Tag Archives: Curriculum

Time to Plan Math Curriculum

Thank you, State Education Department, for releasing a memo on August 17 prioritizing the new Common Core state math standards.  The memo details which standards are “Major,” meaning they will be emphasized on the new state tests in April, and which can wait until May and June.

Now we can start planning our curriculum for the year!

Wait a minute, school started at Harlem Link two weeks ago.  When the memo came out we were already in our fourth day of staff training, and we had rolled out our curriculum units, including those for math, for the year and our instructional priorities during the first two days of that training.

We are now analyzing this Education Department memo—after all, the state test is how the effectiveness of our curriculum and our interpretation of the Common Core standards will be judged—and comparing it to the arrangements we had made when we mapped out our math standards in June.

Did the state really want us to wait until August 17 to start planning curriculum for the year?  I don’t think so, but the tone of the memo vividly illustrates the year-to-year thinking that has long plagued the system.  The memo says, “Schools and districts are encouraged to use this guidance when reviewing local curricula and in designing their Grades 3-8 instructional programs.” 

Last year one of our biggest issues as a school was that we were designing our “local curriculum” and “instructional programs” during the year, right before or while teaching them.  This frenzied approach resulted from the need to shift quickly and wholly to state and Common Core standards, coupled with our commitment to a home-grown curriculum, not relying solely on off-the-shelf, pre-packaged programs. 

I’m not writing to condemn the Education department for issuing this guidance.  Actually, it’s more than I thought we would receive, since the state has promised that henceforth state tests would be obscured and unpredictable to prevent the gaming of the system that has characterized the recent testing regime.

Instead, I’m writing to illustrate the complexity of doing genuine education reform with a sense of urgency and seriousness when, for example, the state bureaucracy fails to sets its major requirements in a timely way.

This little memo is a big window into an important shortcoming of large systems.

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21st Century Skills? I’ve Got One Word for You

And It Isn’t Technology

Recently a candidate for employment at our school observed one of our teachers working with students using laptops for a research project.  “How wonderful, teaching 21st century skills,” she cooed.  Her sentiment echoed the popular view that our students’ familiarity with the medium, independent of the merit of ideas being researched, will determine whether they’ll be prepared for the global marketplace.

I disagree.  Instead of “technology” as the educational byword for this century, I propose a different word: “curate.”

To curate is to judge quality and separate it from what is less worthwhile, and to interpret for a purpose.  Museum curators may begin with hundreds, if not thousands, of works before choosing a dozen or two to appear in an exhibition.  Each work is carefully selected for a reason, and the viewer is treated to a thoughtful, sensible experience as he or she wanders through the exhibit.

I (and others, as you will see below) would argue that in the 21st century access to information and the ability to retrieve it will become commonplace, if they aren’t already.  Even in Harlem Link’s high-poverty student population, which is supposedly on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide, the latest devices are commonplace.

But as The New York Times pointed out in a recent article, lack of access to technological tools is not the biggest issue facing our most-at-risk families and children.  Rather, having the reason and wherewithal to use these tools for constructive purposes is what is missing.  We need to teach our young scholars to be curators of the flood of information that comes their way on a daily basis.  The real 21st century skill is an old one.

Teaching Curating

At Harlem Link, we have embraced the new, national Common Core standards with gusto.  In the last 18 months we have completely revamped our curriculum around Common Core’s refreshing call for classrooms and lessons filled with more authentic literature, deep textual analysis, argumentation and discussion, and strategic thinking.    There is a role in this pedagogy for technological devices, but they are in their proper place as resources to be directed, not as the focal point of learning.

I have plenty of company in my warning against undue reliance on technological tools.  The rise of the Common Core standards has fostered a groundswell of support for the notion, until recently often dismissed as quaint, that schools should be in the business of teaching children to interpret, judge and critique information rather than simply learn where and how to find it.

The Common Core website hosts an open letter from a diverse array of education reformers arguing against the aims of a panel called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The premise of the open letter is that the Partnership is advocating a curriculum that would rob our schools of the valuable instructional time traditionally devoted to such subjects as literature, history, civics and geography.

