Segregation, Diversity, and More

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This week is the last week of this legislative session in NY. While the political hoopla is around mayoral control, don’t let the noise detract you from something that has been simmering for decades: NY’s pervasively, deeply segregated schools.

There’s been some great momentum on the issue, at long last, both from NYSED and NYC. Yet the fact remains that there is no existing legislation on the issue that has been passed.

There is a bill that can begin the first steps in addressing that deficiency: Bill S3794 in the Senate and Bill A5795 in the Assembly.

Since I wrote my last post, there’s been some promising momentum: Senator Jesse Hamilton co-sponsored the senate bill, and Assemblyman Walter Mosley co-sponsored the assembly bill.

But the bill still needs to be put on a very busy agenda and made a priority in order to make it to the floor. Please call your senator and assembly person and ask them to help move this bill forward.

Thanks in advance. On to other news related to school diversity:

NYSED drafts a stronger statement against segregation than NYC

“Last week, the mayor’s drew headlines — and criticism — for his long-awaited diversity plan. Among the concerns — the mayor chose not to use words like “integration” or “segregation” to define the problem.

The state, on the other hand, isn’t mincing words. On Monday, the Board of Regents discussed its own draft diversity statement. “More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education,” it states in its opening paragraph, “New York is the most segregated state in the country.”

The use of the word “segregation,” vs. the more general word “diversity,” is a flashpoint in conversations about integration. Advocates stress that the word must be used because it acknowledges the history of discriminatory policies and choices in loans, housing, zoning, and schools that have led to and perpetuated segregation. Others, such as Mayor De Blasio, view the terminology as secondary—and even a possible impediment to—in moving forward to address inequities as they exist now.

I can see both sides on this, and when I’ve advocated for increasing diversity in schools at a policy level and to the wider public, I tend to phrase it exactly like I just did: increasing diversity in schools. Why?

I think it comes down to whether we are talking about the past, or the future. When discussing the historic conditions and policies and choices that have led to pervasive segregation, we need to call it what it is.

But when looking forward, I think it makes sense to call for increasing diversity. Because it’s not only about race and class, it’s also about making our schools into inclusive spaces, rather than exclusionary places.

Maybe that’s making the bucket too big, but the fact is that active exclusion of others who are “different”—by both children and adults—is a key issue, and that’s a problem that exists in a school of any racial composition.

State’s draft diversity statement addresses ‘segregation,’ a word the mayor’s plan avoided, Chalkbeat NY

How many white students need to attend a school before it can be declared officially desegregated?

Seems like an important thing to define. Though I also think if we end up getting caught up in talking about numbers we’re focused on the wrong thing.

What Defines a Segregated School? Debate Over Connecticut Integration Policy Heading to Court, the 74

New research from Ohio puts integration advocates who aren’t pro-choice on the spot

There’s a tension between being pro-desegregation and anti-school choice. Many advocates for integration are also opposed to school choice. A recent study out of Ohio suggests that interdistrict choice can promote improved academic outcomes (and integration).

New Research: Student Gains in Ohio’s Open Enrollment, but Top Districts Remain Closed, the 74

A rezoning effort in Baltimore reveals the difficulty in implementing integration

“Research shows that racial and socioeconomic integration benefits students of all races and backgrounds — but experience reveals the difficulty of achieving it.”

Redrawing school districts could redefine two Baltimore County communities, The Baltimore Sun

The school board ended up passing a compromise between the NIMBYists and the original rezoning plan.

Baltimore County passes compromise redistricting plan for eight schools

Two high school seniors design and publish their own curriculum to teach teachers how to talk about race with students

“Putting the project together required a huge time commitment outside school. Guo and Vulchi often met up at 4 a.m. to work on the book before classes started, and they have spent many hours traveling to schools to train teachers in how to talk about race and host class discussions on the topic.

