On Knowledge and Curriculum

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Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

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Scalia and Friedrichs v CTA: The Stakes Have Changed

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Jarek Tuszynski / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A month ago, I examined the SCOTUS case of Friedrichs v. CTA, and forecast that Friedrichs had a 65% probability of winning. However, Justice Scalia’s sudden death has completed shifted the prospects for this case. I now believe that it is unlikely that Friedrichs can win. If I had to pin a probability on it, I’d move closer to 40% now.

Here’s more on SCOTUSblog on this:

“If Justice Scalia was part of a five-Justice majority in a case – for example, the Friedrichs case, in which the Court was expected to limit mandatory union contributions – the Court is now divided four to four.  In those cases, there is no majority for a decision and the lower court’s ruling stands, as if the Supreme Court had never heard the case.  Because it is very unlikely that a replacement will be appointed this Term, we should expect to see a number of such cases in which the lower court’s decision is “affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

The most immediate and important implications involve that union case.  A conservative ruling in that case is now unlikely to issue.” [Bold added]

UPDATE 2/14/16:

Well, looks like I’ll need to readjust that probability back up  based on some new information from SCOTUSblog. I’m readjusting up to 50% now. It looks like it’s possible that rather than allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand, which in the case of Friedrichs, would be for CTA, the court may wait to rule until a new justice is in place. If that is indeed the case, then it’s essentially a 50/50 probability, since whether Obama can get a justice nominated who is remotely liberal before the presidential election is up in the air.

The practice of holding reargument is important for three kinds of cases that are now pending.  First, in cases in which the more liberal side won in the court of appeals (for example, the Friedrichs union fees case), that side will be deprived of an affirmance by an equally divided Court.  It could well lose if Justice Scalia is succeeded by another conservative.”

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools

By Philip Kanellopoulos, http://www.deiwos.org (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last Monday evening, I attended an interesting event at Brooklyn Law School, “Opportunities and Challenges in Integrating NYC’s Public Schools.”

On the panel were City Council members Ritchie Torres and Brad Lander, who co-wrote an op-ed on the issue, and worked to pass the School Diversity Accountability Act in the City Council earlier this year; Clarence Ellis, a Superintendent in Crown Heights; Jon Rosenberg, a former civil rights lawyer and a charter network CEO; Kevin Young, a PTA President at PS 133; and Todd Sutler, a cofounder of Compass charter school. The panel was facilitated by Arva Rice of NY Urban League (who I later also saw at the Common Core Task Force hearing).

Here’s a quick overview of what I found to be key takeaways:

  • Zoned schools are a barrier to integration
  • Some possible tools are weighted admissions (at a school-level) and controlled choice (at a district level)
  • Diversity is a necessity for quality at a systemic level
  • Lenses for viewing diversity at a school-level can be socioeconomic, racial, language-based, and cognitive
  • Advocacy needs to focus on changing legislation that prevents integration across districts
  • We must be persistent and aggressive in advocacy, recruitment, and admissions
  • Nurturing diversity within a school requires building a common language

Read on for further details.

Lander made the point that magnet schools are one important mechanism for integration, with a hat tip to This American Life episode 2. I agree — though let’s also be brutally honest — quality magnet schools cost money. And even with that money invested, as we can see with Hartford magnet schools, it continues to require a sustained and aggressive effort in recruitment and outreach.

After highlighting the work that PS 133 and 130 have done at a school-level (weighted admissions), and that BK Districts 1 and 13 have done at a district-level (controlled choice), Lander made the great point that we have a real need to “codify the tools” that can be used for achieving integration. The good news is that the School Diversity Act will begin measuring diversity in NYC, so starting this December 31st, we can more accurately begin talking about where and how tools (such as controlled choice and weighted admissions) should be applied.

Rosenberg highlighted the important point that when it comes to integration, “we need to be persistent.” He also highlighted, as did others at the panel throughout the evening, the fact that a major barrier to integration is that elementary schools are zoned.

