Curriculum and Instruction

If you have been paying attention to the ICCSD school board, it should not be news that the district has a disappointingly large and persistent achievement gap. We have said we want to see improvements in math, and reading (and presumably science) proficiency. So we have talked about buses and demographically balanced schools through school attendance boundary changes. We have talked about implicit bias training and weighted resource allocation models and preschool and class sizes and the 1:1 Chromebook program and more.

What we are not talking about–at least not publicly, as a community–is curriculum and instruction. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that pest management issues have had more airtime at regular school board meetings than the district plan to implement the Next Generation Science Standards.

So why discuss curriculum and instruction? Besides that if we want better reading results, for example, talking about reading instruction seems the obvious place to start, consider this from an article on the ICCSD achievement gap in The Daily Iowan:

School District Director of Curriculum Diane Schumacher said the achievement gap, which has continued over the past five years, may be attributed to a lack of opportunity, parental involvement, or the English language barrier for Latino students.

“We see the achievement gap with students who are coming from homes that maybe don’t have the same opportunities for educational experiences that some of our other students might,” Schumacher said. “Homes that wouldn’t be able to have their kids going to summer camp, getting outside tutoring, and maybe even some that wouldn’t have their kids accessing pre-school.”

In other words, this seems to be an acknowledgement that district curriculum and instructional practices perpetuate out-of-school social inequities inside of our schools.

In the meantime, at several recent work sessions, we can start to see the opportunity costs* of talking about everything except curriculum and instruction. Embedded below is audio from a board work session in February, cued up to an exchange about the district 1:1 device program set to roll out next school year, which is costing approximately $1.5 million to start for technology upgrades and device purchases. Director Hemingway asks a question about whether we can expect a measurable increase in student achievement.

The answer is no. Administrators can go no further than student engagement may be heightened, attendance may go up, and students need to be able to use technology in the 21st century workplace, because research does not support the conclusion that achievement will increase as a result of the 1:1 Chromebook program.

At an education committee meeting the following week, administrators presented the student achievement action plan:

Student Achievement Action Plan 11-21-16

During the discussion, Director DeLoach asks questions about how we will know the plan is working or whether we will see the same results we already have.

Administrators say they can’t point to anything on the list that will generate particular test score improvements and even that they don’t expect to see movement on achievement data. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like a big problem that our student achievement plan ultimately seems most squarely aimed at improving school climate. If the student achievement plan is really mostly a school climate improvement plan, then we  may still need a student achievement plan.

Interestingly, the very first item on the student achievement plan list, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Tier 1, should be driving a public discussion about curriculum and instruction. From the Iowa Department of Education website:

The Iowa MTSS framework is made up of five components.

  1. Evidence-based curriculum and instruction provided at the universal level.
  2. Universal screening of all students.
  3. Evidence-based, instructional interventions at the targeted and intensive levels shall be provided to each student who needs them.
  4. Progress monitoring for learners below expectations.
  5. Data-based decision making throughout the system.

The idea is to support student achievement by starting with improvements in classroom curriculum and instruction (universal level) so that fewer children will require instructional interventions. [Improvements here are an opportunity to reduce the need for and importance of outside tutoring, and thus, improve equity in our educational programs.] So, for example, a school (or district) might adopt explicit instruction in synthetic phonics as part of the universal reading curriculum so that fewer children struggle with learning how to read. One would then expect to see reading proficiency rates increase. (Questions: are we making data-based decisions about improving student achievement if we focus on doing things that do not result in measurable, positive changes in achievement? Are we really trying to improve student achievement if we are focused on doing things that we don’t even expect will result in measurable improvements in student achievement data?)

Is the district already providing evidence-based curriculum and instruction at the universal level? We don’t have much evidence to determine that they are, with so little public discussion of curriculum and instruction. In the next post, we will try to answer this question by taking a look at Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof and Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education.

*The opportunity costs being that we have fewer resources (time, money, effort) to devote to improving curriculum and instruction in ways that would increase student achievement. And further, that the need to use the Chromebooks and other technology purchased might become a more important driving force in instructional material selection than student achievement.

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