One of the most vocal signatories of this letter, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, went a bit further in a provocative 2009 blog entry as the Common Core standards were rolling out.  In this piece she calls not for a panel on 21st century skills, but one on 19th century skills!  Whither individualism, initiative, courage, intellectual curiosity and a host of other attributes that have been increasingly marginalized by the relentless technology drumbeat?

Going further, the Common Core leaders used Ravitch’s ideas as the focus of a debate about educational standards.  The debaters came away less than enthused about organizing future curriculum requirements around “technology skills.”  Six minutes of video highlights and a host of coverage on media outlets are archived here.

A New Old Idea

Who better than a science futurist to give us thoughtful ideas on what’s needed for us to thrive in the 21st century?  Famed quantum physicist Michio Kakui joins me on the curatorial bandwagon.  In Physics of the Future, his recent book on what impact to expect from technology by the year 2100, he takes for the granted the widespread availability of fancy new tools.  He compares the added powers humans will have with those of the gods of the ancient world.  But he laments our ability to use these tools to solve problems and evolve in an increasingly interconnected world without being able to critically analyze:

“Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.” (p. 350)

Wisdom.  Insight.  Curiosity.  Initiative.

It’s time to teach our children to curate.

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Are There Voices of Reason on State Testing?

The Best System We’ve Got

I had the most amazing experience in early April: the chance to sit down with teachers at my school and have an open conversation about the role of standardized testing in education policy today.

As always, I started planning for this hour-long seminar by thinking backward from an assessment, in this case the promised 2015 rollout of the Common Core-related PARCC exam in New York, one of two dozen or so states that are contributing to this test’s development.

What I learned in my session didn’t surprise me; my faculty members are insightful and passionate about their work, but they have no better answers than I do when it comes to two key questions:

  1. What better idea could replace high stakes testing and fill the gaping policy void it currently occupies?
  2. How do educators stanch the overwhelming tide of teacher and student “fear and punishment” that has grown around the testing culture?

The words “fear and punishment” come from one of two texts I used to frame the discussion, a recent blog post by John Merrow decrying the prevalence of test prep throughout the land in these weeks leading up to state assessment frenzy.  I juxtaposed Merrow’s angry words with those of conciliation of a teacher named AmaNyamekye, who last year wrote an essay describing her changing attitude towards standardized tests, now that she has had a chance to analyze how they could actually help her practice.

Nyamekye came to the same conclusion I did: the wave of standardized testing has hurt all of us, but the power to use it rather than cower from it is within us as educators.  Besides, in doing the important work of distinguishing low achievement from high achievement among students, and high functioning schools from ones that are hurting children, it’s the best system we’ve got.  Until we can make it better (enter PARCC?), we need to use it for all it’s worth.

An Absurd Obsession

For charters, the subtext of any thinking in this area is the reality that the decision, made for all charters at a maximum of every five years, whether to dissolve our school will be based on exams that the state is about to discard because, well, the testsaren’t good enough.  It’s absurd irony worthy of Jean Paul Sartre.

The richness of this irony includes one reason the state is tossing the exams: Reformers fear that current exam formats have narrowed the curriculum to such an extent that test prep is now trumping authentic good instruction.  As one of the flag bearers of the crusade against test prep, Mike Schmoker, laments in his recent book, Focus, “Scores can be artificially pumped up on a diet of 500-word passages and multiple-choice drills (which many students live on)” (pp. 114-115).  In other words, obsession over state tests has hampered good instruction.

The problem of test prep has now invaded even early childhood, an age group which had been spared the indignity of obsession over high-stakes multiple choice exams under No Child Left Behind.  The New York Times reported last week on a disturbing trend emerging from this year’s round of kindergarten test results for admission to public school Gifted and Talented programs: Test prep is beginning to determine the winners and losers even at this level.


I am haunted by a conversation I had with a senior vice president for accountability during our authorizer’s annual visit this past winter.  (Let’s call him Bob.)  I was describing to him the sacrifices we have made for the first time this year in order to meet certain state test targets that are requirements in our charter–or, less mildly, to game the system.

