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March 9, 2011 standard

As a element of the curriculum reform movement, Core Knowledge is one of the best inproviding rigorous, high-quality content to students. I am as much a fan of it as most school reformers. On the other hand, the criticisms of the rest of the school reform movement by its advocates can sometimes be so lacking in thoughtfulness that eyes roll and mouths sighs.

This is especially true when it comes to teacher quality reform. From Dan Willingham’s video rant that value-added measurement of student data shouldn’t be used in evaluating teachers (despite the fact that the method stands up to overall scrutiny as a tool in measuring teacher performance) to resident mouthpiece Robert Pondisco’s complaints about efforts to improve teaching by such gurus as Doug Lemov and Steve Farr, the essential argument posited by the Core Knowledge crowd is that systemic reform of how we recruit, train, compensate and evaluate teachers is rather meaningless. In fact, one would dare surmise that they think the status quo is perfectly fine (even if it endangers the futures of the children about which they care).

From where the Core Knowledge crowd sits, the focus should mostly be on improving the quality of curricula (preferably what they offer) with some small stabs at better training of — and support for — teachers. At the heart of their argument is the belief that teachers aren’t part of the problem; what should be done is make teachers in the classroom more effective at their work with high-quality curricula and better support. Once that is done, student achievement will improve.

Yet the formula for reform offered by Core Knowledge is also essentially flawed. Why? Because it essentially declares that curriculum is the silver bullet of school reform while ignoring the importance of teacher quality.

As my colleague, Steve Peha, touched upon in his piece yesterday on the importance of improving literacy as part of school reform (and as I have also hit upon in the past to Pondisco’s annoyance), it is easy to talk about the importance of background knowledge in literacy. It is more difficult to actually provide the kind of high-quality instruction needed to help kids learn it. The teacher needs to have strong subject-matter competency, empathy for children, a mindset of high expectations, good classroom management skills, and strong instructional methods that helps kids memorize and think through what they have learned. And the teacher usually needs all this in place at a base level before they enter the classroom. Handing teachers a high-quality curriculum alone won’t work.

Here’s the thing: A high-quality teacher with a poorly constructed curricula will not achieve all that she can in improving student achievement. But as proven by great teachers such as Jaime Escalante and John Taylor Gatto, high-quality teachers usually have the capability to overcome these issues or at least just muddle through; they usually have the tools — including subject-matter competency — needed for both instruction and curriculum development. They would achieve even better results with high-quality curriculum, but they will still get great results because they have what it takes to succeed in the classroom.

On the other side, a low-quality teacher with a high-quality curriculum will still be a lousy teacher. They will not have the talent needed to improve student achievement. As we have learned over the past couple of decades thanks to the studies of Dan Goldhaber (along with recent reports such as the Los Angeles Times’ series on teacher quality in Los Angeles Unified schools), teacher performance doesn’t improve significantly after the four years. While better instructional methods, stronger support and better curriculum may help laggard teachers overcome some of their deficiencies, none of this will paper over the reality that they shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.

This isn’t to say that curricula isn’t critical. Dropout Nation has made the point that all children need high-quality curricula (including that provided by Core Knowledge) alongside high-quality teaching, strong school leadership, school choice, parent power, and high expectations in order to foster the cultures of geniuses needed for all children to succeed in school and life. The point is that there is no one silver bullet; every element is needed.The Core Knowledge crowd aren’t the only ones who overstate the importance of one element of reform and forget the rest; the only-one-solution mindset is a problem endemic to the entire school reform movement. But in shortchanging the importance of teacher quality, the Core Knowledge gang are also weakening the impact of their own silver bullet. All that great curricula goes to waste when it ends up in the hands of laggard teachers (and atrocious schools).

Let’s give Willingham, Pondisco and founding father E.D. Hirsch credit. They are emphasizing an important element of reforming American public education that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves from the Beltway reformers and the teacher quality crowd. At the same time, they shortchange the importance of improving the quality of America’s teaching corps. As Adlai Stevenson would say, their efforts on reforming curriculum is appealing, but their shortsightedness on teacher quality is absolutely appalling.

October 21, 2010 standard

The single-biggest problem in discussions about reforming American public education is that nearly all players think their belief is gospel. Both defenders of traditional public education’s status quo, and school reformers hold certain ideas that they think lead to the one and only solution (or the most-important solution of all). The reality is that it will take a wide array of solutions — including ending the culture of mediocrity and disdain for data that permeates throughout our schools and districts today.

