This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Lisa Hantman is in her first year of teaching third grade at McCall Elementary School. She has taught in the School District of Philadelphia for 16 years.
Hantman said last year at her previous school was the hardest year she has had in her 20-year teaching career. As a veteran teacher, she had seen many new curricula come and go. But she said that by the first week in September, she knew this new curriculum was different.
"The fact that they actually gave out materials [and] the fact that they were going to test kids every six weeks with a standardized test – that was a big deal."
Hantman found aspects she liked in the new curriculum, particularly the guides that tell teachers what skills and topics they should cover each week.
"They are very organized and clear-cut. I found it comforting to know what [the District] wanted kids to know by a certain date."
However, Hantman also had serious concerns.
"They asked us to start the pacing guide on day one, and you cannot start anything on day one except bonding a class. That was devastating, and it showed throughout my school.. There was no community in the classroom," she said.
In addition, the traditional lack of monitoring persisted. "Nobody ever came into my classroom, and nobody ever questioned my lesson plans," she added.
Hantman noted that her own approach to teaching differs markedly from the core curriculum. "I do a lot of innovative stuff.. I teach the skills I am supposed to teach, but I don’t use a textbook," she said.
Nevertheless, Hantman’s thematic approach to teaching accomplishes all of the same goals as the District’s curriculum, and her students score as well as peers on standardized tests.
"The difference," Hantman said, "is that my kids leave my room with an appreciation for reading and for books. Ninety percent of them leave my room believing they can write in a way that they didn’t believe they could write before and believing they have something to say to the world."
Erica Young taught second grade last year at Robert Morris Elementary School in North Philadelphia, her first year as a teacher. She returned to the same position this year.
As a new teacher, Young naturally followed the directions given to her, which were to closely follow the curriculum. "I recognized the need for standards and consistency.. It’s not really my style to go ‘by the book,’ but I got close to doing it that way last year," Young said.
But after a year’s experience, and particularly after doing some professional development with the Philadelphia Writing Project over the summer, Young questioned the way the core curriculum "does it all for you."
The highly structured and sometimes scripted curriculum "didn’t give me much chance to find my identity as a teacher, to find out what worked for me in my classroom," Young said. An exception was guided reading, where Young had considerable autonomy and thus was able to be creative in developing her lessons. She said this was the part of the teaching day she enjoyed the most and where she grew as a teacher.
Young echoed the criticisms of many teachers in faulting aspects of the reading and writing programs for lacking depth and opportunities for students to develop ownership of their work. She says that the writing program’s emphasis on writing to prompts and mastering differing forms of writing was presented in a bewildering and arbitrary fashion.
Young said she is "so much more excited this year." With the confidence that comes from experience and reflection, she intends to "do the things I believe in." A significant test of the viability of the new curriculum might be how well it can combine the need for standards and consistency with the creativity of teachers like Young.
Martha Perez is a veteran teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School. Last year she taught math and reading to a self-contained eighth grade, predominantly English as a Second Language (ESL) students.
For Perez, the core curriculum is a step forward from the lack of consistent standards and accountability that she said characterized the School District in past years. Persistent low achievement at schools like Julia de Burgos meant "people had to step up to the plate," Perez said.
Still, Perez has a range of concerns about the new instructional program, particularly in relation to students who are just beginning to learn English. Previously at Julia de Burgos, much of the instruction for English as a Second Language was provided in Spanish. But now, because the PSSA exam is only given in English, nearly all instruction is in English, which is a major disadvantage for students who have minimal English skills.
Perez noted that many of her students who could not write answers to the open-ended, complex questions characteristic of the PSSA could write very sophisticated answers in Spanish. The benchmark test, again administered only in English, was "basically a guessing game" for her students with limited English proficiency.
Perez also feels that the literacy core curriculum needs some modification. Perez said she wants children "to fall in love with reading" and questioned whether the emphasis on reading short selections to learn specific skills serves this end.
