Archives for category: Curriculum

Donald Trump, a man who is noted for his ignorance of history, signed an executive order the day before the election to create a “1776 Commission” to establish guidelines for “patriotic education.” The commission was established as a counterpoint to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which told the story of African Americans in the colonies and the nation.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/elanagross/2020/11/02/trump-signs-executive-order-to-establish-a-1776-commission-to-instill-patriotic-education/

Although Trump surely did not read the 1619 Project, he somehow gleaned that it detracted from the all-white, all- male history that he imbibed at his military school. While he doesn’t remember it, he does know that it portrayed America as a nation that was blameless and pure. He wants to assure his base that he will fight to protect white paternalism and privilege. Whatever his commission comes up with, it’s unlikely to affect curriculum, which is decided by states and textbooks.


Lucy Calkins is one of the most influential reading researchers In the nation. She created the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, whose teaching materials have been widely adopted and is a proponent of “balanced literacy.” BL prominently opposed the “phonics first” approach.

In my book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform,” I described in detail the long-standing debates about teaching reading, which dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The phonetic approach was the conventional method until the advent of the very popular “Dick and Jane” reading books in the late 1920s. Those readers relied on the “whole word” method, in which children learned to recognize short words (“Run, Dick, run.” “See Sally run.”) and to use them in context rather than sound them out phonetically. In the 1950s, the debate came to a raging boil after publication of Rudolf Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which attacked the whole word method. Many more twists and turns in the story, which should have been settled by Jeanne Chall’s comprehensive book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). Chall supported beginning with phonics, then transitioning to children’s books as soon as children understood phonetic principles. Nonetheless, the 1980s experienced the rise and widespread adoption of the “whole language” approach, which disdained phonics. Then came Calkins and “balanced literacy,” claiming to combine diverse methods. Critics said that BL was whole language redux.

According to this post by Sarah Schwartz in Education Week, Professor Calkins has called for a rebalancing of balanced literacy to incorporate more early phonics. I continue to object to the use of the phrase”the science of reading,” which I consider to be an inappropriate use of the word “science.” Reading teachers should have a repertoire of strategies, including phonics and phonemic awareness.

Early reading teachers and researchers are reacting with surprise, frustration, and optimism after the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that designs one of the most popular reading programs in the country, outlined a new approach to teaching children how to read. 

A document circulated at the group’s professional development events, first reported on by APM Reportson Friday, calls for increased focus on ensuring children can recognize the sounds in spoken words and link those sounds to written letters—the foundational skills of reading. And it emphasizes that sounding out words is the best strategy for kids to use to figure out what those words say. 

“[P]oring over the work of contemporary reading researchers has led us to believe that aspects of balanced literacy need some ‘rebalancing,'” the document reads.

While the document suggests that these ideas about how to teach reading are new and the product of recent studies, they’re in fact part of a long-established body of settled science . Decades of cognitive science research has shown that providing children with explicit instruction in speech sounds and their correspondence to written letters is the most effective way to make sure they learn how to read words. 

But it’s significant to see these ideas coming from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The program, founded by Lucy Calkins and housed at Columbia University, has long downplayed the importance of these foundational skills in early reading instruction, and has pushed other, disproven strategies for identifying words. 

In a statement to Education Week, Calkins said that the document reflects work they have done with researchers at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that supports children with mental health and learning disorders. 

“Those who know us well, know that we are a university-based learning community, and that the knowledge we offer is constantly evolving and expanding. The document reflects my strong belief that children will benefit when people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds sit at the same table and listen carefully to each other,” Calkins wrote. 

Calkins also noted that the document has been shared at dozens of TCRWP events, including a virtual reunion for teachers this past weekend. 

Mixed Signals on Cueing

The Units of Study for Teaching Reading, the TCRWP curriculum for reading instruction in grades K-5, is one of the biggest players in the early reading market. A 2019 Education Week Research Center survey found that 16 percent of K-2 and special education teachers use the Units of Study to teach reading. 

