Teachers wait for next chapter of $28.3 million curriculum

A student at Eagle Academy. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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ALBANY—Teachers across the state are waiting on the state education department to develop the rest of a $28.3 million curriculum that they've already begun teaching.

State officials are just a step ahead in developing lesson plans that students need to pass the rigorous Common Core exams. When the state began testing elementary and middle-school students based on the standards last April, schools did not have all of the state-designed “modules,” which are units of material for teachers to cover.

And they still don't, causing some school leaders to lament that they're heading into a second year of testing students on materials that haven't gotten into classrooms yet.

But choosing curriculum, by law, is a local responsibility, and the state contends that the multi-million dollar curriculum it is developing is simply one resource among many schools have to choose from. Education Commissioner John King calls the modules “optional and supplementary.”

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“It's like the speed limit is just a suggestion,” said Carol Burris, a high school principal in Long Island and national education-policy expert who has been critical of the state's reform agenda. “When you spend $28 million on something, you're intending for that to be used, unless you think it's fine to just burn taxpayer money.”

The education department partnered with four companies to develop the curricula, drafting six contracts that total $28,335,642. The full amount is funded by New York's Race To The Top federal grant, which the state won in 2010. The state also has a $32.1 million, five-year contract with Pearson for the Common Core-aligned math and English exams in most grades.

The education department doesn't know how many teachers are using the state's curriculum, but Ken Slentz, deputy education commissioner, said, anecdotally, “there are more using them than not."The modules are available free online and, in some grades and subjects, have been downloaded nearly a million times. A statewide teachers' union estimates that a third of districts are using only the modules to guide instruction.

New York City, Buffalo and Rochester, the three largest school districts in the state, are each using at least some of the modules.

“All teachers had what they needed to start the year this year across all grade levels,” Slentz said. “I think some of the anxiety has come around the fact that they didn't have all modules, so they couldn't look at a full year worth of planning.

“The timing may not be optimal,” he continued. “You may be getting them a short time before instruction starts. But districts will have all the modules they need prior to the assessments.”

Slentz said all of the math modules for kindergarten through ninth grade and the English modules for kindergarten through eighth grade will be available by the end of the year.

Older high-school students won't face the tougher exams this year, so the state's focus is on preparing students who do have to take the Common Core assessments.

Third through eighth graders began taking the new assessments last April. This school year, ninth-grade Algebra students (and advanced middle schoolers) will take a Common Core-aligned math exam. Next year, it will be 10th grade geometry students taking the new tests, and in 2015-16, high school juniors will take a Common Core-aligned English assessment.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch stressed that New York is the only state to develop its own Common Core-aligned curriculum, which cost a significant chunk of the $700 million Race To The Top award, despite that choosing and adapting curriculum is a local responsibility.

“Last year, three through eight was a little uneven, right?” she said, referring to the state's provision of curriculum for elementary and middle grades. “A lot of districts, quite frankly, had developed and adapted their own curriculum. The districts that didn't obviously had a problem, if they were waiting for the state curriculum.

“Developing all the modules in a timely way is obviously very important, but I wouldn't want to stop the implementation of where we are based on the fact that last year's rollout was uneven,” she continued. “I don't want to go through the headache of doing year one over again. We've done year one. Everyone knows where this is going.”

King said the department is on schedule in releasing the modules.

“Our commitment from the outset of this process was that we would ensure that the materials have gone through multiple layers of review with New York state educators and would be extremely high quality,” King said. “I think it's a good sign that people are so eager to have these optional and supplementary materials available to them.”

Leaders of statewide school groups agreed that developing curriculum traditionally falls to the districts, not the state, and districts do have other options, they said.

But the reality is many districts aren't buying other curriculum or textbooks that purport to be aligned with the Common Core, partly because there's no guarantee the other options will prepare students for the state tests. Also, there hasn't been enough time for proper vetting, experts said.

“The education department created expectations that this stuff would be available, frankly, a year ago, by saying that that was going to be one of the distinguishing features of our Race To The Top plan, that we would put an emphasis on developing curricula to support the Common Core standards,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.

Lowry said administrators are worried that teachers are using the modules like scripts and are afraid to pivot from them, mainly because they're being evaluated based on student test scores.

Under the new state-mandated teacher and principal evaluation system, student growth on state exams accounts for 20 percent of an educator's score. For those who do not teach the grades or subjects that are tested, the evaluations are based on locally determined measures. Two consecutive ratings in the lowest category could be grounds for termination.

Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, also said the evaluations are encouraging teaching to the test. He said some districts are instructing teachers to use the modules “because maybe that's what the test will look like come springtime.”

David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association, said the modules should be guidance documents and not teachers' only resources. But even if a school is using other curricula or textbooks, teachers need to know what students will be tested on.

“And the sooner the better, because we are in the middle of the school year, and obviously students are going to be held accountable,” he said. “We have agreed that there have been implementation problems, and this is the one that we would point to at the top of the list.”

CORRECTION: This article has been changed to relect that fact that Carol Burris is a high school principal and not a superintendent, as stated in the original version.

 

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