Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What’s curriculum got to do with it?

As I’ve been listening to people’s reactions to the proficiency gaps we’re seeing in our students’ standardized test score data (including from commenters here and here), I’ve been struck by how seldom people seem to raise the role of curricular choices. I’ve seen comments debating the effect of pursuing socioeconomic balance, and comments about the need for more diverse or culturally sensitive staff—both of which are certainly topics worth discussing. And I’ve seen more general comments about the district’s competence and about accountability—which are certainly relevant concepts too, though they need some definition. But isn’t curriculum kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to proficiency data?

My sense is that many people think of the topic of curriculum as a specialized area in which they are inclined to defer to experts (which is to say, to the professional educators that our district hires to make those decisions). It’s hard to argue with that at some level, but it also seems to me that the board can’t entirely relieve itself of the responsibility to be involved in the issue. Curriculum decisions do come before the board for approval, for example. And even if the board were inclined to defer to administrative judgments on those approvals, everyone agrees that the board is responsible for “holding the administration accountable” for the district’s outcomes. How could we do that if we defer completely to their judgments about what the best choices are?

To put it more specifically: Is it possible that the curricular approaches we have taken unnecessarily advantage the kids who have lots of academic support and help at home, at the expense of kids who have less? I say “unnecessarily” because some effect like that is probably unavoidable, no matter what curriculum we adopt. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that some curricula might generate more disparities than others.

For example, when I see how much our schools’ curricula rely on homework, even in the elementary years, and how often my own kids seemed to struggle with it to the point where they asked for parental help, I have to wonder how much harder it must be for kids with fewer resources at home—that is, for example, kids whose parents, on average, can’t help them as much with the math assignments, or just don’t have as much time to read to them, etc. If we are, in effect, outsourcing a portion of our instruction to parents, or relying too heavily on the assumption that kids will get certain experiences at home, aren’t we practically asking for proficiency gaps? I don’t mean to say that homework is the cause of the problem; I just mean to give an example of how curricular choices could conceivably play a role.

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem? What is the board’s responsibility on that issue, and how should it exercise it?


Amy said...

Yeah, that's why I was asking for a syllabus a while back. Anybody got one for the Foundations course? Or, for that matter, the Bio course? Be nice to know about the sci progression itself, for that matter.

Amy said...

Sorry - as to your second set of questions, Chris, start demanding answers to the questions. At board meetings or over coffee but OTR. Haul the various curricular heads up there, or to talk with you one on one, and ask to see the materials and the nature of the work. You will, of course, get yelled at, and people will be furious that you're overstepping your bounds, but you aren't. Take what you see back to that nice Public Policy lady and also to other relevant public policy experts, write editorials, and make the dot to connect to.

One thing parents can do, and you can solicit their help in this, is to tell you about their experiences in trying to help their kids. And if I were you I'd go right to the Neighborhood Centers as a place to start. Find out where the kids stop being able to get help at home, where the dropoff begins.

Another issue, by the way, is the possibility that poor, ELL, or otherwise disadvantaged parents don't know that they can push back or don't know how. I used to routinely send notes back in elementary school: Hello, I am so-and-so's mother. I am a single mother, and while I'll do what I can for So-and-so, (1) I already did fourth grade and am not doing it again, so please do not send me homework to do; (2) I do not have time to help her through X hours of homework, please plan more sensitively; (3) we do not have these materials so please either amend the assignment or send materials. I found teachers to be extremely responsive to these sorts of notes, but I'm a big loudmouth with a long history of being a big loudmouth and am not afraid of being deported, either. I doubt very much that other parents in a bad spot know that they can put a hand up and say, "too much". Instead the kids get dinged and maybe the parents are viewed as uninterested or uninvolved. A "how to complain" sheet sent home at the beginning of the year might actually be quite helpful and expose need.

Finally - yes, of course curriculum favors the prepared kid; they're usually prepared because we, their parents, are hanging around on ed blogs at two in the morning trying like lunatics to Improve Things, with our own kids heavily foregrounded. Other kids need a loud and institutional advocate as counterweight. I think the district just fired one of those.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, what has been occupying the boards attention for the last 8 years?

Weber is now a SINA. ICCSD is going to be a DINA 10, and we have a widening achievement gap. Those (mostly from the east side of IC) who have shaped the district the last 8 years think that busing and relocating kids is a good approach to education and district growth. Good luck building a curriculum framework on a district foundation made of rubble.

And BTW building a curriculum is not that difficult; building a culture of success, that's a different story. And it's not happening in the ICCSD with the leadership of the last 8 years.

Anonymous said...

If the school district is doing its job on the front end (hiring great teachers and appointing great department chairs) the School Board shouldn't have to do much. Hire the best, empower them with resources, and get out of their way. Decentralized control will create more effective leadership on all levels and the board should have to do no more than set general parameters.

Anonymous said...

Amy: I am white, hold a BA issued by a local college, am a single mom and decidedly not a loudmouth, but for sure I am a rule-follower. It NEVER occurred to me to push back on elementary teachers about homework. We either struggled against the clock and had tears, or got dings on incomplete papers, which quite frankly upset the kids a whole lot more than they upset me. A "how to complain" guide sounds like an excellent idea, for all parents.

Anonymous said...

We elected board members not a rubber stamp so the board should get involved in curriculum especially when kids are getting what they need. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Chris, speaking of curriculum, why can't the administration start showing samples of textbooks to the public for comment prior to purchase instead of just handpicked committee members, if they even see them? We have so many subject matter experts at the University of Iowa and in local companies who could weigh in.

My child says the new math textbooks are very unpopular with the kids and the teachers. How do textbooks get selected? New building pictures get shown so why not sample textbooks?