“We’ve blocked three days off leading up to the first day of school for curriculum and lesson planning. You’ve got time to plan ahead.”
When school leadership made this announcement in August during our staff training, I immediately felt overwhelmed and confused. I was a first year math teacher placed at a brand new, alternative high school serving at-risk youth in New York City. Despite my lack of experience, I was tasked with teaching Algebra 1, a course culminating in a standardized test all New York high school students must pass to graduate. I knew three days of planning wouldn’t be enough to design flexible curriculum that could empower every student to have an “aha!” moment every day. Unfortunately, the feeling that there’s never enough time to write and adjust curriculum is a major source of frustration and a bitter reality for teachers across the United States.
Because I taught at a competency-based (a.k.a. standards-based) school for at-risk youth, pre-packaged curriculum and assessments offered very little flexibility for personalization or modification. The content was prescriptive and standardized, which meant taking it apart to meet student needs sometimes took longerthan just making it myself. Plus, the available content was designed around how much time I’d spend teaching it versus what I actually needed to get students adept at learning the topic at hand. With students on my roster performing at a range of grade levels from elementary to beyond high school, I decided against bundled curriculum and textbooks and instead committed to building an in-house curriculum tailored to mystudents’ needs.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it was. But writing curriculum wasn’t just labor-intensive, it was emotionally exhausting. I put my heart and soul into plotting the journey my students took with me. There are thousands of teachers doing this kind of work at any given moment. And while this practice might be best for students, it’s unsustainable given how many responsibilities teachers already juggle.
Curriculum planning sessions: where “the work” really gets done
Despite the immense amount of work involved, my colleagues and I fine-tuned our curriculum every year based on student skill gaps and results from formative assessments. We experimented with online curriculum products such as Rubicon and BetterLesson as well as adaptive learning programs such as Cognitive Tutor and Math180 to supplement our custom curriculum — but it was virtually impossible to get the kind of flexibility we wanted without sacrificing quality. To somewhat quote Darth Vader, I found the lack of quality edtech curriculum deeply disturbing. This was at odds with my experience, because I relied extensively on edtech for assessments. I taught in a school with high rates of chronic absenteeism, so it was vital students could demonstrate mastery without having to physically show up to class.
As I gained more experience teaching, I realized the most effective curriculum for students should provide a variety of options for assessment and instruction. Beyond a library of PowerPoint slides, my mathematics curriculum evolved into a patchwork of in-house and free online resources following a scope and sequence specifically tailored to meet my students’ needs. They could easily access a library of lessons and assessments I’d created from scratch, or use Khan Academy videos coupled with IXL exercises aligned to standards we were learning in class. It took a lot of time and effort to curate the best resources from the surplus of providers, but it was worth it; I learned a lot about my students and my students learned in a way most suitable for them.
Curriculum design is fundamentally emotional work, representing the journey educators plan for students to make meaningful connections with concepts.
At Kiddom, we understand the benefits of a homemade approach to curriculum, but we also recognize the incredible burden this practice can add to teachers’ lives. That’s why I’m proud to announce Kiddom’s Planner will soon be available. It’s a curriculum tool designed specifically to offer teachers the flexibility they need to meet the needs of 21st century students. With the Planner, teachers can design curriculum for a class and easily modify pathways for groups or individual students. The Planner will be integrated with the Kiddom platform, which means teachers can effectively plan, assess, and analyze learning from one place.
Kiddom’s Planner — design curriculum and modify pathways for individual students
Well-designed and differentiated curriculum affords teachers the opportunity to help students meaningfully connect with the subject matter and expand their skill sets. It must offer the flexibility to individualize learning in real-time based on student needs without inconveniencing teachers. Teachers can’t sustainably inspire students if they’re overburdened and inadequately equipped. My experience has taught me to believe that it is possible for technology to ease administrative burdens and increase the quality of interactions between teachers and students. If teachers can use technology to thoughtfully guide individual students through the learning process, then we can expect every student to learn what’s necessary their own way: to have their own “aha!” moment. And as teachers, we know those are the moments that really matter.