But as APM Reports noted, the curriculum has faced increased scrutiny, including from reading researchers. Some states and districts have reconsidered its use. 

The curriculum doesn’t include systematic, explicit teaching in phonemic awareness or phonics in the early grades, as Education Week has reported. The company started publishing a supplemental phonics program in 2018, but marketing materials for the new units imply that phonics shouldn’t play a central role in the early years classroom. “Phonics instruction needs to be lean and efficient,” the materials read . “Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.”

But it’s not only that the materials sideline phonemic awareness and phonics—they also teach reading strategies that can make it harder for students to learn these skills. 

Calkins’ materials promote a strategy called “three-cueing,” which suggests that students can decipher what words say by relying on three different sources of information, or cues. They can look at the letters, using a “visual” cue. But they can also rely on the context or syntax of a sentence to predict which word would fit, the theory goes. Reading researchers and educators say that this can lead to students guessing: making up words based on pictures, or what’s happening in the story, rather than reading the words by attending to the letters.

This new document seems to signal a major change in instructional theory from the organization. 

It emphasizes the importance of foundational skills, recommending that students in kindergarten and the fall of 1st grade receive daily instruction in phonemic awareness, and saying that all early readers could benefit from frequent phonics practice. It recommends decodable books—those with a high proportion of letter-sound correspondences that students have already learned—be a part of young children’s “reading diets.” And it suggests regular assessments of phonemic awareness, as problems in that area can indicate reading difficulties. 

Especially notable, the document seems to do an about-face on cueing. Students should not be “speculating what the word might say based on the picture,” the document reads. Instead, teachers should tell children to “respond to tricky words by first reading through the word, sound-by-sound, (or part by part) and only then , after producing a possible pronunciation, check that what she’s produced makes sense given the context,” it reads.

The statement on cueing contradicts advice Calkins was giving less than a year ago. In November 2019, Calkins released a statement pushing back on those whom she called , “the phonics-centric people who are calling themselves ‘the science of reading.'”

In that statement last year, Calkins said teachers shouldn’t encourage students to guess at words. But she did say that students could create a hypothesis based on the context of the sentence. 

In a response to Calkins’ statement, reading researcher Mark Seidenberg wrote at the time, “Dr. Calkins says she disdains 3-cueing, but the method is right there in her document.” 

Teachers Need ‘Fine-Grained Guidance’

The past couple of years have marked an evolution of publishers’ and reading organizations’ public positions on reading science and how it should guide instruction, spurred in large part by media coverage of best practice from Emily Hanford of APM Reports, and other outlets, including Education Week

In July of last year, for example, the International Literacy Association published a brief emphasizing the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction, a clear distinction of stance from an organization that has long included members on opposing sides of the “reading wars.” 

But it’s not a given that any of Calkins’ or TCRWP’s statements will change classroom practice, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who studies how school systems can support high-quality instruction. Past research from RAND has also found that Calkins’ materials are widely used in U.S. schools

“I don’t think there’s any way that we can expect a shift in [TCRWP’s] philosophy and ideas to change anything unless it’s documented and really clear to teachers where they need to change,” she said. 

Curriculum and implementation is complex, Kaufman added: “Teachers need specific and detailed and fine-grained guidance in order to know what they need to do in the classroom.”

In their reporting on this recent document, APM Reports noted that educators at a recent TCRWP training received supplemental curriculum materials that encouraged decoding. 

The core curriculum, though, still promotes cueing. For example, a strategies chart from a sample 1st grade lesson tells students to “Think about what’s happening,” “Check the picture,” and “Think about what kind of word would fit,” as ways to solve hard words. 

Unless and until TCRWP puts out a new edition of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, with detailed teacher guidance that reflects these philosophical shifts, Kaufman said she wouldn’t expect to see much change in elementary classrooms. 

