May 16, 2007

Good Idea, Dopey Implementation

The Seattle School District's Academic chief wants to standardize the Curriculum:

Hired last year as chief academic officer of Seattle Public Schools, Santorno, 56, is responsible for what kids learn and how they learn it. And if her plans move forward, Seattle's future classrooms will have a lot more of what Santorno envisions, especially standardized lessons in math, social studies and reading.

Her most conspicuous effort so far -- establishing a uniform math curriculum at the elementary-school level -- has been difficult to develop and met resistance from parents and teachers. Her proposal, which the School Board is scheduled to consider tonight, is something of a compromise between two distinctly different approaches.

Standardizing the curriculum is a good thing, especially in big city school districts with high student mobility. Students who transfer between schools in the same district can be easily assimilated.

Another benefit, is that we know who to blame (and by blame I mean fire) when the curriculum fails -- the academic chief. Take, for example, the selection of math textbooks.

In 2005, an instructional-materials committee was formed by the district to focus on choosing a uniform math program. For years, debate has raged between those who support so-called "reform" math, which stresses a conceptual approach, and advocates of the traditional method, which focuses on calculations and memorizing formulas.

Kids entering middle and high schools came with different skills, and that made teaching tough, said Sharon Rodgers, a math-committee member who now leads the Seattle Council PTSA. But people argued about which strategy was the best, and both sides could point to data and studies to prove their point.

So what program did the Academic Chief select?

Santorno recently announced that elementary schools would use a reform-math textbook for an hour, coupled with traditional-math instruction for 15 minutes. Schools can request a waiver, but individual teachers can't. The cost of implementing a new elementary math program: $1.3 million for textbooks and materials only, and every elementary-school teacher must be ready to teach it by September.

The one that hopefully will get her fired when performance fails to improve.


dweir said...

I agree that a district should have a unified set off objectives. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the curriculum materials need to be uniform.

There are some parents who want the reform curriculum. And there are others who don't. A district that large should be able to provide a choice. The mistake that I see mixing the approaches in what seems to be an arbitrary manner.

harriska2 said...

Curriculum and standards seem to be me to be inseparable. For instance, let's just look at math facts. Most reform programs don't teach it (I suspect part of the 15 minutes is for just that). How about teaching division?

Standards also equate to state testing.

1. Show two ways to divide 4 into 20. Explain your answer.

2. 20 divided by 4 equals:
a. 3
b. 5
c. 6

PaulaV said...

This week in a conference with my son's third grade teacher, I learned she feels the county's curriculum does not match up with the state standards set forth by Virginia.

When I commented on seeing holes in my son's math knowledge, she admitted that she too had seen gaps in almost all of the third grade students. She said, "It is across the board."

Now, the state test is next week. My son will do fine, but my husband and I have had to work very hard to close the major holes. He has improved vastly since the beginning of the year because of us and the fact he attends KUMON.

I wonder how many more kids do well on these state tests because their parents tutor them or have them tutored? I am betting it is a lot.

And yet, the school touts their high scores. It is a ridiculous game.

dweir said...


Standards -- or what I call objectives -- define what students should know and be able to do. Before determining what curriculum and methods to use, you must define the objectives. These can be standardized.

With standards in place Seattle, which according to the article already had school-based autonomy, should have been able to easily to discern what was working and what was not. Yet, they have been mired in math controversy for years.

By standardizing the objectives, School A could use reform math, and School B could use traditional, and parents would be able to choose which school to send their child. Merging both into one lesson hasn't settled the debate. Better than, to provide choice and hold both to accountable to the same standard.

The fact that kids entering middle and high schools with different skills means that the objectives weren't defined. This is another seeming mistake in Santoro's approach: she is making decisions in a bottom up approach.

The article states changes to high school math programs are "still months off". If you don't know what is expected of high school mathematics, you cannot properly determine the objectives for lower grades.

harriska2 said...

I was a little irked to read a textbook by Borich "Effective Teaching Methods." He says standards (values that give sense of direction) are very vague in order to make everyone, including the taxpayer, feel better. Goals identify what will be learned. And Objectives are the specific behavior to be attained (measurable learning outcomes with identified conditions). So technically Oregon has reasonable standards. I'm with you, I think standards should be objectives. How in the world will a state, school district, or even a school know what will be measured on a state standardized test if they aren't given objectives?

Mrs. N said...

Because 15 minutes of "traditional" math can sensibly reteach the fluffy reform math that you just spent an hour teaching.


My district has a 60 minutes reform, 30 minutes traditional approach. I tend to flip it or do as little reform math as possible.

As someone who has taught upper grade math, I can tell you that reform math does nothing but hurt the students the further they progres.