Detroit district high schoolers will start school using a new curriculum aligned with state standards

High school students in the Detroit district — for the first time in more than a decade — will start the school year with a new curriculum this fall.

A 2018 audit found that teachers had been using instructional materials that were not aligned with state standards. The change comes a year after the Detroit Public Schools Community District introduced new learning materials for students in grades K-8. 

District leaders say the new materials meet those standards and are  crucial to preparing students for annual state tests and college entrance exams. Last year, Detroit students had the worst results in the country among major cities on a rigorous national exam. In state tests last year, just a fraction of the district’s students passed the English Language Arts exam. State test results released this week show the district is making across-the-board gains.

In the district’s English language arts curriculum, textbooks will be centered around “culturally relevant” texts. The new materials also ask students to focus more on making arguments with evidence that comes from the texts they read.

“The core is about evidence, the evidence coming from the text as opposed to pulling from anywhere,” said Chong-Hao Fu, CEO of Leading Educators, a nonprofit headquartered in New Orleans that trained Detroit teachers in the new English Language Arts curriculum. “We’re just starting to realize that what makes good readers is knowledge of the world.”

In the past, teachers were often left on their own to help students analyze literature, and analysis centered around more subjective, personal connections between the text and students’ lives, said Beth Gonzalez, district assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Now analysis and discussion about the lesson will be explained in the teaching materials, supported by evidence in the text. In addition, the new math curriculum updates old textbooks to align with state standards.

Gonzalez said the materials have won favorable ratings from EdReports, a nonprofit organization that rates instructional materials.

Tony Hawk, the district’s deputy executive director of math, said the new curriculum addresses the need for to be successful on college entrance exams and beyond.

It is “a total shift away from what we had in the past” in its focus on learning the material through real-world scenario problems that require math, Hawk said.

It’s a context-based approach that relies less on rote memorization and drilling that has been adopted in English Language Arts elementary school programs in Detroit as well.

The new ELA curriculum comes after input from 90 teachers across the district and was developed by Pearson myPerspectives. The math curriculum comes from College Preparatory Mathematics.

The total cost of the materials and training teachers was  nearly $7.77 million, according to the district. 

At Renaissance High School, English teachers took part in interactive training last week. Math teachers spent several days learning the new curriculum earlier in August.

Dorothea Williams-Arnold, who teachers honors and AP English at Cass Technical High School, said she thinks past teacher training sessions didn’t offer enough opportunities to interact and didn’t offer knowledgeable enough instructors. She attended the training session at Renaissance High last week.

Williams-Arnold, a 12-year district veteran, praised the new curriculum and training. She said the old curriculum focused on more personal, “How do you feel?” questions.

“All the teachers in the English department — everybody was doing their own thing,” Williams-Arnold said. “But if (writing is) really emphasized and we’re all doing it and they’re holding us accountable and we’re holding each other accountable and it’s emphasized in these trainings, then I think we’re more likely to see progress. I’m hopeful.”

Although all teachers at Detroit public schools were not immediately excited to change after years of the old routine, many have come to see the benefit of the new program, said Donna Thornton, a former principal at Carstens Academy of Aquatic Science who will teach ninth-grade English at Cass Tech this fall.

Last school year, the district adopted a new K-5 reading program and new K-8 math teaching materials. EdReports gave the reading curriculum the highest score of any K-5 English Language Arts program it has rated and offered top marks to the middle school math curriculum.

“I’m really excited because now it’s a flow. It’s a smooth flow from elementary to middle to high school with the curriculum. And I’m glad to be on this side of the table to actually experience it,” Thornton said.