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.

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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?

 

Research: A School is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

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“When aspects of the school context—for example, a principal who is an ineffective instructional leader, a school that lacks a consistent disciplinary code—are partly, or largely to blame for poor performance, efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to be adequate remedies in themselves”

—Gillian Kiley, “School environment key to retaining teachers, promoting student achievement, study finds” on Phys.org

Check out the study linked to above, which uses NYC school survey data. Certainly confirms everything this blog is premised upon.

Bureaucracy has it’s place

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

“The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

“. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

“I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.”

Sunday Smorgasbord

By Ernst Vikne (originally posted to Flickr as Lots of good food) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I read a lot of random stuff over the course of a week, and I tweet out many of them (follow me @mandercorn), but I also know that roundups of links, ala Chalkbeat NY, Vox, Eduwonk, Marginal Revolution, and many others, are a really useful way to sharing items that are interesting.

I’m going to begin posting a weekly roundup of items that bear a connection to the themes and ideas that we explore on Schools & Ecosystems.

Please let me know if there’s a format I should consider that will make these more easily digestible and useful to you.

Schools that teach in two languages foster integration — so how come so many families can’t find programs?

There has been a long overdue discussion of integration and increasing diversity in our public schools. While those discussions typically refer to racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the subsequent resistance from well-off white parents, Catherine Brown and Conor Williams are forwarding a refreshing vision for increasing diversity: expanding Dual Language Immersion programs.

While no integration effort is ever simple —especially one that requires schools to implement a new instructional model — today’s conditions are encouraging. Schools have increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students, and greater flexibility for deciding how to meet their needs. Furthermore, families of varied backgrounds increasingly expect schools to offer unique academic themes that help students succeed. Dual immersion programs recognize and celebrate their diverse backgrounds, not as a side benefit, but as a core element of the model’s effectiveness. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for policymakers — and well worth their attention.

Hospitals Realize Their Own Noise Is a Health Issue All By Itself

Quartz reports on a study which found that ambient noise in hospitals is LOUD, which is unsurprising to anyone who has stayed in a hospital.

Hospital stays can be an ordeal all by themselves beyond the condition you’re there being treated for. As medicine becomes more holistic in its perspective, it only makes sense that hospitals are realizing what an important role sound can play in effective healthcare.

On Average

A podcast episode from 99% Invisible describes the tremendous influence that the science of averages, promulgated by Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, has had on design.

Did you know that clothing sizes of Large, Medium, and Small were first created by the mass production for soldier uniforms required by the Civil War? Lincoln drew from the science of averages.

There’s a common discourse in the education world: we standardize tests and our education systems, but children aren’t standardized. It might sound trite, but it’s scientifically accurate, according to research by Gilbert S. Daniels. He discovered that there was a discrepancy between the averages of all soldier measurements and the actual individual sizes of each soldier. In other words, very few individual soldiers actually conformed to the average.

This problem manifested in the design of cockpits, which were based on average measurements of soldiers in the 1920s. By WWII, those averages no longer applied, and resulted not only in the exclusion and subsequent shortage of many pilots during a time of high need, but even many avoidable deaths.

It was again our military which then pioneered the concept of adjustment in its design to meet individual needs. That’s why we can adjust our car seats now.

Whether it’s the equipment, or the whole work environment, design must accommodate more people who are outside the average … because in reality no one is actually average.

Trudging the fields at Gettysburg to teach leadership in hospitals

Speaking of hospitals and the Civil War . . . Stat reports on a leadership program for hospital staff which brings them to the battlefield of Gettysburg and prompts them to consider the decision-making challenges that people working within large organizations can make while under stress.

“Communication can break down at every single level,” said David Ottati, chief executive of Florida Hospital Waterman. “As leaders, we need to make sure we understand the objectives and each others’ personalities and motivations.”

In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

Andrea Gabor writes a thoughtful piece on an innovative small school, Global Technology Preparatory, that was created as part of Bloomberg/Klein’s “iZone” initiative. By explaining what makes this school a success, and examining how that success has been hampered by politics and bureaucracy, Gabor brings a critical lens to the new administration.

One of the buried ledes in this story is that an educator, David Baiz, had been rated Unsatisfactory in his first school in the South Bronx, but after moving to Global Tech, he became a “nationally recognized math teacher.”

New York City educators loved to hate the Bloomberg/Klein administration, with its penchant for serial reorganizations and its army of MBAs. At the same time, some of the city’s best principals conceded that the businessman-mayor’s school administration had made their lives easier. For principals who survived the New York City iZone’s many incarnations, or who had inherited the small-school mantel from Meier and Alvarado, the Bloomberg years were an opportunity to experiment with some relief from bureaucratic control.

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

A mother and educator describes how the experience of choosing a school for her son confronted her with her own prejudice and that of others.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.