Dropout Nation has spent pages and podcasts taking down some of those viewpoints — including the notion that poverty is the underlying cause of achievement gaps and the nation’s dropout crisis, and that some kids are incapable of handling college prep curricula. At the same time, we have also made clear that school choice is just one imperfect (and sometimes incomplete) answer to solving our dropout crisis. Below are some more beliefs that are sorely mistaken: need to be embraced with other aspects of reform:

It’s All About Standards: Embraced by the standards and accountability types in the school reform movement (including supporters of the new Common Core State Standards), it’s based on a belief that more-rigorous curriculum standards will help in holding schools and districts accountable for results, in developing tests that actually measure what students are learning and in structuring better curricula and instructional practices. This certainly makes sense. After all, without standards for learning, schools, districts and states would simply continue with the decades of educational malpractice that has led to the current woes within public education.

The problem? Start with the reality that standards won’t mean much is school curricula isn’t aligned with them. Essentially, one can create rigorous standards and explain clearly what every child should learn — and it will be useless without assuring that the curricula follows according to them. This is a critical issue because so many of the curriculum developers are either skeptical of the underlying rationale for the standards or (wrongly)  any kind of curriculum standards whatsoever.

The second problem lies with how to ensure that that the standards are actually being enforced at the school level; essentially one will have to hope that everyone involved behaves honorably (unlikely) or that a state or federal agency will hold feet to the fire (which, based on past history, still means more gamesmanship). States have struggled with this challenge for decades. Thanks to the embrace of Common Core, this will now be a national struggle as well. While folks such as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute dance around the issue by arguing that a national non-profit board can handle the job, past experience (including that of the U.S. Department of Education with some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act) suggests otherwise.

Ultimately, you must still improve teacher quality (along with developing more-rigorous and aligned curricula) in order to make all this work.  This means ed schools must be overhauled in order to better recruit and train teachers. It also means expanding the pool of alternative teacher training programs, and expanding Teach For America and other existing programs.

It’s All About Curriculum: The flip-side is the line of argument advanced by Robert Pondisco and his employers at Core Knowledge, among others. It is based on a couple of rather seductive notions with the usual rings of truth. The first: That teachers are only as good as the curriculum they use in instruction. The second: That standards are meaningless without strong content that provides students both with skills and background knowledge

But as with so many beliefs, rings of truth  doesn’t mean absolute truth. Forget for a moment that none of the groups actually agree on which curricula is best for improving student achievement in any subject (much less all subjects): The  curriculum-is-the-solution crowd forget that curricula doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by a series of underlying standards, goals and beliefs; it is taught by teachers who must have the subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial drive and care for the lives of children needed to be good instructors; and the underlying rigor (including teacher and curriculum evaluation) must be reinforced by  strong, thoughtful principals and superintendents. If the curricula is divorced from standards, then it will be ineffective and will cause systemic problems up and down the line (including frustrating efforts to evaluate teachers and the most-important matter of all — ensuring every child learns). If the curricula is taught by lousy teachers, the kids won’t learn. And if school leadership doesn’t do its job of fostering a culture of genius, high-quality curriculum will become low-quality in an instant.

As standards is only one part of the formula for school reform, so is curriculum. Standards and curricula both need to be of high-quality in order to be worth their respective salts. And you need systemic reforms in place in order to assure that the curricula does its job.

It’s All About  Economic Desegregation: The usual line trotted out by the Jerry Orfield-Richard Kahlenberg crowd is one based on the Civil Rights Movement concept of integration and busing. Minorities and the poor, according to this view, can’t receive the same quality of education as their white middle-class peers unless they attend school with these peers. Based on this logic, it’s better to just ship poor kids to the schools attended by middle class kids instead of improving the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods.

Kahlenberg in particular has spent the past two decades trotting out studies and school districts that supposedly prove this line of thinking. A couple of decades ago, it was Wake County, N.C. (even though its achievement gaps were never truly closed and the desegregation effort involved only a smattering of all students). These days, it is the D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Md., the subject of a recent report by Heather Schwartz, a Rand Corp., researcher brought in by  Kahlenberg’s employer, the Century Foundation. This, despite the fact that Montgomery County (in which only 65 percent of black males graduate from high school, according to the Schott Foundation  for Public Education) isn’t exactly the model Kahlenberg and Schwartz claim it to be.