“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” — Carl Jung
Eight Resources for Designing Competency-Based Curriculum
This week, Betsy DeVos cleared another hurdle towards becoming the next education secretary of the United States. Ms. DeVos is a vocal supporter of school choice, most notably vouchers. She advocates for parents to be able to choose the best schools for their children, whether they’re traditional public schools, charters, or private schools. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten called Ms. DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” Opponents of school choice point to evidence that programs like school vouchers may be fueling re-segregation in American schools. This topic elicits emotional responses from all stakeholders, from parents to policy makers and everyone in between. Heated debate aside, I believe we’re getting distracted by a plan that’s meant to sound grand but is actually going to be very tough to implement. Our focus should instead be on a much larger problem.
The majority of our students live in areas where school choice doesn’t authentically exist. The availability of vouchers would mostly impact urban schools because rural areas don’t attract enough attention to establish charters — sometimes, there aren’t enough students in these areas to fill even one school. In addition, President Trump’s $20 billion plan to pay for vouchers does notcover the cost of his school choice program — it requires states to collectively provide an additional $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice. So in essence, this is a lofty plan that’s very hard to swallow. The problem is, this is literally the only thing we’re arguing over in this debate about Ms. DeVos. Why aren’t we bringing up the elephant in the room? Why aren’t we talking about the structural changes all schools need to make in order to teach 21st century skills and improve student outcomes? I’m talking about competency-based education.
Over 150 years ago, public education was a revolutionary idea. Driven by the economic imperative of the industrial revolution, schools prepared young people for citizenship in a democratic society. Students navigated school grouped by age and acquired knowledge by moving from one specialized class to another. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because schools still generallyfunction as they did over 150 years ago. However, the teacher’s role has grown vastly more complex over the years and as a result, today’s teachers are buried under an avalanche of responsibilities without added supports. No wonder teacher morale is low and burnout rates aren’t dropping.
Whoever our next Secretary of Education is, they need to advocate for all of our children and our teachers, because we can talk about parents all day, but it’s the students that are attending schools interacting with teachers, not parents. I’ve taught high school at both a traditional public high school and a charter high school. I believe how a child is taught matters more than whether they attend a traditional public, charter, or private school.
The next education secretary must make a push for districts to overhaul their schools to promote personalized learning, grounded in competency-based education (also known as standards-based grading). In this model, students demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills that are aligned to standards (and no, it doesn’t have to be the Common Core). When an individual student demonstrates mastery, they move on. If they don’t, the teacher is there to determine the intervention or remediation that’s required. Top-down, compliance-based schools grounded in dated pedagogy do not promote student voice and choice.
During one of my years as a high school math teacher, I was teaching Algebra to a seventeen year old who also happened to be enrolled in an after-school community college English class. That means his math skills required work, but he was well beyond his peers in ELA. He spent the next year accumulating his math and science credits while pushing ahead in other subjects. It’s 2017 folks: why are children still navigating school grouped by age, as if they’re some kind of consumer good?
The next education secretary must fight to rework how educators learn to design curriculum, so that it’s tailored to meet individual strengths, interests, and experiences. Teachers today can’t meet individual needs sustainably if they’re still constrained by limited access to quality tools, or mandated use of ineffective tools. It’s shameful that in America, teachers can graduate from a master’s program in education or receive a teaching credential, and still never have gained familiarity with a single education technology tool.
At Kiddom, we’re big proponents of the standards-based grading practice and mindset. Our platform is ideal for teachers that write curriculum grounded competency-based education, but we don’t force teachers to embrace it. We offer educators support resources and professional development for the practice, but many teachers are just not there yet. We’re just a small team offering teachers and learners a platform: we don’t write education policy and we certainly don’t dictate how schools should operate (nor will we). If educators want systematic change to benefit all students, we as individuals must get behind something we can all agree on.
So if Ms. DeVos does indeed become the next U.S. Secretary of Education, I hope we come together, from “both sides of the aisle” to advocate for competency-based education. It’s a practice that will fundamentally impact all teachers and learners for the better.