Some educators were optimistic that TCRWP’s new position could lead to more widespread adoption of evidence-based instruction and higher reading achievement. “Lots of changes still to make but this is encouraging!” wrote Erin Beard, a literacy coach, on Twitter.

Others expressed frustration over a move they saw as too little, too late. 

“Is she handing out refunds for all the intervention needed for the missed learning opportunity?” LaTonya M. Goffney, the superintendent of Aldine Independent School District, wrote on Twitter . “Our most vulnerable students – black, brown, poor, ELL, & special education students paid the ultimate cost!”

Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County schools, noted that any changes would likely come at a cost for districts using Calkins’ materials. 

“Millions of dollars wasted. Thousands of students cannot read proficiently. Districts spending a small fortune on new curriculum & to retrain teachers. All totally avoidable,” she wrote, on Twitter .

Peter Goodman, former teacher and frequent blogger about education in New York City and New York State, reviews Bill Gates’ next big idea to reform education: Redesign Algebra 1.

He begins:

From Small High Schools to Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) to Value-Added Measurements (VAM) to the Common Core State Standards, the Gates Foundation has been searching for the magic bullet, a vaccine for curing education, and the “cures” have proven fruitless (See links above)

The next magic bullet is a cure for Algebra 1, the course viewed as standing in the way of graduation and success in the post graduate world.

The Gates Foundation released an application for a new initiative: “Balance the Equation.”

Goodman warns that Gates is wandering into another mess:

Why is the Gates funding another algebra initiative? Why not expand the Moses Algebra Project?

Bill is tip-toeing into another education morass.

If so, at least his record is consistent.

Trump wants to restore “patriotic history” and has vowed to creat a “1776 Commission” to carry out his wishes. Historians, history teachers, and everyone who cares about accurate teaching of history and academic freedom are alarmed.

Kevin Kumashiro has drafted a petition. If you agree with it, please consider adding your name.

Friends–I’m writing to folks who lead or are closely connected to a number of educational organizations/associations/centers/unions. I haven’t had a chance to update the website yet, but in just the first few hours since the first announcement went out, we already have 300+ signers, and we’ve only just begun to publicize! Individuals AND ORGANIZATIONS can endorse, so I wanted to make sure you saw this and that I reached out to you first to:

(a) invite your organization to endorse (T4SJ already endorsed, thanks!), and

(b) ask you to please help to spread the word to your members and comrades.

The announcement is below, which includes the URL to the sign-on form. I hope to push out to the media the full statement (with all the endorsements) in the coming days. Let me know if you have questions, and thanks for considering and helping,
Kevin

*

Dear Friend, Colleagues, Comrades: A coalition of organizations and a team of educators and scholars invite all educators, educational scholars, and educational organizations in early-childhood, K-12, and higher education across the United States to join us in endorsing this important new statement:

“Educating for Democracy Demands Educating Against White Supremacy:
A Statement by U.S. Educators and Educational Scholars”

To view and endorse the statement: https://forms.gle/PcSRzSSvTbDp69V36

From the Introduction: “The battle over what story about the United States gets taught in schools and who gets to tell that story is what has made education, particularly history curriculum, one of the main sites of ideological struggle. Today, as has happened repeatedly before, those who insist on teaching only a white supremacist rendition of U.S. history claim that curricula about the historical and systemic nature of race and racism are based on lies, biased, divisive, and un- or anti-American—but research soundly rejects such claims.”

From the conclusion: “Our country cannot become more just and democratic without illuminating, addressing, and healing from its long legacies of injustices, including imperialism, colonialism, and racism. As educators and educational scholars who specialize in early-childhood, K-12, and higher education across the United States, we reject the renewed calls to deny or ignore the legacies and systems of racism that have long defined and shaped U.S. schools and society and that continue to do so. Our job is to teach toward democracy by teaching the truth, and we proudly work collectively and in solidarity with the communities most impacted by injustice to do so.”

