Is CKLA the Best Way to Teach Children to Read?

Note: Five TPS teachers from three schools were interviewed for this article. All of them have at least eight years of experience and all are certified teachers in elementary schools. They spoke under condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the district. Devin Fletcher, chief academic officer at TPS, was invited to explain the district’s choice of CKLA, and also to respond to the teachers’ concerns, but as of press time, he had not responded to the emailed questions that the TPS administration requested.

Do you think primogeniture is fair? Justify your answer with three supporting reasons.

You may think this is from a high school test, but it’s a question from a Common Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) workbook for third-graders.

Why is the War of 1812 often referred to as America’s second war for independence? In your response, describe what caused the war and Great Britain’s three-part plan for defeating the United States. This is a writing task for second-grade students.

A first-grade Tulsa Public Schools teacher described this reading lesson: “You say, ‘I’m going to say one of the vocabulary words, and I’m going to use it in a sentence. If I use it correctly in a sentence, I want you to circle a happy face. If I use it incorrectly, I want you to circle a sad face. The sentence is Personification is when animals act like a person.’”

That lesson is given 10 days after the start of school. “I had kids who wouldn’t circle either one,” the teacher said. “Some cried. I have sped (special education) kids in my room, and they had no idea. That’s wrong. Good grief! These are 6-year-olds!”

This is a rubric by a second-grade TPS student to answer the following writing task: “Draw and write what you know about the five senses. Use words from our word wall.”

Recently, the happy and sad faces have been replaced by CANVAS (an ed-tech company) so children now respond on screens.

“It’s awful,” she says. “They have to take their assessments on the computer, except the writing portion.”

The writing assessment asks first-grade students to complete a rubric using words and pictures. In one assessment, children are prompted to retell a fable or folktale that they have read, and to include a character, the setting, an important event from the beginning, middle and end of the plot, and then write the moral in their own words.

This is a rubric by a second-grade TPS student to answer the following writing task: “Choose one of the stories we have read. Write and draw about a character, the setting, and what happened in the beginning, middle and end of a story.”

“This is especially difficult with our student population,” another first-grade teacher explained, “because we have so many children who come in not speaking English. This is an unrealistic expectation, and it certainly doesn’t make it inviting.”

CKLA is a product of Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., an entertainment/news media company. The corporation planned to disrupt the American education industry as a newcomer in the curriculum development arena by introducing its own tablet computer and bundled education software into classrooms across the United States. When the ed-tech company didn’t deliver on its financial objective, Murdoch sold it to private investors.

Allowing flexibility to experiment with untested ideas and products that may be disruptive, and may often fail, can be a positive in business (sometimes described as “failing forward”) but can be devastating to school systems where children are the losers when the product doesn’t deliver on promises.

Shannon Johnson, a TPS teacher for 14 years who now works at TU’s University School, noticed a shift in focus when TPS accepted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for teacher evaluations.

“There was a push to have business practices put into place for education, but it didn’t work,” Johnson says. “The evaluation tools, the rubric, was a huge change.”

In 2009, the Gates Foundation invested millions of dollars to experiment with something called a value-added model to use a scientific approach to quantify and evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness in improving student outcomes. A RAND Corporation study found that the Gates reform “did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly low-income minority students…”

“I don’t think you can ‘value add’ a teacher. You can’t assign a number to what we add or create a mathematical equation to measure what we do as teachers,” Johnson said, even though her value-added number was quite high. “Clearly, I didn’t put a lot of value in it.”

What is CKLA?

Amplify CKLA is described on www.amplify.com as “a unique core curriculum for PreK–5 ELA, combining rich, diverse content knowledge in history, science, literature, and the arts with systematic, research-based foundational skills instruction…The Core Knowledge Language Arts Listening and Learning Strand is designed to help students build the background knowledge and vocabulary critical to listening and reading comprehension.” It also promises “off-the-charts reading growth in K-8,” but provides no research to back this claim.

While districts that adopt the curriculum may see it as an innovative, rigorous common core product that levels the playing field for all children, an Ad Hoc Committee tasked to study the Core Knowledge Curriculum in Rochester, New York, found otherwise.

Tasked with addressing educators’ concerns, the committee stated that the “Core Knowledge Curriculum has essentially the same curricular content used in American public schools since before people of African ancestry were allowed to go to school. It is conceptually the same curriculum that was in use as urban districts became predominantly Black and Latino.”

