November 27 — 12:00 am, 2003

District gets an earful about new curriculum

It has not been an easy transition to the District’s new curriculum as teachers, students, and schools across the city struggle to implement a standardized program in both literacy and math for grades K-9.

Some of the major changes that teachers and students are grappling with include: new instructional models and curriculum materials for teaching literacy and math, a rigorous pace backed up with benchmark tests every six weeks, an emphasis on teaching at grade level, a new structure for teacher professional development, and a new student report card.

Many teachers report feeling overwhelmed. The teachers’ union leadership is speaking up about teacher concerns.

The School Reform Commission has also heard testimony from parents this fall that the pace in classrooms is "too fast" and that students are being left behind.

One likely result of the new curriculum in K-9 classrooms is that students’ report card grades may drop and more students may fail.

"When you raise standards, you’re going to have fewer students getting ‘A’s," District CEO Paul Vallas acknowledged. He promised to work aggressively on providing students with supports.

"Introducing a new curriculum and instructional models and requiring that teachers teach at grade-level standards was going to generate a certain amount of pain, but it needed to be done," CEO Paul Vallas stated.

He added, "We’re certain that we’re on the right track, but we’re going to have to make adjustments."

While his words echoed Vallas’s, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Vice President Jerry Jordan expressed a different perspective. He said he has been getting "a lot of feedback" from teachers and has been relaying those concerns to the administration.

The administration is "hearing the complaints," said Jordan. "They’re going to have to make some adjustments."

A standardized program citywide

The new curriculum, District officials say, takes the essential step of aligning what is taught in each grade to state standards for what students should know and be able to do. In a system with high student mobility, the District has provided instructional models and textbooks that will be uniform systemwide.

Philadelphia last had a standardized curriculum in the early 1990s.

In interviews, representatives of organizations that work with Philadelphia teachers consistently distinguished between a generally positive teacher response to the curriculum materials on the one hand and concerns about implementation on the other.

Jordan noted that the teachers’ union has felt so strongly about the need for a curriculum that there is a provision in the contract now requiring it.

"Principals are saying that especially the new teachers like it," commented Betsey Useem, director of research at the Philadelphia Education Fund, which played a lead role in developing the new curriculum. She pointed to national research showing that the lack of a curriculum has been found to be a major cause of turnover among new teachers.

Veteran teachers are also expressing appreciation for the curriculum and teacher manuals as well as over $20 million worth of new books for students. But this has not quelled the criticism.

Push to keep on pace

"Overall there’s a sense of doing too much too fast," said Betsy Wice of the Teachers’ Learning Cooperative, a group of Philadelphia classroom teachers that meets weekly to provide support for new and veteran teachers. Lately, the core curriculum has been the hot topic.

Wice, a veteran teacher who is the Literacy Leader for Douglass School, spoke of "more tension, more pressure, more push toward conformity" and expressed concern about "the harshness with which the reforms are being monitored."

"A lot of the stress is counterproductive," she added. "The harshness gets transferred from the principal to the teacher and from the teachers to the kids, and it does not make for a good learning environment."

Wice and Jordan both said the intensity of pressure on teachers this fall varies from school to school, depending on administration. Teachers at each grade level receive a "planning and scheduling timeline," but schools treat it differently.

"One building has lockstep pacing, and another building is a lot more relaxed," Jordan said.

Kathy Schultz of the University of Pennsylvania, who works with new teachers in the university’s teacher education program, said some teachers find the new structure and materials helpful, but also expressed concern about the pressure to keep on pace.

"Some teachers say that it’s forcing them to go too quickly so that they are not teaching all children," she explained.

Curriculum office listens, monitors

Overseeing the implementation of the core curriculum is Cecilia Cannon, head of the District’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development, who has been visiting schools and meeting with teachers all fall to respond to concerns.

"Teachers are feeling a little struggle, and we understand that," she said.

But she added, "Those meetings and one-on-one, face-to-face interactions have helped us to do some of the immediate repair of saying, ‘Wait! Here’s what the misunderstanding is.’"

One concept Cannon emphasized is that this is a "spiraling curriculum," so that even though students will not all master a skill or concept the first time, "it’s coming up again in the next six-week chunk and the next."

In both literacy and math, Cannon said that the curriculum is designed for teachers to provide the whole class with exposure to the grade level skills and still leave time to do more tailored instruction at the student’s instructional level.

For a period each day teachers organize their classes into several smaller "guided reading" groups that are supposed to work collaboratively while the teacher moves from group to group; those groups of students who are below grade level are expected to get a block of time with the teacher three or four times a week.

But teachers have reported widespread problems implementing guided reading groups and noted that it is difficult for teachers to provide small-group instruction when they are still responsible for a roomful of students. A few schools report being able to rearrange schedules to put a second staff member in each room during guided reading blocks.

Cannon said other supports for the implementation of the core curriculum include new curriculum coaches, the Extended Day program, and other interventions during the school day.

But Schultz said the District hadn’t solved the difficulty of addressing the wide range in levels of students in the classroom. She said that except during guided reading, this curriculum encourages teachers to "teach everybody the same thing at the same time," regardless of variations among students.

A District spokesperson emphasized that Cannon’s office is interested in "hearing from teachers about what their needs are and what their perspectives are."

Cecilia Cannon of the curriculum office can be reached at ccannon@phila.k12.pa.us.

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