curriculum conundrum

With new focus on curriculum, Gates Foundation wades into tricky territory

PHOTO: PROThomas Hawk

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

It’s part of a revamped strategy for the philanthropy, which has become one of the most influential forces in American education over the last two decades. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Much of that work has been divisive: Gates was a key player in the push for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.

By comparison, focusing on curriculum seems like a less controversial tack. But if history tells us anything about philanthropists’ role in pushing educational changes, it’s that these efforts prove more challenging than initially thought.

Here’s what we know about the curriculum push — and three tough issues the foundation will have to navigate.

First, what is the Gates Foundation actually doing?

Henry Hipps, a deputy director at the Gates Foundation who spearheads its work on curriculum, said the increased emphasis on the topic was driven by an emerging body of research — as well as feedback from educators and advocates — making the case for the importance of curriculum.

The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, Hipps said.

One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.

Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials.

And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

Doing all three means wading into a few key controversies. Morgan Polikoff — a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied curriculum materials — said that he was optimistic about Gates’ efforts, but cognizant of those risks.

“I think it’s probably better than the status quo, which is in essence incoherent curricula in most places,” said Polikoff, who has received funding from Gates. “But then again, I completely recognize that what I’m describing is probably exactly what was said about teacher evaluation in 2007 … and also Common Core.”

Flash point #1: This is all still intertwined with the Common Core, which remains a source of opposition among conservatives and some teachers.

If the Gates Foundation wants to make “high-quality” materials more widely available, someone has to decide what earns a curriculum that label. That’s a tricky and values-laden task.

Hipps says one of the key factors will be whether a curriculum aligns with “whatever locally selected standards exist.”

That’s where Common Core comes back. In most states, “locally selected standards” still means the Common Core, or something very much like it. Polls show mixed support for those standards among both parents and teachers, with Republicans in particular opposing it as it became closely associated with President Obama. (The creation of the academic standards was heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and pushed by the federal government, though states made the ultimate decisions about whether to adopt and keep them.)

Some curriculum creators are aware of this.

“We have issues in places like West Virginia and Texas where the Common Core is a bad word,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, a Gates-funded developer of curriculums that can be freely downloaded. In West Virginia, he said, the organization was asked to a create a virtually identical version of its content without references to the Common Core.

All of that means that quality labels based on a connection to Common Core may not be broadly, or easily, accepted — just like the standards themselves.

Flash point #2: Other ways of identifying a good curriculum are controversial, too.

Educators have debated what to teach and how to teach it since forever. And English, math, and science — the three subjects Gates says it will focus on in the next five years — each have their own fault lines.

Defining a good curriculum is “a subjective call,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “Part of the problem is who’s getting to define quality.”

Some of these issues have already bubbled up with a group known as EdReports, which bills itself a “consumer reports” for textbooks and teaching materials and is supported by Gates. After the group released initial ratings of math textbooks, its approach was criticized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for focusing on only a subset of the Common Core math standards, among other issues. (EdReports said it revised its approach in response to that and other feedback.)

Another way to judge different curriculums is to focus on which materials have been found to make the biggest impact on student achievement. Studies have shown that some textbooks do better than others, though differences tend to be fairly modest, roughly akin to moving a 50th percentile student up several percentage points.

It’s also possible that instructional materials won’t be equally effective in all schools. There’s not much research on this, but one recent study found that students of color in San Francisco benefitted from a class with an ethnic studies curriculum.

Hipps said Gates was aware that different schools and students might need different things. “One of the things that we hope would be included in high quality instructional materials are structured supports that help teachers adapt their material,” he said. “That’s another dimension of quality.”

Flash point #3: Teachers may be wary of curricular changes — and Gates’ influence.

Finally, there’s the question about how all of this will interact with teachers’ sense of control over their classrooms.  

Surveys show that virtually all teachers rely at least in part on materials they’ve developed or selected themselves. Is this a problem to be solved, or an example of teachers adapting materials for their particular context?

Hipps thinks the balance is tilted too far in one direction. “Too often [teachers] are left to scour the internet for hours to curate and tailor instructional materials for their students,” he said.

Many teachers, though, aren’t eager to have more forces pushing them to do specific things in their classrooms. The potential for conflict seems especially clear when you remember that defenders of the Common Core often argued that the standards were not curriculum and thus did not dictate how or what to teach. Now, Gates is diving right into that especially sensitive territory.

“Part of teaching is [using] your own expertise,” said Kathy Dahdal, an English teacher at a middle school in the Bronx who said teachers in her school work together to design a curriculum drawn from multiple sources.

