Core curriculum brings uniformity, new challenges
One year into the curriculum overhaul, a District focus this fall is on introducing new materials in the high schools.
by Jessica Oliff
During the third week of September, every fifth-grade student in the School District of Philadelphia reads part of a story called The Hot and Cold Summer and reviews "declarative sentences." The next week, students read a section of Sees Behind Trees and learn about "exclamatory sentences."
This districtwide uniformity is the result of Philadelphia's new standardized "core curriculum," a multimillion-dollar package of new books, materials, assessments, and professional development aimed at improving students' academic achievement.
The core curriculum for grades K-9 was introduced for literacy and math classes throughout the District one year ago. This September, high schools received new standardized curricula for English, math, science and social studies courses. All the curricula are accompanied by new materials, scheduling timelines, and new standardized tests.
Teachers, students, parents, and community members have all had mixed reactions to the new curriculum. Some have praised the District for spending significant resources to provide new, modern materials for classrooms. Others have questioned whether curriculum standardization will allow for sufficient attention to students' individual learning needs. Still others say the District still has not adequately addressed the history and cultures of its diverse student population.
Tracy Manela, a veteran first-grade teacher at Blankenburg Elementary School, summarized feelings that many teachers interviewed by the Notebook have expressed.
"It's good for people who need specific guidelines of what to teach. But for those of us who have already been there and can see a better way and a different way to achieve the goals, it kind of ties our hands."
Parents have raised concerns about the pace of instruction, which has been increased in an effort to expose students to more grade-level material. Several parents have testified to the School Reform Commission that their children are being "left behind" as teachers try to cover more material in less time.
What is the core curriculum?
The core curriculum is a series of documents created for the School District that describe the skills and concepts students must learn in each subject at each grade level. The documents are designed to help teachers know what and how to teach (see Timeline).
In addition to the documents, over the past two years the District has spent more that $40 million on textbooks, workbooks, teacher's guides, software, and classroom materials to help teachers ensure they are teaching what students need to learn.
The District has purchased professionally designed instructional programs teachers must use in literacy, math, and science classes. For math, the District selected two programs, Everyday Math and Math in Context, which focus on students' use of math to solve real-world problems.
For literacy, the District purchased textbooks - Harcourt Brace's Trophies textbooks for grades K-5 and Holt Reinhart's Elements of Literature books for grades 6-8. These books provide one source of reading and writing activities teachers must use in the classroom.
While the District has not yet implemented science curricula in grades K-6, it has selected three programs that elementary schools will begin using in 2005. This fall seventh and eighth grade classes will use a new science textbook published by Holt Reinhart and Winston.
Insuring a rigorous curriculum
According to District CEO Paul Vallas, data show that high-achieving school districts utilize a standardized curriculum that is aligned to state standards. Vallas maintains that the core curriculum will help teachers move students to the proficient level of performance on standardized tests.
Cecilia Cannon, Officer of Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development, has offered more reasons for the standardized curriculum.
"We cannot leave to each individual teacher the decision about the body of knowledge that students need to know," Cannon said. "If we want to have equity in education and we want to close the achievement gap, we have to have clear public standards....and a rigorous curriculum."