First Person

The Role of Curriculum in Education Reform

Despite a growing popular consensus that teacher quality is the most significant factor in academic achievement, as a parent and taxpayer the costs and practicality of this focus concern me. Chancellor Joel Klein focuses keenly on better teacher quality. I agree a strong teacher is crucial, especially for low-income students. But the value of our efforts to identify high-quality instructors and ease the removal of low-quality teachers is questionable.

For starters, the value-added measurements at the core of the relevant evaluation systems are nascent at best, as their developers readily admit. The Department of Education has calculated school report cards three different ways in the last three years; this is appropriate flexibility for a new concept, but not indicative of an established metric. Notwithstanding its motives, the teachers union raises a reasonable complaint that valued-added measurements are not ready for prime time. When reformers deny this, their credibility suffers as much as the union’s.

But still, let’s imagine we build the world’s best evaluation system. The Assembly rescinds the tenure provisions of the Taylor law, and the UFT cooperates.

Brave New World

picture-23Welcome to Education Utopia. The tool is applied, the data are crunched, and the teachers fall out along a normal distribution, shown at right (Wikipedia explains the math here). 

Starting modestly, we focus on 1,801 teachers two or more standard deviations below average: principals’ multi-factor evaluations are fair, and the 1,801 are removed. Now they have to be replaced with better, harder-to-find teachers, and we must also hire for the usual 20 percent annual attrition.

In year two evaluations improve and our rigor increases. Despite retraining the 10,736 teachers who fall between one and two standard deviations below the mean, only half improve: 5,400 more are terminated. Some overlap probably exists between low-quality and teachers who quit, so this 5,400 may not be completely incremental. And we still need to address attrition.

Now the biggest challenge: training those just “slightly” below average. These 27,000 are more capable of improvement. Only a third are jettisoned, about 9,000. Plus attrition. 

In a few years time, New York City is hiring tens of thousands of new (high-quality) teachers. Just like Los Angeles. And Chicago. And Washington, D.C. And every other major city in America, all of which are now on the very crowded teacher-quality bandwagon. 

The Case for Curriculum

Reform focused primarily on teacher quality raises logistical problems we’re not ready to solve. Knowledgable reformers know we cannot build and maintain an army of superteachers ready for 10- or 20-year careers in Red Hook, Mott Haven and Washington Heights. While teacher quality is important, can the city responsibly assume that it will be able to develop effective tools, win (or roll) over the unions and fix today’s Albany disaster?

Curriculum reform must play an equal role in our efforts. A recent Brookings Institution report noted curriculum’s strong impact on student outcomes. Importantly, in a system as large as ours, curriculum can be developed centrally and replicated at almost no marginal cost, earning a far greater return on investment than merit bonuses for every qualifying teacher or hiring 10,000 high-quality teachers. In short, teacher quality is a long, expensive, politically difficult fix. Curriculum is comparatively fast, cheap, and also effective. 

Chancellor Klein and Al Sharpton, sincerely and correctly, identify education reform with civil rights. And this means a good curriculum is even more critical for disadvantaged kids who get less supplemental learning and exposure. For children from non-U.S. backgrounds to succeed, we must introduce them to the common language and ideas the native-born use. Moreover, our poorest students frequently get moved around, so it’s unfair to make them also adjust to multiple curricula at different schools.

Teacher quality advocates may ask: “How does a good curriculum help a poor teacher?”  I would rephrase the question: “Does a good curriculum make a poor teacher worse?” Lesson planning, delivery of instruction and classroom management — how to teach — are daunting enough without having to develop good content every week. A solid, coherent curriculum improves the odds for new or struggling teacher, and allows master teachers to focus on their kids’ needs or mentoring colleagues.

Our school recently rewrote its social studies curriculum. Apart from being inefficient because the investment paid off for only a small number of students and because it’s likely that the work had been done before elsewhere, this involved costly overtime for several teachers. A credible, centrally-developed curriculum would save money, provide critical scaffolding for students and teachers alike, and allow for enrichment by parents by giving them a clearer sense of what their children are learning. 

Long before reformers questioned her loss of faith in accountability, historian Diane Ravitch warned of the dangers of leaving curriculum to the high priests at Teachers College and the University of Chicago, calling out their romantic theories of child-centered development for what they are: theories. More recently the final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, unsparing in its criticism of New York and national curricula and practices, cited as one example our practice of “spiraling” through topics as far less effective than “exposure, then closure” characteristic of high-performing systems like Singapore and Finland. At a well-regarded New York City middle school one math teacher told me, “I spend the first few months of sixth grade ‘unteaching’ what they learn in elementary school.”

Spending more than $20 billion annually to educate 1.1 million children, New York City should use its leverage, as we have on teacher quality, and lead the charge to promote curriculum reform. The content we want our kids to learn is the fraternal twin of teacher quality, and it is high time we stopped treating it like a redheaded stepchild.

Matthew Levey is a former president of the Community Education Council for District 2 and the parent of two elementary school children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.