What I’m saying, to be kind, is that Kahlenberg and Orfield are touting a strategy (originally developed by an earlier generation of civil rights activists out of political necessity) that hasn’t worked in improving student achievement. If anything, integration has done more to keep poor and minority kids from getting high-quality education in their own neighborhoods. Magnet schools, for example, haven’t

The biggest problem with integration is that it tacitly argues that there is no way to improve the quality of education our poorest kids receive in their own neighborhoods; in essence, no one should bother reforming education so poor kids can have high-quality schools in the communities in which they live. This view ignores the success charter schools operators such as the Knowledge Is Power Program and Catholic diocesan schools in improving student achievement right in those very neighborhoods. There are other words for it, but we’ll keep them out of this family publication.

Integration is no substitute for complete, systemic and much-needed overhaul of American public education.

It Comes Down to Working Things Out at the School Level: A good number of folks, including Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, articulates this perspective (which is what used to be called site-based or school-based decision-making). From where they sit,  school bureaucracies, policymaking bodies and legislative edicts merely set up a framework for school activity — and not even a good one at that. Ultimately, the people best-suited to deciding school activities — from curriculum to hiring, evaluating and compensating teachers — are school principals,  who are closest to the ground. This perspective makes sense on its face: No matter how robust the school data system or well-informed the superintendent or state legislator, these players aren’t anywhere near the classroom and cannot observe every bit of activity that happens daily in schools.

But the school-based decision-making viewpoint ignores the complex structure that is American public education, one in which hiring and firing decisions are made not by principals and not even by superintendents, but largely controlled by collective bargaining agreements, state laws and federal and state regulations. Moving all teacher hiring-and-firing decisions down to principals (a move taken in New York City) definitely helps

If we moved to a private sector-driven education system, fully decentralized all districts or even adapted the Hollywood Model — my formula for reforming governance and delivery of education — then the site-based approach would work. Until then, we must reform every aspect of American public education in a systematic way.

You have to make all teachers better: This belief, held by many teachers union officials and teachers such as 2009 California Teacher of the Year Alex Kajitani and David B. Cohen, assumes that every teacher is capable of high-quality instruction. From where they sit, teachers need help developing their classroom instruction. Performance management should not use objective student performance data (especially test data) for hiring and firing teachers; instead, evaluations (along with so-called peer review) should be used to help laggards get better.

Nothing wrong with trying to believe that. But in the real world, some folks just aren’t fit for certain jobs. This doesn’t mean that they are terrible people and it doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in other lines of work. What it does mean that they won’t do a good-to-great job — be they lack the skills, talent, temperament or desire — in a particular field. No matter how much additional training or assistance they receive, they won’t do any better. Teachers are no exception. An instructor is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. This means that a teacher that is poor-performing after four years in the classroom is unlikely to get any better 21 years down the line (and vice versa for her high-quality colleague). Given everything that we know at this moment about the impact of high-quality and low-quality teaching, we can’t afford to continue exposing kids to instruction by teachers who don’t make the grade.

Teachers union bosses and teachers have to face this reality: Many of of their colleagues lack either the subject competency, empathy for children, or entrepreneurial zeal needed to be high-quality teachers. Quite a few lack all three characteristics. They are all too willing to mire themselves, their students and their colleagues in mediocrity in order to collect their paychecks. These teachers cannot be made better. The best solution is to improve how we recruit and train teachers, and develop performance management systems that separate good-to-great teachers from those who aren’t.

Editor’s Note: Originally, I had mentioned that Core Knowledge was opposed to standards. Robert Pondisco took time to note that Core Knowledge did support Common Core. For accuracy’s sake, I have made the proper correction. Apologies to all for the error.

July 4, 2010 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I examine arguments made by Charles Murray and others that American students don’t need high-quality college prep curricula — and explain why such thinking is mistaken. As nearly every aspect of the American economy — and the global economy at large — has become knowledge-based, every job (including blue-collar positions) require strong skills in algebra, trigonometry and the kind of knowledge that used to only be required for college. College prep curricula is also fundamental for American society to keep its place as the economy and culture in which even the poorest can rise to the top.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also, add the podcast on Viigo, if you have a BlackBerry, iPhone or Android phone.

June 27, 2010 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I elaborate on famed teacher John Taylor Gatto‘s signature quote that we should educate from the perspective that almost all children are geniuses. The emergence of high-quality alternatives to traditional public education, along with research on child development and teacher quality shows that all children can succeed if we foster a culture of genius in American public education.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also, access it on Viigo.