The committee writes, “There is no dispute among educators and psychologists over the developmental concept that learning for very young students would begin with themselves, which includes their families, communities and ancestral origins. However, in Core Knowledge Curriculum, young students primarily learn about Europeans and their ancestors.”

Particularly concerning to the committee were racial, class and gender stereotypes in the stories, fairytales and myths. They felt that “from a developmental standpoint, examples for young students…would largely come from the best of the African world and Diaspora, past and present. Once grounded in self and cultural knowledge, children are ready for exposure to the worlds around them. This was still the approach for white students…but when it comes to Black and Latina/o students, this approach is highly resisted.”

The committee also expressed “alarm regarding the detrimental impact of highly paced and scripted lessons…” on English language learners and special education students.

These mirror concerns of some TPS teachers and reading professionals.

The speed at which teachers are required to complete lessons also frustrated the teachers interviewed for this article.

“The principal says it’s only a tool,” a first-grade teacher said, “but she also says it has to be done on time to take the assessment. If we do one lesson a day (CKLA and Eureka Math), we’re not even through it. There are days we can’t even get to a lesson, or the kids might need two days on one lesson. We can’t do that. Everybody has to be on the same lesson at the same time. There’s no time to give children extra help. They (the administration) tell us to just keep going. They’ll get it by the end of the year. About half of them are failing reading.”

A veteran teacher who has taught CKLA in third and fourth grades at another TPS school described her concerns about content and delivery.

“CKLA teaches a lot of content, but not necessarily scaffold and spiral,” she said. “It builds on content so kids in primary grades learn about ancient civilizations, and it shows some vertical articulation, but it doesn’t have good scope and sequence when learning skills. It’s not developmentally appropriate to introduce a skill or curriculum or new learning concept and then not refer to it again for a very long time.”

One of the selling points of CKLA is that it is content rich. The rationale is that children, especially those coming from impoverished backgrounds, need to be exposed to a lot of content in order to achieve equity with their more privileged peers. Many teachers, however, say the content is developmentally inappropriate and, as the Rochester, NY, committee found, not culturally sensitive. Teachers also say that the curriculum is dry and workbook heavy (9-14 workbooks in first through third grades), and they have no time or autonomy to make sure the children are actually learning. They also have little time to try to create meaningful context so that students will understand the lessons.

Even though the principal at one school told teachers that they could supplement with outside material, the teachers said that CKLA doesn’t allow time for that. As long-time educators, these teachers have developed engaging supplemental units and hands-on projects, but those materials sit gathering dust in a closet because there’s no time to use them.

One teacher said that her principal was “very disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of neat stuff in the hall, but CKLA doesn’t allow for much creative-type work. I didn’t want to hang worksheets in the hall,” she said.

Teacher Training

Dr. Mindy Smith, a recently retired NSU literacy professor and owner of Lavender’s Bleu Literacy Market, a children’s bookstore and literacy center in south Tulsa, has seen significant changes in how reading is taught. While she says that professors are sending teachers out with good skills and qualifications, the new teachers are facing fewer opportunities to use those professional skills.

“It’s a challenging job to teach,” Smith said. “We feel good about our candidates, but there’s been a change in districts. What we feel is good practice hasn’t changed at all over the years, but how districts say it needs to be delivered is not the same. Unfortunately, there’s not enough autonomy. They don’t trust teachers enough to give them autonomy. Knowing the kids and guiding your instruction based on the kids doesn’t really happen anymore. It’s more prescribed.”

Smith feels that using a scripted curriculum may be the result of having so many emergency certified teachers.

“It’s not the right thing for kids,” Smith said, “and teachers intuitively feel that. I would tell my university students to continue to try to differentiate instruction when they started teaching. When districts have a thumb on you, you don’t feel you’re being successful. It’s not fun to teach.”

However, Smith says she is encouraged by the interest in her workshops for teachers at Lavender’s Bleu. They have been well attended, and teachers are excited about learning effective and creative classroom strategies for teaching reading.

Testing and Professional Autonomy

After an 8-year break from teaching, Shannon Johnson returned post-No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which introduced high-stakes testing into public education. Johnson was hitting the 90th percentile and above with her fourth-graders, and enjoyed professional autonomy.