Rosenberg delineated between a “blunt” method of integration: rezoning, and a softer method, which is either to create “something new” and to be “unburdened by history” (such as charter or magnet schools) to avoid battles such as those that playing out in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, and to work to protect those few, “fragile” existing schools and areas that are already integrated. However, Rosenberg later presented a challenge that charter operators face, in that even when they wish to work to diversify, they are confined by state zoning legislation, and end up perpetuating segregation. He presented the example of a school in district 2 in Manhattan unable to integrate students and families from district 4 in East Harlem (or vice versa) due to this legislation.

Torres grounded the panel in the more dire reality of the Bronx, pointing out that in districts heavily poor and segregated, there is little opportunity nor will to integrate, either socio-economically or racially. He pointed out that there is a palpable lack of political will in our country and city to integrate, and that segregation has been a public policy choice and mindset (Rosenberg also echoed this sentiment as well — and why his reminder to “be persistent” is important to bear in mind).

I appreciate Torres’ directness in evaluating the situation — he called out Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor Farina’s deliberate inaction on this issue as “disheartening.” He had what I thought was the money quote for the evening when he pointed out that while you can have quality schools without diversity, the reality is that “if you want quality at a systemic level — then you need diversity.”

Young brought some interesting within-school perspective on integration, pointing out that it can be a challenge at first, and that a common language must be built. But this also, as he suggested, provides an opportunity for students and staff to look at what is the same in our human experience, rather than focusing on differences and deficits. He then threw some oblique shade on Success Academy when he suggested that we can better attract diversity at schools that are “progressive,” rather than “test factories,” like the “charters in the news.”

Sutler brought in another aspect of “diversity” that is rarely discussed but I agree is important to mention alongside socio-economic and racial diversity: cognitive diversity — and that this work to include and integrate is the work of our schools and classrooms. This is an issue close to my own heart, as I work in the field of special education, and inclusion is a fundamental principle for me. Sutler urged the audience to push our legislators on this issue, and he also highlighted the critical need for a school to conduct outreach to achieve better integration.

Sutler later made the case that in terms of increasing diversity in the teaching profession, we need to 1) raise the bar for education graduate programs, 2) elevate the craft and profession of teaching, and 3) make aggressive recruitment efforts to attract people of color.

I’m leaving out a lot of other key points made, but these were the ones that most stuck out for me.

A few of my posts on integration:

Live Chat on Standardized Testing and Ed Reform

Today, May 17th at 5 PM, I invite you to join me on a live chat on standardized testing hosted by The Nation. Reporter Dana Goldstein, an Educators 4 Excellence member, Tara Brancato, and an International Baccalaureate teacher from a high school in the Bronx will be on the panel. This should be an interesting conversation.

As our readers know, Will and I are skeptical of the value of the value-added approach to education reform, and we are critical of the effect of standardized testing on schools.

I look forward to learning from other perspectives on these issues and advocating for a renewed focus on positive, supportive contexts and rich, sequential content in schools.

See you online!

Schools as Ecosystems at EdCampNYC

I’m beginning to get a bit sick, but barring any bedridden debilitation, I plan on heading out to EdCamp NYC this Saturday. I’m hoping to lead a session on Schools as Ecosystems in order to present and discuss our ideas with other educators and get their feedback and insight on how to refine our model and make it a praxis, rather than simply a metaphor.

In case you’ve never heard of EdCamp, it’s based on the idea of an “unconference,” which is where sessions are led by attendees and the agenda is open to all to create upon arrival. You are free to attend whichever session strikes your fancy and come and go as you will. I’m not too sure where the idea of an unconference was birthed, but I have the sense that it originated in the software engineering or social media business world.

Will and I did some brainstorming on what we’ve got outlined so far in our model, and I’m excited to see what other educators will add to our vision.

Here’s my agenda for the session:

  • Discuss the current state of education reform
  • Present a new vision for reform
  • Schools as Ecosystems as a set of values
  • Schools as Ecosystems as a methodology for school design and evaluation
  • Envisioning the school as an ecosystem
I’ll share my presentation, outline, and notes from the meeting as soon it’s over.