Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

Hysteresis and the Legacy of Industrialization

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I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.

The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.

This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis. As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.

Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.

Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”

“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”

The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”

Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.

In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.

 

Research: The Industrial Revolution Left Psychological Scars That Can Still Be Seen Today, Martin Obschonka / Harvard Business Review

NY Education Officials Make the Wrong Move on Charter School Teacher Induction

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The New York state education department has filed a lawsuit to block a controversial new rule allowing certain charter schools to certify their own teachers, claiming that the regulations will “erode the quality of teaching” across the state.

New York education officials move to block rules allowing some charter schools to certify their own teachers, Monica Disare / Chalkbeat NY

I find this to be a highly questionable move by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. And the only way I can make sense of it is that they feel threatened by charter networks and want to exert greater state authority over charter autonomy.

Let me preface my argument by sharing my view of charter schools, since it is such an apparently contentious area of our politics. I work for and believe in NY public schools, and I do not buy into the ed reform narrative that public schools are all failing and charter schools should supplant them.

But I also don’t buy into the opposing narrative that charter schools are “privatizing” education and destroying public education. Or that they only “cream” high achieving students in order to derive mind-boggling results.

There are practices and operations from the charter sector that are incredibly valuable, and there are charter networks and schools that are doing incredible work serving their communities and students that should be scaled and emulated, especially here in NYC. And at this point in the game, the research on the charter sector in general is pretty darn convincing — unless you’re only reading Diane Ravitch’s or Valerie Strauss’s blog, in which case you’re the education equivalent of Trump watching Fox & Friends.

Highly effective charter operations have built an infrastructure around teaching and learning that can accelerate student learning. In too many public schools, we leave teachers and administrators on their own when it comes to communicating and supporting what effective instruction looks like. We all too often give them vague platitudes, complex compliance rules, and abstract concepts and then say, “Here, go apply this! Good luck!” and blame them when our initiatives don’t garner the results we expect.

That’s why I believe charters have their place alongside district schools. Their relative autonomy provides them with the leeway to develop more direct and intensive on-the-ground supports. And we should be learning from the best of them, just as we should be learning from all of the best of our schools that are performing contrary to expectations.

At the same time, I believe charters should be regulated, and that it’s the state’s prerogative to do so.

So Rosa’s and Elia’s pushback makes kneejerk sense in that they feel the need to exert state control over the charter sector in order to ensure positive student outcomes—which they are ultimately responsible for, regardless of the type of school.

But in the long-term, it really doesn’t make sense when you consider that NY’s charters are already well-regulated, and that the charter networks already in operation, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP, Democracy Prep, and Success Academy, have a demonstrated track record of success.

These are networks that have extensive infrastructure built around instruction and accountability. They can take a new teacher with no certification and accelerate their ability. And if that new teacher doesn’t demonstrate results, they’ll get rid of them. That’s what being a charter school provides the leeway for.

So let them take unexperienced and uncertified entrants into the profession and develop them. And then when those new entrants get tired of having all their time drained away with few benefits from the charter school they’re working for, they’ll move into the public system with some solid training and experience.

Let’s be honest. Charter networks will probably do a far better job of preparing new teachers than the majority of our state’s certified teacher preparation programs. And this will be of ultimate benefit to the learning of NY state’s children, which our state officials can then take credit for.

The Historical Legacy of Place

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We’ve spoken here often about the need for a long-term perspective in education reform, as well as explored the concept of hysteresis.

A recent study,Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.

We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.

After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”

“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.

 

 

Smorgasbord: The politics of Ed

Chalkbeat takes a look at De Blasio’s campaign promises on education and how they’ve played out

Overall, seems to me De Blasio & Farina have rolled out some pretty solid stuff when you look at it as a whole, minus the politics. I think the district restructuring is a mixed bag and the top-down management is problematic, but the smooth roll-out of pre-K services, and Single Shepherd and AP and College Access programs will be gamechangers for kids in the long run.

Where we need to keep pushing De Blasio and Farina: autonomy and accountability for school leaders, reducing partisanship over charters and choice, and fighting segregation.

There’s always plenty to criticize in any Mayor or Chancellor’s reign. I’ve gotten into frequent arguments with my colleagues about Bloomberg and Klein’s administration because I’m unwilling to paint their leadership and policies with one broad stroke of good/bad. Let’s talk about what is working and criticize what’s not.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made many education promises. Here’s what he’s delivered so far — and what he hasn’t, Chalkbeat NY

Speaking of critique–here’s the problem with the way we talk about improvement in ed

David Cantor at the 74 has insightful analysis of NY politics and how it’s affecting the Mayoral Control debate–and the way we talk about education.

