Taking Stock

As crises ebb, educators adjust to new Common Core curriculums

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

While debate over the Common Core rumbles on in public, the new learning standards continue to reshape what happens behind classroom doors.

In recent days, the governor promised to convene a panel to review the tougher standards and the state teachers union withdrew its support for the Common Core until changes are made.

Meanwhile, sixth-grade students in a Common Core-aligned English class at South Bronx Preparatory searched for “rules to live by” in a novel set during the Great Depression, speeches by Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, and a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Like most elementary and middle schools around the city and state, South Bronx Prep is halfway through its first year using a new curriculum aligned to the standards.

Now, after several months with new Common Core teaching materials, educators across the city say they are settling in to the new normal. Some are calling their schools’ new curriculums fundamentally flawed. Even educators who praise the materials say they require serious adjustments and threaten to leave some high-need students behind.

“It is probably the most rich and complex curriculum I’ve taught,” said South Bronx Prep teacher Jennifer Mandel, who uses state-commissioned literacy materials made by the nonprofit Expeditionary Learning. But, she added, in her sixth-grade class filled with English-language learners, many students struggle to keep up.

“There are certain students who I see who are just stuck,” Mandel said, “deeply, deeply stuck.”

A bumpy introduction

Though schools citywide started shifting to the new standards in 2011 and students took state tests tied to them last year, the city Department of Education only recommended Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for kindergarten through eighth grade last spring. (High schools are supposed to be teaching to the new standards but haven’t yet gotten new curriculum recommendations.)

About 90 percent of elementary and middle schools decided to purchase the recommended curriculums, which the city subsidized. For English, 176 schools chose recommended materials made by state-commissioned nonprofits, 610 chose ones made by for-profit publishers, and 77 chose a combination, according to the Department of Education.

Most of the state-sponsored curriculum materials were completed and posted online by December, as the state had promised, though some materials are still missing for a few grades. The materials have been downloaded more than four million times, according to the State Education Department.

Some schools decided not to buy any of the city-endorsed materials. Many worried that the new curriculums were produced in a rush.

“We feel like we need to do some research to find something that is high quality and really Common Core-aligned,” said Joanna Cohen, an assistant principal at P.S. 2 in Manhattan, which did not pick any materials from the city list.

Schools that did buy the recommended materials received them in spurts over the summer and fall, since they were still being produced. Many schools received late or incorrect shipments.

South Bronx Prep’s sixth-grade class, for example, did not get the novels it needed for the first reading unit until October. Teachers had to photocopy the first several chapters of the book for each student.

The curriculums’ rolling release meant that teachers had limited time had to study them and could not plan over the summer for the whole school year.

Francisca Garcia Ruiz, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 305 in Queens, said her school ordered literacy materials from Pearson, one of the recommended for-profit publishers and the one that also creates the state’s annual tests.

But all the materials did not arrive until November, Ruiz said, so the school used its balanced-literacy program from previous years until then. In November, the school paid for substitutes so its teachers could take several days to get acquainted with the new curriculum mid-year, she said.

Mixed reactions to the available options

Once she starting using Pearson’s curriculum, called ReadyGen, Ruiz said she found it lacking. She said it forces students to study the same text for many class periods, which bores them, and to complete tasks — such as drawing abstract vocabulary words — that are not suited for young children.

“This curriculum is so inappropriate that these children just do not want to come to school,” she said.

ReadyGen, which the city recommended as an option for kindergarten through fifth grade, has elicited more complaints than most of the suggested curriculums, according to the teachers union. Union officials and other educators said ReadyGen packs too much content into lessons, is overly scripted, does not account for students’ varying abilities, and contains some errors.

“It’s pretty bad,” United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew said earlier this month.

Pearson officials did not respond to all the criticisms. But they said that the literacy program’s “rolling implementation” was approved by the city and added that the curriculum’s teacher guides and a “scaffolded strategies” handbook suggest ways to tailor the lessons for students with special needs.

“Supporting all students – including those at different learning levels – was paramount in the development of the ReadyGen curriculum,” Pearson spokesperson Susan Aspey said in an email.

Even teachers who are satisfied with the curriculums that their schools chose said there remains room for improvement.

Several teachers praised the quality of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, saying the readings are challenging but also interesting to students and linked to relevant social studies and science content. But they said the lesson plans, which can fill a dozen pages or more, include too many learning goals and are above the skill level of many students.

Making adjustments as more changes loom

Teachers have found ways to address some of the curriculum issues. Their fixes range from total overhauls that represent repudiations of the new curriculums to smaller-scale adjustments of the sort that teachers make all the time to the programs they use.

Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.

Katie Lapham, a teacher who works with English-language learners in several grades at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, said she and several colleagues have mostly abandoned the ReadyGen student workbooks, which she finds too similar to standardized-test questions. Instead, most create their own worksheets, with separate materials for students with special needs. They also supplement the grade-level texts in the curriculum with books matched to students’ reading ability.

At South Bronx Prep, Mandel and her co-teacher, Jane Lam, focus on just one or two skills per lesson. They also teach students some background information and vocabulary words that the curriculum, with its focus on textual analysis, might leave out. And they customize the curriculum’s worksheets and tests for their students.

“We’ve had to modify a lot,” Mandel said.

High school students will take algebra and English Regents tests tied to the Common Core standards for the first time this June.

The Common Core English exam is optional this year, but Algebra 1 students must take that Common Core test, though they will also take an exam tied to the old standards and can use the higher score.

As teachers try to connect their courses to the new standards, many have used some of the materials on the state’s Common Core website, called Engage New York, along with other resources. (The website includes some sample questions from the new Regents tests, but several teachers said they want the state to release more.)

Scott Taylor, an algebra teacher at Global Learning Collaborative High School in Manhattan, said he updated some old lessons and materials this year, but much he had to create new or find online.

It has been a challenge to help students adjust to the new standards — which call for more conceptual thinking and writing in math — even as he is still digesting them, said Taylor, who worked in business before becoming a teacher.

“If this was the corporate world and I had to do this,” he said, “I would tell them that this is a four-person job.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.