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Curriculum

  • The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes

    Written on July 29, 2014

    Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

    It is no secret that disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school. For decades now, public policy has focused on how to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students. Despite numerous reform efforts, these gaps remain virtually unchanged – a fact that is deeply frustrating, and also a little confusing. It would be reasonable to assume that background inequalities would shrink over the years of schooling, but that’s not what we find. At age eighteen, rather, we find differences that are roughly the same size as we see at age six.

    Does this mean that schools can’t effectively address inequality? Certainly not. I devoted a whole book to the subject, Inequality for All, in which I argued that one of the key factors driving inequality in schools is unequal opportunity to learn, or OTL.

    It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.

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  • Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What's Not To Love?

    Written on June 26, 2014

    The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that "all children need high quality early science learning experiences" and "science supports children's learning and school readiness in other areas" -- see here. The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, "science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; "in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3."

    These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what's underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it's what allows us to read with understanding -- or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

    It's important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places," and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.
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  • Will the SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

    Written on April 22, 2014

    The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well educated elites – those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

    Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam include a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents," such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane 'SAT words' (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’)," with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

    Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long held -- but always elusive -- mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum.

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  • More Effective, Less Expensive, Still Controversial: Maximizing Vocabulary Growth In Early Childhood

    Written on December 16, 2013

    Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.

    With all the chatter in 2013 (thanks in part to President Obama) about expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, I have high hopes for America’s children finally getting the strong foundation of knowledge and vocabulary they need to do well in—and enjoy—school.

    When children arrive in kindergarten with a broad vocabulary and a love of books, both of which come from being engaged in conversations with caregivers daily and being read to frequently, they are well prepared for learning to read and write. Just as important, their language comprehension makes learning through teacher read-alouds and conversations relatively easy. The narrower the children’s vocabulary and the fewer experiences they’ve had with books, the tougher the climb to come. Sadly, far too many children don’t make the climb; they mentally dropout in middle school, and are physically adrift soon thereafter.

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  • Words Reflect Knowledge

    Written on November 8, 2013

    I was fascinated when I started to read about the work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley and the early language differences between children growing up in different socioeconomic circumstances. But it took me a while to realize that we care about words primarily because of what words indicate about knowledge. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – not just vocabulary for vocabulary’s sake. So, if words are the tip of the iceberg, what lies underneath? This metaphor inspired me to create the short animation below. Check it out!

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  • The Word Gap

    Written on October 31, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    It is now well established that children’s oral language development is crucial to their academic success, with the documentation of profound differences in word learning and the acquisition of content knowledge between children living in poverty and those from more economically advantaged homes. By the time they enter school, children from advantaged backgrounds may know as many as 15,000 more words than their less affluent peers. This early language gap sets children up to be at risk for other all too familiar gaps, such as the gaps in high school graduation, arrest and incarceration, post-secondary education, and lifetime earnings. So, what can we do to prevent this “early catastrophe”?

    If a child suffers from malnutrition, simply giving him/her more food might not be sufficient to alleviate the problem. A better approach would be to figure out which specific foods and supplements best provide the vitamins and nutrients that are needed, and then deliver these to the child. Recent press coverage on the “word gap," spurred by initiatives such as Too Small to Fail and Thirty Million Words, suffers from a similar failing.

    Don’t get me wrong, the initiatives themselves are hugely important and have done a truly commendable job of focusing public attention on a chronic and chronically overlooked problem. It’s just that the messages that have, thus far, made their way forward are predominantly about quantity – i.e., exposing children to more words and more talk – paying comparatively less attention to qualitative aspects, such as the nature and especially the content of adult-child interactions.

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  • Can The Common Core Standards Reverse The “Rising Tide Of Mediocrity”?

    Written on April 25, 2013

    Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.

    Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled "Cultural Literacy," sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.

    In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments."

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  • Poor Implementation Undermines Promise Of The Common Core

    Written on March 19, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is Stephen Lazar, a founding teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, where he teaches Social Studies. A National Board certified teacher, he blogs at Outside the Cave. Stephen is also one of the organizers of Insightful Social Studies, a grass roots campaign of teachers to reform the newly proposed New York State Social Studies standards.

    The Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) seek to define “college and career readiness expectations." Forty-five states have adopted them, and are moving briskly towards full implementation in the coming year. Last January, I wrote that the standards “represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago."

    While I stand by that statement, with each step towards implementation I see the opportunity being squandered. We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally.  Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings.  New curricula will need to ensure students use an inquiry-based approach to go in depth with a smaller amount of content to gain the wider breadth of skills and dispositions required for civic, college, and career readiness.

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  • Common Core Opens The Second Front In The Reading Wars

    Written on August 15, 2012

    Our guest author today is Kathleen Porter-Magee, Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow and editor of the Common Core Watch blog at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Previously, Ms. Porter-Magee served as both a middle and high school teacher, as well as the curriculum and professional development director for a network of public charter schools.

    Up until now, the Common Core ELA standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach. This isn't the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such widespread traction.

    Yet the Common Core standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: they define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards they’ve replaced. Now, as the full impact of these expectations is starting to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way the CCSS define it—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long running “Reading Wars."

    The first and most divisive front in the reading wars was the debate over the importance of phonics to early reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won the day in this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness, there are none that ignore it completely.

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  • Labor In High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect And Invisibility

    Written on September 6, 2011

    The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

    This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

    Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

    The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

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