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Curriculum

  • Predicaments Of Reform

    Written on August 31, 2011

    Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors. This is a response to Michael Petrilli, who recently published a post on the Fordham Institute’s blog that referred to Cohen’s new book.

    Dear Mike:

    Thank you for considering my book Teaching And Its Predicaments (Harvard University Press, 2011), and for your intelligent discussion of the issues. I write to continue the conversation. 

    You are right to say that I see the incoherence of U.S. public education as a barrier to more quality and less inequality, but I do not "look longingly" at Asia or Finland, let alone take them as models for what Americans should do to improve schools. 

    In my 2009 book (The Ordeal Of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix The Schools?), Susan L. Moffitt and I recounted the great difficulties that the "top-down" approach to coherence, with which you associate my work, encountered as Title I of the 1965 ESEA was refashioned to leverage much greater central influence on schooling. Susan and I concluded that increased federal regulation had not fixed the schools, and had caused some real damage along with some important constructive effects. We did not see central coherence as The Answer.

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  • Again, Niche Reforms Are Not The Answer

    Written on August 9, 2011

    Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors.

    A recent response to my previous post on these pages helps to underscore one of my central points: If there is no clarity about what it will take to improve schools, it will be difficult to design a system that can do it.  In a recent essay in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Paul Tough wrote that education reformers who advocated "no excuses" schooling were now making excuses for reformed schools' weak performance.  He explained why: " Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard." 

     In his post criticizing my initial essay, "What does it mean to ‘fix the system’?," the Fordham Institute’s Chris Tessone told the story of how Newark Public Schools tried to meet the requirements of a federal school turnaround grant. The terms of the grant required that each of three failing high school replace at least half of their staff. The schools, he wrote, met this requirement largely by swapping a portion of their staffs with one another, a process which Tessone and school administrators refer to as the “dance of the lemons.”Would such replacement be likely to solve the problem?

    Even if all of the replaced teachers had been weak (which we do not know), I doubt that such replacement could have done much to help.

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  • Evaluating Individual Teachers Won't Solve Systemic Educational Problems

    Written on July 26, 2011

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors.  

    What are we to make of recent articles (here and here) extolling IMPACT, Washington DC’s fledging teacher evaluation system, for how many "ineffective" teachers have been identified and fired, how many "highly effective" teachers rewarded? It’s hard to say.

    In a forthcoming book, Teaching and Its Predicaments (Harvard University Press, August 2011), I argue that fragmented school governance in the U.S. coupled with the lack of coherent educational infrastructure make it difficult either to broadly improve teaching and learning or to have valid knowledge of the extent of improvement. Merriam-Webster defines "infrastructure" as: "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)." The term is commonly used to refer to the roads, rail systems, and other frameworks that facilitate the movement of things and people, or to the physical and electronic mechanisms that enable voice and video communication. But social systems also can have such "underlying foundations or basic frameworks". For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

    Like many recent reform efforts that focus on teacher performance and accountability, IMPACT does not attempt to build infrastructure, but rather assumes that weak individual teachers are the problem. There are some weak individual teachers, but the chief problem has been a non-system that offers no guidance or support for strong teaching and learning, precisely because there has been no infrastructure. IMPACT frames reform as a matter of solving individual problems when the weakness is systemic.

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  • First, Know-What; Then, Know-How

    Written on July 25, 2011

    It is satisfying to read a book that examines education without claiming to be an education book. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered feels fresh and inspiring, despite having been around since the early 1970s. In it, British economist E.F. Schumacher attempts to address fundamental questions, as opposed to dwelling on the politics around nonessential issues, even the politics around the politics.

    Schumacher argues that education will only help society if it helps that society become wiser. And we get wiser by thinking first about where we want to go (i.e., know-what), not how to get there. Today, the education world seems focused on the latter. Science, technology, engineering, all teach know-how. But who is concerned with the know-what? In my view, efforts like the Albert Shanker Institute’s "Call for Common Content" are a step in this direction.

    Schumacher points out that we often look at education as the answer to all kinds of problems. "[A]ll history – as well as all current experience – points to the fact that it is man, not nature, who provides the primary resource: that the key factor of all economic development comes out of the mind of man." If our civilization is in a state of crisis "it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education." We believe that for every new challenge ahead there ought to be a scientific and technological solution: more and better education will solve all problems to come. Yet, with all of our scientific and technological advances, our social problems still seem intractable. Why is that?

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  • Fordham Responds To The Common Core "Counter-Manifesto"

    Written on May 12, 2011

    The following post was written by Chester E. Finn Jr., President, and Michael J. Petrilli, Executive Vice-President, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.  It was originally posted here, on the Fordham Institute’s blog. We have reprinted it with the permission of the authors.

    The "counter-manifesto" released this week in opposition to national testing and a national curriculum is full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men. But it was signed by a lot of serious people and deserves a serious response.

    First, let us dispatch some silliness. To the best of our knowledge, and based on all evidence that we’re aware of, neither the signers of the Shanker Institute manifesto, nor leaders in the Obama/Duncan Education Department, advocate a “nationalized curriculum” that would “undermine control of public school curriculum and instruction at the local and state level” and “transfer control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy." Nor is anybody calling for “a one-size fits all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject." We certainly wouldn’t support such a policy—and can understand why the conservative luminaries who signed the counter-manifesto wouldn’t want it, either. As parents, grandparents, charter-school authorizers, and champions of school choice in almost all its forms, we believe deeply in the importance of schools having the freedom to shape their own unique educational approaches.

