For the first time since 2003, the Department of Education has revised its curriculum recommendations for schools.
The new recommendations are meant to guide schools through the myriad curriculum options on the market to those that best reflect new learning standards known as the Common Core. Students across the state are set to take math and reading tests aligned to the tougher new standards in April.
After scrutinizing 40 programs produced by 19 companies that met the city’s basic standards, teachers and Department of Education officials endorsed elementary and middle school reading and math programs from three of the largest publishing companies, including Pearson, which is also producing the state tests. The city is also encouraging schools to consider adopting literacy curriculums that the state hired two nonprofit organizations, Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning, to produce.
Schools don’t have to take the department’s advice. They can use other curriculum programs, including the ones that they have already been using, or create their own materials. Currently, about 70 percent of schools opt to use the city’s recommended curriculums, which for most schools were originally required a decade ago in one of former chancellor Joel Klein’s earliest initiatives.
Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, who has criticized the city and state for holding teachers accountable for adapting to the Common Core without giving them a curriculum based on the standards, said today’s announcement represented a major step forward.
“While it comes too late to help the kids for this year’s tests, the DOE’s announcement is a welcome acknowledgment that teachers need curriculum that will help their students meet the demands of tests based on the new Common Core standards,” Mulgrew said. But he said the union worried about the materials’ costs, quality, and availability in time for the new school year.
Department officials said they had considered those issues and addressed them. The programs that the city is endorsing were screened precisely for their quality and availability, they said, and purchasing them likely won’t cost schools more than they would spend on curriculum materials anyway.
The estimated $56 million price tag, which would be covered by a mixture of state textbook funding and city funds, is about the same that schools typically spend on similar curriculum materials, according to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The money would go to Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic, the three corporations that produced the recommended curriculums.
In contrast, the state is using federal Race to the Top funds to produce its materials in-house. “The city is going to be purchasing content curriculum from vendors, and while I applaud them, I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today at a forum about the Common Core.
But the state is providing only some of the materials schools would need to adopt its recommended curriculum options. The state has published the reading list for the Core Knowledge elementary school literacy program, for example, but schools would still have to buy the books and print the worksheets. “You can imagine the challenges just in the photocopying,” said Josh Thomases, the department’s deputy academic officer.
Principals have already gotten warnings that they should plan to devote their state textbook funds next year — about $60 per student — to Common Core-aligned materials. This week’s department newsletter told them to pour their remaining funds for this year into materials for other subjects.
Among the biggest advantages of the city’s recommended programs is that they will be ready in time for teachers to familiarize themselves with the materials before school resumes in September. The state’s curriculum materials won’t be complete until at least the end of the year.
“We think the sample units we’ve seen are really strong,” Polakow-Suransky said about the state’s materials. But he said, “In terms of schools making decisions and planning and preparing for next school year, it’s tricky to go with that timeline.”
Starting next week, the department will introduce principals to the new options. Later in March, the department will share its analysis of where curriculums that schools are already using match the standards, and where they fall short. Then, in April, schools will send teams to a citywide fair where curriculum providers hawk their products. By the end of May, schools will have made their purchasing decisions for next year, and in June, some of the materials are set to start arriving. Training will start over the summer and last into the school year.
Those materials were heavily influenced by the city’s own standards and by a 30-district pact not to buy curriculum materials unless they are truly aligned to the Common Core, Thomases said. In math, he said, the department was looking for fewer topics and an especially strong foundation in fractions. In reading, it wanted materials that included both fiction and non-fiction and required students to read texts multiple times, he said. In both subjects, the department was especially eager to identify curriculums that are versatile enough for New York City’s diverse student population.
Scholastic’s Codex program, which the department is recommending for middle school English classes, does a particularly good job of introducing vocabulary in a way that would be useful for English language learners, according to Nancy Gannon, executive director of the department’s Office of Academic Quality.
The department did not recommend any curriculum materials for high schools because a search did not turn up anything up to par, Polakow-Suransky said. But he said there was less urgency to roll out new materials in high schools because their exams are not yet being introduced. The first high school test to be tied to the Common Core will be ninth-grade algebra, next year.
At M.S. 244 in the Bronx, lead math teacher Scott Gallagher said he used an older version of the city’s new middle school math recommendations 10 years ago. “I can see why they’re recommending it for the Common Core,” Gallagher said today. “It emphasizes problem-solving as opposed to practicing math skills.”
“I definitely would be interested in revisiting,” Gallagher said. He said his teachers have found it challenging to cobble together Common Core-aligned material for every subject from different sources. It has been easy to find material on some topics — such as ratios and proportions — but harder for others, he said.
“If they have something that’s comprehensive and coherent under one program, that would make it more coherent for teachers and students,” he said about what the department is recommending.
But Polakow-Suransky said trading up to a curriculum that’s more closely aligned to the Common Core would not propel a struggling school to success by itself.
“Curriculum is not a magic bullet,” he said. “You can find plenty of schools across the country and plenty of districts across the country that have great curriculum, and kids don’t do well.”
He added, “It’s an important resource but let’s not overstate it either. It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s going to be helpful as we make this transition.”