A Peek Inside the Classroom Black Box

By 06/16/2015

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Contractors removing old chalkboards from an Oklahoma City high school last week uncovered a second set of chalkboard drawings still covered with lessons and student work from a school day in 1917. The Thanksgiving-themed drawings, multiplication problems, musical scales, and lessons on cleanliness offer an eerie, time-capsule glimpse into the past. But the discovery was important for another reason: Researchers finally have tangible evidence of what kids were learning in at least one American school.

I’m not entirely joking. Pop quiz: Can you name the English language arts curriculum in the public schools where you live? How about the math program? If you can name them, are they any good? How do you know? Do you have student performance data on the program or textbook? Or is your opinion just based on philosophy and preference?

I’ve long lamented the general lack of curiosity within education reform about curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes, despite good evidence that curriculum effects are larger than teacher effectiveness, chartering, standards, and other beloved reform levers. Likewise, I’ve expressed the hope that Common Core might spur something of a golden age in curriculum development (hell, I’ll settle for bronze). But for that to happen, the first step is good, reliable, systematic data on what materials schools are presently using. By and large, such information simply doesn’t exist.

A report issued this week from the Manhattan Institute seeks to peer inside the black box that is the classroom. Charles Sahm, the institute’s director of education policy, seized upon a novel technique to determine what curricula New York City schools are using. He asked them.

Sahm emailed an online survey to every elementary and middle school principal in Gotham to find out what math and ELA curricula they’re employing as they implement the Common Core. He also sought to gauge school leaders’ satisfaction with those choices and the extent to which teachers are faithfully implementing the curricula. The upshot is a rare glimpse into one of the most important, yet least studied questions that can be asked at the school or district level: What materials are you actually putting in front of the kids?

Some interesting tidbits from Sahm’s study:

•The curriculum recommendations that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) issued in 2013 (prior to the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his appointment of Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina) are largely being followed.

•Low-performing schools were more likely to adopt the DOE’s recommended curriculum than high-fliers. Principals of struggling schools “felt pressure to switch because they knew they would be held accountable if they kept their old curricula and their students’ performance did not improve,” Sahm notes.

•Some schools switched to Pearson’s Connect Math and its ReadyGen ELA curriculum, both on the DOE’s recommended list, simply because they’re published by Pearson, which also produces New York’s annual math and ELA tests. Principals reasoned that those curricula would be the most aligned to the tests their students would eventually take.

•On math, 52 percent of principals report that their teachers are following the curriculum “very closely,” and 32 percent “somewhat closely.” For ELA, 49 percent report following their curriculum “very closely,” and 35 percent “somewhat closely.” (It’s hard to know if a curriculum is any good unless it’s being implemented with reasonable fidelity.)

•New York has been a hotbed of restiveness over Common Core (and Common Core tests), but Sahm’s study shows that principals are largely satisfied with the standards, their curricular choices, and implementation. A strong majority of principals report being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their Common Core-aligned math (72 percent) and ELA curricula (65 percent).

Most of these findings will be of particular interest to New Yorkers. But the big question that might interest everyone is, “Hey, how come I don’t know this about my district?”

Step one is to develop and voice curiosity about curricula and materials. “We study teacher effectiveness, where teachers went to ed school, we know what their SAT scores were, but we pay no attention to what materials they’re using in the classroom,” Sahm observes. “It’s just crazy.” He’s right.

The Manhattan Institute report recommends adding curriculum-related questions to annual school surveys administered by the city and state and reporting the results. That would go a long way toward building a data set that will allow researchers to evaluate curriculum effectiveness, help teachers decide where to teach, and allow parents to become more critical consumers where choice exists. And lest you think this is a New York-only problem, Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, recently filed over three thousand Freedom of Information Act requests simply to find out what textbooks are being used by school districts in four states: Illinois, Florida, New York, and Texas

There are no obvious reasons why such data isn’t already widely available. “It’s such a non-threatening piece of information. It’s based on the use of public funds,” Polikoff notes. “States, for one reason or another, have not been interested.” He cites California, Indiana, and Florida as exceptions. “I’m definitely hoping states will start collecting this information routinely. It’s such an easy piece of information to capture,” he notes. “Why are we not doing it?”

Why not, indeed? Are you listening, state lawmakers?

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Common Core Watch

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