“I had autonomy until CKLA was adopted,” Johnson said. “My first two principals at Carnegie let us teach how we wanted, and the third one did as well until she was instructed to make us use the district-wide CKLA scripted curriculum.”

For Johnson, who had always based her lessons on high-quality children’s literature, CKLA was a step back to the old “Dick and Jane” basal reading approach of dry text followed by workbook pages. CKLA left little room for teaching critical thinking, new vocabulary and interesting content. It also took away the opportunity to encourage her students to love reading.

“You get a piece of a book (with CKLA),” she said, “a taste of a book, not a full novel experience. We always read whole books, and studied them, and I worked my curriculum around it. We would do projects and spelling lists, and language arts. I don’t remember any chapter of a basal reader, but my former students talk about the books we read.”

The last year that Johnson taught at TPS she said she did not teach CKLA, although “everyone else in the district was teaching it. I was teaching literacy rich lessons using novels, not CKLA,” she said, “and my OCCT reading scores were the highest for fourth grade in the district.”

Johnson said she couldn’t continue at TPS when the district required that she use CKLA, so she left.

“I’m a TPS grad, and I loved the school I was in, but I wasn’t treated like a professional. My job was to make the students love reading. I’m supposed to read a script and follow along?” she said. “I’m not needed.”

Many teachers echoed Johnson’s assertion that part of their job was to encourage a love of reading, and were trying hard to find ways to create contextual relevance with CKLA.

“I try to hook the lessons to something kids have already known or experienced,” one teacher explained. “The kids are learning about the Roman Empire, aqueducts 2000 years ago. They don’t have the concept of time to understand that, so we’ve been talking about how ancient Romans invented concrete – roads are made from concrete. The lesson says that Romans developed veto. Do they understand what veto is? They might make connections,” she said.

Although she is trying to find ways to make CKLA content fun and engaging, this teacher says it’s difficult.

“I wouldn’t want my children taught this way,” she said. “I don’t know the rationale behind adopting it. The curriculum doesn’t light up the eyes of kids. It removes the autonomy from the teacher. I guess if people have come through an alternate route and don’t have a teaching degree, you can teach it without much experience.”

Tulsa teachers have also felt left out of the process of choosing a reading curriculum. Prior to Superintendent Gist taking over, the teachers would gather to review and discuss several curriculum options, and then vote on the best. Now, the district administration chooses the curriculum.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., a former elementary school principal, author and consultant in New York, who has worked as a consultant in Oklahoma, says that tying teacher evaluation to state testing has resulted in politicizing education, thus creating a system where states and districts work backwards from the test rather than beginning with the children.

“We’ve seen an increase in special needs and mental health,” DeWitt said, “because people want their kids to do better on the test. We know for a fact that principals and superintendents are taking recess out of the curriculum…taking away brain breaks.”

DeWitt believes that some students understand the CKLA content because they have already had exposure at home, but there is a large percentage of students who will not understand it.

“Kids in poverty are going to be the ones who struggle more,” DeWitt said. “CKLA doesn’t bridge the gap, and they’re having it shoved down their throats. Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of kids living in trauma. We’re not going to meet them at an academic level unless we’re meeting the social and emotional needs. I’m sad for Oklahoma because of low pay, lack of resources, kids in trauma and poverty. The way they teach will trigger their trauma. And with compliance classroom management, the kid will look like the one with the problem, but it’s the teaching strategy that is the problem.”

Expecting young children to perform academic tasks and skills before they’re developmentally and cognitively ready can lead to frustration, both for student and teacher.

“One of the things that has been so disconcerting is the expectations about what is developmentally appropriate for kids,” Mindy Smith said. “What we expected of children readiness-wise in kindergarten in the mid ‘80s compared to now is exponentially different.”

Smith says that first- and second-grade academic expectations are now expected of kindergarten and first graders. “It’s really unfair. How you teach a preschooler is very different from how you teach a second grader because of their developmental abilities – how long they can sit, how long they can stay on task. We’ve made expectations unreasonable to achieve.”

The two first-grade teachers interviewed said that kindergarten children are expected to come to first grade knowing material that they are not cognitively ready for such as all letters and sounds, consonant-vowel-consonant words, how to phonetically blend words together, and to be able to write complete sentences at the end of kindergarten. And teachers only have the first three weeks of first grade to “review” these lessons.