“Preschools don’t yield the hard, annual data markers that reputations and public support are built on. The measurable impact of the program likely won’t reveal itself to researchers until this mayor is no longer in office.”

He’s right. This is one of the fundamental problems with how we look at education. If we are only focused on the short-term, then all we will get is short-term effects, which may ultimately be detrimental.

Here’s a case in point. Due to the outsized focus on test scores in elementary schools, many principals place their most effective teachers in the 3rd grade or higher, because that’s the grades that are tested. But a far better strategy, in the long-term, would be to place your hard-hitters in the earliest grades, because that investment will better build the foundations for learning that many kids desperately need.

Similarly, principals talk about focusing all their attention and resources on their “pushables”–the kids who are at the upper borders of a 1 or 2 or 3 on the state test. So what’s going to happen to the students that aren’t so labeled? And what’s going to happen to the coherence in your instruction across your school?

Interestingly, some reform pundit focus in response to Cantor’s cogent article is to highlight his criticism of De Blasio’s renewal school bloatware and his antipathy to the media. But here’s what Cantor says right after that:

There may be something more: apathy. Not his; ours. Fixing schools is difficult work; it’s slow; you lose people’s attention. “People are more concerned about the subways,” said Weisberg.

Holding attention is essential to warding off politicians and being able to do “the hard work that has to happen inside schools,” as Henig says.”

Indeed. The real work of education is incremental, it’s hard, and it won’t grab many headlines.

Analysis: The Fierce Fight Over Mayoral Control Reflects De Blasio’s Weakness on Education, the 74

Speaking of surface level judgments . . . college teachers grade attractive students higher

This result, they add, was “driven mainly by courses taught by male instructors.”

ATTRACTIVE STUDENTS GET HIGHER GRADES, Pacific Standard

All charters can’t be painted with the same brush–just like public schools

Sara Mead argues that “it’s hard to make any single statement that accurately characterizes the national charter school landscape as a whole.”

Indeed. It’s hard to make any single statement that accurately characterizes schools period. This is one of the core issues about how we talk about schools, whether public, charter, or private.

Look Beyond the Acela Corridor, US News

Lessons on desegregation from Dallas

1) Open up admissions (a lottery system, rather than selective admissions)

2) Set aside a certain percentage for low-income students

Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity, NY Times

A new study says that diverse classrooms increase student well-being

In the more diverse schools, “kids have more opportunity to have cross-race friendships and then they become protective,” Graham said. “So if you’re in a diverse school and you’ve made friends with people from different racial and ethnic groups then they help protect you, they help introduce you to kids in their ethnic, racial group, there’s more opportunities to find your niche and fit in.”

New research: student well-being higher in diverse schools, KPCC

EdBuild releases a report on the secession of white parents from school districts that deepens segregation

“Alabama makes it particularly easy for small towns to secede from a larger school district, but 30 states have processes codified in state law that allow for secession, some more permissive than others. Procedures range from only a majority vote in a small, breakaway neighborhood in some states to a multistep process involving a state agency or legislative approval in others.”

Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts, EdBuild

Privatizing (aka “optimizing”) public services

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was focusing on technology this week. He said there was “a lot of room for optimization in the federal government.”

What does “optimizing” our public institutions and services mean?

“Cook, the Apple CEO, requested that computer coding be taught in every public school. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said workers need more skills for a technology-based economy. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged the government to use commercial technology to save money and develop artificial intelligence to improve government services.

Venture capitalist John Doerr asked for the government to open up its databases to private firms, saying it would transform health care.”

In other words, use public institutions to serve private interests. Hmm. What does serving public interests mean again now?

Tech CEOs visit White House to talk modernizing government, AP

The ecosystem metaphor is used to argue for an ed reform focus on two-parent families

“The education reform community has a unique responsibility as keepers of perhaps the remaining civic institution—public schools—that interacts with almost every child for prolonged periods almost every week (or at least the thirty-six weeks of the school year). That is why two-generation solutions such as a parent-home-visiting program or the Success Sequence should be explored as part of a core curriculum, given the data that show it’s nearly impossible for a poor person to remain poor if that person makes a series of life choices—finish high school, secure a job, and get married before having a child, in that order.”

If not us, who will make humans human? If not now, a new generation of fragile families looms., Flypaper

Chester Finn slams book promoting free-for-all marketplace from charter school advocates

Finn uses some choice words against a recent book from charter school advocates that promotes reduced accountability to increase parental choice:

This is idiocy. It’s also entirely unrealistic in the ESSA era. It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry. Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves “public.”

I wish more folks understood that education is a public good.

New book from charter school advocates offers lots of bad advice, Flypaper