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.”

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis district became a national model for teacher leadership

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, a teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

Kelly Wilber had been teaching in Perry Township for about seven years when the school district rolled out a new approach to teacher evaluation, mentorship, and coaching — and she felt the change almost immediately.

“I felt like I was a good teacher before,” Wilber recalled. “I mean, I studied all the things in the books, and we had professional development.”

But when the district started using the new approach, the TAP System, “we found the answer of what we needed to do to help our students grow,” said Wilber, who teaches fifth grade at Southport Elementary School.

The TAP System was developed as a strategy for improving instruction, and it is popular in Indiana, where state policymakers have encouraged schools to adopt the system. Perry Township has used it for seven years, and the district has become something of a poster child for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the group behind TAP. On Thursday, the nonprofit recognized Perry Township schools with the organization’s first National Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness, which came with a $50,000 prize.

TAP relies on mentors and teacher leaders who are paid stipends to coach their colleagues — a tactic that’s becoming popular among schools as a way to allow experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without entirely leaving the classroom. Each week, groups of teachers meet with master teachers who work with them on strategies they can use in the classroom, like how to tackle word problems or use manipulatives in math.

The model also has guidance on common problems teachers encounter. In the first year of TAP, for example, Wilber had a student who said he wasn’t interested in school or homework and told her, “I’m only here because my brother came here, and I like to do what my brother does,” she recalled.

Wilber began trying techniques that TAP recommended, like using his name during model lessons and having him read the learning objectives. Soon, he was raising his hand in class.

“I felt like I knew what I needed to do because we had so much training and support,” Wilber said.

Perry Township has an unusual set of challenges. Nearly three-quarters of students are poor enough to get subsidized meals. About 25 percent of students are English language learners, and many of them are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma.

There is not much outside research on whether TAP improves student test scores. A 2012 study of the results in Chicago found that the program did not raise test scores, but it increased teacher retention. TAP’s developer has disputed the validity of the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

But in Perry Township, educators say the approach is helping improve student results.

“If you want to make a difference with kids who are in poverty as well as have a lot of cultural differences, this format and this foundation is the best thing that you can utilize,” Superintendent Patrick Mapes said.

Joe Horvath, a master teacher at Southport High School, said his role is the same as coaches in other districts. Instead of having his own classroom, he is in charge of training 28 other teachers. One day a week, he meets with those teachers in groups. The rest of the week, he observes teachers in their classes, gives feedback, and models lessons.

“We are all on the same level,” Horvath said. “It’s not like I am their boss in any way shape or form. This is just something that allows us to continue to give a peer-to-peer feedback thing that I think is kind of missing sometimes.”