Let teachers focus on teaching

Nearly every teacher finds or develops her own teaching materials, according to a new RAND study. Elementary school teachers often turn to Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). Nearly half of teachers spend more than four hours a week on this.

“Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the abilities of mere mortals,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Do you want your child’s teacher to have the time to analyze student work and develop a keen eye for diagnosing mistakes and misunderstandings? Do you want her to give your child rich and meaningful feedback on assignments and homework? How about developing warm and productive relationships with your child and your family?

Teachers should focus on how to teach, rather than what to teach, Pondiscio argues. Give them high-quality instructional materials.

A 2012 Brookings study by Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos demonstrated that the “effect size” of choosing a better second-grade math curriculum was larger than replacing a fiftieth-percentile teacher with a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher. This is a powerful result, especially considering that it’s relatively easy to give all children a better curriculum but extremely difficult to dramatically increase the effectiveness of their teachers. It’s cost-neutral too: A Center for American Progress report by Ulrich Boser and Chingos showed virtually no difference in price between effective and ineffective curricula.

“We want our best teachers to play a significant role in instructional design so that more children and teachers can benefit from their expertise,” he concludes. However, “twelve-plus years of a well-designed and sequenced curriculum would lead to better outcomes for children than the occasional year with a great yet isolated teacher.”

Low-income kids want college, but few are prepared

Ninety-six percent of low-income ACT takers plan to enroll in college, yet only 11 percent are prepared to pass college classes, concludes an ACT analysis.

Half the students in the lowest income quartile failed to meet any of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science.

Forty-five percent of low-income students met the English benchmark, compared to 64 percent of all students and 26 were ready for college reading, versus 44 percent of all student. Only 23 percent tested as proficient in math and 18 percent in science, roughly half the numbers for all students.

Not surprisingly, low-income students who take a “core or more” curriculum (four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies) do better than peers take a lighter load. While only 25 percent of “core-or-more” students from lower-income families met the benchmark, that compares to 4 percent of less-than-core students.

However, African-American students who complete the recommended college-prep curriculum are much less likely to be prepared for college than other core-or-more students, reports ACT and the United Negro College Fund.

These students may be taking classes with a “college prep” label but watered-down content, lower expectations or less-qualified teachers, said Steve Kappler, a vice president at ACT.

Core-or-more blacks met the ACT college readiness benchmark at a rate of 36 percent in English, 19 percent in reading, 15 percent in math and 11 percent in science.

Nationally, 67 percent of students who took the core or more met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in English, 47 met it in reading, 46 in math and 41 in science—essentially anywhere from double to triple the rate of African-American students who took the core or more.

“A vast majority of African-American students desire a postsecondary education, but they’re clearly not prepared for it,” said Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF. “We must work together to bridge that gap from aspiration to reality by providing quality education and policies focused on college readiness.”

How schools make kids smarter

Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know,”writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in The Atlantic. That includes “both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.”

Intelligence has two components. One is akin to mental horsepower—how many pieces of information a person can keep in mind simultaneously, and how efficiently that person can use it. Researchers measure this component with simple tasks like comparing the lengths of two lines as quickly as possible, or reciting a list of digits backwards.

The other component of intelligence is like a database: It entails the facts someone knows and the skills he or she has acquired—skills like reading and calculating. That’s measured with tests of vocabulary and world knowledge.

Going to school boosts IQ primarily by increasing students’ knowledge, writes Willingham. People with more schooling aren’t faster at mental judgments, research shows.  High-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower.

It’s the knowledge, stupid

Adults remember more than they realize about subjects studied years earlier in school, writes Willingham. “Knowledge sticks if it’s revisited.”

“It’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives,” he writes, and to revisit subjects over several years to make knowledge memorable.

Beware of bite-sized curricula

Buying bites of curriculum is popular these days, reports Education Week. Districts “mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.”

A tapas-style curriculum can be awesome — or a disaster, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog.

“It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum” that serves as a scaffold.

Without such a curriculum, “a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition.” Some students will get “mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.”

In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture.

For all the talk about “learning how to learn,” little is said about “what makes it possible to learn new things quickly,” writes Marc Tucker. “Learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.”

Time travel, invention and history

In David Hunter’s Making History, time travelers visit different historical eras to invent or discover important breakthroughs using the knowledge and resources available at the time. Projects integrate science, math and writing.

A former social studies and language arts teacher, Hunter designed Zombie-Based Learning, which teaches geography. He builds free curriculum-design tools for teachers at ThemeSpark.net.

