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Teachers Breaking Out of the Box

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I gave up bashing teachers years ago, when I realized that, as with soldiers in the trenches, they had their hands full just staying alive. What I never understood, however, since this wasn't really a war, was why teachers seemed to hide behind their unions on so many school management questions, seemed to be as meek as mice on policy and pedagogy and curriculum issues, and were downright defensive about any criticism of them or their profession. And this was going to be my post, a few weeks ago, responding to Walt Gardner's letter to the editor in the New York Times, in which he opined that teachers "deserve more than the unrelenting criticism they've endured since the accountability movement began."

It's a worthy subject, but I was turned from the "unrelenting criticism" hokum by an email from New York City teacher Mark Anderson, with his announcement that "A new school year begins! Here is the third post in my series on curriculum, in which I advocate for a unified core curriculum." His post is here and I read it with great joy, but I will get to that in a moment.

First, I must make mention of another welcome event; a trend, really, one reported on by Stephen Sawchuk in the current Education Week: "New Groups Giving Teachers Alternative Voice." Sawchuk leads with the obvious question, "In times of great uncertainty for U.S. teachers, who speaks for them?" (The uncertainty is taking its toll: according to a blog post by Sawchuck, as many as 10 percent of teachers are now quitting after just one year.)

The answer to the question of who's speaking for teachers is: they are. At least, they are starting to speak. Sawchuk describes a number of new teacher groups that are stepping outside the unions' tight circle of money-and-work-rules agendas and working for better outcomes for students. He names four such groups: NewTLA (in Los Angeles), Teach Plus Policy Fellows (in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, LA, and Memphis), Center for Teaching Quality (Denver, Hillsborough County, FL, Illinois, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle), and Educators 4 Excellence (New York City). The head of the Center for Teaching Quality, Barnett Berry, tells Sawchuk:

There are so many teachers out there who want change and have great ideas, but they've had so few venues and vehicles to be heard, understood, and embraced.... They're itching for the research knowledge to help them articulate the connections between policy and practice.

Mark Anderson is one of those teachers. And curriculum is one of his subjects. (Though a commenter pointed out, "it's a lonely world.") I met Mark, a second-year Teaching Fellow working in a fifth-grade self-contained special education classroom in the Bronx, last winter at a conference on teacher quality sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and the Education Writers Association (see my The "Great Teacher" Trap). He was one of the few teachers or journalists there who seemed interested in curriculum as something more than a teacher autonomy or political ideology (a la Pedagogy of the Oppressed) issue. And I was pleased to see him tackle the subject in a post on Gotham Schools the following June. What arrived in my mailbox a couple weeks ago was his third post on curriculum and he needs to be applauded for attempting to understand the question from outside the box of labor union politics -- and poverty. While everyone is "busy focusing on external factors such as poverty, human capital mechanisms (hiring & firing), and accountability," writes Mark, "we have been largely ignoring one of the most easily and cheaply modifiable components of education: the curriculum. And this is the component that has arguably the most immediate and direct impact on a student."

While still struggling with some grad school language -- "academic knowledge," "core foundations," "impelled the process" -- Mark at least seems to have read E.D. Hirsch*:

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence [first developed by Hirsch's foundation more than a decade ago] this year to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a potential reference to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected either a lukewarm or even resistant reception. On the contrary, however, teachers were overwhelmingly excited by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! I feel like teachers -- just like students -- are desperate for guidance, given the superhuman demands made upon their time and energy. Why would we deny such explicit and systematic guidance to them?

Anderson gets it. As do the teachers in the trenches. The common core doubters need to dispense with the ideology and focus on what teachers -- and students -- need: a rigorous, comprehensive, and aligned (vertically and horizontally) curriculum. And, as a plus, the New York Times this morning reinforces Anderson's colleagues' instincts: with an op-ed essay by Hirsch himself. There is a longer version of the essay here, but it is another persuasive argument for teaching kids (rich and poor) content, early and often. Paraphrasing the famous New Testament chronicler, St. Matthew ("For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."), Hirsch writes,

The Matthew Effect in language can be restated this way: "To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not there shall ensue boredom and frustration."

Amen, Amen, I say to you: Content counts.

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*I once asked six different school superintendent candidates what they thought of Cultural Literacy and each launched into a high-minded speech about racial and ethnic diversity. It was clear that none knew anything about Hirsch, much less had read the book.

This post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.