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Is going back to basics the key to the future?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At Wednesday’s SRC meeting, there were two fascinating discussions that touched on one of the most persistent philosophical debates in education: are remediation and rigor mutually exclusive? This debate always plays out in figuring out the best ways improve the basic skills of those who have fallen behind.

One was about Corrective Reading and Corrective Math. The other was about School of the Future.

Corrective Reading and Corrective Math, remedial programs that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has ordered used at all the low-performing Empowerment Schools, have been the subject of several prior blog posts. Ron Whitehorne and Caroline Ebby, both of whom have written on our site about CR and CM, were among five people who testified to the SRC.

These speakers said that the programs are too scripted, stifle teacher creativity, and were imposed without any input from teachers themselves. Mattie Davis, a 3rd grade teacher at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, said that she had orders to use it with all students, even those who didn’t need remediation. She was forced to pull her kids away from reading Charlotte’s Web to doing what she called the "contrived" passages in the CR workbook.

The students, make no mistake, know the difference, Davis said.

"They were ready for more. They were ready to go other places," she said.

Another 3rd grade teacher, Angela Chan of Taggart Elementary, said that the program "lacks rigor in vocabulary instruction, focuses too narrowly on decoding, and lacks high-quality literature." The exercises in CR come at the expense of "meaningful conversations, student voice, and respect for the developmental reading process."

Ebby had similar concerns that Corrective Math doesn’t require students to engage in mathematical thinking or higher-level reasoning.

Ackerman stood her ground. She is strongly in the camp that believes it is unwise to move full-speed ahead with creative, imaginative teaching when the students lack basic skills.

She said that students who are proficient readers shouldn’t get remediation, and that what Davis described was a problem of implementation, not an indictment of the program. Generally, for most students in the lowest-performing schools, Ackerman said, rote, repetitive instruction is necessary — and it works.

"Yes, it’s prescriptive, but we know it works for children that don’t have foundational skills," she said. "This is about getting young people the skills they need."

She has seen students in Algebra 2 who can’t divide two-digit numbers, Ackerman said, adding that the best actors have scripts, and the best cooks use recipes. And she dismissed notions that with CR, children reach a "plateau," able to recognize words but not make much sense of what they read, or memorize a times table but not understand what the numbers mean.

Too many students never even get that far, mired in "below basic" on state tests, she said. "That will be a happy day when the children reach a plateau," she said. "We’re trying to get them to a plateau."

Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky pressed Ackerman on the point — how do we determine that it works? Accountability chief David Weiner said that this year’s student-level predictive assessment data shows that the students in the below basic categories "showed the most growth," even if they haven’t yet gotten to proficient. He attributed this to CR and CM.

Dworetzky suggested that this data be shared with the public. "I feel like some of the debate would be informed by sharing the data [of what gains are attributable] to having used this," he said.

Ackerman said the District will start making data public, although it is not clear whether she plans a comparative study. "We had years to try other programs that have not worked," she said. "I think it’s only fair to see if young people do better with this program. It’s time to stop experimenting with our children."

Which brings us to the School of the Future, the Microsoft-inspired, technologically dazzling high school that promised to bring urban education into the 21st century.

SOF, about which I have written extensively, is about to graduate its first class. Parent Ivy Dixon told the SRC that the school failed to fulfill its promise. The virtually exclusive use of computers, plus the focus on project-based learning while neglecting, as she saw it, "the basics," shortchanged her child.

"She didn’t get the core fundamentals," Dixon said of her daughter, Soleil. Her SAT scores were low, and even though headed to college, will have to take remedial courses. She said that many SOF students lack basic reading, writing, and math skills.

SOF has certainly had its growing pains. The first four years have been tumultuous. In its short history the school has had five principals, and the curriculum changed each year. It had severe implementation issues in trying to put in place a project-based, multidisciplinary curriculum that made full use of technology, the surrounding community, and the virtual world. The goal was to help students acquire a range of "core competencies" and demonstrate them, rather than simply accumulate a certain number of credits.

Dixon herself gave a pretty good accounting of what the school was trying to do when asked by SRC chairman Robert Archie to explain what a "project-based curriculum" is.

"My interpretations is taking the core curriculum and infusing real-life experiences, so you see the subject matter you’re doing through community-based activities, see it through real life," Dixon said. She talked about geometry projects that looked at street grids and biology study that ventured into surrounding Fairmount Park.

Still, this was a type of education very different from what many of the students were used to. Most were unprepared and many simply bewildered.

But the question is, would heavier doses of Corrective Reading and Corrective Math have prepared them better? And if students arrive at schools like SOF unprepared, is the answer to abandon its vision?

Graduating senior Mahcaiyah Wearing-Gooden doesn’t think so. She was among those students who came to appreciate and benefit from a more stimulating, hands-on form of learning. It certainly took time to adapt, she told the commissioners. But went on to describe being at the school, for all its turmoil, as a "wonderful opportunity."

"My favorite projects were the ones that combined math and science courses. I was never good at math, but when it was combined with one of my all-time favorite subjects, science, I could do nothing but excel in math as well," she said.

Wearing-Gooden, who is on her way to Green Mountain College in Vermont on scholarship to study climatology, did her senior project on how mentoring can counteract the effects that war and violence have on children. It took 80 hours of research and writing.

"SOF pushed me, " she told the commissioners.

There are still questions about what percentage of the first class will actually graduate on time. And the school for sure, still has lots of issues.

Commissioner Johnny Irizzary had the last word on the subject

"With students like you," he told Wearing-Golden, "they must be doing something right."

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