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.

Exciting things happening in Louisiana

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Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Louisiana Superintendent John White, despite great controversy, has been making strong leadership moves over in LA, writing smart op-eds, maintaining a clear focus on higher standards in the face of volatile political headwinds, working with innovative partners to develop online curriculum, and pulling teachers together to conduct thorough reviews of curricular options according to LA state standards (I wrote a little more about how their reviews compare against EdReports here.)

And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:

“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”

This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.

Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.

Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:

States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change. John White / The Hill

 

A Farewell to Fariña

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Unless you’ve been stuck in a subway tunnel somewhere for the last few months, you know that NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced her 2nd retirement, Miami Supe Alberto Caravalho psyched out De Blasio and had an even shorter tenure than Cathie Black, returning to the bosom of weeping Miami-ans before he’d even left (telenovela style), and Houston Supe Richard Carranza has since stepped eagerly in.

Prior to the spectacle, you may have missed an interesting Politico/Shapiro piece on how Fariña operated as NYC Chancellor: This is how Carmen Fariña works: Outgoing chancellor led from inside schools. The piece provides insight into Fariña’s strengths, as well as possible weaknesses.

A while back in 2014, we examined how Fariña was leading from a socio-ecological perspective, and we rated her quite highly at that time.

I think those ratings still hold. Fariña has brought deep instructional and administrative experience to the role, and she has demonstrated many of the traits that we’ve examined as signs of a leader who recognizes the importance of schools as ecosystems, such as:

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)

Yet I think, too, her administration has demonstrated some of the downsides of a few of these aspects when operating a system as vast and complex as NYC’s.

Take “consistently observes local conditions.” As Shapiro’s article highlights so well, Fariña’s great strength as a leader is her ability to step foot into a school and see what’s going on and speak from her expertise as an educator.

Yet in operating a system as vast as NYC’s, it doesn’t make as much sense to attempt to direct the system from such supervision alone. As Shapiro points out in the article, despite all of the visits she’s conducted in her tenure as chancellor, she still has only been “inside fewer than half of the city’s 1,800 schools.”

Fariña’s theory of change, as articulated in this piece, seems to be that she and her superintendents will ensure better outcomes in NYC schools by visiting schools.

I think there’s sound logic to this–it aligns with the idea that context is key and that stepping foot in schools is essential to see past the numbers–but what I find interesting is that at no point have I heard this theory of action clearly articulated by either the Chancellor or her administration.

I find this problematic because if we are talking about a theory of action, we are acknowledging that it’s a hypothesis, and that we need to keep checking to see if it’s accurate. This is fundamental in the administration of a public system — the public needs to know what is happening so they can hold the administration accountable.

Under Joel Klein, the theory of action that governed his administration was pretty clear — by breaking up the ‘fiefdoms’ of the districts and empowering principals and holding them accountable, student outcomes would improve. You could disagree with this theory of action and how it was implemented, but at least you knew what it was.

Under Fariña, it has not been so clear what her theory of action has been.

Klein’s strength as a chancellor lay in systems thinking, but his weakness was lack of  experience and expertise as an educator. It might be said that Fariña flip-flopped these strengths and weaknesses.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that overseeing NYC’s vast and diverse system of schools is a tremendous challenge, and we are fortunate to have benefited from the deep dedication and service of Carmen Fariña.

Will NYC’s new chancellor be able to balance systems-level strategy with ground-level expertise?

 

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.

Listen to the music: Some things are universal

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Vivek Pandya, a 12 year old, slaying the tabla at the Ragas Live festival in 2016.

A central argument posited by this blog is that context matters. In order to truly understand a school as an organization, you have to account for the physical and social factors of that specific school.

This argument pushes back on the dominant narrative in ed reform that schools are more or less comparable, and if not universally comparable, then at the very least, by grouping according to “peer groups” by similarities in demographic inputs, such as free-and-reduced lunch or ELL populations.

Yet there is a risk, too, in taking such an argument too far, and claiming that local context is everything — and that meaning can therefore only be determined subjectively by those who exist within that local context. Such an extreme argument would suggest that there are no universal statements that can be made about schools.

We can see this play out with music across the world. Is the meaning of music solely determined by the culture that produces it? Or are there traits of music that are universal?

Interestingly, cognitive psychologists side with the latter (universal), while ethnomusicologists fight for the former.

A recent study suggests that ethnomusicologists are being too precious, and that there are universally recognized traits of music. At the very least, people from across the world can identify whether a song made by a small-scale society is a lullaby, dance, made for healing, or an expression of love.

Similarly, I think there are universal traits and principles of effective and ineffective schools that we can discuss. So while I stress—and this blog hinges upon—the importance of acknowledging the strong influence of local context, I also don’t want to take that argument to an extreme.

Context matters—I believe much more than we generally recognize when it comes to schools and many other things—but it’s not everything.

A Study Suggests That People Can Hear Universal Traits in Music, Ed Yong / The Atlantic