Best of best: curriculum and effective schools

“Victory Surrounded by Prisoners and Trophies” by Frans Floris I via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

Best of the Best

This compilation of ideas on improving education sounds really interesting.

Speaking of compilations and the best of the best

Paul Kirschner has compiled a list of articles in response to the question, “What article or articles do you feel are seminal articles in our field [educational psychology] that every (young) researcher should be aware of?”

More best of the best: the most effective schools aren’t only charters, even according to Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Institute has published a report on the characteristics of the most effective schools, according to it’s rankings. Nice to see a healthy balance of both district and charter schools in this mix, and the report highlights the work of Brooklyn’s PS 172.

The report highlights the following generic traits of effective schools:

  • Strong Leaders
  • Engaged Parents
  • Discipline and a Culture of High Expectations
  • A Well-Mapped, Well-Rounded Curriculum
  • Extended Learning Time
  • Frequent Assessment
  • Highly Effective Teachers

Most of these are pretty common sense, but I truly wish more attention were paid to the necessity for a well-mapped, well-rounded curriculum.

Speaking of curriculum


Mike Petrilli on a promising model for OER.

“Anyone interested in helping teachers and students innovate and meet new standards should support this type of marriage of top-down funding and bottom-up design. Those of us in education reform have a bad habit of not finishing what we started, of chasing a new shiny idea every few years. Doubling down on curriculum reform is one important way to get the Common Core job done.”

Common Core may have helped increase the challenge in school curriculum, but it’s still too easy for most high school students

“more than half of 12th graders reported that their math work was always or often “too easy.” Many high school students also say that they don’t get much from school, and nearly 20 percent of high school seniors across the nation don’t “feel like they are learning” in math class.”

Interesting results of a curriculum review from Louisiana

I focused mostly on the ELA 6-8 side of things, since that’s my wheelhouse.

What was really interesting is that they slammed ReadyGen’s K-5 program, which is rated highly by, rating it as a Tier 3 curriculum—meaning “not representing quality.” ReadyGen is also the only Core Curriculum K-5 offered in NYC next year (a school can feasibly go it’s own way, but then must pay it’s own money to do so).

The other surprise was that they rated NYC’s other two middle school core curriculum, Code X and Expeditionary Learning (EL) EngageNY, as Tier 2, only “approaching quality.” Again, EL’s was rated top by EdReports. But I have to agree with the items that they knocked EL’s curriculum on: the fact that “It is unlikely that a teacher will be able to complete all modules in on school year” and that “there is no formal or consistent structure in place re: grammar and language conventions.”

What did they rate top tier ELA curriculum? Great Mind’s (of Eureka Math) new ELA curriculum, Wit & Wisdom, and Pearson’s new fancy online curriculum, myPerspectives.

I’ve taken a look at the samples available for both of the above, and I have to say that I’m a fan of Wit and Wisdom. It seems well-designed, clear, knowledge-based, and engaging. If anyone out there is using it in their school, please share your thoughts!

Pearson’s is also interesting. It’s got a fully digital platform for both teachers and students, making one wonder: are they attempting to slowly cut out the teacher altogether? Also making one wonder: maybe this is darkly ingenious . . . Other than the platform, however, this kind of sleekly packaged curriculum always rings alarm bells for me, as does Scholastic’s Code X. If it’s too pretty, I don’t trust it.

So we need more research on curricular impact

“Because no “taxonomy” exists of curricular features, research has not explored the elements of curriculum that really matter in student learning. We know very little about what makes a curriculum effective.”

From a new report on curriculum from StandardsWork

Comparability of state data is out the window

Part of the effort to set consistent standards across states naturally involved the desire for comparability of student performance. The Smarter Balanced and PARCC organizations were created to partner with states to do just that. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, states have opted for cheaper, less politically contentious, and less rigorous options. Just goes to show you what happens when there is a lack of federal “overreach” on such efforts.

Outsourcing grading.

A great idea.

Conceptual vs. Procedural Math at Mastery charters


“Maths” by Chris de Kok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”


Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.

“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.

Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”

It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.

Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?

Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .

Smorgasbord: Some Important Stuff

Buffet Train Lunch

On the necessity for deliberate practice of foundational writing skills in classrooms.

“The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component.”

Connect this to what I wrote about Hochman’s writing method.

Air pollution is damaging our nation’s children in the one place they spend some of the most time in and should be most protected in — our schools.

A critically important piece from The Center for Public Integrity on the invisible–and thus largely ignored–health risk of air pollution. Many schools, especially here in NYC, are built right next to busy roadways. The long-term health costs are incalculable, and all it would take would be a high grade air filter that can remove 90 percent of the pollution. And forcing old diesel trucks off of our roads. This may sound like a pipe dream, but California has already led the way.

Says one baffled Californian:

“The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience.

As in the office, so in the classroom. Empower students to design their spaces.

“When workers were empowered to design their own space, they had fun and worked hard and accurately, producing 30 per cent more work than in the minimalist office and 15 per cent more than in the decorated office. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted to an experimenter.”

A special education teacher discovers the power in scheduling for effective collaboration.

