I admire Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher who is now a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. No one writes more clearly or intelligently about how to improve our schools. But even I, a devout optimist, have trouble accepting his view that 2015 will finally give America’s teachers the engaging curriculums they and their students deserve.
Pondiscio applauds the Common Core State Standards as a way to spark curriculums with the rich academic content that produces better readers and deeper learning in all subjects. In a recent post on the Fordham Web site, “2015: The year of curriculum-based reform?,” he said “the ranks are growing of those who recognize that curricular content and quality are at least as important to student learning as teacher quality, accountability, and school choice.”
“This is an awakening too long in coming,” he said. “Simple common sense would dictate that the effectiveness of different teachers or schools should have at least as much to do with differences in what is being taught as who is doing the teaching, or under whose roof and which assessment reign.”
He quoted Dacia Toll, head of the high-performing Achievement First charter school network, as saying recent Common Core testing in her New York schools was “one hell of a wake-up call.” The new tests revealed her students’ deficiencies in background knowledge and vocabulary, which she attributed in part to her network’s mistaken cuts in history and science to free up more time for reading. She said she was correcting that. Pondiscio praised schools in the KIPP charter school network, or Knowledge is Power Program, that are adopting Eureka Math, a curriculum based on the Common Core, and that are moving toward adoption of a new English curriculum also linked to the new standards.
That’s encouraging, but those schools are well-managed charters less susceptible to the pressures that make curriculums so weak in the United States.
Beverlee Jobrack, an experienced textbook editor, exposed in her 2012 book “Tyranny of the Textbook” how curriculums are selected. She said that textbooks, to be effective, must have curriculums designed by educators who have researched what works. They should be carefully piloted in schools and compared to see which approach does best in raising achievement.
Sadly, textbook companies often don’t use the most effective new curriculums because teachers, who have great influence over what books are purchased, have learned to distrust change. It is difficult to throw away what they are already doing, and even if they accept a new approach, it might soon be out of fashion. “Effective curriculums will reflect educational research as well as the Common Core, and this will necessitate fundamental change in most schools,” Jobrack told me last week. “But if teachers refuse to use effective curriculums with integrity, no one can expect any improvement.”
Textbook publishers know how to finesse change. “In some cases chapters or sections are rewritten or reworked to reflect a standard or group of standards,” Jobrack said in her book. But in most cases, the changes are no more than “a paragraph here, an activity there, a few practice exercises, and some assessment items.”
That passive resistance to reform in publishers’ offices and teacher-led textbook committees will have more influence over how far curriculums tied to the Common Core spread than the political arguments against the new standards in state legislatures.
I still hope Pondiscio is right. Research-based curricular changes are overdue, and he thinks the new standards can make that happen. But that question mark at the end of the title of his article reveals his own doubts.
Most of us don’t embrace change, at least not quickly. Improvements will come, but slowly and erratically, as has always happened in American schools.