March 30 — 4:35 pm, 2012

Literacy instruction under 4 District leaders…

...a look at 30 years of curriculum change

Constance Clayton: 1982-1993
Clayton brought the District its first version of a standardized curriculum, one whose definition of “literacy” went beyond the traditional Dick-and-Jane focus on the mechanics of reading. Clayton’s curriculum institutionalized some of the innovations of the late 1960s and 70s, and included content like folk tales, poetry, and biography, as well as recommendations for pacing and sequence. Schools retained considerable autonomy when it came to texts and classroom implementation. By the end of Clayton’s tenure, schools were experimenting with “whole-language” approaches in addition to phonics-based approaches.

David Hornbeck: 1994-2000
Hornbeck’s goal was to upgrade the curriculum to ensure that students reached specific standards. With funding from the Annenberg Foundation, his “Children Achieving” initiative created a detailed set of “curriculum frameworks” along with performance targets for schools. Hornbeck eventually instituted a “balanced literacy” approach that included elements of whole language and phonics-based instruction, with a heavy emphasis on early literacy. Individual schools made most decisions about classroom materials and lesson sequence.

Paul Vallas: 2002-2007
Vallas introduced the District’s first-ever “core curriculum,” a standardized set of materials, practices, and timelines for use in all schools. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, Vallas wanted this curriculum to align instruction with state standards and ensure success on standardized tests. Consistency across schools for a mobile student population was a central goal. Elementary schools were required to provide 120 minutes of literacy instruction daily, and specific texts were used citywide. Vallas’ core curriculum continued the focus on “balanced literacy.”

Arlene Ackerman: 2008-2011
While retaining the core curriculum in most cases, Ackerman made changes in about 100 of the District’s lowest-performing schools, dubbed “Empowerment Schools.” These schools were to use a highly scripted curriculum known as “Corrective Reading” and “Corrective Math,” developed by the McGraw-Hill company. The new reading curriculum replaced the “balanced literacy” approach, sparking criticism due to its prescriptive nature and its focus on remedial skills. Ackerman credited the approach with improved test scores.

2012 and beyond
The District eliminated the requirement to use the scripted model soon after Ackerman’s departure, saying that teachers should have more latitude to determine how best to bring students up to state standards. Details so far are scarce, but the next superintendent is expected to continue this trend of returning some instructional autonomy to schools. The core curriculum is also undergoing revision to bring it into line with the new Common Core State Standards.

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