Rochester, New York City school report rips Common Core Solution: Let teachers do more with curriculum


JUSTIN MURPHY STAFF WRITER http://rochesterdemocrat.ny.newsmemory.com/

A committee studying Common Core-aligned curriculum in the Rochester School District is recommending a turn away from lessons provided by the state Education Department, criticizing them as confusing, developmentally inappropriate and culturally insensitive.

Instead, the committee called for local teachers and administrators to lead the way in developing lessons that help students reach the Common Core standards more effectively — and, implicitly, faulted the district for failing to do so sooner.

“These are terribly scripted lessons, and that’s not how we learn. Where do the teachable moments come in?”

WILLIAM CALA, FAIRPORT SUPERINTENDENT

“We could have been more deliberate in choosing (curricula),” said school board member Mary Adams, who convened and led the expert committee. “Just because it’s new and challenging, we’re not going to push back? … That’s very lame. That’s unacceptable.”

The report, published this month, does not broadly address Common Core standards, teacher performance evaluations or the high-stakes testing movement in general, but instead focuses on the actual lessons teachers use in the class — a hot topic in districts across the state.

It is unsparing in its criticism of the curriculum distributed by the Education Department through its EngageNY website, particularly for grades K-2.

The state lesson plans, according to the report, are “fundamentally inappropriate” and show a “massive
disregard for our students and families of color, who rarely appear in it.” It notes, for instance, that kindergartners learn about leadership by studying European kings and queens; a suggested alternative is having a student-led discussion about the children’s own parents and grandparents.

“These problems are decades old,” Adams said. “They’ve been there as long as African-Americans and people of color have been allowed to go to school.” Teachers surveyed for the report said the strict pacing of the state-provided lessons prevented teachers from accommodating either the students who lagged behind or those who learned more quickly, leaving the former untaught and the latter unsatisfied.

Outside education experts observed 3,000 classrooms in 49 schools and confirmed that result, noting there were “too many classrooms in which students were not engaged and appeared to have little voice in what they were learning.”

Students, they found, were generally not disruptive in the classroom, but on the contrary “were actually overly compliant, consistent with … low levels of student engagement.”

The solution, according to the report, is to boost the district’s own curriculum-writing and professional development so teachers, admin-istrators, parents and community members can craft their own path toward the state-mandated standards and work together to share best practices.

In particular, the suggestion is to use the existing school-based planning teams as curriculum developers in conjunction with a district-wide “Teacher/Administrator Instructional Council.” It would be developed with local expertise and, by design, subject to continuous revision.

The most immediate recommended change would be a revamped K-2 curriculum, ideally in place by September 2015. That and other recommendations must be voted on by the city school board. That work would go toward overcoming another problem the outside evaluators found — a lack of collaboration among teachers. “Each building has educators who are highly effective … (but) the problem is the isolation and difficulty in finding opportunities for extended collaboration,” according to the report. The state recently encouraged districts to do away with locally designed tests for the purposes of teacher evaluation, but in the area of curriculum, districts have broad leeway in how they meet the state standards.

Some teachers and schools have already made some headway toward more autonomous lesson planning, in particular those that follow the Expeditionary Learning model, such as schools 10 and 58. And some other local districts, like Fairport, have eschewed the state curriculum entirely. “These are terribly scripted lessons, and that’s not how we learn,” Fairport Superintendent William Cala said. “Where do the teachable moments come in? … Good instruction is good instruction, no matter how you cut it. We certainly don’t need EngageNY modules to define that.” Honeoye Falls-Lima Assistant Superintendent Renee Williams said the default in her district is locally developed curriculum; the EngageNY lessons are only used “as a resource” if test scores indicate students are struggling in a certain area.

“I really trust our teachers to be the leaders and find the best materials for the children in front of them,” she said. “Then, if the scores aren’t what they want, they look at the module and see what’s there.”

The City School District has two new hires in charge of curriculum and student learning — Christiana Otuwa came from Pittsburgh Public Schools this summer as deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, and Jennifer Gkourlias, the founding principal at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School, will start next week as executive director of teaching and learning, working under Otuwa.

Once Gkourlias is on board, those two will organize a systematic approach to the question of curriculum, including to what extent the district should use EngageNY modules.

But Otuwa said the critical factor is not the curriculum itself, rather the fidelity with which it is implemented — a message at odds with the findings of the Common Core committee.

JMURPHY7 Twitter.com/CitizenMurphy

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Mary Adams

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