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Sonja Santelises is Doubling Down on Her Instruction Investment. Here’s Key Context.

Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, just penned a superb editorial,We will not hold low-income students back a grade because of coronavirus.

It will be remembered for its hip check to the “armchair policy elites” that have suggested costly mass retention of students.

Yet readers may not realize that Baltimore City Public Schools is ahead of the pack on strengthening instruction for all students, using specific levers for instructional equity. In fact, the district increased reading proficiency in every tested grade last year.

So, Sonja Santelises can afford to “double down on the work we’ve done to elevate the quality of curriculum and instruction for all students.” She has a strong plan, and it’s working.

Most districts lag Baltimore’s work – which is both an issue and an opportunity.

In ELA, Baltimore does two things differently from most districts:

1. All kids work with grade level text during core English Language Arts instruction, because studies show that lower-level readers grow more when challenged with texts at their grade level (with thoughtful scaffolding, as necessary).

Baltimore made an active pivot away from leveled reading groups, because there is no evidence that leveled reading instruction works – even though it’s the norm in most US districts.

This is a critical move from an equity perspective. When other districts have taken this approach, their teams reported stronger outcomes for struggling readers.

2. The English Language Arts curriculum is designed for kids to learn about history, science, and the arts during ELA, because extensive research shows that background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension. Closing ‘knowledge gaps’ is another equity imperative.

These approaches are best practices for helping low-performing students catch up to peers. And THIS is what equity looks like: doing the important instructional work to accelerate weaker readers in their development.

While other districts are scrambling to figure out how to deal with learning loss, Baltimore starts with a curriculum that was designed with the assumption that all kids would work with the same challenging texts, and some kids would need more scaffolding and support to catch up to peers. That’s a stellar foundation going into a school year when those gaps will be more acute.

The curriculum is also culturally-relevant and engaging, as Santelises notes. Yet these virtues would be window dressing if not for the top-notch instruction.

These instructional approaches are built into the curriculum chosen by Baltimore, Wit & Wisdom. So, it would be easy for other districts to emulate Baltimore by using Wit & Wisdom or another curriculum with similar virtues.

But, districts are not using these better curricula. According to a 2019 RAND study, only 7% of elementary teachers are using high-quality curricula in ELA. The picture is a bit more encouraging in math than ELA (Baltimore uses high-quality math curriculum, too), but still sub-optimal.

Source: EdWeek, ‘Highly Rated Curricula Are Out There. Are Schools Using Them?’

In fact, we’ve witnessed growing outcry about weaknesses with the most popular ELA curricula in recent months:

Most districts have a long way to go before their instruction looks like Baltimore’s.

I’m sure superintendents will cite Sonja Santelises in their decisions to promote all students to the next grade. We need those superintendents – in fact, all educators, journalists, and parents – to look at the instruction in Baltimore, as well, to understand the source of her confidence and evidence of success.


For more detail on Baltimore’s literacy approach, check out this earlier blog about my visit to its classrooms. A recent piece by Baltimore teacher Kyair Butts, Curriculum Matters Even More in a Crisis, offers another window into the value of Baltimore’s curriculum investments.

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