All educators, educational scholars, and educational organizations in early-childhood, K-12, and higher education across the United States are invited to join us in endorsing this statement. Read the full statement and add your endorsement here: https://forms.gle/PcSRzSSvTbDp69V36

Please forward to other educators, scholars, and organizations who may wish to join us. Thank you!
-In Solidarity-
***
Kevin Kumashiro, Ph.D.
https://www.kevinkumashiro.com
Movement building for equity and justice in education
***

You won’t believe this post by Peter Greene, but it’s documented.

Trump announced a ban on TikTok, a social media app, unless the Chinese company that owns it sold 20% to two Trump supporters.

Greene says this looks like a shakedown.

The new company, 80% Chinese, 20% American, would then give $5 billion to finance Trump’s “patriotic” history curriculum.

It is a campaign gimmick, like the pledge that Mexico would pay for Trump’s Wall? Where will the $5 billion go?

I keep repeating that federal law prohibits any federal official from medaling in curriculum or instruction. This is all nuts.

Standing in front of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, Trump denounced the teaching of history in U.S. schools as leftist “indoctrination” and pledged to create a “1776 Commission” to restore “patriotic” American history. He is especially vitriolic about the “1619 Project,” which revised the role of African-Americans in U.S. history. He thinks that any effort to think critically about history or to include nonwhites is “leftist” propaganda.

This is not as difficult as it might seem. He could just resurrect the U.S. history textbooks used in the 1950s, which presented a homogenized and triumphalist version of history, centered on white heroes. Then add a last chapter about the Reign of Trump. Whitewashed is the right word.

Do you think he has ever read either of the nation’s founding documents? Remember that he repeatedly claimed that Article II of the Constitution allows the president to do whatever he wants. Clearly he has never read Article II.

Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools? Obviously not, but if he knew, he wouldn’t care since he is convinced that he is above the law.

Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits “any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…”

Michael Crowley writes in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — President Trump escalated his attacks on “left-wing demonstrators” and “far-left mobs” on Thursday, portraying himself as a defender of American heritage against revolutionary fanatics and arguing for a new “pro-American” curriculum in the nation’s schools.

Speaking at the National Archives Museum, Mr. Trump vowed to counter what he called an emerging classroom narrative that “America is a wicked and racist nation,” and he said he would create a new “1776 Commission” to help “restore patriotic education to our schools.” The president reiterated his condemnations of demonstrators who tear down monuments to historical American figures, and he even sought to link the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to the removal of a founding father’s statue in Mr. Biden’s home state, Delaware.

“Our heroes will never be forgotten,” Mr. Trump said. “Our youth will be taught to love America.”

Since the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in police custody in May in Minneapolis, and the protests that followed nationwide, the president has seized on cultural issues and has sounded many of the same themes — notably including at a showy Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore.

Since then, his vision of a Democratic Party hijacked by anti-American Marxists has become a core theme of his campaign. But he elevated the concepts on Thursday by delivering them in the august setting of the National Archives Museum, standing before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in what was billed as the first “White House Conference on American History.”

The event was held on Constitution Day, the anniversary of the document’s signing in 1787. Mr. Trump said it reflected “centuries of tradition, wisdom and experience.”

“Yet as we gather this afternoon, a radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance,” he added.

The president focused much of his speech on his claim that American schools have become infected with revisionist ideas about the nation’s founding and history, producing a new generation of “Marxist” activists and adherents of “critical race theory” who believe American society to be fundamentally racist and wicked — and who have taken to the streets in recent months.

Mr. Trump said that “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” adding that “it’s gone on far too long.” He boasted that the National Endowment for the Humanities “has awarded a grant to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”

Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University, said that conservatives have long been angry at what they see as a growing emphasis in American public schools on themes of civil rights at the expense of more traditional historical narratives, mainly those revolving around white men.