I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.
Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.
There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.
The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.
Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He has a long history of insulting women. He was endorsed by David Duke and took his time disavowing Duke’s support.
It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.
I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.
Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.
That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.
But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.
“Mister, why do we have to do this? I’d honestly rather work on math right now. Or anything else.”
This was advisory class (also known as “guidance”). I was a certified high school math teacher, but like so many of my peers, I also taught advisory. In advisory, teachers met with students to develop their social skills and help them explore college and career options. The class sounds practical, particularly because I taught in New York City alternative high schools serving at-risk students.
Oddly enough, New York City’s academic policy mentions advisory only once, in a footnote:
“There are no standards in ‘guidance’ or ‘advisory’; such courses may only bear credit if they are taught by appropriate subject certified teachers…”
This might explain why advisory was so often treated as an afterthought in New York City public schools. We weren’t provided thoughtful or engaging curriculum and yet, every student took advisory twice a week to accumulate elective credits and meet graduation requirements. I rarely felt underprepared teaching math, but unfortunately it was advisory that helped me perfect the art of improvising.
Being in an alternative high school, my students were academically behind and at risk of getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline. It was vital they graduated high school, but a diploma doesn’t guarantee students the social emotional learning (SEL) skills needed to be informed citizens and productive members of society. SEL, across schools in this country, is often put on the backburner and siloed off in classes like advisory or guidance.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, (CASEL), social emotional learning is “the process through which children and adultsacquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL defines these in terms of specific competencies that can be assessed and mastered: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.
I can say with confidence my students didn’t learn anything in advisory in my first two years teaching it. I had no idea what I was doing and I was never paired with a veteran teacher. In my third year, I decided to write my own advisory curriculum, grounded in debate and civil discourse. I wanted my students to learn how to reason effectively: I loved hanging out with them during lunch and I was getting `irritated hearing them argue with faulty logic. That year, my students would learn how to listen actively, communicate clearly, and control outbursts. They chose to debate over issues resonating with them the most: police reform, stop and frisk, housing segregation, and gentrification. Near the end of the semester, we held a formal debate. It was fantastic, causing me to have a “this is why I teach” moment and restoring my confidence in my curriculum and the class.
When it came time for my advisory students to defend their logic in Algebra, the skills just did not transfer.
“This isn’t advisory Mister, this is MATH AND I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU MY ANSWER!”
It took a couple more years of this disconnect for me to finally figure it out:teaching social skills in isolation is absolutely ridiculous.
In “the real world” as teachers say, challenges are complex. You’re never justsolving a mathproblem. You’re communicating, collaborating, managing yourself, the list goes on. Life is interdisciplinary, and while our education system has finally started to acknowledge this (e.g. STEAM, the CCLS ELAstandards, etc.), we’re still compartmentalizing what makes us human: social emotional learning. The head and the heart are connected, and our schools, curriculum, and education technology should reflect this.
At Kiddom, my classroom experience with at-risk youth has proved invaluable in helping us build a platform that connects content, curriculum, and analytics. Being standards-based, we support CASEL’s SEL competencies and we encourage our teachers to track them in tandem with academic standards. Our content integrations help teachers personalize learning and provide students with the ability to self-advocate and manage their own learning, two key SEL competencies.
Here’s how it might work for an English teacher: imagine you’ve assigned students a persuasive essay and provided them with a rubric communicating academic expectations. With Kiddom, you can append SEL competencies directly into the same rubric, and track those skills in one place. If you want your students to manage themselves (e.g. complete and submit the assignment on time), you can add a self-management rubric row. Thoughtfully mixing SEL with academics ensures SEL isn’t being taught in isolation. If you want a framework for this or just more examples, download the free guide we co-authored on integrating SEL into K-12 academic curriculum.
