September 22 — 11:00 pm, 2004

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.


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."

A third reason for introducing the core curriculum is Philadelphia’s high rate of student mobility. Last year, District officials estimated that as many as 37 percent of students change schools over the course of a year.

District officials have made clear that the core curriculum is essential to ensuring that all teachers are "teaching to proficiency." This means that teachers address the concepts and skills that students must know to score proficient on standardized tests and that students do work that is appropriate for their grade level.

In order to teach to proficiency, teachers are supposed to move at a challenging pace and provide support for students who need it.

Cannon said the District has a responsibility to ensure that teachers teach to proficiency. "Every student has to take a state assessment that tests grade-appropriate skills and concepts," Cannon noted. "So we’ve tried to ensure that they are exposed to grade-appropriate work."

Supportive of this approach, Judy Sydney, a retired Philadelphia literacy coach and teacher, commented, "Setting a high standard is good because teachers have a tendency to stay with something until everybody knows it, and you’ve got to expose kids to more because you don’t know what will connect with a child."

Others, however, point out that teaching to proficiency can be difficult if students are already far behind grade level. Cindy Farlino, an assistant principal at Central East Middle School, said she worries that the core curriculum doesn’t provide enough time for remediation for students who have not mastered material in previous grades.

One approach to getting students to proficiency in the new K-9 programs is the concept of a "spiraling" curriculum. This means that students are not expected to master every concept and skill the first time they are introduced; rather, teachers continue to revisit the topics over several years.

A challenging pace

In addition to providing greater specificity about what students must learn, the core curriculum describes how much time teachers should spend on each topic through a "pacing and scheduling timeline."

The timelines are intended to ensure that teachers cover all of the concepts that students must learn during a year. But the District has not been entirely clear about how strictly they expect teachers to adhere to the timelines.

Reporting what his union has heard from teachers, Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said, "One building has lockstep pacing, and another building is a lot more relaxed."

Some teachers and coaches have criticized the rigorous pacing of the timelines for limiting schools’ ability to offer multidisciplinary activities and projects. Science experiments, plays, creative writing, and afterschool clubs were some of the many activities that school officials and teachers said they had to eliminate last year in order to stay on pace.

District officials claim that teachers can find time in the pacing and scheduling timeline to include varied activities. To help facilitate this, the District’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development plans to provide school leaders with sample schedules to show how teachers can find time during the week to offer lessons outside of the core curriculum.

Vallas noted, "Teachers have flexibility to utilize their accumulated knowledge as they reach the goals aligned to state standards. One does not have to be at the expense of the other."

Creating the core curriculum

The District engaged in two very different processes to create the elementary, middle and high school core curricula. For its K-9 curricula, the District hired experts at the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), a nonprofit organization, to oversee teams of teachers who worked throughout the 2002-2003 school year to research and write curriculum documents.

Allie Mulvihill, acting co-director of PEF, commented, "The work was demanding and incredibly time-consuming. Writing teams ended up working late evenings [and] full weekends…. It was grueling."

To create the high school curricula in English, math, science and social studies, the District hired Kaplan Inc., a for-profit company that specializes in standardized test-preparation materials and services.

According to Creg Williams, deputy chief academic officer in charge of secondary schools, this level of "in-depth" curriculum writing was "new ground" for Kaplan. One reason the District chose to hire the testing company, according to Williams, is that the company had the ability to create benchmark tests aligned to the curriculum.

"We didn’t feel [the District] had the capacity to do all those subject areas in a year’s time. So that’s the reason we went outside to get that done," Williams added.

Kaplan Inc. earned $4.5 million for its services and is still employed by the District to offer professional development for teachers using the high school curriculum.

Some teachers and community members have expressed concern about the lack of opportunity for stakeholders to participate in the creation of the high school curriculum. They asserted that the teachers, university professors, and selected community representatives who were involved had an insufficient opportunity to comment on the curriculum because they saw only general outlines of the documents during the writing process.

Local activist Rita Addessa, director of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, has called upon the School Reform Commission to cancel the Kaplan contract, saying the company is not sufficiently knowledgeable, experienced, and culturally sensitive to create curricula that would reflect the District’s stated commitment to multiracial, multicultural, gender-fair education.

The year ahead

This year, in addition to the Kaplan-created high school curricula for English, math, science and social studies, the District introduced curricula for 7th and 8th grade science and 8th grade social studies. All of these grades also received new textbooks, audiovisual materials, and classroom resource kits.

In grades K-9, last year’s pacing and scheduling timelines for literacy and math were adjusted to allow more time for teachers to get to know students at the beginning of this year and to better align with the school calendar so that classes are not expected to move ahead when teachers and students are on vacation or taking tests.

These changes address two of the major complaints raised by teachers last year about the pacing and scheduling timelines.

Later this fall, the District will also introduce several new "multicultural" materials for elementary and middle school classrooms. These include African and African-American history course materials for students in grades K-5; newly created "Community Voices" reading materials that describe the history of the people of Philadelphia for grades 3-8, and a character development program for middle school students designed in conjunction with the local juvenile justice system.

With the major infusion of funding and expertise that have been marshaled to bring all of these curriculum resources to schools, the process represents a significant effort by the District’s central administration to clarify what topics, materials and techniques teachers should use in their classroom. At the same time, the changes have brought strong reactions from some teachers, parents, school leaders and community representatives.

The merits and weaknesses of the core curriculum will continue to be debated as the District and its stakeholders try out this much more highly standardized approach.

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