“I think Donald Trump sees the cultural wars as a pathway to victory,” Mr. Brinkley added. But, he said, “what he sees as a cultural war is just trying to open up the narrative to other peoples’ experiences — not just white males.”

Mr. Trump gave his remarks a campaign twist when he promised to include a statue of Caesar Rodney, who rode 70 miles to Philadelphia in 1776 to cast a tiebreaking vote to declare independence, in a national statuary garden to honor “American heroes” whose creation he ordered in July. Mr. Biden, he charged, “said nothing as to his home state’s history and the fact that it was dismantled and dismembered.

“And a founding father’s statue was removed,” the president added.

Denouncing “propaganda tracts” that “try to make students ashamed of their own history,” Mr. Trump singled out The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, named for the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia colony, and which reframes American history around the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The project, whose lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, has been incorporated into a curriculum and is taught in many schools across the United States.

Mr. Trump said the project in fact “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr. Trump continued, saying that the United States’ founding “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history.”

A Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, described the 1619 Project as “landmark, groundbreaking journalism.”

“It deepened many readers’ understanding of the nation’s past and forced an important conversation about the lingering effects of slavery, and its centrality to America’s story,” she said in a statement. “We are proud of it and will continue this vital journalism.”

Seemingly as a counterpoint, Mr. Trump said that he would soon sign an executive order to create the 1776 Commission, named after the year the American colonies declared their independence. He said the commission would promote a “patriotic eduction” and “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding.”

William R. Ferris, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, criticized Mr. Trump for “treating historians just as he treats scientists — by disregarding our very best voices who have written on American history and race.”

Mr. Ferris said that creating a new commission to promote American history makes little sense. “We already have institutions like the National Archives and others that preserve and promote our nation’s history,” he said. “I would encourage him to request congressional support for the existing programs at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

“They do a good job with very little funding, and I know they would welcome his strong support to expand those budgets,” Mr. Ferris said.

Mr. Trump’s speech also singled out the doctrine of critical race theory, the view that the law and other societal institutions are based on socially constructed theories of race that benefit white people. He called the theory “a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed.”

“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families,” Mr. Trump said.

In what he called an example of critical race theory in action, the president condemned the Smithsonian Institution for publishing online a description of “whiteness” that included the concepts of rational thinking, hard work and the nuclear family.

“This is offensive and outrageous to Americans of every ethnicity, and it is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged,” Mr. Trump said. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”

The president did not offer more detail, but he appeared to be referring to a graphic removed from the website of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture last month after criticism from conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.

“Our ‘Talking About Race’ website was designed to help people talk about racial identity, racism and the way these forces shape every aspect of society,” said Linda St. Thomas, the chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. “We removed a graphic that did not contribute to productive discussions.”

This month, Mr. Trump directed administration officials to halt or revise racial sensitivity training programs that he deemed “divisive” and “un-American propaganda,” and he threatened on Twitter to cut off federal education funding to California over the state’s incorporation of the 1619 Project in its public school curriculum.

Hours after extolling the United States’ iconic heroes, Mr. Trump missed a ceremony honoring a major one. He was absent from the dedication of a new memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington. That was unusual: President Bill Clinton dedicated a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President George W. Bush dedicated one to World War II, and President Barack Obama dedicated one to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Trump instead left town for a campaign rally in Wisconsin.

John H. Jackson is president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, one of the few philanthropies that unequivocally supports public schools. He writes here that Trump’s efforts to suppress the 1619 Project—a history of African Americans—is “unworthy of a democracy.”

More than that, the president has no business interfering in school curriculum. Federal law specifically prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction. In this case, Trump is openly appealing to his white suptemacist base, encouraging them to believe that he can prevent schools from teaching black history. He can’t and he shouldn’t.

You have often read Gary Rubinstein’s sage insights into the hoaxes associated with “miracle schools,” charter schools, and Tesch for America.

