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NYC shelves $202 million plan to create a universal curriculum

Three students sit with work in front of a chalkboard.

Students work in a classroom at P.S. 125 in Harlem. City officials are scrapping plans to create a universal reading and math curriculum.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

On his way out of office, former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious $202 million plan to create a universal K-12 reading and math curriculum by fall 2023, promising lessons and materials that reflected the diversity of the city’s students.

But after months of uncertainty, Mayor Eric Adams is not creating a math and reading curriculum from scratch, Chalkbeat has learned.

An education department spokesperson said the previous administration’s vision was not feasible because individual schools — and their student populations — vary considerably. De Blasio left few concrete plans for the new administration, the spokesperson added.

The de Blasio administration previously said the newly created curriculum would be mandatory,  a major change for school leaders who currently have wide latitude to select materials. The education department will continue to recommend reading and math curriculums, but is not mandating a specific choice, a spokesperson said.

Abandoning plans to roll out a universal math and reading curriculum originally set to launch next fall frustrated several advocates who argue those materials are still needed.

“It’s highly disappointing,” said Natasha Capers, director of the Coalition for Educational Justice, an advocacy group that pushed for a universal, culturally responsive curriculum. “The chancellor continues to say that literacy and reading are highly important,” Capers added, “but they have not done the work needed to make sure that every school and every teacher has a proper curriculum.”

Still, the department is moving forward with a project called “Mosaic” — the name of the curriculum de Blasio proposed — albeit with a more limited scope, Carolyne Quintana, the education department’s deputy chancellor of teaching and learning, said at a Chalkbeat event this summer.

The focus will be on a slew of “hidden voices” social studies curriculums, an umbrella that she said includes Black studies and materials focused on LGBTQ people and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. (Those curriculums are in various stages of rolling out to schools.)

“There’s been a decision that Mosaic is this collection of different hidden voices pieces that will be part of our social studies — and those are K-12,” Quintana said, adding that the department is working on building a team focused on culturally responsive education, and training would be available for educators.

“In just eight months, we began the rollout of both a comprehensive Black studies and AAPI curricula, with plans for many more engaging resources in the works,” education department spokesperson Nicole Brownstein wrote in a statement. “We are committed to training and supporting our educators in culturally responsive practices.”

One person who was part of a group initially charged with helping to develop the universal math materials said the group never created a formal curriculum. Instead, they were asked to put together a document with ideas and lesson plans that showcase how math classes can be culturally responsive. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said the group was not told that plans for a universal math curriculum were shelved, and emphasized that the shift to focus on social studies is a major downgrade in scope.

“We were told we’re definitely going to create a curriculum, then we were told this group isn’t going to create the curriculum, we’re just going to create the guidance,” the person said. “It doesn’t seem like the team’s work ended in the way that we wanted to.” (Education department officials said they may expand their curriculum design efforts to other subjects in the future.)

Certain parts of Mosaic have already moved forward, including shipments of 4.3 million books sent to schools to help diversify their libraries, department officials said. Some educators said those books were welcomed, but were not consistently deployed and did not come with lesson plans or guidance on how to connect them to existing curriculums.

City officials also did not say how much funding would be devoted to support the more limited Mosaic plans, but indicated the initial $202 million budget, supported by federal relief funds, would be reduced.

Some educators — and the city’s teachers union — have argued that a universal curriculum would help give teachers access to quality materials without having to search for them. It could also allow for better-coordinated teacher training, as more teachers would be using a common set of materials, experts said.

Evan Stone, the co-founder and CEO of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, said teachers are still regularly scrounging on the internet for materials, according to surveys of their membership. The organization launched a petition that has garnered roughly 1,000 signatures calling for more details about the universal curriculum.

“Right now, New York is allowing every decision to be made at the school level. As a result of that, there’s lots of change for students and teachers when they go building to building and there’s no overarching framework to make sure it’s high quality,” he said. “We want to see them move to fewer, better curriculum options that are culturally relevant.”

Schools Chancellor David Banks has taken some steps to move schools toward more consistent teaching methods, including instituting a requirement that elementary schools use a phonics program. But Stone and others said much more sweeping change is needed — and that there are ways of making sure schools are using better materials even if the city doesn’t create them from scratch.

Tom Liam Lynch, who runs the InsideSchools online guide, said the city should take a more active role in devising a “curriculum framework” that all schools can draw on. If schools are still given leeway to pick curriculums, he said the city should at least be transparent about what choices schools are making, what they cost, and how they are impacting student achievement.

“You can’t say that the school system is failing and at the very same time that teachers know best and schools know best and should have the power to choose,” he said. “We still need citywide curricular accountability.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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