Schools mistakenly get comic books in latest curriculum snafu

When packages of long-awaited new books finally began arriving at some city schools over the past week, teachers and administrators eagerly ripped open the boxes. They were expecting to find a popular fantasy novel required for the first unit of study in their school’s new Common Core curriculum.

That’s not what they found.

“Instead we got the 50-page comic book version that you could read in an hour,” said an administrator  at a large Brooklyn middle school who had ordered hundreds of the 400-page version of “The Lightning Thief” for his sixth-graders. Union officials said several schools in Brooklyn and Queens reported having received the graphic novel in error.

“The Lightning Thief” is the text for the first unit of a Common Core curriculum produced by Expeditionary Learning, which both the city and state endorsed. The novel is about a boy who goes “on a hero’s journey” and was selected to help students understand literary elements of mythology and how characters respond to challenges, according to, the state’s resource for educators.

The graphic novel version is shorter, illustrated, and leaves out certain plot lines from the regular book. Educators say graphic novels have a place in the Common Core, but mostly to allow students with disabilities or students who are learning English to access the same texts as their classmates. Mostly, students should be reading challenging and authentic texts.

The snafu arose because EngageNY featured an incorrect code for schools to use when ordering their books. Expeditionary Learning discovered the error in late July and “immediately” told the city Department of Education, which was coordinating the ordering, according to April Hattori, a spokeswoman for the organization. A department spokeswoman said the city became aware of the issue in August.

But despite the advance warning, the wrong books still arrived at schools this week after being backordered for months. The glitch is only the latest in a series around the ordering and delivery of hundreds of thousands of books, teacher guides, and curriculum maps for city schools that are transitioning to the Common Core.

For the first time in a decade, the city Department of Education recommended new reading and math curriculums for the new standards, and 87 percent of schools opted to order materials for those curriculums. In the past, about 70 percent of schools each year used curriculums recommended by the city, and they did not need to order new materials each year. The change meant that the department was handling an unusual — and unusually high-stakes — volume of book and materials orders.

Not all schools received their chosen materials on time, and educators who spoke to GothamSchools said their schools had gotten incomplete orders and materials for grades their schools don’t serve. Teachers and principals shared the issues with GothamSchools on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retribution for criticizing the department.

“It’s really confusing about what’s coming and what’s not,” said a Bronx English teacher who said his school didn’t receive enough books for its eighth graders. “It’s just been kind of a mess.”

Schools are taking different approaches in response to the ordering snafus.The Bronx teacher said eighth-grade teachers cancelled their order and instead are photocopying the 288-page novel needed for their first Expeditionary Learning unit.

“By the time they would have been delivered in mid-October, the unit would have been more than halfway over, so what’s the point?” the teacher said.

The Brooklyn administrator said his school was ordering replacement books for “The Lightning Thief” on Amazon out of his own pocket, while the teacher at another Brooklyn school said parents were being asked to pay for the books.

And one principal at another Brooklyn middle school said she was so exasperated by the delays that she decided to switch back to curriculum that the school had developed in the past, before the Common Core.

“I’m not so dependent that I can’t do anything without the city curriculum,” the principal said. “I could care less at this point. We have a good curriculum so we’re moving forward.”