    So let us be clear: While the assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards will be mandatory (for schools and districts in states that choose to use them), the use of any common curricular materials will be purely voluntary. We don’t see any evidence to indicate otherwise.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Common Content

    Written on May 11, 2011

    The recent, breathless opposition to the idea of common curricular content led us to reflect on just how long educators have been asking for this practical tool for better schooling - only to be rebuffed by those more interested in playing politics. It’s been generations. More than 20 years ago, Al Shanker waded into the fray. The following, entitled “An American Revolution in Education: Developing a Common Core," was published by Al in his weekly Where We Stand column on Feb. 24, 1991.

    If anyone had talked about a common curriculum for US schools a few years ago, people would have said he was crazy. Sure, that's the way they do it in most other industrialized countries; and, sure, their students achieve at a much higher level than ours. But the education system in those countries are under the control of their central governments, and the idea of our federal government dictating what children learn in schools was out of the question. Now, we have begun to understand the price we pay for our fragmented curriculum. We've also begun to find ways of building a common curriculum in a typically American way — through voluntary effort rather than government intervention.

    Why should we be so eager for a common curriculum? Exactly what difference does it make in an education system — and, ultimately in what children learn?

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  • Shanker Institute Counters Efforts To Undermine Common Core State Standards; Repeats Call For Matching Curricula

    Written on May 9, 2011

    The “Closing the Door on Innovation” manifesto issued today by a group of conservatives distorts the purpose of the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute-sponsored Call for Common Content statement released in March. The statement was signed by a diverse group of education and other leaders from across the political spectrum - and emphasized that teachers must have access to voluntary curriculum guidelines in order to teach effectively to the new state-led common core standards. Aligning the new standards to high quality curriculum is critical to ensuring that all children in the U.S. receive a rigorous education.

    “While we agree that curriculum should be designed before assessments, their claim that the ‘Call for Common Content’ is about creation of a ‘national curriculum’ and ‘national standards’ is just plain wrong," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the signatories to the Shanker Institute statement.

    “What we argued then, and what the AFT’s own committee on implementation of common core standards will reinforce in its upcoming recommendations, was that educators need and want a set of curricular roadmaps that are aligned to common standards and developed from various high-quality, content rich, multiple curriculum resources, with strong input from teachers themselves and other curriculum experts."

    “And," Weingarten said, “Without these resources, especially in a time of tight education budgets, it will be up to teachers to make up all of this content aligned to standards as they go along, under the guise of local autonomy. That is a recipe for failure and unfair to both students and teachers."

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  • Straight Up, Between The Lines

    Written on April 12, 2011

    Read carefully between the lines in Rick Hess’ recent blog post, “Can the Common Core Coalition Keeps [sic] Its Finlandophiles in Check?"

    Predicting a “fifty-fifty chance that the Common Core effort will dissolve into an ideological clash," Hess writes that in “one short document, the Shankerites managed to do much to undermine the loose confederation that had supported the Common Core." He also lumps a broad spectrum of signatories into one supposedly errant educational faction. People such as former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Reagan appointee Checker Finn, George H.W. Bush appointee Charlie Kolb, George W. Bush appointee Susan B. Neuman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kate Walsh — all are labeled as being “a slew of left-leaning academics and consultants, dotted with my pal Checker Finn and a few long-retired Republican governors”—and the whole crew is charged with being “Finlandophiles." God forbid.

    What’s going on here? What have we wrought with the Albert Shanker Institute’s "A Call for Common Content?"

    I think Hess is doing more than cooking up a soup of crocodile tears and polemics. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take education in this country, but he's not willing to take a clear position either way. Given his dilemma, attacking a sound strategy for implementing the standards seems like little more than undermining them without the political risk of having to register a truly “straight up” objection. And this is not the first time he has attempted to evoke tensions among potential supporters of the Common Core standards. I cannot help but suspect that he has made up his mind, but can't quite bring himself to say so.

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  • A Call For Common Content

    Written on March 7, 2011

    A diverse group of influential education and other leaders today announced support for clear curricular guidance to complement the new Common Core State Standards that have been adopted by most states. 

    Today’s statement released by the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute and signed by dozens of educators, advocates, policymakers, researchers and scholars from across the educational and political spectrum, highlights one largely ignored factor needed to enable  American students to achieve to high levels and become internationally competitive—the creation of voluntary model curricula that can be taught in the nation’s classrooms.

    Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, urged broad support and dissemination for the statement, "A Call for Common Content". “We are arguing for the tools and materials that teachers need," she said. “With rich, sequential common curricula, amplified by state and local content—and with teacher preparation, classroom materials, student assessments,  teacher development, and teacher evaluation all aimed at  the mastery of that content—we can finally build the kind of coherent system that supports the achievement of all learners; the kind of system enjoyed by the world’s highest performing nations."

    The release of “A Call for Common Content” comes at a special time. After decades of debate, the nation is finally on its way to having common, voluntary standards in mathematics and English language arts. Although this recent state-led effort is an important and positive first step, notes the statement, it is not sufficient to achieve a well-functioning education system that offers both excellence and opportunity.

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  • What About Curriculum Effects?

    Written on August 19, 2010

    Our guest author today is Barak Rosenshine, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Bill Gates, the Los Angeles Times, and others have argued that teachers should be held accountable for the achievement of their students. This has led to heated debates over the validity and proper use of value added statistical measures. But no one seems to be talking about curriculum effects. What if an excellent teacher is in a school that has selected a curriculum for mathematics or for reading that isn’t very good. How accountable should the teacher be in those circumstances?

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