Kiddom is just one education technology company. Teachers need more education technology companies thoughtfully creating and providing SEL content and services. And they need schools to provide the professional development they need to learn how to effectively weave SEL into curriculum. As technology gets smarter and continues to empower us, the future does not depend on all students learning how to code or take AP calculus. Rather, the future will lie in learning how to solve complex problems with empathy and sound decision-making because social emotional learning transcends the classroom.
A study launched in 1972 tracking five thousand “intellectually talented” children has entered its 45th year (here’s a short synopsis). Among its various findings, the study finds high-achieving students are often at a disadvantage in school communities that shift more resources to its low-achieving student population. For those of us who have taught at schools serving low-socioeconomic communities, this isn’t breaking news: we’ve been talking about this with colleagues and school leaders for long time now.
Teaching math in New York City alternative high schools, I admit committing more time to struggling students. I know I’m not alone and I also know this hurt higher achieving students in the long run. In some ways, we’re all guilty of leaving high-achieving students to their own devices. Or, rewarding their intelligence by forcing them to tutor their peers. Or worse, letting them do “whatever they want” with the time remaining in class. And while this is happening, we helicopter over the students who might not pass the upcoming assessment, the class in general, and/or the looming state exam. We dedicate more time to creating remediation resources than enrichment material. And all of this actively irks us, because we don’t want to have to choose between supporting low-achieving students and pushing high-achieving students, but our “factory-based” model of education makes it almost unsustainable to do both.
The silver lining here for teachers and learners is more and more schools are adopting a more competency-based approach to education, commonly known as standards-based grading (SBG). SBG describes student progress in relation to standards (national, state, school-specific, and/or class-specific).
I was lucky enough to teach at schools that adopted SBG, and as a result my math students were able to demonstrate mastery on a set of standards and move on to more challenging material. SBG forced me to isolate and grade only the skill being measured, providing my students a better understanding of what more they needed to learn in order to master the skill. While designing and planning SBG-focused curriculum took more time, my scope and sequence was skill-focused and could be individualized with flexible calendars and I could leverage content from a variety of free, standards-aligned resources. Most importantly, the SBG practice forced me to design curriculum more thoughtfully. I wrote lessons, made remediation and enrichment resources, and designed assessments for upcoming standards well in advance, and made them all readily available for my students digitally (on my class website) and physically (in the back of my classroom).
So yes, while I was guilty of providing students that were most in need of support with more face-time, my standards-based classroom enabled more students to accelerate through content and master skills at their own pace. They sat through less of the traditional “whole class” mini-lesson because they were ahead, and so they obtained their one-on-one time with me a little differently. Instead of asking questions in the middle of a mini-lesson, they asked before and after class, or they came to my classroom during lunch to get direct support from with me. Some of my students actively communicated with me via email. The point is: my higher achieving students made the SBG practice work within the confines of a traditional school day because they could ahead on their own terms.
As the 2016–2017 school year gets underway, I challenge educators around the world to wrestle with adopting the standards-based grading mindset for themselves. While you might not agree with the Common Core (or your own state’s standards), don’t let it prevent you from writing and tracking your own standards or competencies, tied to your own curriculum.For 21st century students, life is about using real-time data to inform decision-making. They’re privileged to be alive in a time when this is possible, and it’d be a disservice to them if we refused to adjust our pedagogy to meet their needs. The smartphone games they’re playing tell them exactly what achievements or medals they’ve obtained (and the achievements that remain). Facebook tells them how long they’ve been connected with their friends, down to the number of “likes” they’ve given each other over time. The SBG practice can help 21st century students visualize and navigate their learning journey through your class.
So if you’re interested in learning more about the standards-based grading practice and mindset, here’s a free resource co-authored by teachers familiar with the practice to help you learn more. On the last few pages, you’ll find links to more SBG-related resources. And finally, new instructional practices are best implemented with a professional learning community. Make time to chat with colleagues about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what you’re grappling with. If you can’t seem to find time in your day to chat, that’s okay: use technology. Join the conversation online by tweeting at Kiddom with #SBG. We look forward to hearing what you have to say and building more resources to support your quest to fine-tune your pedagogy.