At Julia de Burgos, Perez noted, "We are fortunate as a new school to have the materials we need" to teach the core curriculum.
Kelley Collings teaches math to fifth graders at Central East Middle School and is entering her third year of teaching.
Initially skeptical about the core curriculum, Collings over the course of the year became a "critical supporter" based on her experience with her students. Contrary to many teachers who complain about the pacing of math instruction, Collings found the schedule "totally doable." She said, "We needed to be doing more math .and moving faster through more math raises your expectations of what kids can do."
The emphasis on multiple strategies for problem-solving, cooperative learning, and evaluating student work based on the quality of student thinking were all positive elements of the new curriculum, according to Collings.
In Collings’ view, much of teacher frustration with the program grows out of a failure to grasp the "spiraling" nature of the math curriculum in which students continuously revisit concepts but at a progressively deeper level. Her fifth-grade students reported feeling successful because she made clear to them that they would not "get it" all the time all at once.
Insuring that students are clear on the goals and the process is key to students’ developing positive feelings about their instruction, Collings said.
Collings shares the view of many teachers that they should have more autonomy but said she believes that this is possible within the framework of the core curriculum, "if you’re good enough and creative enough to make it happen."
Betsy Wice retired from the School District of Philadelphia last year, after more than 40 years of teaching elementary school and working as a literary specialist.
By the end of the 2003-2004 school year, Wice was disillusioned with the changes that the core curriculum had brought to Frederick Douglass Elementary School. She explained that administrators applying the curriculum initially failed to take into account the accumulated experience and wisdom teachers held.
"Instead of coming in a helpful way and seeing how our strengths would lend themselves to the core curriculum. [District officials] came in in a very punitive spirit," she said.
Pressure to adhere to the core curriculum created what Wice described as an "authoritarian" climate that strained relations between teachers and students and contributed to student discipline and behavior problems. Wice also pointed to the constant pressure as a contributing factor in significant staff turnover at Douglass. "It’s not the core curriculum that was to blame; it was the way it was applied," she noted.
Fortunately, Wice said, things are turning around at Douglass, where she volunteers nearly every day helping teachers introduce enriching activities that are outside of the core curriculum.
"Last year, we were told to stop all our old projects that were irrelevant to the curriculum," Wice said. "This year, there are plenty of places to use them that are legitimate. They’re not in contradiction to the regular program."
She added, "The young [teachers] are a tremendous source of energy and hope, and they can really make use of what I have to offer as a veteran. . . . There is room for some of the special projects, but we have to be really careful about doing them so that teachers don’t get in trouble for neglecting the standardized stuff,"
"It’s really been a good start to the year," Wice said. "I feel very different than I felt before."
Courtney Patterson was a new teacher last year at Fels High School, where she taught algebra to ninth graders and geometry to 10th graders.
The new math curriculum was introduced last year in ninth grade and will be extended to 11th grade this year. In introducing the new curriculum, administrators emphasized that students in different schools would all be on the same page, teachers would have to do less lesson-planning, and alignment with the PSSA would boost test scores.
For Patterson, the main problem was that students often lacked the prior knowledge and skills to effectively master the new material. "We were expected to differentiate instruction," tailoring it to individual student needs, Patterson said. "But how we were to do this with the limited time we had was never clear."
Patterson encountered widespread student frustration with the benchmark tests. Because results were not available until more than a month after each test was taken, these tests were of little value to teachers for purposes of remediation.
"They expect so much and give us so little," is the way Patterson summed up the problem of lack of materials at her school. She described how a geometry lesson required students to have mirrors. But the school only had three packs of materials to be shared by seven teachers.
"I do believe that one good thing about the curriculum is that it gives our teaching some structure, something that was brutally absent from my geometry curriculum last year," she said.
Patterson said that more realistic objectives and the development of a classroom culture that promotes respect and dignity are necessary elements if teaching and learning are going to improve in the comprehensive high schools.