Dahdal is encouraged by increased attention on curriculum, but said she would be skeptical of any efforts to turn ratings or recommendations into mandates. Tom Rademacher, a Minneapolis teacher and former state teacher of the year, recently wrote for Chalkbeat about how counterproductive it has felt to be told to use a standard curriculum.

“Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things,” Rademacher wrote.

José Vilson, a math teacher and author in New York City, is apprehensive about the foundation’s push. “I shudder to think what the Gates Foundation might do,” he said. “I’m always nervous about any organization with that education reform outlet coming into schools … because usually what follows is a lack of teacher input, a lack of student input.”

Hipps said the goal is not to get schools or districts to mandate a best curriculum, but to identify a variety of good choices.

“I don’t think there will ever be a one size fits all,” he said. “There should be some baseline by which those various options are deemed either high quality and good versus not, but there should always be variety.”

yeshiva findings

After 3-year probe into yeshivas, city admits it was blocked from visiting many schools, found little instruction in math and English

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

At some of New York City’s yeshivas, attendance was voluntary when it came time to learn secular subjects like math and English. Students said they didn’t learn math beyond basic division and fractions. None of the students reported receiving steady lessons in science. 

That’s according to a long-delayed probe by the New York City education department into whether some of the city’s private Jewish schools are providing an adequate secular education for students. But even as the city released findings on Thursday, it admitted that it was never able to go inside any high schools and never received a full set of curriculum materials to evaluate — significant gaps for a report that took three years to be released.

In a letter sent to the state education commissioner on Aug. 15, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza asked the state for guidance on how to proceed after a recent change in law that put the state education commissioner in charge of evaluating the schools. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter. 

“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided,” Carranza said in a statement.

The letter marks a new phase of an investigation sparked by current and former students and parents who complained they received little instruction in math or English while attending the schools. The city has been accused of delaying the investigation to avoid angering a politically powerful community.

New York requires private schools to provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools, and that allows the schools to access public money for things like school security. Students and parents who were interviewed for the probe said they received instruction in math and English for only 90 minutes for four days out of the week, and all but two said they received “little to no” history lessons, according to the city’s letter.

The report finds that some schools have adopted new curriculums in English and math, but officials have not been able to evaluate the new materials because they haven’t received a complete set.

The city also said that officials at eight of the schools they were unable to visit recently gave word that they would schedule meetings.

Read Carranza’s full letter here.

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a ‘cornerstone’ of school improvement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza, bottom right, joined New York City principals and superintendents for an anti-bias training in Brooklyn.

After bending fluorescent pipe cleaners into loopy and angular shapes, a group of about 100 New York City principals and superintendents paired up for a chat. Their assignment: to recount their childhood aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was no arts and crafts class — and no ice breaker, either. The Wednesday morning session at Brooklyn Law School was an example of anti-bias training that the education department will now require for every employee who works with students across the country’s largest school system.

After committing $23 million to the work this year, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced at the session that the trainings will be mandatory, and that the city aims to speed up how quickly they happen. The goal is to compress the original four-year roll out to two.

“It’s about us as a community saying we want to change systems so that it privileges all of our students in New York City,” Carranza said. “The evidence right now, I will tell you my friends, is that not all students are being served well.”

Advocates had long agitated for the training, citing disparate rates in school discipline for black and Hispanic students, and high-profile incidents of schools accused of teaching racist lessons in the classroom. They argue that teachers need to be better equipped to serve diverse students as the city moves forward with plans to integrate its starkly segregated schools.

“We have to make school environments the most welcoming places possible for our young people. That includes adults doing personal work,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent organization that lobbied for the training.  

Their advocacy has gotten a boost since Carranza became schools chancellor in April, bringing an approach that is bolder and more frank than his predecessor when it comes to addressing the system’s racial inequities. On Wednesday, he spent more than an hour participating in the training session just like the other school leaders, calling it “God’s work.”

“This is going to penetrate everything we do,” he said.

Wednesday’s session was lead by experts from the Perception Institute, a research and training organization, and Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), which provides leadership training. The pipe cleaners helped bring to life a metaphor about “bending” expectations for what educators might learn throughout the day. The one-on-one conversations were a way to “interrupt” stereotypical assumptions about other people by having sustained conversations with them, said trainer Dushaw Hockett.

“This isn’t some touchy-feely, get-to-know-you exercise,” he said.  

There is some evidence that, when done right, anti-bias trainings can work — and improve outcomes for students. But there is also research that shows it can often be ineffective.

Carranza said the city is committed to doing the work for the long-term, with the trainings designed to be ongoing and build on each other. He also said the department will keep an eye on measures such as student attendance and whether teachers report improvements in school climate to gauge whether it’s having an impact.

“This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of, how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students?” he said. “This is going to be something that’s not going to fall off the radar. We’re going to keep pushing.”