A plan to nar­row the achieve­ment gap

DCPS wants stu­dents to im­prove knowl­edge and skills

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer blogs for DCEduphile.org and GreaterGreaterWash­ing­ton.org and is on the board of D.C. Schol­ars Public Char­ter School and the Writ­ing Revo­lu­tion.

For sev­eral years, D.C. Public Schools has been at the fore­front of a move­ment to give stu­dents a co­her­ent body of knowl­edge start­ing in kinder­garten. It’s a com­mend­able ef­fort but still a work in progress. Some of DCPS’s ed­u­ca­tion re­form ef­forts, such as teacher eval­u­a­tions and school clo­sures, have drawn a lot of at­ten­tion. But few peo­ple have no­ticed a fun­da­men­tal ini­tia­tive to change what and how teach­ers teach. If suc­cess­ful, it could help nar­row the Dis­trict’s per­sis­tent achieve­ment gap.

Un­til four years ago, DCPS teach­ers were left largely on their own in de­cid­ing the specifics of what they would teach. To find texts, they worked back­ward from a set of learn­ing stan­dards that stu­dents were sup­posed to meet by the end of the year.

An English stan­dard might say: “Stu­dents will be able to iden­tify the main topic of a multi-para­graph text.” And while stan­dards in so­cial stud­ies and science were more spe­cific, teach­ers got lit­tle guid­ance on class­room prac­tice.

Even worse, many el­e­men­tary teach­ers have fo­cused on skills such as “find­ing the main idea” in sto­ries or ran­dom non­fic­tion texts. But, re­search has shown, you can’t un­der­stand what you’re read­ing un­less you have back­ground knowl­edge and vo­cab­u­lary about the sub­ject mat­ter.

That’s a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for low-in­come stu­dents, who are less likely to ac­quire knowl­edge at home. By the time those stu­dents get to high school, where they’re ex­pected to un­der­stand fairly so­phis­ti­cated texts, they’re of­ten hope­lessly be­hind their mid­dle-class peers. Fun­da­men­tally, the achieve­ment gap is a knowl­edge gap.

The Com­mon Core State Stan­dards tried to attack this prob­lem by get­ting schools to build chil­dren’s knowl­edge from an early age. Un­for­tu­nately, that as­pect of the Com­mon Core has got­ten lost in the noisy de­bate over the ini­tia­tive’s mer­its.

That’s partly be­cause the Com­mon Core stan­dards are, in fact, stan­dards and not a cur­ricu­lum. They were de­signed for use by schools and school dis­tricts na­tion­wide, while cur­ricu­lum re­mains a lo­cal de­ci­sion. The Com­mon Core stan­dards sug­gest texts but don’t man­date con­tent.

Still, DCPS got the idea. Ad­min­is­tra­tors be­gan de­vel­op­ing a cur­ricu­lum rich in science, his­tory and lit­er­a­ture be­gin­ning in kinder­garten. They cre­ated “units of study,” six- or seven-week mod­ules on themes such as “Plants are Ev­ery­where” in sec­ond grade and “Early Amer­i­cans” in fourth.

Teach­ers re­ceive a list of texts that ac­com­pany each unit, in the or­der stu­dents should read them. They also get guides for pre­sent­ing and dis­cussing the texts with stu­dents and sug­ges­tions for stu­dent ac­tiv­i­ties.

Th­ese units of study should help DCPS en­sure that all stu­dents have a com­mon ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence with the same min­i­mum level of qual­ity. Ide­ally, the cur­ricu­lum should level the play­ing field for stu­dents who aren’t ac­quir­ing as much knowl­edge at home as oth­ers.

But DCPS doesn’t re­quire teach­ers to fol­low the cur­ricu­lum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teach­ing and learn­ing for DCPS, says that 83 per­cent of teach­ers re­port that they use the cur­ricu­lum. But there is sig­nif­i­cant vari­a­tion among class­rooms.

It’s un­clear from test scores whether DCPS’s ef­forts are bear­ing fruit. While stu­dents in all cat­e­gories are im­prov­ing, ac­cord­ing to na­tion­wide tests, the achieve­ment gap hasn’t shrunk, as a re­cent eval­u­a­tion of the Dis­trict’s re­form ef­forts con­cluded. And read­ing scores on lo­cal tests have largely re­mained stag­nant.

To en­cour­age teach­ers to use the texts spec­i­fied in the units of study, DCPS is un­veil­ing an am­bi­tious menu of cur­ricu­lum­re­lated as­sign­ments. For the 2015-2016 year, there will be 215 “cor­ner­stone” as­sign­ments, four per year for each grade level and sub­ject. The as­sign­ments take only about 10 per­cent of class­room time, but the idea is to get teach­ers us­ing the con­tent and teach­ing it in en­gag­ing fash­ion.

The cor­ner­stone as­sign­ments are not re­quired, but they may be in the fu­ture. Some are fairly tra­di­tional writ­ing as­sign­ments or science ex­per­i­ments, while oth­ers are more in­no­va­tive. In third grade, stu­dents will cre­ate a travel guide to their neigh­bor­hoods af­ter study­ing area mon­u­ments and land­marks. Other as­sign­ments in­volve de­bates or dra­matic pre­sen­ta­tions.

It’s a wor­thy ef­fort, but it’s too soon to tell how the as­sign­ments will play out across the range of DCPS schools or to what ex­tent teach­ers will em­brace them. One cause for op­ti­mism — teach­ers are play­ing a large role in their cre­ation. This sum­mer, about 100 teach­ers are de­vel­op­ing cor­ner­stone as­sign­ments. And teach­ers will col­lab­o­rate in eval­u­at­ing how well the as­sign­ments worked af­ter try­ing them. As Pick rec­og­nizes, a cur­ricu­lum is an eter­nal work in progress.

“Cur­ricu­lum-build­ing is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a per­fect sphere,” he says. “You’re al­ways go­ing to be pol­ish­ing, re­fin­ing, mak­ing it bet­ter, mak­ing it richer.”

Too of­ten, ed­u­ca­tion re­form ef­forts are a top-down af­fair, leav­ing teach­ers feel­ing that things are be­ing done to them rather than with them. If DCPS is open to teacher feed­back as it pol­ishes and re­fines its cor­ner­stone as­sign­ments and its cur­ricu­lum in gen­eral, those ini­tia­tives could find the kind of re­cep­tion that will help en­sure their suc­cess. And maybe the Dis­trict’s achieve­ment gap will at last begin to nar­row.



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