But his fist love is teaching mathematics. That is also his profession. So, in this time when face-to-face instruction is imperiled, Gary has prepared some lessons to share with parents, teachers, and students.

With this pandemic going on and so many people learning math through videos, I’m making a series of videos that I hope helps some parents and teachers help their children or their students learn math.

When complete, this will surely be over 12 hours long, starting with addition and ending with trigonometry. So far there are three videos that go from kindergarten through about 3rd grade, ending with the dreaded ‘long division.’

This post includes a playlist and the first three lessons.

Johann Neem, historian of education at Western Washington University, wrote an article in USA Today about the threat that COVID-19 poses to the future of public education. Affluent parents, he notes, are making their own arrangements. Some have created “learning pods” and hired their own teachers. Others will send their children to private schools, which have the resources to respond nimbly to the crisis. He recounts the early history of public schools and points out that they became essential as they served an ever-growing share of the community’s children.

Neem writes that the increase in the number of charter schools and vouchers, as well as Betsy DeVos’s relentless promotion of charters and vouchers, has already eroded the stature of public schools.

He warns:

We are at a moment of reckoning. The last time public schools were closed was when Southern states sought to avoid integration. The goal then was to sustain racial inequality. Even if today the aim is not racist, in a system already rife with economic and racial inequality, if families with resources invest more in themselves rather than share time and money in common institutions, the quality of public education for less privileged Americans, many of whom are racial minorities, will deteriorate.

His warnings are timely. Others warn that home schooling will increase so long as pinprick schools stay closed or rely on remote learning.

But there is another possibility: Eventually, schools will open for full-time, in-person instruction, when it is safe to do so.

How many parents will continue home schooling when their children can attend a real school with experienced teachers and a full curriculum and roster of activities? How many parents will pay $25,000 or more for each child when an equivalent education is available in the local public school for free? At present, only 6% send their children to charter schools. How likely is that to increase when new charters close almost as often as they open?
How many parents want vouchers for subpar religious schools, when only a tiny percentage chose them before the pandemic?

My advice: Don’t panic. Take care of the children, their families, and school staff. Fight for funding to make our public schools better than ever. After the pandemic, they will still be the best choice because they have the best teachers and the most children.

David Berliner has devoted his life to the study of education. He has achieved the pinnacle of his profession as a researcher and statistician. He is currently Regents Professor Emeritus at the College of Education at Arizona State University. His list of honors is too long to mention. I welcome his original contributions to the blog and am honored to present them to you. His title for this post is: “Learning Losses Associated with the ‘Required Curriculum’ Can Be Easily Offset by Gains in Learning in the ‘Not-Required Curriculum.'”


Parents currently worry that their children have not or will not learn enough by participating in the non-standard styles of schooling associated with our pandemic. Some worry, particularly, that their children will not test well if they miss too much of what we have come to regard as “regular” schooling. The regular or standard school curriculum differs slightly by state, but it is what teachers try to deliver in each grade. It is the curriculum designed to prepare children for their states’ tests, and for the SATs and ACTs taken near the end of high school.

The pandemic also has teachers and administrators worrying about safety, and the arrangements needed for instruction as our crisis continues: In-class? On-line? Hybrid? What? Educators are afraid that the reputation of their schools could suffer, if their students don’t test well because of missed schooling, or because instruction appears not to be as effective on-line as it is when it occurs in classrooms, the historic and preferred mode of delivering instruction. In addition, a reduction in test scores could easily reduce housing values in the school catchment area, eventually changing the pool of students that they work with. Worry, worry, everywhere, and no solution apparent.

But much of this worrying can easily be relieved. Think of it this way: If we stop worrying about learning the “required stuff” in the ordinary, test-prep oriented curricula now in place in most American schools and districts, and instead started thinking about learning, just learning good stuff, the problem disappears. The issue for every parent and every educator should be about students learning. Period (cf. Westheimer, 2020).