And their work will only continue after their June 21 graduation. Vulchi has been accepted to Princeton University, and Guo plans to go to Harvard University, but they hope to defer their enrollment for a year to work on a third edition of the book. A crowdsourced fundraising effort is in the works.

“We don’t mind losing sleep for this. We feel the need. We feel the urgency,” Vulchi said.”

2 NJ High School Students Create Racial Literacy Text to Help Schools and Teens Learn to Talk About Race, the 74

Idea for increasing teacher diversity: elevate paraprofessionals

K-12 Teachers Are Disproportionately White and Monolingual. Here’s One Way That Could Change., Slate

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

Smorgasbord: 3rd week of May 2017: Segregation, CTE, Curriculum, and the One Straw Revolution

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On the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, worth reviewing last year’s GAO study findings

“[Segregated] schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled.

What’s more, GAO investigators found, public charter schools, a key strategy in improving education for such students, may take minority and poor students from larger more diverse public schools and enroll them into less diverse schools.

Overall, investigators found, Hispanic students tended to be “triple segregated” by race, economics and language.”

GAO study: Segregation worsening in U.S. schools, USA Today

A panel on desegregation offers insight

Jill Bloomberg: “So there were lots of questions about safety, which are really very coded questions about race and racism. We assured them that their kids would be fine.”

David Goldstein: “We would create these little Shangri-Las of these beautiful little high-performing schools that were diverse and all that. Meanwhile, all the rest of the schools got squat. And that wasn’t our plan, so we went districtwide.”

And a comparison of integration to broccoli.

Upper West Side parents gather to tackle middle-school integration, Chalkbeat NY

As in Staten Island, so in the US

When it comes to Staten Island’s North Shore, as in many other areas of our society, “We make judgements about a whole community without ever walking in the door.”

Equity for North Shore schools still a work in progress, SILive

High school admissions changes in the works for NYC may promote diversity

This is good to hear. But we’re going to need to look at zoning and the elementary school level if we’re really going to fight segregation.

Chancellor: ‘We’re reconsidering how some enrollment is done’ in high schools, Chalkbeat NY

Great data visualizations and background on segregation in Indiana

Examining the Cross-Roads

Vacations (or the lack thereof) highlight class divisions

“school vacations can highlight disparities and fracture the sense that students are equal in the ways that matter most”

This piece also points to an often under discussed aspect of school integration: it takes a lot of work to ensure kids (and staff) are interacting with one another’s differing experiences and perspectives in a constructive manner.

I know as an advocate of integration myself, I don’t usually even bring this up because the very first step: just getting kids physically (or even virtually) into the same classrooms and schools is hard enough in and of itself. But it’s an essential piece. Just getting kids together is only half the battle. Curriculum, conversational protocols, academic interventions, and social-emotional support then needs to be firmly in place.

Kids’ Vacations Highlight School Segregation, motto

Student voices on segregated schools

“My reality is gym lockers with brown rust.

My reality is the suffocating phenomenon of poverty present on a daily basis.”

‘I am a product of the South Bronx’: One student on how the city’s high school choice process failed her

“Education was my only hope for redefining my life. But it seemed like the bar was always set out of reach for people like me, and most of our time was spent elevating ourselves to reach the bar instead of figuring out how to surpass it.”

‘I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority-white high school’: One student’s discovery

Jeb checks the NY Times

“Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program simply gives parents options if their children are stuck in the wrong learning or social environment for their unique needs. It is not a condemnation of public schools or a seal of approval for private schools. In fact, the McKay program includes public school choice as well.”

What the Media Is Getting Wrong About Florida’s Push to Help Students With Disabilities, th74

Recent research on wrap-around services brings to light our goals for public services

MDRC has recent research that brings into question the impact of the “community school” model — if we assume that raising test scores is the goal of providing such additional services.

But as a community school advocate notes:

“The services themselves are, of course worthwhile — don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe afterschool and summer programs is inherently a good thing?”

Let them eat cake?

