The fight over the new curriculum

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 7, 2003 at 5:16 AM

There's a lot to talk about in this article in the New York Times about the implementation of the new literacy curriculum in the city (called Ramp Up to Literacy).

First, there's the issue of older teachers resisting the curriculum. Really, it's the same old story, and I've experienced a little bit of it myself. The teachers who've been around forever, regardless of whether they're effective teachers or not, think that their way is the only way, and resist change, particularly when that change promotes "liberal" educational ideals like constructivism or democratic classroom management.

"Some older teachers were constantly raising their hands," said one newly hired English teacher, "arguing about policies of the Department of Education, attacking the trainers."

In the one training I've been to so far, I saw some of this. A teacher sitting next to me complained about how we were going to teach this curriculum when kids couldn't even add, or multiply, or whatever. A teacher on the other side challenged the presenter, asking what her experience in schools was. Their basic problem with her, as far as I could tell, was that she was being positive.
She was essentially saying, "If you go through this program and help kids succeed in it, they will do well," while the older teachers had a lot harder time being positive.

I shouldn't be too hard on older teachers, because they've seen a lot. They've got good reasons for being burnt out. At the same time, if they're burnt out to the point where they're not helping the kids anymore, they have to go. Yes, we have a teacher shortage, but more important than that, we have a good-teacher shortage.

Backing off a little, I don't necessarily think that kicking teachers out is the best answer. New York has implemented a sabbatical program, but teachers can only get a year once they've been in for ten years. Ten years is a long time, particularly in schools in the Bronx, or in parts of Brooklyn or Queens. Huge percentages of teachers burn out after just a couple years. Does that mean teachers should be eligible for sabbatical after just two years? No, I don't think so. But how about five, instead of ten? I think sabbatical is set up as a reward system: "Teach ten years and you get a year off!" when the whole point is supposed to be that you get to basically recuperate and refresh yourself and come back raring to go.

As I alluded to above, New York City teachers seem to get offended when people from Rhode Island and Kentucky come in and try to tell them that certain things will work with their students because they did in Rhode Island.

The old teachers have a point: the following quote illustrates that point very well:

One instructor, Zinovia Canale, an English teacher in Newport, R.I., admitted that she knew little about the New York City schools. Nevertheless, she expressed confidence that the Ramp Up program would work in New York. "I know very little about the structure here," Ms. Canale said. "But I do believe that the kids are the same. There are just more of them here than in Rhode Island."

Canale and people like her are clueless.

First, that she knows "little about the New York City schools" is ridiculous.
How can a program hire people to implement their curriculum who don't know anything about where it is being implemented? Shouldn't they at least make the teachers study the structure of the schools, study the demographics of the student population, things like that? To claim that the kids in Newport, Rhode Island are the same as the kids here in New York is patently ridiculous.

From the fairly awesome U.S. Census site come a few statistics about Newport County:

Black / African-American percentage 3.7%
Hispanic / Latino origin 2.8%
Foreign-born persons 4.9%
Language other than English spoken at home 8.6%
Median household income $50,448

I won't even quote the percentages for the first four categories for the Bronx.
You know and I know it's not even close. How about that last category? What's the median household income for Bronx County? $27,611. A little over half of Newport's. So what's the point? The point is that, despite what Canale says above, the kids in these two locations are emphatically not the same.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Ramp Up to talk about the educational philosophy behind it. I will give the creators of the program the benefit of the doubt, though, and say that they probably tried to create a curriculum that in its skeleton form would work for everyone, regardless of race, class, or location. The question is how strict or how skeletal the curriculum they've laid out is. If it's as strict as the summer-school program I saw, then NYC schools could be in trouble. Curriculum planners have to give teachers leeway, especially when those planners are in Rhode Island and the next group of teachers is in the Bronx. If the program is as skeletal as I hope it is, though, and basically says, "Here are the kinds of things we think need to happen, but you figure out the best way to make them happen," then I think we'll be in a lot better shape.

The final issue is of the ridiculous rush the Department of Education is putting on to get these trainings to take place. Things are extremely disorganized, as usual, and teachers and principals are finding out at the last moment when they'll have to go to training, where it'll be, etc. Wrong information is being handed out, and all the other shenanigans that usually happen in the DoE/BoE are happening again. I was told to expect this, and so I do. Before I became a teacher, though, I had no idea that things were this bad on an organizational level. The more the public finds out about these things (i.e. the more these kinds of stories are written in big newspapers), the more pressure there might be to clean things up.

Klein and Bloomberg have tried to do that with their streamlining of the system or whatever they did this summer, and it's hard to judge the results already, especially since that reorganization causes problems all its own, which just escalate, but one has to wonder whether any change is really going to be effected. I'm a little pessimistic about that, but I certainly don't know what to do to fix it. Maybe instead of hiring lawyers and educators to run the school system, we should be hiring CEO's.