ESEA and the Return of a Well-Rounded Curriculum

By 12/09/2015

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Like many, I’m convinced that what happens inside the classroom—curriculum and instruction—has as much of an impact (if not more) on student outcomes than structural reforms. For those who believe as I do, the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act has the potential to help states figure out how to hold schools accountable for student learning and what, if anything, to do about teacher evaluations. Let me throw out a few ideas.

“If you want more of something, subsidize it,” Ronald Reagan famously quipped. “If you want less of something, tax it.” During the No Child Left Behind era, test-driven accountability has too often stood Reagan’s maxim on its ear. Annual reading tests have practically required schools and teachers to forsake the patient, long-term investment in knowledge and vocabulary that builds strong readers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. High-stakes accountability with annual tests that are not tied to course content (which reading tests are not) amounted to a tax on good things and a subsidy for bad practice: curriculum narrowing, test preparation, and more time spent on a “skills and strategies” approach to learning that doesn’t serve children well. Under the new ESEA, states will still have to test students annually, including in reading. But they have a lot more control over the way the results from those tests are turned into grades for schools. This could offer an opportunity to restore some sanity to schooling.

“If we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge,” Brown University reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams has observed. This is a good place for states to start thinking through their newly won freedom: Does what you are about to do in the name of accountability tax or subsidize student knowledge across the curriculum? Does it incentivize adding more social studies, science, art, and music to the school day, or does it encourage schools to do less?

The sooner schools see building knowledge across the curriculum as Job One in strengthening reading comprehension, the better. Years of treating reading as a discrete subject or a skill—teaching it and testing it that way—have arguably set reading achievement in reverse. You don’t build strong readers by teaching children to “find the main idea,” “make inferences,” and “compare and contrast.” You do it by fixing a child’s gaze on the world outside the classroom window.

Measuring inputs, not outputs, is the kind of thing that reform-oriented thinking typically eschews. But with states in the accountability driver’s seat, I could persuade myself that the time has come for at least some foresighted states to set subject matter targets and hold schools accountable for meeting them. This might help reverse the worst effects of the curriculum narrowing and testing mania we’ve seen in the No Child Left Behind era. Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation suggests that kids need 150 minutes per week of science, 150 of social studies, and sixty of the arts in elementary school. That sounds reasonable. “But I think it has to be 100 percent of students,” she adds. “Otherwise, we’ll continue to see reading and math remediation happening during the science, social studies, and art time.”

The other big tax on content-rich curriculum that needs to be repealed is teacher evaluation. “This is a big one,” writes Stephen Sawchuck at Education Week. States and districts can use federal funds to create teacher evaluation systems, but they’re not required to do so. “This is a big change from the Education Department’s ESEA flexibility waivers, which required them to revamp these reviews and to integrate student achievement,” he notes. I’ve long argued that marrying reading tests to teacher evaluation ultimately demands bad practice because it forces teachers to emphasize reading “skills and strategies” of limited utility. Consider the Kafkaesque nature of a reading test. Unlike subject tests in math or science—where there is no mystery for teachers about what’s on the test, and hence how to prepare students—the “content” of a reading test is a random walk in the woods, though we know that reading is not a “skill,” per se. A student’s familiarity with the content “domain” can dramatically affect comprehension. Since teachers don’t know what content to teach, their only recourse is to teach “reading skills” of questionable utility, drill for the test, and pray. There’s no incentive to build knowledge in a particular domain—plants, astronomy, colonial America, the Harlem Renaissance—since there’s no guarantee that those subjects will come up on the reading test this year, next year, or ever. But increasing the breadth and depth of students’ domain knowledge is exactly how you build strong readers. States need to subsidize it —or at least stop taxing it.

To be sure, there is nothing in our current forms of direct evaluation that requires schools and teachers to abandon a broad, knowledge-laden curriculum to boost test scores; but it should be abundantly clear that if the field hasn’t gotten this message nearly fifteen years after No Child Left Behind, it’s not going to.

The best course is to abandon efforts to use tests to evaluate teachers—or, at the very least, stop using reading tests for those purposes. Reading is not a school-based subject or skill, like math or science, that lends itself to clear measures of teacher effectiveness. The moment you attempt to evaluate teachers through reading tests, which are de facto tests of background knowledge, you’re taxing good teaching and subsidizing bad.

To be sure, establishing minimum requirements for time spent on different subjects is far from a satisfying answer. It could easily become a bureaucratic exercise in filling out timesheets for compliance. But if states are clear on why these measures are needed, it could start to undo some of the damage inflicted by the blunt-axe of test-driven accountability. States could do worse than chiseling that expectation into their accountability regimes and making sure it sticks.

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Flypaper

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