Community schools are expanding — but are they working? New study shows mixed results, the 74

Strange things are afoot at Deborah Meier’s school

What exactly is the problem going on here? Too progressive? Not progressive enough? More to explore here, for sure.

East Harlem Elementary Principal Is Out After a Yearlong Fight, NY Times

The need for a progressive agenda for the working class

“Democrats need a comeback strategy, and the American working class needs an ally. The solution to both problems can be the same: a muscular agenda to lift up people without four-year college degrees.”

How Democrats Can Get Their Mojo Back, NY Times

Was the high-profile LA school board president race determined by the negativity bias?

So there’s this cognitive bias called the “negativity bias.”

Aside from the vast funds that were plowed into this race, I wonder whether that played a role? Here’s a description from the74 that suggests it did:

“Zimmer campaigned on a platform that the district is improving, pointing to rising graduation rates. Melvoin campaigned on the premise that the district was failing and the board needed to act with more urgency to improve student achievement and address its financial situation.”

Education Reformers Sweep Los Angeles’s School Board Elections, Setting Up Pro-Charter Majority, the74

North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx takes a stand for CTE

“In order for these people to thrive, we must do everything we can to change the way people think about CTE, shifting the narrative from a Plan B option to a Plan A option”

Career and Technical Ed Should be ‘Plan A,’ Foxx Says as House Takes Up Perkins Bill Today, the74

And the House takes a bipartisan stand for CTE

A nice moment of positive legislation in the midst of the chaotic destruction the GOP has been nurturing in DC.

Career and Technical Education Overhaul Bill Approved by House Ed. Committee, ED Week

Sure would be nice to see this piece of legislation on school infrastructure get bipartisan support . . .

“The legislation has six other Democratic lead co-sponsors in the House, but no Republican lead co-sponsors.”

Oh, and “The IES survey also found it was an average of 44 years since the construction of the main instructional building at schools.”

School Infrastructure Spending Plan Introduced by House Democrats, ED Week

Professional development should be based on the curriculum

“We argue the need to take the important but often overlooked step of organizing teachers’ professional learning around the curriculum materials they are using with their students.”

Makes sense to me. I go into schools to support ELA teachers, and the only way my work is able to have any traction is by supporting implementation of a curriculum.

But there’s more to it than this. Which curriculum? Why? A school needs to coalesce around its vision for what skills and knowledge it wants students to graduate equipped with — and then align their curriculum to that vision.

Instead, I see schools teaching something just because they think they are supposed to. (“Why are you teaching these texts?” “Because I’m told to.”) And getting weird directives from their bosses, such as that EL (EngageNY) or CodeX are a “reading” curriculum, then adding Teacher’s College units as the “writing” curriculum. These kinds of misunderstandings become embedded into the scheduling: a teacher is teaching EL lessons for 3 days a week, and TC lessons for 2 days a week.

If you are an ELA teacher, then you know how incredibly difficult it is just to implement one ELA curriculum with fidelity, let alone two completely different and unaligned ones.

In other words, the problem isn’t just that curriculum is detached from PD — it’s that curriculum is detached from school and district leadership and the structures and schedules they enforce.

In Washington, D.C., a Road Map for Reinventing Professional Development in Schools, the 74

And there’s mounting evidence that a coherent curriculum is an effective method for improving outcomes. Like some of us have been saying all along . . .

“There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.”

A Compelling Case for Curriculum, US News

BASIS schools exemplify what a coherent and rigorous curriculum can do

BASIS is also doing some really interesting practices worth emulating:

Student notebooks as sources of communication and data between teachers and parents. . .

“Many schools create an online grade portal that allows parents to see how their children are performing. BASIS doesn’t. Any information about grades comes to parents because their kids have shown them the contents of their planner, which contains test scores, homework assignments, and notes to see the teacher after school for help.”