Learning, growing, forming beliefs that are factually based, gaining deep insights into particular subject matters, extending ones’ horizons, and mastering something complex is really what is important. Surely, we can all agree that there is a plethora of ‘stuff’ worth learning out there, things that are of interest, utility, or beauty. Much of this is not found in the standard/ordinary school curriculum. If we can accept that there are countless worthwhile things to learn that are not in the accepted/normal/required/test-prep school curriculum, we might worry less about our students, as long as they are learning many of these other acceptable things. Actually, some of these other things may not just be acceptable, but quite desirable to learn.

I simply can’t get as distressed, as so many others do, when we believe kids are missing the “proper” time in their development to learn gerunds and the role of apostrophes, long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed. These certainly may all be worthy goals in our youths’ passage to a competent adulthood through our public schools. But what if a good part of the thinking and learning they are engaged in during these unusual times is, instead, based on a project the student chooses, or is assigned and willingly accepts? What if they had a topic to study and become highly knowledgeable about? And what if students must eventually report on their project or topic of study?

Even first graders are quite capable of learning sophisticated information about, say, dinosaurs. In fact, many of them do this spontaneously, and are quite capable of knowing more about dinosaurs and the lives they led than the vast majority of adults (Chi and Koeske, 1983). Sophisticated domain knowledge, the knowledge of experts, can easily be learned in a child’s study of rainfall, global warming, dog breeding, or a hundred other topics. What if our children began to learn these other good things, as well as whatever on-line instruction a teacher or school provides during the pandemic? Would America’s children lose anything? Or, might our students actually gain from such experiences?

On-line contact with their classroom teacher is likely not to be for the six hours per day that the child experiences during regular classroom instruction. But on-line contact about projects or topical areas will allow teachers to individually assist, tutor, critique, and advise on each project or topical area studied. After a semester or a school year, the child should be ready to present a project or topical inquiry to an audience of peers, teachers, and parents.

The beauty of these kinds of inquiries is that there would be little down time for students during education in this time of pandemic. Students will be learning about something of interest to them, though just not necessarily everything that is in the state required curriculum for their age group. Since not everyone is likely to have access to the full, required curriculum for their grade, the validity of any test scores at that grade level is greatly compromised and thus of little use. No attention should be given to invalid tests of the “required stuff” for students of a certain age and grade. But I certainly do want a way for students to learn “good stuff,” when limited in their getting access to the “required stuff”. Learning something in depth, and sharing it with others, may be an excellent replacement to the losses in learning the “required stuff” that are likely to occur in this pandemic.

Let us take a closer look at project based learning. Imagine if one or a few students had some months to turn in a project on whether: the climate is changing in their community, the air or water in their community is breathable or drinkable, their schools are adequately funded, their food is safe to eat, or a robot could be built to help the school cafeteria staff. Or the students investigated the causes of homelessness or asthma, or the need for public transportation in their community. There exists an endless supply of challenging projects, local and otherwise, worthy of study. Many will be appropriate for a particular age group, and some will require sustained effort over a moderately long time period to master the material at an age appropriate level.

A project not only teaches an individual, but if done with another it can substantially remove the feelings of loneliness that many of our students are feeling because of virus-caused school shutdowns. Moreover, two things are frequently noticed when students present their research projects or topical research to peers, teachers, and parents. First, students show evidence that they have learned how to organize and reorganize their ideas to prepare presentations from which others could learn. Second, their presentations regularly demonstrated that deep learning in the domain of study had taken place. The remarkable educator Debbie Meier (1995) describes successful schools where this has happened on a regular basis. The schools she describes didn’t wait for a crisis to incorporate the idea that children can direct their own learning with some adult scaffolding. Her experience and the testimony of others who studied her schools, convincingly established that students can and do dig deeply and happily into subject matter that they want to learn and share with others!

