Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As our local school district prepares for a school board vote on its new “Core Curriculum,” we can’t help but wonder the cost of writing new curriculum when there are so many questions surrounding the Common Core Standards. All around the country, school districts have been making tough curriculum calls since the Common Core was rolled out five years ago. With the pressure of getting kids ready for the tests and, for some districts, getting teachers and students ready to “Race to the Top,” administrators scrambled to write new curriculum focused on the Common Core. Textbooks, workbooks, novels based on Common Core recommended reading lists, etc. were purchased, and teachers were tasked with learning yet another set of standards and yet another new curriculum.

Fast-forward five years, and school districts around the country have bought into the Bored by Gunnar Þór GunnarssonPearson testing machine: literally buying the state tests from Pearson, and also purchasing the test prep materials that are the bane of so many teachers’ existence. In our local district, the curriculum narrowed to the Common Core to such an extent that science and social studies essentially were tossed to the side in the elementary grades as more hours were devoted to reading and math; teachers were told to do the “fun stuff” after the tests. Secondary students not projected to be proficient were scheduled for double periods of English and math at the expense of art, music, and vocational courses that they wanted to be taking – not to mention the courses that ultimately could lead to their vocation in life.

Thousands of dollars were spent on substitutes so teachers could write curriculum with the Common Core at its center, and countless professional development hours were spent on “rolling it out” to the faculty as a whole and attempting to get buy-in from people who had heard the same old song and dance routine as each new set of standards had been adopted by the state over the years.

Five years ago, I was one of the lead curriculum writers, in my position as a secondary literacy coach. We scoured the standards and attempted to bridge the old curriculum to the new with some of our existing materials and to make connections between the old and new standards. We had to incorporate our administrators’ lists of best practices in instruction while sticking to the budget set by the curriculum director. We were fortunate enough to have teams of teachers helping to write the curriculum, but nobody was quite sure why we were working so hard on the Common Core when our own state had yet to adopt the standards. We were reminded to incorporate higher-level thinking skills, the “new” Common Core vocabulary, as much informational text as possible, and opportunities for practice writing open-ended responses to text. We did what was asked of us because it was a necessary part of our livelihood and because it gave us a tiny place in the decision-making process.

One main problem? There was only so much room for teachers around the table. Not everyone could be involved in writing the curriculum, so there were people who felt left out, who wanted their opinions and voices to be heard, who wanted to be part of the decision-making process before simply being handed the new curriculum binder at the start of the school year. It wasn’t financially feasible to get substitutes for all teachers, but there should have been a way to give them a glimpse at the curriculum prior to its acceptance.

The same hamster wheel was at work this past summer. Teachers were invited to participate in writing yet another set of curriculum, but the emails stressed that participation would be on a first-come, first-served basis and seating was limited. Certain teachers were contacted directly and asked to be a part of the process, which is par for the course in our local district. The administrators tend to pick the least squeaky wheels, and the ones they know will do the job at hand and not complain (at least not publicly) about what they are being asked to do. After the curriculum was completed, teachers presented it at a school board meeting (with extremely little advertisement to the public beforehand).

Before the board so much as votes on the new curriculum, binders full of it were prepared to hand out to all of the classroom teachers. Interestingly enough, itinerants were not given the new curriculum, even though their evaluations are based on students’ scores, just like the classroom teachers’. Also interesting is the fact that the curriculum never was made available for review or discussion prior to its “roll out,” meaning that the majority of the districts’  teachers were not involved in the curriculum writing process and had no idea what the new curriculum looked like until they received it in a binder the first day of school.

News of the teachers’ presentation of the new “Core Curriculum” at the August school board meeting was not well advertised, either. Scores of teachers complained that they had not known about the presentation until they saw a write-up in the local newspaper the day after the meeting. Conveniently enough, the October board meeting will take place at the furthermost high school in the district; it’s not an accident that the board will vote on the “Core Curriculum” at a building 45 minutes away from the central offices and the hub of the community.

The implications of this entire process are astounding. We realize this situation is happening in our local district, but if it can happen here, there is reason to believe it can happen anywhere.

  • The teachers who wrote the curriculum are in the unique position of knowing the curriculum far better than their colleagues. But, they also are the subject of ridicule because they aligned the curriculum with the Common Core when other teachers are standing together to speak out against the Common Core.
  • The district is using the new curriculum before the board approves it; it must be a “given” that it will be adopted, though there has been very little public discourse about it.
  • It appears as though the district wholeheartedly supports the Common Core, since they have written two sets of curriculum with the Core at their foundations. The problem now is, the state may not be continuing its support of the Core. Current Governor Tom Corbett is calling for a “review of the standards” and blames his predecessor for the standards’ very existence in the Commonwealth. Others in the PA legislature are pointing out that the governor “pushed these standards.” The debate, at least in PA, seems to be far from over.
  • School districts are spending millions of dollars on testing and everything that goes along with it, including rewriting their curriculum every time the state changes its mind about the standards. That money could have been very well spent in other places, and it is a huge financial burden that most districts can’t shoulder in the wake of slashed education budgets.
  • The majority of teachers (and parents) do not get to participate in curriculum decisions, yet they are the very people who have to face the reality of the curriculum every day.
  • The teachers who take part in the curriculum writing see it as a choice between the lesser of two evils: on one hand, they don’t necessarily support or agree with the Common Core and its associated tests; on the other hand, if they help write curriculum they at least feel as though they have some say in what they teach in their classrooms.

We feel for the teachers who didn’t get a chance to participate in the process or even see the curriculum prior to having to teach it. We especially feel for the elementary teachers who did participate in the process, only to be hoodwinked by the 17-page lesson plan unveiled at the start of the school year.

The current state of education, not just in our district but across the country, puts millions of teachers in this very same position: either teach the curriculum being handed to you and assess your students on the district’s (and the state’s) time table, or risk losing your job. Continue to jump through the Common Core/Pearson hoops, or take a stand as a group and demand a change? What are teachers to do when they are stuck between this rock and a hard place?

Some teachers are taking a stand. Some join with parent groups as in Lee County, Florida (we regret the fact that Lee County reversed its decision to opt out of all high-#IChooseToRefusestakes testing, after being threatened with losing $280 million in state funding, but the fact that parents and teachers stood together to fight the testing was a victory in itself). Some learn about the options for opting out and share the information with parents. Some refuse to give the tests. The problem is, this is just “some.” Until the majority of teachers band together, real change will not occur. What would happen if EVERY teacher refused to give the test? What would happen if EVERY teacher refused a “Common Core” curriculum? It’s a lot easier for a large group to move the rock than one or two individuals.

Student Image via Flickr by Gunnar Þór Gunnarsson

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