Building empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives through it’s Global Classroom Project:

“…which connects kindergartners in different BASIS schools virtually to help them learn about one another. In one project, the children exchanged pictures of their local grocery stores so they could compare them. They also sent the Shenzhen school a video of second-graders sharing a Lunar New Year greeting in Mandarin.”

BASIS: Inside the Acclaimed School Network That’s Blended Together the World’s Best Education Practices, the74

More sunlight = higher test scores

One of the central tenets of this blog are that some of the most basic contextual factors are overlooked in schooling, and here’s one that’s so basic but clearly powerful: starting school later results in better test performance.

More sunlight, more fresh air, more greenery. The best method for improving test scores? Very well may be.

Sunshine Improves Test Scores, The Atlantic

As in ecosystems, so in schools?

Look to the soil for our future.

A geomorphologist and author’s book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” outlines the drastic difference that healthy soil management practices can make, and the common practices that good soil management entails.

Not surprising at all that conventional methods (monoculture, frequent tilling) ain’t good for soil.

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, there’s a book written long before this one with the word “revolution” also in the title, in which the author lays out the philosophy and practice of no-till farming: “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka.

TODAY’S MOST INNOVATIVE FARMERS ARE GETTING DOWN TO EARTH, SAYS SOIL SCIENTIST, Daily Yonder

Smorgasbord: Advocacy, Accountability, and Singing Together

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This Tuesday I had the opportunity, thanks to a NY Educator Voice Policy Fellowship, to advocate for the desegregation of our schools in Albany. Many thanks to Assemblyman Michael Blake, Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator Jesse Hamilton, Senator Marty Golden, and Assemblywoman Yu-Line Niou and their staff for listening and for their time. And many thanks to America Achieves and the Educator Voice fellows who joined me in this advocacy: Arthur Everette, Ingrid Lafalaise, Darlene Cameron, Jodi Friedman, and John Heneghan. They were truly a great team. You can read more about them here.

On to our roundup of links and thinks on education and more:

de Blasio, supposed progressive champion, keeps hedging on school desegregation

“Could we create the perfect model for diversified schools across the school system? No,” de Blasio said. “Because you have whole districts in this city that are overwhelmingly of one demographic background. You would have to do a massive transfer of students and families in order to achieve it. It’s just not real.”

It blows my mind that someone who campaigned on progressivism and “a tale of two cities” can make blithe statements like this.

When we talk about desegregating schools, I don’t think any advocate is saying that every school should be some perfect mix representative of the entire city. That’s not geographically possible. What we are talking about is leveraging the many opportunities to promote diversity where they exist.

If our mayor can’t understand the nuance of that, which he and his chancellor have repeatedly demonstrated, then I have little hope that this mysterious “big vision plan” will do anything at a structural level to address the issue.

And by the way, mayor: no one expects you to wipe away 400 years of American history of discrimination and poor housing and schooling policy. But we do expect you to take leadership when you are in charge of one of the largest and most segregated school systems in our nation.

Mayor de Blasio: I can’t ‘wipe away 400 years of American history’ in diversifying schools, Chalkbeat NY

The relationship between property and segregation

Matthew Desmond has a powerful piece on the housing subsidies for the middle and upper class and it’s devastating effect on increasing inequality. This problem relates strongly to segregation in the northeast — starting with the GI Bill and extending to the selfish property value battles over public schools today.

How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality, NY Times

Meanwhile, white and wealthy districts are quietly splitting away to further segregate themselves

Behind the rhetoric of “local control,” what we see is more for some kids, and less for others. Guess who.

The Quiet Wave of School District Secessions, US News

School choice alone is not enough to diversify schools, nor provide quality options

If schools are going to become more diverse, than school choice must be coupled with admissions policies to cultivate diversity more intentionally. And all schools must be held to a higher standard to ensure quality.

The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools, NY Times

Emotional expressiveness is correlated with diversity

“In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another.”

Why Americans Smile So Much, The Atlantic

Insights from a researcher

On Head Start:

“The bottom-line question is whether Head Start helps kids in the long run, and the answer is yes.”