“The children are so overwhelmed,” one teacher lamented. “I’ve got kids who say, ‘when is it time to go home? When is lunch?’ They cry because they don’t understand it, and the speed of the lessons doesn’t allow time to go back and review and reteach.”

According to The Alliance for Childhood, there is no research documenting long-term gains from learning to read in kindergarten. In a report entitled “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose,” researchers found that adopting these standards “falsely implies that having children achieve these standards will overcome the impact of poverty on development and learning, and will create equal educational opportunity for all children.” In fact, a study found the opposite to be true. Preschoolers and kindergarteners show “greater gains from play-based programs than from preschools and kindergartens with a more academic focus. Active, play-based experiences in language-rich environments help children develop their ideas about symbols, oral language and the printed word – all vital components of reading.”

Reading Problems or a Testing Problem

Sometimes trauma or inappropriate curriculum may make a child look as if she has a learning disability. Another issue may be the method of testing or the test itself.

“With MAP (Measures of Academic Progress, www.nwea.org), students get a percentile,” a first-grade teacher explained. “If you’re a kindergartner or a first-grader under a 40th percentile, we make a reading plan. There are 44 questions on a computer for 5- and 6-year-olds. They may take 10 minutes to do it. I have a student who scored 35 percent, yet he is in my top reading group. He can read second-grade material. But the opposite can happen as well. You can get someone who scores high on the MAP test, but they can’t do anything. Lucky guesser. On the questions, you have to push the button to get the story, then you have to push a button for the question, then you have four more buttons for the different answers, and then you have to figure out which one is the correct one and go back to that.”

The teachers said that often the computers won’t work, or the students are constantly kicked out of the program. “These kids are just trying to learn, but they give up. They don’t even attempt it, because it’s just too much,” said one teacher.

Oklahoma HB 1228 requires annual professional development training programs for dyslexia awareness for teachers and administrators beginning in the 2020-21 school year. At a minimum, the law requires training in awareness of dyslexia characteristics in students; training in effective classroom instruction to meet the needs of students with dyslexia; and available dyslexia resources for teachers, students and parents.

The Dyslexia and Education Task Force developed Oklahoma Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Literacy Development and Reading Struggles. The book’s purpose is to provide information and guidance about dyslexia to those who work with children and youth. (https://sde.ok.gov/)

According to Dr. Penny Stack, OTD, OTR/L, CLT and owner of the Dyslexia Center of Tulsa, dyslexia is a complex neurological difference that is much more than a problem with reading, yet educators too often look at the problem through the lens of teaching children to read.

“The difference between what schools do and what we do here (at the Dyslexia Center),” Stack says, “is that schools work on the educational model – getting the child back into the classroom as quickly as possible – and we use a medical model.”

Stack says that going over and over the same areas will not help the person with dyslexia until the underlying neural pathway has been built to support the educational component. In her initial assessment of a child, Stack looks at all the cognitive functions required for reading success, including the underlying issues such as “lived experience,” “confidence,” “self-esteem” and “grit.” Sometimes she discovers that a child is suffering from trauma, which is causing what looks like a learning disability, but is actually something else, and it may take a different kind of therapy to get the child on track to read.

Stack works on the whole brain system, and if there are any holes in the system, the child will continue to have difficulty. “I’ve seen fifth graders who could read at a high school level, but they can’t remember a thing they’re reading. They slip through the cracks. They’re getting A’s and B’s in school, but they have to spend five hours on homework.”

She is glad to see the state investing in training teachers to understand and recognize dyslexia.

“No matter what reading program you’re using, that pattern has to be addressed,” she says. “I would love to see us spend money in the early years doing a medical model rather than an educational model to help these kids. Their dropout rate is significant. We could keep these kids from dropping out.”

In the End

“Are we asking too much of students at too young an age?” Peter DeWitt asks. “We have taken away the voice of the student and the autonomy of the teacher. If kids aren’t allowed to have a voice, it will come out in another way, and it may be a way you don’t like. It’s so much more than some script that teachers have to read. Top-down compliance strips away voices of teachers and students. We don’t need to go back to a time with total autonomy and no accountability. We need to find a balance of autonomy, accountability and responsibility.”


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