As Bob knows from his many visits to Harlem Link over the years, we have always followed the principles embedded in our mission and our charter, even if doing so meant that we can’t guarantee hitting all of the testing targets.  For example, we have:

  • …maintained strong teachers in the lower (non-testing) grades for stability and consistency, even as we grew and added upper grades.  Building an upper grade program has taken years, just as it has in the lower grades, but we have had less time to do it because we began with only kindergarten and first grade and grew slowly.
  • …distributed resources disproportionately to our lowest achieving students (often meaning, our newest enrollees), not the ones who are “on the bubble” of passing the arbitrary state testing bar.  As a result, we have fewer kids than we’d like achieving the passing rate, but a great number of students”almost there.”  Those don’t count in the binary land of accountability, and neither does our significantly smaller percentage than state averages of the lowest achieving scores that has resulted from our interventions.
  • …resisted the temptation of buying off the shelf curriculum that other highly touted schools use to get “teacher proof” test scores.  Instead, we prefer authentic curriculum that is home-grown, guided by standards and student data, and written collaboratively by teachers and administrators.

The principles in our charter that have guided these decisions include the centrality of teacher voice in curriculum; child centered instruction; democratic leadership, meaning genuine input from all levels of the organization; and an interest in developing teachers and building a team over time.

So what was I saying to Bob?  This year–in publicly available decisions made by our board of trustees in consultation with our staff–we have admitted fewer students in the upper grades, in three cases this year turning away students who had left the school in the past and tried to re-enroll mid-year; put social studies curriculum development in the upper grades on the back burner to focus on the testing subjects (New York State stopped testing social studies in 2011); prioritized the students who are close to passing the state test but not certain to do so; and hired (while holding my nose) a famous test-prep company to provide dozens of hours of after-school tutoring for those prioritized students.

We made undeniably positive changes as well that were part of our organizational plan and independent of the state testing pressures, such as modifying roles on our leadership team to give leaders more time to focus on instruction and revising lesson planning expectations across the school.  But clearly, as I was telling Bob, our top priorities this year have been guided by the coming high stakes tests and the somewhat artificial achievement targets we agreed to meet when we were chartered.

“You must have mixed feelings about that,” Bob told me.

“Yes.  Of course.  While I like our general direction, I’m not satisfied with the aspects of our school that don’t show up on the state tests, and I want to increase our enrollment, not limit it.  The tests are emphasized to the point of being a distraction.”

Bob and I have had many of these conversations over the years.  But now that we have actually taken steps to follow the recipe, narrowing the curriculum and joining the testing frenzy, I felt the humanity behind Bob’s icy glare.

“Look,” he said.  “I agree with you.  I can’t defend this system.

“But it’s the best one we’ve got.”

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Investigations Vindication: Part 1 of 2

The city Department of Education is quietly rolling out a new mathematics curriculum in some, maybe most, of its elementary schools this year (I’m not sure).  After nearly ten years of the program called Everyday Math, the system is adopting TERC Investigations.  I’m really excited about this change, for two reasons: it’s a vindication of sorts for our school; and any curriculum decision made on such a large scale, while also inherently political, opens a window into the practice and raises the key questions we face as a society if we are to close our various academic achievement gaps.  In a subsequent blog post I will share my thoughts on the latter, which involve Pablo Picasso and the Appian Way.

Why is the city’s TERC Investigations adoption a vindication for our school?  Following Albert Shanker’s vision of teacher-led charter schools, we founded Harlem Link on the idea that we would be able to adopt a vision, stick with it and make only those changes and modifications that suit our community’s needs.  We would use the expertise of our staff members, the input of our wider community of learners, and data we gather about our students to make those decisions.  We would be sheltered from the shifting winds of reform that lead to the “just close your door; this mandate will too soon pass” mentality that has been the norm—or the necessity, for those who want to keep their professional integrity intact—in many New York City schools for decades.  The city adopted Everyday Math a year or two before we opened our school.  We steadfastly held to TERC, which we thought would better help us meet our mission and the state standards.

A quick explanation of the difference between the two programs is in order.  Firstly, they have a lot in common; both encourage “constructivist” instruction, in which students play games to explore math concepts and face problem solving challenges in order to develop their thinking before being handed an algorithm and told how to solve a problem.  The theory of learning behind constructivist math instruction holds that learning is better cemented when learners are actively engaged in building that knowledge, and that experiential understanding, trial and error within a community of learners who correct and inform each other, will go farther than a lecture-style “in one ear and out the other” approach. 