On accountability system design:

“I think that there is a lot of evidence, not just from our study but others, that we should be kind of small-c conservative in the design of these [accountability] systems. The more complicated you make it, the more incentives you create for strategic responses. I think really complicated systems and multiple targets and multiple ratings are kind of like technocratic exuberance. I think we really should scale back our ambitions with the accountability systems and focus on the most important challenges.”

On crime and social context:

“I think of school as the main social institution for kids at the age of peak criminality. When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising that the school context could have an important effect on crime.”

On school integration:

“I think [school integration is] about the non-academic outcomes: crime, civic participation, racial tolerance, all those things. If you look at the original justification for Brown v. Board of Education, it had nothing to do with achievement gaps.

It’s about, we want to bring society together, so that we can live together. Somewhere along the line, with the Coleman Report, we started to think about integration as a tool for closing achievement gaps. When actually to me, the first-order reason to integrate schools is so that we can all get along as a society and so that people can be more civically engaged and appreciate the perspectives of those who are different from them.”

Another way to say it is, we have other tools for closing achievement gaps. Like, we can do separate-but-equal if we want to — that’s what some of these no-excuses charter schools are: really good schools that are highly segregated. To me that’s an incomplete solution, because schools aren’t just factories for producing achievement — they’re social institutions, they’re democratic institutions.”

Word.

Harvard Researcher David Deming Takes the Long View on Head Start, Integration, the74

Let’s put our metrics on social relationships

“If relationships are a core component of opportunity, why not treat them as a 21st-century outcome unto themselves?

Alternatively, if our notion of an ideal graduate does not include a strong and diverse network, we’re likely to find ourselves routinely underinvesting in relationships.”

Really interesting point to consider here. As far as I know, absolutely no ESSA plans are considering social metrics for inclusion in accountability measures.

But I don’t know that accountability would be the right focus for these kinds of measures in any case, though I agree they should be measured. The author suggests utilizing name generator surveys, surveys of whether students know people in different professional fields, and relationship mapping between students and adults. This could be critical information for school staff to consider, alongside the kind of environmental survey information that is obtained from surveys like the NYC student/teacher/parent surveys and surveys like the Tripod survey or Panorama surveys.

If you think of a school as an ecosystem, mapping the social networks of students and adults and seeking to expand and diversify those networks makes a whole lot of sense.

For HS Grads, 21st-Century Thinking, Skills (and Robots) Can’t Replace Importance of Human Networks, the74

The only way to ensure there’s no lead in school water is to install new pipes

While we’re at it, might as well update the infrastructure and install air filters.

Replacing fixtures will get rid of lead in schools’ drinking water: expert, NY Post

Cormac McCarthy writes a science article, and it’s brilliant

What does it have to do with education? Well, his topic is language, and if you teach, then you should know something about linguistics. And his points about the relationship between problem-solving, the unconscious, and language bears some interest to educators as well.

Plus, it’s Cormac McCarthy.

“The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.”

The Kekulé Problem, Nautilus

Have kids first attempt to write a new word before showing them the correct spelling

Maybe a little tiny piece of initial “discovery learning” ain’t always a bad thing–when it comes to spelling and reading new words?

“To put this into practice, Ouellette recommends that teachers let students attempt to write words before showing them the correct spelling. “Instead of giving them a word list and telling them to memorize it, before a student has ever seen the word, you’d encourage them to spell it,” he said. “It’s a spelling-first approach.”

Invented Spelling Leads to Better Reading, Study Says, Ed Week

IEPs are the inspiration for personalized learning, apparently

“Our public education system essentially piloted personalized learning when it adopted the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students with disabilities. Perhaps ironically, special education is one of the few areas where policy and practice recognizes that kids are unique and that the one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. With personalized learning, we can take that idea to scale.”

It’s interesting to premise your advocacy for personalized learning on IEPs. Here’s a question: have IEPs demonstrated a significant impact on outcomes for students with disabilities?

