A Tale of Two Districts (a.k.a. The Hour I Can’t Get Back)

Today I participated in a webinar put on by Education Week called “A Tale of Two Districts: Making Curricular Decisions for the Common Core”. You can watch the webinar yourself right now if you’d like, or you can just download the PowerPoint presentation. Here’s the description of the webinar from their web site:

Two districts on opposite sides of the country faced the same problem: They needed new common-core curricula. They solved that problem in very different ways. The Orange County, Fla., district scoured the marketplace and found sets of materials from a major publisher that it believes meets its needs. The Long Beach, Calif., disenchanted with publishers’ offerings and short on money, wrote its own materials. Join leaders from each district’s curriculum-and-instruction office as they discuss their different pathways to common-core curriculum.

I guess I was hoping for a bit more from the webinar, something that was pertinent to curricular decisions regarding the Common Core standards. However, I can’t say that anything I heard today was particularly novel or eye opening.

Let me summarize this tale for you. One district, Orange County Public Schools, decided to be more thoughtful in how they selected textbook materials. Instead of letting just any teacher help review materials, they made teachers apply to join the review committee. Candidates had to meet minimum requirements like showing growth from year to year in student tests scores. They also needed to have taught for at least 3 years.

The district made a lengthy rubric for the teachers to use as they evaluated various textbook materials. Exciting in theory, but the multi-page rubric made me think that serving on this textbook review committee would be a tad tedious for me. In the end, I’m not sure what any of this has to do with Common Core specifically, but I guess I appreciate that Common Core got them to add more rigor to their review process.

The last thing they did that stood out was put a focus on digital components. Again, I don’t see how that’s particularly a Common Core issue. Sure, the market for digital products has grown parallel to Common Core, but I don’t feel that one has necessarily driven the other.

The other district we heard from, Long Beach Unified School District, went a different route. They created their own Common Core-aligned curriculum materials. (Here is math and here is ELA.) However, the reason they did it is not as sexy or rebellious as it sounds. It turns out that in California the next adoption cycle for ELA materials isn’t until 2015, and the next cycle for math isn’t until 2016. They had the option to purchase some supplemental bridge materials, but they didn’t think that was sufficient or worth the money. Instead, they decided to create their own curriculum materials rather than wait a few years to buy them.

I’m not knocking the time and effort that it probably took to make the materials. In fact, it sounds like it was a great learning experience for them, and they feel that teacher buy-in with the materials has been high. They attribute it to the fact that the materials were made by a select group of their own teachers. I hope that that’s true and not just an anecdote from one school in the district.

It sounds like teachers in this district can choose whether they use the district-made materials, but after hearing more from the speaker, I can imagine most teachers only find this to be the illusion of choice. For each district-made unit, there are a set of goals outlined at the beginning. Regardless of which instructional materials you use, you have to teach towards those goals. The reason for this is because all teachers must use the same district-created assessment materials at the end of each unit. The speaker did mention that they have collected teacher feedback, and they are going to revise the curriculum materials. I wish she could have gone into that more. I’d love to know more about what worked, what didn’t, and how teachers felt about it.

Teacher buy-in is a tough nut to crack. Teachers are obviously over worked, so it makes sense that they can’t all make their own curriculum materials, at least not in the quantity required for an entire year’s worth of teaching. However, if the school or district administration provides ready-made curriculum materials, you don’t have to wait long to hear teachers complaining about it.

If I heard the guy from Orange County Public Schools correctly, his district employs 12,000 teachers! How in the world do you get teacher buy-in at that scale? From how he made it sound, teachers in the district are required to use the adopted curriculum. This sounds very authoritarian, but the reasoning he gave is that they have a lot of mobility in the district so they want to ensure consistency for students that change schools.

Where teachers have flexibility is with the supplemental instructional materials that they use for intervention, remediation, enrichment, etc. It sounds like they have a list of materials and teachers can pick and choose what they’d like to use.

I wonder if this district has systems in place to verify that the core curriculum materials are being taught across the district and with what kind of fidelity. I also wonder how happy teachers are in this district. Considering the number of teachers, I’m sure opinions are across the spectrum, but I would still love to know more about how successful these policies are and how they affect teacher morale and their sense of autonomy.

So in the end, the webinar did get me thinking about a few things, but I can’t say it was really worth the hour of my time. Basically I learned that districts still have to make decisions about instructional materials, just like they’ve done for forever. The only difference is that Common Core has possibly made districts more careful and thoughtful about the choices they are making. All in all, that doesn’t sound so bad.


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