This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District has taken a meaningful step in providing a detailed "core curriculum" to its schools and staff. Last year, K-9 classrooms across the city received curriculum materials in math and language arts, and this year the effort has expanded to high schools and to science and social studies courses.
In a large district with high levels of student mobility and high teacher turnover, the lack of a uniform curriculum was a formula for failure. Greater consistency provides some hope that teachers will get the support they need to deliver effective instruction. The curriculum’s insistence on "teaching to proficiency" – teaching grade-level skills and concepts – gives students a fighting chance of mastering what they need to know in their core subjects.
Despite concerns about the process and final product, the curriculum does give teachers a detailed road map for the year, whereas in the past, new teachers were often just handed a textbook.
While the development of a new core curriculum provides an important tool for schools, it also raises some big questions. How will it be used? How can it be improved? How might the curriculum writing process be different in the next round?
Unfortunately, the future of the core curriculum will be profoundly shaped by the difficult times we are in:
- Schools and school districts are under enormous pressure to focus almost entirely on making the test score improvements required by the No Child Left Behind Act. The pressure for high scores compromises our children’s education when curriculum content is replaced by test prep drills, such as last year’s misguided crash course for high school students on test-taking. Likewise, students suffer when test data are studied not to figure out where students need help, but to sort out which kids have the best shot at scoring proficient.
- Corporate influence over public education is growing, as companies use their marketing savvy and political connections to win District contracts. Important decisions about curriculum have been put in the hands of corporations that are not directly accountable to the community. With little public discussion, Kaplan Inc. was hired to write the high school curriculum and will play an ongoing role in professional development. At dozens of schools run by private education management organizations such as Edison and Victory, curriculum and professional development are determined by the EMO.
- On top of these trends, resources are still scarce in Philadelphia due to continued funding inequities and misplaced national priorities. Inadequate school funding means many schools lack the supports they need to bring all students to proficiency, including smaller class size and better professional development opportunities.
In combination, high-stakes testing, corporate influences, and underfunding all push schools to look for "quick fixes," like narrowing the focus of teaching to what will be tested. As schools struggle with these pressures, we must remember that what students need from this new curriculum is not just a proficient score on reading and math tests but meaningful and diverse classroom experiences that provide them with analytic skills and a passion for learning. The core curriculum should be the foundation for that type of academic experience.
The core curriculum presents opportunities for teachers to become well informed about standards, but it must not become a straitjacket. New and experienced teachers have skills, creative ideas, and energy they can bring to the classroom. But they will not be able to meet the specific learning needs of their students if every classroom must be on the same page on the same day.
The School District has not sent a clear message to schools that the core curriculum allows for flexibility in content and for teacher autonomy in developing instructional strategies. Schools and teachers need to hear specifically that they can and should include lessons, activities, and materials – like full-length novels or strong multicultural content – that are not mandated by the core curriculum but that will enrich learning.
It is essential to see the core curriculum as a work in progress. And there are signs that the District’s curriculum staff has been listening and responding to feedback. For example, the District has freed up time in the pacing schedule at the beginning of the year for building classroom community and is devoting attention to the difficulties teachers are having in implementing "guided reading."
But feedback and adjustments after implementation cannot take the place of including more voices in the ongoing creation and revision of curricular materials. The District’s efforts to involve parents, students, and staff in authentic ways in these processes have been inconsistent at best.
Only by bringing all stakeholders into a dialogue about what we teach and how we teach it will the District ensure that it moves toward creating the type of meaningful and relevant curriculum students deserve.