IEPs are important to ensure that a student is guaranteed services and that they are given education commensurate with all other children. But unfortunately, they don’t necessarily equate with an improvement in outcomes.

Time for a New Conversation in Education, HuffPost

Though actually, personalized learning originated in the 1960s

It’s precursor was called “Individually Prescribed Instruction.”

The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning, Larry Cuban

Multiage classrooms are an interesting idea, but they may present a problem for building knowledge

In order to effectively build and reinforce essential knowledge and skills, a curriculum must be carefully sequenced and aligned across classrooms and grades, as we’ve explored here before.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a school in the Bronx, is profiled in this Atlantic article on the potential of multi-age classrooms. But their approach necessitates a non-sequential curriculum:

Sumner says this fits with his school’s commitment to inquiry-based education, which teaches students certain key skills instead of facts that they can “regurgitate” on command.

“We’re leaving a lot of things out—we acknowledge that,” he says, explaining that their approach prioritizes depth over breadth. Students do not cover American history from the beginning to the present day, he says, but instead “learn to think like a historian and to understand the social, economic, and political drivers of any situation, so they know what the right questions are to ask about any period in history.”

Seems to me like this runs counter to everything we know about effective retention of information and learning. I’m not opposed to the idea of multi-age classrooms — I think it makes sense not to make curriculum dependent on a grade — but approaching curriculum like this is a disservice to students most in need of support.

Inside a Multiage Classroom, The Atlantic

A special education teacher on the importance of accountability

“The accountability part is really key. I started teaching with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and that was really the first time where we required states to report on their testing scores for students with severe disabilities … As a classroom teacher and someone who is advocating for inclusion, that gives me a leg to stand on when I go talk to administrators about why kids need to be in academic, grade-level classes, that we didn’t have before. I think focusing on designing assessments that align to standards, and that are also accessible to students with severe disabilities, is really important to show that there’s growth happening.”

Teacher of the Year Finalist Megan Gross on Embracing Students With Severe Disabilities, the74

Maybe public education needs to be run more like Central Park

Meaning more public-private partnerships

How Central Park Could Fix Public Education, The Atlantic

Maybe we need to sing together more, folks

“It dawned on me not long ago that people don’t gather to sing together much anymore. And it might help if we did. People do go to hear other people sing quite a lot these days. But it might help us all to move our muscles, get out of our heads, breathe the air, and sing together so that we might feel human again.”

TO MAINTAIN HARMONIOUS COMMUNITIES, HAUL OUT THE HYMNALS, SHOW TUNES, OR ANTHEMS, The Daily Yonder

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 Schoolgrades.org 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 EdReports.org, 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

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“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? . . .

http://the74million.org/article/at-philadelphias-mastery-charter-network-culture-is-key-to-turning-around-failing-schools

Smorgasbord: Some Important Stuff

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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.

https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/02/20/is-it-time-to-go-back-to-basics-with-writing-instruction/

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.

https://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/02/17/20716/invisible-hazard-afflicting-thousands-schools

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.”

http://timharford.com/2017/02/what_makes_the_perfect_office/

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

http://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2017/02/15/scheduled_for_success_110120.html

“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.”

https://www.propublica.org/article/when-evidence-says-no-but-doctors-say-yes

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.

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http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858416680353

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

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/02/23/could-the-way-we-talk-to-children-help-them-remember-their-science-lessons/

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

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-way-to-remember-the-power-of-quirky-memory-jogs/

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.

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/02/real-assimilation-dilemma.html

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.

https://mindhacks.com/2017/02/16/how-replicable-are-the-social-priming-studies-in-thinking-fast-and-slow/

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

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/wind-turbines-inspired-insect-wings-are-35-more-efficient

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“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.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19501049
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 Threshold Concepts and Experiences

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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

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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:

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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)

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—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.

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—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

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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.

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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:

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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: