-off due to technical problems.

Update: Dan Botteron used a random-number generator to take the two tests multiple times. On average, half the all-guess tries were scored Level 1 and half reached Level 2. In real life, only .1 percent of students scored at Level 1, he writes.

Common standards: Where's the content?

A draft of proposed common core state standards for high school students is available as a pdf. The English Language Arts and math standards are supposed to provide “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable.”

Dead on Arrival” writes Core Knowledge Blog, which was the first to provide the pdf link.

. . .  the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons – or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

. . . Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

. . . Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed. On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. complains that the standards ignore content knowledge. “They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

For example, students might have excellent reading skills but be unable to understand the sample text on covalent bonds because they don’t understand the science references.

This has been a hurry-up effort, so I’m not surprised at the lack of specifics. But I do wonder whether it would be better to start with the most-respected standards — Massachusetts’ — rather than starting from scratch.

The standards are a first draft that can be revised and improved, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson. She hopes for “clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read.”

Cargo Cult Education

Cargo Cult Education — the idea that it’s enough to “find what works, adopt it and spread it around ” — is all the rage, writes Allison at Kitchen Table Math in response to Curt Johnson’s Eduwonk post on innovation vs. replication.  She quotes physicist Richard Feynman on “Cargo Cult Science“:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Districts need to “understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’” in order to make a difference, Allison writes.

Reading instruction — all strategies and no substance — is an example, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Its entire point is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers. It’s the exactly the same thing – you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension – but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible.

The Music Man’s Harold Hill was ahead of his time. Buy the band uniforms and the instruments — look like a marching band — and you’ll never have to learn the notes.

Brits ask more of parents

British Education Secretary Ed Balls is promising parents better schools, but he wants parents to do their bit - or else.

In an interview, Balls told parents:

“If your child starts to fall behind, we should step in straight away and give one-to-one or small group tuition.”

 But there’s a kicker:

In return, parents will be under new obligations to support their child at school. They will have to sign stricter home school agreements and face fines of up to £1,000, enforced by the courts, if they fail to meet the conditions.

Like Core Knowledge Blog, I wonder about enforcement. What happens to the fines when the parents have no money? For that matter, can Britain really afford tutors for all students who fall behind?

Elementary specialists

The one teacher elementary classroom is on the way out in Palm Beach County, Florida.  Third through fifth graders will have four diferent teachers for reading/language arts, math, science and social studies. Some schools will use specialists for first and second grades, and even kindergarten, reports the Sun-Sentinel.

Administrators say subject-matter experts will improve learning. Parents want proof the middle-school specialization model works for young children.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.

I used to tutor at East Palo Alto Charter School, which uses math-science specialists starting in mid-elementary school.  Teachers who lack a strong math or science background can focus on teaching reading, writing and history. EPAC typically meets or exceeds state averages despite a high-poverty, all-minority student body with many English Language Learners. The math scores are especially strong.

Compulsory schooling to age 19?

Raise the age of compulsory education to 19 proposes Harold Levy, former New York City schools chanellor, in a New York Times op-ed.

Simply completing high school no longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the 21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary education.

The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better.

Levey’s other school fixes include an anti-truancy PR campaign, a pro-college PR campaign and improving K-12 education so students can handle college classes. In other words, many students aren’t developing the work ethic and academic skills to benefit from any form of higher education.

The old chicken-and-egg issue arises. Do the educated do better because they spent more years in a classroom? Or because they’re more motivated, hard-working and/or smart than those who drop out of high school or fail to take advantage of community college?

Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio writes:

Levy’s piece is a good example of what might be termed credentialism –favoring the prize over the accomplishment it represents.  While high school graduates may earn more and enjoy better health than dropouts, the diploma does not magically confer these benefits.  The person who has reached this level of achievement is also more likely to live a productive, stable life.  People with health club memberships might be in better shape than those without.  But it doesn’t follow that the key to health and longevity is to give every American a health club membership.  You have to be inclined to work out. . . .

It’s hard to see how flooding colleges with unprepared and unwilling students will do anything other than damage a productive higher ed system.

There are people for whom K-12 schooling isn’t working. More of the same isn’t likely to work any better.

Honey, I downsized the kids

Parenting calls for sacrifice, writes Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg. So he and his wife have laid off one of their children.

Reducing the two kids to part-time status proved unworkable.

One night, as I was tucking my daughter into bed, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Daddy, will you stay with me for a few minutes?”

“I would love to, sweetheart,” I said, “but it is the end of your shift.”

I won’t go into detail on her reaction. Suffice it to say she was unprofessional.

The three-year-old daughter had seniority. The five-month-old son was more cost-efficient. Which should go?

One night, our son released some toxic assets on his changing table, and we decided he would be the one to leave. But the next day, our daughter totally squandered our remaining grilled-cheese resources, and we were undecided again.

Rosenberg doesn’t reveal the final decision.

I used to joke with my daughter about how much I could get by selling her, but after awhile the value of a used child goes down. And I’d sunk so much into snacks.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.

Why not rush headlong into merit pay?

Current merit pay proposals are flawed for six reasons, Dan Willingham argues. Check out his video “Merit Pay, Teacher Pay, and Value-Added Measures.”

Then read the lively discussion at the Core Knowledge blog.

And see Diane Ravitch’s Bridging Differences column from April 21, “What’s Wrong With Merit Pay.”