What’s different about the two programs is their approach to content.  Everyday Math takes a “spiraling” approach, meaning that the same topics are revisited constantly throughout the school year with increasing rigor and sophistication.  Today we’re talking addition and subtraction, tomorrow circles and squares, and the next day fractions.   TERC Investigations takes the opposite approach; discrete units of study demarcate a deeper study (and “investigation”) of a specific concept or set of concepts.  Geometry may come once a year for five or six weeks, for example, and the rigor increases each school year. 

There are obvious advantages to both methods, but in our view Investigations won the day because the deeper study allows young scholars to build their ideas over time and have more meaningful practice time.  Everyday Math can come off as a series of disjointed, unconnected experiences for an elementary school aged child.

Seven years later, the TERC Investigations program is working for us, with some important modifications we made because of the input of our teachers.  While city teachers are learning a whole new curriculum and, really, a whole new way of thinking about curriculum, we’re continuing to truck along with improving our practice in what has already been a successful math program. 

Look, the standards are still too low and will continue to rise, and we have a lot of improving to do, but in 2011, 98% of our students met the state’s accountability requirement on the state math exam (called the “Time Adjusted Cut Score”).  Our scores on the math exam were once again well above the city average, despite the fact that we know from our internal testing that one of our classes grossly underperformed on the test.

We’re incredibly proud of our math instruction.  Our scholars act like mathematicians, proposing strategies and solutions, trying them out and debating those methods with their colleagues.  This argument begins in kindergarten.  Please come visit and see our math workshop in action.  And stay tuned for Part 2, or why the city’s change in curriculum helps us see why teachers need to emulate the one and only Pablo Picasso.

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Common Core Standards 4: Experts We Must Become

This afternoon at Harlem Link we’re diving in to the Common Core standards and starting the long process of integrating them into our 2011-12 curriculum maps.  At the same time, we’ll begin our mapping protocol by reminding ourselves to reflect on the year as we go, making notes on the maps and being prepared to repeat “what works” and change “what needs to be changed” for the coming school year.  We’ll spend less time on the maps this afternoon, and more time getting to know Common Core.  This is a first date, but it’s also the first date of an arranged marriage, so we better get cozy and fast.

I imagine that after our exercise of cross-walking Common Core with our NYS-based Harlem Link Learning Standards, I along with our faculty will have a better understanding of what Common Core is trying to accomplish.  It’s been a hard and sometimes confusing road getting to know the content of the standards.

For example, I was a bit mystified and even angry when I discovered recently that the word “pattern” does not even appear in the math content standards from kindergarten through second grade!  (We have a whole section of our school learning standards in math devoted to pattern, in each grade from K to 5.)  I was even angrier when I saw that New York State added in a pattern standard to the new Pre-Kindergarten standards it added to Common Core.  ‘They [meaning NYSED] agreed, dammit!’ I though.  ‘If they could change the Grades K-2 standards and explicitly add in patterns, they would!  What’s going on?’

I was brought back down to earth by Joan, the wise hand who has been our contracted staff developer through Math in the City since 2006.  “They are concentrating on number,” she reassured me, “and you will find pattern in the number system.”  I also reminded myself that pattern is featured in at least one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are the same in all the grades and serve as an almost metaphysical companion to the content standards.  The exact language in the Common Core is, “Look for and make use of structure.”

‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought, ‘teachers really have to become expert in the field in order to make good decisions about how to do this well.’  Intimidating?  Yes – but with our steadfast choice as a school to create our own curriculum and write our own standards, and to implement them with an inefficient, messy and demanding pedagogy that is based on student inquiry, choice and independence rather than the robotic recitation of a script, how could we do it any other way?

UPDATE: The session went well, inasmuch as we met the objective and embarked on the work.  See photos for faculty members in action and one of the key tasks of crosswalking the Harlem Link learning standards with Common Core.  The protocol we followed helped demystify the standards and get teachers to understand the structure and the details of their grade’s standards quickly.  We generally found the Common Core standards to be a step up in terms of rigor, which is both daunting and exciting. 


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