Thursday, February 14, 2019

Speedbumps on the Road to Curriculum's Golden Age

Among the recent shifts in reform thought is one to a focus on curriculum and content, and I don't hate it. One of the hugely screwed up features of the last two decades has been the content-stripped focus on hollow skills. Reading is not a set of skills that can somehow be taught and practiced in a content-free vacuum, but that's what we've been trying to do for most of the 21st century, so far.

So this piece by Robert Pondiscio on the Fordham's blog is a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about education. Pondiscio has been a rich content guy all along, and it's good to see him arguing how strong content can push aside the bad practices of recent years rather than making twisty arguments that Common Core and rich content are somehow two peas in a pod.

There are several points in the piece I want to underline, but I also want to note a huge roadblock or two on the trail to Contentville.

Most important: Under NCLB and Common Core, curriculum is judged strictly on its "alignment."

There are a variety of problems like this, not the least of which is that "alignment" can be completed successfully as a complex paperwork problem. But as Pondiscio correctly points out, alignment doesn't care about content:

“Alignment” also tells us nothing about literary merit, quality, or lasting value. You can explore themes of fratricide and revenge by studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Disney’s The Lion King. In no way are they “equal.” A three-star restaurant and Taco Bell may both get “A” ratings from the board of health if they’re aligned (as they must be) to safe food handling standards, but they are not otherwise comparable.

Pondiscio also notes that the skills-centered movement we've been living under completely ignores the importance of prior knowledge in reading-- and writing, too, for that matter. This is huge. At the lower levels, it is useless to decode a word you've never heard of. At higher levels, it's hard to comprehend what you know nothing about, no matter how well you've practiced your drawing inferences and context clue reading. When you don't know anything about the context, it will not yield any clues.

The article is written mainly to plug a new tool for measuring ELA curricular sweetness, and I have no opinions about it at this point. As described by Pondiscio, it sounds like a good idea.The team to watch for is David Steiner and Ashley Berner, and their tool is about knowledge mapping. For the moment, I'm agnostic. At the same time, Chiefs for Change are involved, so I am hesitant to get excited. But all of that is for another day and the general topic of "How are reformsters going to screw this up?"

One line of Pondiscio's piece brought me up short and reminded of other major obstacles in the path of any golden (or even bronze or pewter) age of curriculum:

It’s been a pleasant surprise to see curriculum come into its own in the last few years as a potentially powerful lever for improving student outcomes.

Please, God, no. "Improving student outcomes" still means "raising test scores," and as long as that's our metric, the quartz age of curriculum is doomed.

Test scores are still tied to the skills-centered baloney of the last two decades. They still ignore, for instance, any of the type of learning involved in reading an entire work, chewing on it for a week or two, and then writing a thoughtful self-directed response to the work as a whole. The tests are still based on reading a short excerpt and answering some multiple choice questions.

It would not matter if we could some how drop a rich curriculum into the hollow heart of the current test-centered practices. But that's not quite possible, for two reasons.

First is that high stakes testing drives curriculum. We may measure curriculum in the abstract by checking on its alignment, but on the ground, in schools, the test is driving the curriculum. For example, the standards include speaking and listening standards, but nobody cares because they aren't on the Big Standardized Test. Meanwhile, English teachers are being pummeled with test prep materials and practice and giving the NWEA MAP test or some other pre-test test and crunching the "data" to see what they need to teach harder in hopes that students will get a couple more questions correct.

Second. Although I like to call the skills-centered standards hollow and without any content knowledge involved, that's not exactly true. There is content, but it's content along the lines of "Types of Distractors Preferred by Makers of the Big Standardized Test" or "What Testmakers Mean by Terms Like Mood and Best." The test manufacturers have their own language, their own preferred lines of reasoning. That's why they think opinion questions like "Which sentence best supports the author's intent" only have one answer-- their answer. This is not valuable content, and it certainly isn't rich content, and it has no use except to prep students for the test-- but it is content and as such takes up space, time, and oxygen in the classroom. And while plenty of teachers are quietly thumbing their nose at it and ignoring it, many are using it as their course content.

Which means that in order to make space for an actual rich curriculum, this other crap has to be cleared away. And that won't happen as long as too many administrators are "data driven" acolytes of testing.

In order for the golden age of curriculum to dawn, the chintz age of testing has to end. The Big Standardized Test has to be swept away, drawn and quartered, killed with fire then its ashes spread to sea-- pick your metaphor. It has to go. Otherwise school districts and administrators and policy makers are going to look at curricula certified by knowledge maps and go back to the same old question-- Will this raise test scores. Administrators and school districts will look at a rich content curriculum and say, "Yeah, this looks great. You can definitely go ahead and do this once your kids are ready for the test-- hey! maybe you could do this in the last half of May once the testing is over!"

For us to enter a golden age of curriculum, tools like the one Pondiscio describes will be necessary, and they will involve a fight that will never ever end about which works, exactly, belong in such a curriculum. But we have other work to do before those tools can be used. Perhaps a silver or wooden age of curriculum-- then we could make bullets and some stakes.


  1. Small clarification. That "new tool for measuring ELA curricular sweetness" is actually an old tool: the IMET, which is also the basis for Guess who made the IMET? Student Achievement Partners, the organization founded by Common Core architect David Coleman. These guys have had their eyes on curriculum for awhile. Just standards? Pshaw.

    Here is a simple exercise: take a look at one of the few curricula that meets all of the expectations of the Common Core standards: the EngageNY modules. Do they look high-quality to you? Do they look content rich? My answer: no and no.

    1. OH MY!.....the web they weave to try and cover up their evil ways. Anything coming out of the mouth of a deformer is a complete lie. I live in MD....Pondiscio sits on our BoED, so I guess this is another idea that will be thrown into our public schools. Happy to now be paying for private HS for child #2 because all of this stuff is just awful.

  2. The big mistake here is trying to force content/curriculum into the two subject areas that are skills-centric (reading. writing. arithmetic.). The drive for enriched curricula should be in social studies/history/geography, the sciences, and technologies - that's where the really compelling and important facts, concepts, and vocabulary live. As long as the "other" academic subjects are neglected and ignored, the creation of a content rich curricula will be nothing but a fool's errand.

  3. I know we're all wedded to the Evil Corporate Privatizers vs. Failure Fetishists storyline (there's a DC Comics franchise in here somewhere). But some of us over on the dark side have been pretty damn relentless in calling out the things commenters in this thread describe, including some of the dreck on EngageNY.
    To wit this piece from *five freakin' years* ago:

    Anyway, I appreciate Peter's willingness to give credit where credit is due and be fair.

    P.S. I'm not on anyone's BofE. You're confusing me with some other nefarious profiteer.

    1. Rob
      I am thrilled to hear your continued support of an enriched curriculum for all students. I am curious as to what you envision such a curriculum in ELA would look like, and how it would jive with ESSA testing pressures? Wouldn't kids be better served if we let social studies and science share the spotlight as secondary teachers who specialize in these fields are much better prepared to deliver technical reading and writing instruction that David Coleman infused into the CCSS. We could then let and ELA return to grammar, literature, and creative writing. Thoughts? The Resistance appreciates your principled stance on this issue. Any chance of leaving the dark side?

  4. The obvious change here would be to make children's knowledge of the world and its history the direct basis for judging schools' success. In other words, test content and not skills. There would be a boom in the number of minutes schools dedicated to social studies and science, if we did that. But the problem is that then the curriculum would have to conform to the tested content, and deciding what's in and what's out -- what knowledge should be on the test -- is an argument we would never be done having. There is simply too much to know. Someone, on some level, has to pick and choose the content, as well as what will be learned in depth and what will be skimmed over shallowly. You can't have an in-depth exploration of every "key domain" and important topic. Many school students don't get an in-depth exploration of anything because states require too much -- the curriculum is a runaway train. I'm not sure it's helpful for someone outside the school or district to come in with a list of another 100 topics you need to be sure to include.

    So: a content-rich curriculum, good idea. Looking for gaps in students' knowledge: also a good idea. But there is no end of potentially rich topics for the ELA classroom, and districts, schools, and teachers should be able to make choices about what best serves their students' and their communities' needs.