Here’s the kickstarter.

Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy

Julius Caesar’s assassination was “mean,” said one of Bridgit McCarthy’s third graders.

“JC helped get France for them — except it was, you know, Gaul back then,” said another. “Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.” 

But students remembered last week’s lesson. “Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings.”

McCarthy teaches at New Dimensions, a public charter school in North Carolina that uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. Students learn about world civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt in first grade, ancient Greece in second grade and ancient Rome in third. They enjoy it, she says.

A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

Children can learn a great deal in the early grades if teachers use “a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other,” concludes McCarthy on Core Knowledge Blog.

The man behind Common Core math

Hechinger’s Sarah Garland profiles Jason Zimba, The Man Behind Common Core Math for NPR.

Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Jason Zimba begins a math tutoring session for his two young daughters with the same ritual. Claire, 4, draws on a worksheet while Abigail, 7, pulls addition problems written on strips of paper out of an old Kleenex box decorated like a piggy bank.

If she gets the answer “lickety-split,” as her dad says, she can check it off. If she doesn’t, the problem goes back in the box, to try the following week.

“I would be sleeping in if I weren’t frustrated,” Zimba says of his Saturday-morning lessons, which he teaches in his pajamas. He feels the math instruction at Abigail’s public elementary school in Manhattan is subpar — even after the school switched to the Common Core State Standards.

And four years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, he spends his weekends trying to make up for what he considers the lackluster curriculum at his daughter’s school, and his weekdays battling the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the Common Core.

Zimba met David Coleman, who’d become the man behind Common Core English Language Arts, when they were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford.

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

In 1999, they started the Grow Network, which produced reports analyzing test results for districts, including New York City, and states, including California. McGraw-Hill eventually bought the business.

Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington, where Coleman’s mother was president. He started a “quirky math and parenting blog,” writes Garland.

In 2007, Coleman and Zimba wrote a paper for the Carnegie Foundation arguing for clarifying “vast and vague standards.” Two years later, they were picked to lead the standards-writing effort.

The backlash started in 2013, when states started using Core-aligned tests and gained force in 2014, writes Garland.

. . . a dad in North Carolina posted a convoluted “Common Core” question from his son’s second-grade math quiz on Facebook, along with a letter he’d written to the teacher. “I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronics Engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other high-math applications,” he wrote. “Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.”

Zimba and his colleagues agree it’s a bad problem. But they didn’t write it. Their standards “don’t include lesson plans, or teaching methods,” writes Garland.

They blame the implementation. Standards and tests aren’t enough, Zimba now believes. “I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough,” he says. “In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test.” Now, he says, “I think it’s curriculum.”

Why do teachers hate Common Core?

What is it teachers truly hate about the Common Core? asks Shawna on The Picture Book Teacher’s Edition.
The Picture Book Teacher's Edition common core

In Why I Want to Give Up Teaching Elizabeth A. Natalie complains that, “In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt’s beloved novel Tuck Everlasting.”

Her worth as a teacher will be based on how well her students do on the new Core-aligned exams.

Shawna also links to Robert Pondiscio’s column, What’s Right About Common Core.

It makes sense to have students read more nonfiction, writes Pondiscio. Reading in different genres — “recipes, instructions on how to put something together, a contract, medical news, political views, sales ads and disclaimers, and reasons for or against something” — is a key to functioning in the world.

Pondiscio also says “Broad general knowledge of the world correlates with reading comprehension — the more you know, the more you take from reading.”

Common Core aims to achieve a “knowledge-rich curriculum,” but it’s school districts’ job to develop a curriculum for teachers to teach. “Has your district given you quality content?” asks Shawna.

Do I hate the Common Core Standards or the curriculum (or lack of) my district has given me?”

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the data that my district, the state, and the government are requiring me to track?

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the fact that I have to teach areas and content in which I am not used to or uncomfortable teaching?

Great teachers “take the standards, the curriculum and what they know is right and they just teach,” concludes Shawna. “They are having meaningful discussions about fiction books, they are using technical vocabulary when reading nonfiction texts, they are talking through different strategies for solving one math problem, and they are showing what they know in their writing and answers.”

Skimping on academics

When 20 Texas schools tried to emulate the practices of effective charters, gains were small in math and nonexistent in reading, notes Dan Willingham.

District schools couldn’t afford to lengthen the school day or provide tutoring in all grades and subjects, he writes. “It may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.”

Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.