Topics to study. What if students negotiated with their teachers a topic: Birds, automobiles, penguins, glaciers, honey bees, artificial intelligence, the civil rights movement, internment camps during WWII, comets, and so forth. The topics investigated by a particular student might be of interest for them, or even assigned. The students’ job is to become expert in that topic and present a talk on that topic at the end of the school year, conveying to their classmates and others what is exciting and important to know about that topic. A version of how this approach might work schoolwide and across grades is described by Kieran Egan (2011), a most creative philosopher of education.

If learning from projects and topical studies as I have described was made more salient in the educational experiences of our youth, while the ordinary/standard curriculum was taught whenever and however it could be taught, what might happen?

We actually have some data related to this kind of arrangement. It comes from a classic, long-term, highly creative study conducted many years ago (Aikin, 1942). As the push to standardize the American curriculum gained traction, history has forgotten this study. But it is still quite instructive.

Students in 30 unique high schools, “progressive” schools, were studied. These 30 schools had agreed to let their students take a non-standard curriculum. The students studied some of what the school wanted them to, as current on-line instruction is meant to do. But these students also received high-school credits for choosing to study, think, write about, and to build, almost anything they wanted. The high school gave them credits for doing some highly unusual, self-determined projects and papers, few of which would have been approved had these students been subject to the standard high school curriculum of their time.

The students of these progressive schools, taking a very non-standard high school curriculum, went on to about 300 colleges and universities that had agreed to monitor and document their progress and achievements. They were also to monitor students’ deficits as well, since they had not been “properly prepared” for their college experience. They clearly had not studied the regular, standard, state sanctioned curriculum, so how could they compete in college?

From Aiken (1942) and the High School Journal (November-December, 1942), we learn that when each of the progressive school graduates was matched with a traditional school graduate who shared many similar background characteristics, the graduates of “progressive” schools showed: more leadership; joined and led more clubs; were rated as thinking more clearly; demonstrated a better understanding of democracy; had greater interest in good books, music, and art; got slightly better grades in college than those from traditional schools; and won more academic honors (e.g. Phi Beta Kappa, and honor roll designations). A special sub-study of the graduates of the six most progressive schools, what traditionalists thought of as the “wildest”, revealed that those students were superior to their peers from the other progressive schools! Thus, they scored well above the traditionally educated students on all the indices used for comparison. These poor students, deprived of the regular curriculum, achieved the highest college grades, and were rated the highest in intellectual drive, highest in thinking ability, and highest in extracurricular activity participation.

All I have written on this topic, above, now comes to this: The scholars reporting on the 8-year study said that the belief that students must have a prescribed school curriculum is not tenable. Studying almost anything in depth and breadth, with some (but not necessarily a lot of) teacher support, and reporting it out, prepares a child for the highest levels of scholarship at the next levels of their learning. There were no apparent negative effects from studying “this”, instead of “that”, if it was studied well. Learning seriously, deeply, and sharing that knowledge through papers and presentations (perhaps with power-points and YouTubes, maybe via film, television, music or art,) to one’s peers, parents, and the school faculty, apparently has no long-term ill effects, when compared to learning the “required” curriculum.

So to all the worried parents, teachers, and school administrators concerned that our youth will not learn about gerunds and the role of apostrophes, or long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed, “on time,” relax! Let us instead make sure our children are learning though projects and topics that capture their fancy during the time they have open. That should more than suffice for what they might miss of the traditional curriculum.

Aikin, W. (1942). The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper.

Chi, M. T. H., & Koeske, R. D. (1983). Network representation of a child’s dinosaur knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 19(1), 29–39. https://doi.org/1031037/0012-1649.19.1.29

Egan, K. (2011). Learning in Depth. A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons from a small school in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

The High School Journal, Nov.-Dec., 1942), 25 (7), 305-309.

Westheimer, J. (2020, March 21). Westheimer: Forget trying
to be your kid’s substitute school teacher during
COVID-19. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Citizen.