    1. Choosing topics for children and adolescents from the full breadth of human knowledge is not that daunting. Schools have been doing for years prior to the 21st century the-and-punish reform movement. Local history and geography, nature studies, weather and the seasons, magnets, famous presidents, how government works, etc. Then let the ESSA state testing requirement fall where they may.

  5. <<< The obvious change here would be to make children's knowledge of the world and its history the direct basis for judging schools' success.

    Absolutely. So why this doesn't happen:
    1. That's not what standards do, it's curriculum.
    2. People on the left and right (from individual teachers to policy people) get cranky when you tell them what they must teach.
    3. This goes against the grain of fashionable pedagogical notions of "culturally relevant" practice and "21st Century Skills"
    4. ELA tests muddy the waters considerably -- even fatally -- when we treat literacy as a "skill" rather than content-dependent.

    This leads to...

    5. Tests and accountability policies that a) assume schools and teachers know what to do, while b) incentivizing them to focus on skills, not content, etc. This tends to make things worse, not better.

    So let's just unplug it all, no more tests, no more standards, just trust the teachers to do what's best. Dandy, except:

    6. Low-SES kids got screwed pretty thoroughly when we did that, so let's not pretend there was some kind of Garden of Eden we're working to return to.

    What we're doing now ain't working. What we used to do didn't work either.

    1. Who says that low SES kids got "screwed" by the public schools? I find this notion somewhat insulting to the countless hard working teachers who have worked in high needs schools over the years. My father taught for 34 years in IS 10 in Harlem. He didn't "screw" one of his students in all that time.

      Rob, did you "screw" your 5th grade students during the five years that you taught in such a school?

    2. Thank you for your reply. I hear you, and I think we’re mostly in agreement. For your #2, yes, and also, parents and communities often have a lot to say about curriculum. Anyone can look at a list of texts and topics and complain that it’s too multicultural, or not multicultural enough; too contemporary, or not contemporary enough; too focused on America, or not American enough, and so on. Even if teachers were willing to shut up and teach, the local citizens who pay their salaries would still have some things to say about curriculum.

      It’s true that the history of public education is filled with inequities (so is current public education). Kids in low-SES neighborhoods go to schools that have fewer teachers, counselors, social workers, learning specialists, librarians, books, computers, extracurriculars, art programs, music programs -- basically less of everything, compared with their counterparts in wealthy public school districts. In the past and present, Americans have isolated poor communities, segregated schools and neighborhoods, situated toxic factories and dump sites near people who have the least power to protest, tied school funding to local property values, and so on.

      Test-based accountability for teachers hasn’t fixed educational inequity. Arguably, it’s made it worse, because now the curriculum is driven by the tests, and what happens in some classrooms in low-SES communities is that class time is made to resemble taking a standardized test: kids read excerpts from longer works of literature or else boring nonfiction passages, and they answer tiresome questions about the “main idea” or “supporting details.” They aren’t invited to get curious or generate any questions of their own. To the extent that teachers resist a test-driven curriculum, which many do, they often feel themselves to be acting subversively. It’s the opposite of real accountability when teachers have to make a secret of acting in students’ best interests.

      So, okay, not to romanticize the past, but I went to Chicago public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, back when Bill Bennett said they were the worst in the nation. My ELA classes had poetry and short stories and novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ray Bradbury and Harper Lee. They also had 35 students, at times. My teachers were black and white, male and female, but they were nearly all middle-aged career teachers who were focused on giving us an education, not on raising our test scores. Test-based accountability has torpedoed the good thing about those urban public schools (a literature-rich curriculum) while doing nothing to ameliorate the problems (crowding, lack of resources).

      And if test-based accountability is useful, why do unequal outcomes persist? Here’s from an ETS report about achievement gaps (presumably a source that would be in favor of testing):

      “From the early 1970s until the late 1980s, a very large narrowing of the gap occurred in both reading and mathematics … During the 1990s, the gap narrowing generally halted, and actually began to increase in some places.”

      Why was the gap narrowing before NCLB? Isn’t it possible that even before test-based accountability, most teachers were carrying out their professional responsibilities as best they could?