“The children still cannot read.” How I became convinced that curriculum is an equity issue.

“The children still cannot read.” How I became convinced that curriculum is an equity issue.

photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media.

At the 2019 Education Writers Association National Conferece, Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County said that taking down Confederate monuments, and renaming dorms is “great.” He said it in such a way though that implied a “but” was coming. 

And it did. 

Symbolic gestures are “great” he explained, but they are aren’t the solution to inequity, “because the children still cannot read.”

The problem for Hrabowski, and many others, is that education stories tend to drift in one direction or the other. On one side: test scores, school finance, teaching and learning, ed tech, charter school policies, etc. On the other: segregation, achievement gaps, and discipline reform. 

One group of stories might be about an award-winning pre-k curriculum, the group would cover literacy gaps. But it’s relatively rare for a reported story to make the connection between curriculum and inequality, except in the most obvious cases.

So the group of writers attracted to Hrabowski’s panel about colleges confronting their racist pasts might have been different from the group that was attracted to the panel on curriculum. I did go to both, by chance, and as one of the journalists firmly in the “systemic inequity” corner of the beat, I am now sold on the fact that curriculum belongs there. 

Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, sold me on it. Content is an equity issue, she argued, because of gaps not just in the skills (like leadership and problem-solving) of educated and uneducated people, but in the body of things that they know. The content. So we do a disservice to high school graduates when they graduate without the content knowledge expected of educated people—having never heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, Niels Bohr, or Malcom X. 

“To say that content doesn’t matter is frankly professional malpractice,” Santelises said. 

It’s also critical that the content be affirming of the learners, she pointed out. Meaning, black and brown students need to learn black and brown historical and literary genius. They need the solid foundation of knowing that they come from generations of builders, innovators, leaders, and thinkers in every academic realm. White kids have been getting that for as long as public school has existed. 

Without good curriculum that foundation isn’t level. 

It reminded me of the Mexican-American Studies curriculum debacle here in Texas, when the lack of Mexican-American visibility in approved curriculum became too glaring to ignore. But then, the text book being proposed to the State Board of Education was inaccurate and demeaning.

It was a classic “WTF, Texas?” moment, but really, the fact that Mexican-American studies content had been previously left up to individual districts, schools, and teachers is not entirely different than the rest of what kids learn at school. 

Teachers typically feel it’s their professional duty to develop their own curriculum, University of Southern California researcher Morgan Polikoff said, “I’m not sure most teachers have the skill to do that.”

We know that a good teacher makes a huge difference in a child’s learning experience, and yet, we are going to widen the gap between those teachers by allowing curriculum development one of the skill sets they have to have—on top of instruction, emotional intelligence, classroom management, and cultural competency—when we have access to proven curricula developed by learning and content experts to whom our children will never have access except through the books those experts wrote and have made available for purchase to our schools.

The thing is, Santelises said, great teachers are great at the art and science of teaching. Direction, trouble shooting, differentiating. There’s plenty of need for rockstars, but they don’t have to be composers too. We need to reduce the variables, not increase them.

“I just do not think we are at a place in the country where we can just turn everybody lose,” Santelises said.

I’ve recalled stories about scandals that broke because a teacher essentially pulled her content from an online source, and some enterprising kid found it and distributed it. Or a teacher decided to create his own homework assignment on the pros and cons of slavery. 

Clearly, leaving curriculum creation in the hands of teachers is great for the news cycle, and not so great for quality control. 

In theory, quality control is the job of assessment. Kids take a test, we know if their teacher delivered. Obviously a single snapshot of a kid’s test taking ability and content recall is not nearly as accurate as we’d like it to be, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of a diagnostic system, which would be part of an accountability system. 

To which states are like, “nah, we’ll just build our whole education system around this test.”

That’s what Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) are for: setting benchmarks of what kids need to know at each depot on the way to “the test.”  The TEKS are not curriculum. They are a check list of what you need to know, not the map of how to get there. The skill that eclipses all of this, is, of course, test taking. 

in Texas, the TEKS are set by an elected board of politicians (the State Board of Education) who have every reason to be content-controversy averse. Except when they aren’t (see Mexican-American Studies debacle).

Moving beyond teaching kids how to take a test, it’s still so much easier to just focus on critical thinking, group collaboration, and other skills that, while absolutely necessary to thrive in 21st Century professional America, don’t necessarily set you apart from other candidates in an interview. 

“We have a mania about teaching skills because we are uneasy about agreeing on content,” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Leaning heavily on skills (critical thinking, collaboration, etc) relieves the mental and social labor of trying to address the racial gaps in the content, or to mediate between those who want global literature vs. those who want Western cannon. 

There are fights worth fighting, and we’re avoiding them. The result, Lerner went onto lament, is that poor students will always be academically underfed if all they are getting at school is the “thin gruel of skills-based instruction.”

Because those overwhelmingly-white middle class kids? They’re getting content. They’re going to summer camp with the oceanographers and the Egyptologists. Some of them live with architects and nutritionists and other content experts.  

You know what else they are getting? Phonics. 

For a while now, stories have been sneaking into the media about how abandoning phonics curricula has been tanking literacy levels for our kids. 

In it’s place we have “balanced literacy,” the latest iteration of “whole language” where kids recognize a series of words by sight and use that base to add to their visual vocabulary based on books that they are excited about and motivated to decode. 

When I first heard about balanced literacy I was all about it. Excited kids? Yes! Following their passions? Yes! 

Except it’s not working. Turns out that the English language is far more vast than the black squiggles and sounds associated with them. Those black squiggles and associated sounds are subject to a rather technical decoding process, which has been studied and mapped. Best practices have been discovered, and they are pretty precise. So, boring as it may sound, memorizing the various sounds made by “ough” and “ie” is actually learning to read. 

I don’t know if the resistance to phonics has to do with the zeitgeist behind originality, or if it has to do with how difficult it is to get kids to engage in the drudgery of memorization. However, what I do know is that if there’s not a phonics curriculum, then phonics goes on the extracurricular schedule right between piano lessons, swim team, and ballet. 

You know how I know? Because the phonics tutor just left my house. Instead of piano lessons this summer, my kindergartener is taking phonics lessons. 

This is not a rich school/poor school phenomenon. Wealthy schools have bought into whole language and balanced literacy just as much as everyone else. But disadvantaging every student equally—in addition to being a crappy thing to do—won’t get you equity. Because parents. The inequity becomes a household-by-household issue. 

Wealthy parents panic when their kid can’t read, hire a tutor, find a program, or buy an at-home phonics program and they pay whatever it takes to get that kid reading. Often those services are not affordable for working families. A reading kid is going to excel where non-reading kids struggle, so the literacy gap feeds all the other gaps that we’ve gotten so used to seeing. It masks the fact that there’s a curricular deficit, because it seems totally normal to us for poor kids to lag behind.

So when Hrabowski observed that low income, black children are not reading at the appropriate levels, he was getting to the heart of the socioeconomic inequity fueling our American education system. 

And it’s a curriculum issue. I’ll be damned.

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