June 24, 2010 standard

For those further interested in learning how to solve America’s reading crisis — especially among young boys — that I discussed earlier this week in The American Spectator, listen to one of Dropout Nation’s most-popular podcasts. As I’ve noted, young men (and women) who have difficulty reading will also struggle with math and their other studies, contributing to low academic achievement and exacerbating the nation’s dropout crisis.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, MP3 player or smartphone. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean.

June 21, 2010 standard

The argument over whether kids need high-quality curricula -- and higher education -- is redundant and moot in this day in age. Every child needs high-quality education. (Photo courtesy of Forbes)

A dominant debate in education reform is over whether or not students should have to take on high-quality, college-preparatory curricula or should be able to choose a vocational-oriented curricula that allows them to get jobs immediately. Defenders of the first group (including the Gates Foundation and Kevin Carey of the Education Sector) rightly point out that children need college prep curricula in order to avoid being part of the 50 percent or more of college freshmen who end up in remedial courses and thus never graduate. The other side (a motley crew that includes Charles Murray and defenders of traditional public education) argues that far too many kids are going to college anyway, that they are going for degrees in jobs that don’ t actually need higher levels of preparation, that the curricula is too challenging for most kids, and that they would be best apprenticing for positions.

This isn’t a new argument. In fact, it is as old as the debate over whether high schools should be college prep-oriented (as legendary Harvard University president Charles Eliot envisioned and successfully pushed in the late 19th century) or the comprehensive track-based system that has been predominant for the past 70 years. The racialist origins of the latter (that blacks and immigrants couldn’t succeed academically) notwithstanding, the argument remains active especially in the age of No Child Left Behind and modern school reform. For those who believe in vocational education — shop classes and the like — the emphasis on academic curricula to them is a bias against blue-collar work.

But a list compiled earlier this month by Forbes should put an end to this counterproductive argument. The evidence is clear: All kids need a high-quality curricula that prepares them for higher education of all kinds, be it college, vocational college or apprenticeships.

The list, America’s Best Paying Blue-Collar Jobs, notes that just about all the top-paying positions that don’t involve working at a desk require some form of higher education. An elevator repairman and installer, for example, must apprentice for four years before being ready to take on a complex job that involves aspects of mechanical engineering, structural engineering and electrical engineering. Another position, rotary drill operators in the oil industry, usually need to have an Associate’s degree in order to get through the door. Electrical and electronics installers — including those who work on power plants and substations — also need community college education and will spend a few years working alongside veterans to gain experience. The only job that doesn’t require such experience (in theory) are long-hall truck drivers; even then, many of them go to technical school to learn how to drive big rigs and buses (if they don’t already have such experience from working at Greyhound).

In essence, all of these positions require some sort of higher education — not in the 19th century sense of just the Ivy League campus, but in a much-older sense of apprenticeships, technical colleges and yes, traditional private and public universities. This shouldn’t be a surprise. As I’ve mentioned on this site, welders need higher-level math skills such as trigonometry just to qualify for apprenticeships within the automotive industry, and machine tool-die manufacturers are often experts in algebra, calculus and other mathematical subjects. Highly-skilled blue-collar professionals need high-level math skills — and the underlying reading skills that help young men and women learn how to master the underlying symbols and knowledge that girds all of mathematics — as much as their white-collar counterparts.

The coming generation faces even more complexity. Thanks to the Internet and the advancement of data systems in every sector, mastering statistics  is now critical for journalists, marketers and many other white-collar and blue-collar professionals. Plumbers — often cited by opponents of high-quality curricula as the ultimate high-pay no-skill job — requires technical education (and strong underlying K-12 education) in order to make it. Even auto repair work — once grease monkey work in the minds of previous generations — is now a knowledge-based sector thanks to the widespread use of computers in engines and other sections of cars.

What all children need is a high-quality curricula, no matter where they live or what school they attend, in order to choose their own path in a much-more expanded concept of higher education that includes traditional college, vocational school, community colleges and apprenticeships.  So do our communities, especially the poor urban communities that suffer as a result of the failures of dropout factories and the rest of traditional public education; they cannot be revived without a core group of middle-class white-collar and blue-collar professionals to lead the way. So does society: Plumbers should be able to easily cite Chaucer in polite conversation, if they so choose; after all, Western Culture cannot survive and thrive without highly-educated people at every level and professional rank. If we all truly believe in lifelong learning, eliminating all limitations on that is crucial to encouraging all children to become well-studied adults.

It is no longer a question of whether children need high-quality, higher ed-driven curricula or not. It is a question of whether they will get it before we all pay the price. Or in short, the Kevin Careys and the Charles Murrays just need to stop arguing and get to work.