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School autonomy for curriculum to return

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Earlier this week the District announced a shift away from mandated, scripted curricula in favor of autonomy for individual schools. Over the past decade, the amount of autonomy a school has over its curriculum has repeatedly changed as the District leadership changes. Let’s review that recent history.

Paul Vallas (2002-07)
Under the Vallas administration, the District created a Curriculum Framework and Pacing Guide to help align curricula throughout the District. This document was originally created in response to concerns that the delivery of curriculum and instruction was fragmented and varied in rigor and quality across the city. Several years of staff time were devoted to creating this guide and delivering professional development in how to utilize it. Large sums of money were also spent on the purchase of instructional materials to support its implementation.

Tom Brady and Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones (2007-08)
Tom Brady focused the attention of the Academic Office on developing strategies to deal with chronically low-achieving schools. This task became the primary responsibility of Cassandra Jones, Brady’s chief academic officer. In the spring of 2008, Jones supported a plan to issue a request for proposals for outside providers to help in providing additional services to some 70 schools in the district. These were schools that had failed to achieve adequate yearly progress, as defined by No Child Left Behind, for five or more consecutive years.

Arlene Ackerman (2008-2011)
Ackerman abandoned Brady’s plan. Instead, Ackerman identified 85 schools that had demonstrated the lowest scores over multiple years under No Child Left Behind performance measures and designated these as Empowerment Schools.

Regional response teams were organized to concentrate on conducting inspections at these schools and assessing the effectiveness of their math and reading instructional programs. Extra services managed by the central office were then provided to these schools.

In September 2009, the number of designated Empowerment Schools grew to 95 schools. During this school year, scripted reading and math programs were mandated for use in all Empowerment Schools. Additionally, these school communities were allocated social workers, full-time school nurses, additional teachers, and instructional aides. These were much-needed supports. But in return for receiving this aid, the Empowerment Schools lost autonomy. As a result, the staff members at these schools were unable to develop site-specific reform strategies that utilized their own unique talents and resources. In fact, despite their many differences, all of these schools were dealt with as though they were the same.

In September 2010, the literacy program in all of the Empowerment Schools was changed. This programmatic switch marked a return to the fragmented citywide curriculum that had been eliminated during the Vallas administration. This change also involved a substantial investment in new instructional materials that replaced the reading texts that had been purchased only a few years earlier at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

During the initial implementation of Corrective Reading, Corrective Math, the Imagine It! series by SRA for grades K-6, and the introduction of literacy materials by Glenco for grades 7-8, numerous articles were posted on the Notebook blog detailing teacher concerns regarding the use of these programs.

Concerns were expressed regarding the highly scripted nature of Corrective Reading and Math, the indiscriminate and inappropriate use of these instructional activities with many students, and the lack of compatibility between these programs and the District’s stated curriculum. These concerns were brought to a School Reform Commission meeting. Despite this cacophony of concern, Arlene Ackerman vigorously defended these programs and dismissed the constructive critiques that had been provided by teachers and other educators.

Throughout the rest of Ackerman’s tenure, discussions related to curriculum and instruction were pushed to a back burner as other issues dominated the discussion. Objections to the use and monitoring of the controversial scripted reading and math programs continued to quietly simmer.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon (present)
This week Nixon announced that the central office will no longer mandate the use of scripted instructional programs in District schools. According to Nixon, individual schools will also be given autonomy in deciding which instructional materials to use in implementing an updated districtwide curriculum framework and pacing schedule. This decision will eliminate the separate curriculum guide that had been specially created for Empowerment Schools to accommodate their mandated use of scripted instructional programs.

The curriculum framework and pacing guide that will be updated and aligned with Pennsylvania’s Common Core standards is the one that was developed during Paul Vallas’ administration.

What District educators are saying
The response to a recent Notebook post that described the arbitrary demand by a District walkthrough team that a reading center be removed from a classroom illustrated the depth of teacher resentment and low morale that exists in many Empowerment Schools. The announcement that scripted instruction will no longer be required in these schools will be welcome news to many of these teachers.

With the new sense of autonomy that will be offered to all schools as they implement the District’s updated curriculum framework, one might wonder how the District’s walkthrough teams will be utilized in the future. Will they be redesigned to help and support school teams to succeed rather than to demoralize them and hinder their progress?

What is your response to this development? How do you envision your school team utilizing site-based autonomy? How should the School Reform Commission hold more independent school teams accountable? What role do you envision walkthrough teams taking in this redefined curricular landscape?

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