“Most people struggle with the idea that medicine is all about probability”

An important ProPublica piece on the hit and miss nature of many medicinal and surgical interventions. Most will do no harm —a few may gain benefit—and some will be harmed. There’s some parallels to consider with education here.

“If we really wanted to make a big impact on a large number of people. . . we’d be doing a lot more diet and exercise and lifestyle stuff.”

Kevin Carey outlines the generally poor results on vouchers.

“while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of ‘school choice,’ the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

Interactional motivational scaffolds are more effective than other scaffolds.


“conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson”

Need to remember something? Use weird visual cues to trigger your memory. Classroom teachers, take heed.

We blame a lot of problems on immigrants. But maybe it’s time to point the finger at the “longstanding native-born Americans” as the real source of the problem.

Daniel Kahneman comments on a blog post. The world changes.

Kahneman responds to a blog post, noting that he was overzealous in his interpretation of studies on social priming. This is important not only as an encapsulation of the “replication crisis,” but furthermore for those of us who have read and been heavily influenced by Thinking Fast and Slow.

Wind turbines inspired by insect wings are 35% more efficient.

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

A Good Question for a Teacher to Ask

“Enjoying space.” by simon73 is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“When teaching the course, I always imagined that one of my students would someday be US president. I would pause before entering the lecture room and ask myself, ‘Twenty years from now, when one of these students is the most powerful person on Earth, what will I regret not having taught? How will I consider today’s lecture a failure?’ Then I would think of the day’s message and make sure it was well understood by all.”

–Physicist Richard Muller, in an interview in Physics Today

A Pigeon Tale and a Growth Mindset

“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”

—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker

A Writing Method That Deepens Knowledge: The Hochman Method


What if there was a method that could not only explicitly teach students core writing skills, but simultaneously deepen their domain-specific knowledge?

Turns out there is: it’s called the Hochman method.

I’d heard about Judith Hochman’s writing method for some time, but only finally got the opportunity to attend a workshop last month. In case you haven’t heard about the Hochman writing method, you can read more about it’s impact in Peg Tyre’s 2012 article in the Atlantic, and get an overview of the method on it’s website.

In a nutshell, Hochman’s method is a systematic, explicit approach to equipping students with the ability to recognize and construct clear and complex sentences, only then moving on to constructing paragraphs, and from there to composition. The vast majority of teachers (such as myself) go straight to composition, then use generalized rubrics that provide little specific guidance on revising for grammar and mechanics.

Students are thus passed on from grade to grade with little instruction on constructing well-written, fluent, grammatically accurate sentences beyond vague comments such as, “Make sure to reread your sentences out loud to check for grammar.”

But there’s even a deeper potential impact of Hochman’s method: it reinforces content knowledge in tandem to building writing knowledge and ability.

In a former post on ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, we explored just how critical–yet how very rare–it is to have a school-wide, systematic curriculum that reinforces knowledge coherently and sequentially across classrooms.

Furthermore, we know from research that one of the most powerful levers for building and reinforcing knowledge is “low-stakes quizzing.” When used to interleave and distribute practice across time, this is a highly effective form of transferring information into long-term memory.

Like many of the findings from the realm of cognitive science, this all sounds great in isolation, but when you try to translate it to a school and a classroom, it gets significantly more sticky, especially in a subject like ELA. Many things we cover don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice quiz.

And many teachers are highly allergic to anything that smells like a standardized test. And even when they aren’t, developing a well-designed and valid multiple choice question is surprisingly intensive.

Here’s where Hochman’s method comes in. Her method provides explicit and clear sentence construction activities that can be applied to any content and that can be used to assess comprehension of texts or topics. This sentence-level work serves the same function, in other words, that low-stakes quizzing would, while also explicitly teaching writing skills.

So imagine this: a school creates an initiative, after being trained in Hochman’s methods, to embed sentence-level activities into every text that is read in social studies, science, and ELA. These activities would serve as formative assessments of content. And once those activities for each text are developed, a resource packet is made that can be used again and again in the future, whether or not a teacher leaves the building. That’s an endeavor that could not only be high impact but furthermore sustainable.

For an example of one of Hochman’s sentence-level activities (Because, But, So), check out Doug Lemov’s post, Hochman’s ‘But, Because, So’ Sentence Expansion Activity. He also highlights Hochman’s distinction between editing and revision here.

Have you used or seen the Hochman method? Do share.

Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms

Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?

I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.

So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:

The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.

A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.

By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0


Mitchel Resnick, another professor at MIT, added the useful concept of “wide walls” to the design metaphor of a room:


When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.

But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?

Resnick offers some further advice for designers in an MIT paper, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids” (bearing in mind this is for construction kits, not for academic content):

  • Design for Designers
  • Low Floor and Wide Walls
  • Make Powerful Ideas Salient – Not Forced
  • Support Many Paths, Many Styles
  • Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
  • Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
    • “Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
  • Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
    • In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
  • Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again

This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?

Here’s my thoughts on that question:

Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).

In many cases, therefore,  the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).

So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?

Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities

What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.

Designing Provocative Questions

I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.

A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.

I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.

One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.

We haven’t even really gotten started

But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences


In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning


How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:


How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)


—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.


—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students


I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.


There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:


This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.


I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here: