March 10 — 12:00 am, 2005

Implementing new curriculum, high school teachers take varied paths

Keeping up with the pace of the core curriculum written by Kaplan is proving quite a challenge.

The District’s new, standardized "core curriculum" for high school English, math, science and social studies has been drawing strong and mixed reactions from teachers this year. The curriculum was developed by Kaplan Inc., which is known as a test prep company but has limited experience in developing high school curricula.

The Notebook heard reactions to the new curriculum from teachers at four neighborhood high schools and one selective admissions high school. Those interviewed asked not to be named.

The core curriculum specifies that the required subject matter content be covered by grade-level teachers in core subjects on a uniform timetable known as the "pacing schedule." In reality, teachers describe their implementation of the core curriculum as much more uneven.

Why this discrepancy? Whether these teachers approve of the core curriculum or not, most say the pacing schedule is unrealistic. The specified content is challenging to teach in the time allotted. Some teachers feel they need to "cover" the core curriculum and say they attempt to keep up by skimming the subject matter.

But others resist what they perceive as the lock-step process of the core curriculum. They say they use their professional judgment, choose to go into more or less depth on topics in the core curriculum, and don’t feel bound by its specifications.

One example of the fast pacing schedule is the World History curriculum guide’s outline for teaching about the "Enlightened Monarchs," which calls for teachers to cover Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II of Austria in half a traditional period or in one-fourth of a 90-minute block.

An English teacher noted, "In teaching Julius Caesar, I spent many more periods than the core curriculum specified. We essentially had to go line by line to identify persuasive technique in the speech by Brutus, because the students couldn’t read it. Their vocabulary is too limited. I am alone in the classroom. I do what I think is best."

Another English teacher explained, "I have really grown to accept the core curriculum. But in the 90-minute block, there is a lot to cover in one semester. I did manage to ‘cover’ all the units by the end, though I had to skip some things."

A 10th-grade math teacher commented, "I use the core curriculum. I like it because it gives a focus. But I don’t look at it every day and see where I should be. I look at the guide perhaps every two weeks. I tend to do my own thing but cover the concepts."

Veteran teachers more critical

Nearly all the teachers interviewed liked the new textbooks they received this year to accompany the core curriculum.

Several also praised the "suggested" and ancillary activities and materials that involved students in more hands-on and inquiry learning. A 10th-grade teacher noted, however, "In World History, there is no time for ‘choice’ activities, which address non-Western history, and these topics are not on the benchmark tests."

Teachers interviewed who had less experience tended to welcome the structure and be more positive about the core curriculum than veteran teachers (see Views). Two experienced teachers acknowledged they would have liked the kind of curricular structure the core provides when they first started teaching.

Experienced teachers were critical of a lack of subject matter depth, a narrow focus in benchmark testing, and an inability to use what they felt were best practices.

The ‘core’ in elementary and high school

The elementary core curriculum was developed by the District with input from teachers. Some teachers criticized Kaplan’s development of the high school curriculum. A history teacher said, "Kaplan wrote the core curriculum before the District decided on the texts they would use," and expressed concern about a lack of alignment.

This teacher added, "In U.S history, the core curriculum begins with the French and Indian War. In the core curriculum, you would never know the key role Philadelphia played in our history. If teachers want to begin U.S. history earlier, which some do, they will be behind from the start."

Teachers also pointed to the differences between the implementation of the benchmark tests at the elementary and high school levels. In elementary and middle schools, six-week benchmark cycles include one week for re-teaching.

In contrast, in the high school core curricula, there is no time dedicated to re-teaching. The curriculum moves on, whether or not the students perform well on the benchmark tests. In math, in particular, this presents problems because the content is sequential.

But some teachers find a way to re-teach what students didn’t know. "In my classes, I look at the benchmark results and do warm-up sessions every day," said a 10th-grade math teacher. "Before I present the new material, I go over the types of problems many of the students got wrong."

On the basis of feedback the District has received, Kaplan and the District are revising the curriculum including the benchmarks and pacing schedule. District officials also say they are hiring an independent curriculum evaluator. What remains to be seen is how much and in what ways the core curricula will evolve.

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