“How the Other Half Learns:” A Review (Part 2)

What happens inside classrooms remains beneath the notice of education policymakers and pundits. I have long believed that this indifference to curriculum and instruction is a significant impediment to progress.

Robert Pondiscio, How the Other Half Learns, p. 10

Inside classrooms is where teachers, students, curriculum, and instruction gel into lessons and daily activities. Pondiscio describes both Success Academy’s curriculum and instruction in great detail in selected classrooms. Teacher moves, academics, and emotions interact seamlessly as kindergarteners sit in circles on rugs and 4th graders struggle with or zip through math worksheets, according to the author. Pondiscio does readers a favor by describing in detail lessons he endorsed and ones he found disturbing.

While I separate curriculum from instruction in describing them in this part of the book review, anyone familiar with classrooms knows that they are joined at the hip in every lesson that teachers teach.

There is a single Success Academy curriculum that founder and director Eva Moskowitz expects principals and faculties in each one of the 47 schools to follow and use in daily lessons. It is this set curriculum and mode of instruction that, according to Pondiscio, accounts for the consistently high test scores registered by schools in the network (including intense preparation in the weeks before the state tests).

As Pondiscio observes most curriculum in schools is left to teachers to pick and choose from. “The default curriculum in American education, at least in elementary and middle school,” he says, “is simply stuff teachers find on the Internet (p. 144).” Not at Success Academy.

When Dacia Toll, the founder of Achievement First, another high-achieving charter network, and a group of teachers visited Success Academy to find out how and why they do so well on test scores the observers concluded that one key piece was the prescribed curriculum. Toll said:

“I remember just looking at the texts that were in front of the kids. The poetry, the literature, the nonfiction….It was both high rigor and high engagement. She [referring to Moskowitz] was Common Core before we knew about Common Core” (p.172).”

The prescribed curriculum merges with the singularity of how each classroom looks the same and how teachers are expected to teach.

“Walk into a Success Academy anywhere in New York and you will see the same rugs and furniture, the same posters on the wall,” Pondiscio writes (p. 145). But the classrooms do not only look the same, “they sound (original italics) the same….Children read in ‘2-2-2′ (two feet on the floor, two hands on the book, two eyes on the page) Teachers don’t discuss; they “discourse.’ They set the level of classroom conversations at ‘zero noise’ or ‘restaurant level.’ After giving instructions, teachers frequently check for understanding, asking in Italian, ‘Capisce.’ Thirty-odd children invariably repeat in unison, and not in Italian, ‘Caposh.’ The curriculum, culture, routines, and pedagogy are so consistent that if a student attended a different campus every day of the week, she might not miss a beat (p. 146).”

Pondiscio describes lessons where direct instruction mixed with student participation in planned activities under the watchful eye of the teacher unfold. While most of the lessons the author observes show nicely how content, skills, pedagogy, and managed student behavior are thoroughly integrated, some lessons are bumpy.

Second grade teacher Elena Ortiz is having a difficult time. In her Hunter College room [all classrooms are named after the teacher’s alma mater]. She is “lead” teacher for the three second grade classrooms. Often becoming a lead teacher ends up in a promotion to school post in another Success Academy. Ortiz has a large number of difficult students assigned to her class. A particularly challenging seven year old boy, Adama. is missing today. Pondiscio describes the lesson Ortiz is teaching.

Things are ragged and rough….noticeably so compared with the others I’ve seen. She struggles to keep her students focused and engaged, and unlike in nearly every other classroom, there is no full-time assistant teacher in the room to help her maintain order. [With class sizes around 30, Success Academy classrooms ordinarily have two teachers]. When she sends the children to their desks to get pencils and their whiteboards to lean on while they complete a worksheet on capital letters and punctuation, they don’t move with the crispness and purpose of the other classrooms. They dawdle, vibrate, and bounce off one another, oblivious to Ortiz’s narration and small corrections. One girl gets a demerit for talking. ‘Every transition we do is silent,’ Ortiz tells the class. But it takes several un-silent minutes before the class is settled back on the rug with whiteboards in their laps and pencils resting on the black lines bordering each square, as their teacher had instructed, with name and date on their papers. ‘Ten more seconds for name and date, then I expect you to have your hands locked on your whiteboard and your eyes on me.’ Those ten seconds drift well past a minute, even as Ortiz continues to narrate, praising compliance, giving out occasional warnings and marks and growing frustrated. ‘Whoever is tapping their whiteboards needs to stop!’ she says curtly before finally launching her lesson.’Each of the sentences has a problem,’ she begins. ‘You guys are writing detectives. You’re going to tell me what’s wrong with each of these sentences’ (pp. 68-69).

While Pondiscio describes many classroom lessons, particularly of teachers he admires for their creating a culture where student attention, engagement, and behavior are both obvious and consistent with the goals of Success Academy, the intersection of curriculum, instruction–including behavioral management–merge in a single lesson, albeit a rocky one, in a second-grade classroom.

A strength of this book, then, is its close attention to teaching and curriculum and how both are crucial to any determination of “success” or “failure” in a school or network of charter schools.

Shortly before Thanksgiving break, without notice to anyone, Elena Ortiz quits.

There are, however, soft spots, vulnerabilities to this well-written and attentive book, that I take up in the final post on this book.

2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders

2 responses to ““How the Other Half Learns:” A Review (Part 2)

  1. Dear Professor Cuban,
    I’m deeply grateful to you for your thoughtful and detailed engagement with my book. May I point out one small but significant error? You quote me as saying, “The default curriculum in American education, at least in elementary and middle school is simply stuff teachers find in classrooms.”

    The correct quote in the book is “simply stuff teachers find on the Internet.”

    Looking forward to the third and final post.

    Warmest regards,
    Robert Pondiscio

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