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Teachers vs. Curriculum in Philadelphia?

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PHILADELPHIA--In 1984, district officials here, concerned over what they considered inequities among schools and low standards over all, embarked on one of the most ambitious and systematic efforts in the nation to overhaul what was taught in each of the city's 264 schools.

The officials developed a K-12 standardized curriculum that outlined a scope and sequence for instruction in each subject in each grade, and a pacing schedule that suggested how much time teachers should spend on each topic.

In addition, the officials set uniform grading and promotion standards that included a new series of standardized tests developed to match the curriculum.

Now, nearly four years later, the thousands of hours invested in research and development work and the mountainous reams of directives it generated have gotten the new system up and running, much to the satisfaction of administrators.

But not to the satisfaction of teachers. In fact, the policy has set in motion a debate that is likely to be replayed across the country as districts and states move to mandate specific academic expectations for students.

At issue is how to balance the need to set and enforce standards with the pressures for "professionalization'' building within the teacher corps. And in Philadelphia at least, the disgruntlement with what one harsh critic terms the district's "mirage of reform'' suggests there will be no easy accommodations between the competing demands.

Philadelphia school officials and parents contend that the district has an obligation to ensure that all students have access to high-quality instruction and content. And the district's policy, they claim, has succeeded in providing just that for all of its 200,000 students.

But teachers maintain that the policy is a step backward at a time when reform-minded leaders--such as the Carnegie Task Force on Education and the Economy and officials in districts like Rochester, N.Y., and Dade County, Fla.--are concluding that the most effective changes are those encouraged within individual schools.

"There are teachers who don't operate professionally,'' acknowledges Nina Herlick, math-resource teacher at Philadelphia's Pratt Elementary School. "There are lacks and failures.''

"But how do you improve the school system?'' she asks. "From the very top on down, or is the best way to change to include the people responsible for delivering service--the teachers?''

'The Issue of Equity'

District officials insist that their goal was simply to ensure that all students graduating from the city's schools demonstrate mastery of what they considered to be essential skills and knowledge.

Echoing Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who recently proposed a rigorous academic core curriculum for high schools, the officials say that all students deserve the opportunity to engage in such studies.

"This addresses the issue of equity,'' says the policy's architect, Rita C. Altman, the associate superintendent for curriculum. "This provides that which is due every child in the school district, regardless of where the child attends school or what his or her socioeconomic background is.''

"We've moved farther along in that direction'' than district officials anticipated at the outset, notes Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton. "There has been definite improvement.''

But many teachers balk at that assessment. Their concerns rose to the surface last fall, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on an unpublished doctoral dissertation by a Gratz High School teacher that said high-school teachers soundly rejected the policy and either ignored it or adapted it to their own classroom circumstances.

While the policy has been modified since the research on the dissertation was completed, teachers remain skeptical, according to Jack B. Steinberg, special assistant to the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"Any centrally directed policy, even if it is the most wonderful thing in the world, is going to be resisted,'' he says. "There is no way one policy can fit 264 schools and thousands of classrooms.''

To Judith F. Hodgson, executive director of the Philadelphia Partnership for Education, a collaborative linking the schools with universities, businesses, and cultural institutions, the issue reflects the "tension between the authority of the system and the autonomy of the teachers.''

"You've got to have both,'' she contends. "You've got to have authority, otherwise there will be anarchy. You need the authority of the system to say that won't happen.''

"But you also need autonomy to allow teachers to say what will work in this particular school,'' she adds.

Social Promotion

The standardized-curriculum policy was the hallmark of a reform effort began by Ms. Clayton after she became superintendent in 1982. Announced in a televised speech in May of 1984, the policy went into effect the following fall.

Each of the system's 12,000 teachers received a detailed booklet that outlined the skills and subject matters to be taught in every subject in every grade. The documents "describe what students are expected to do when they finish a program of studies in the Philadelphia Public Schools.''

"We don't insist on a slavish devotion to it,'' says Herman Mattleman, president of the Philadelphia Board of Education. "We don't say, 'At 9 A.M. Thursday morning, every kid will say 1 plus 1 equals 2.'''

"But we have a clear responsibility as a district to make sure what the students in our district need is presented to them.''

Outlining the goals and holding students responsible for meeting them, he argues, will end the system of social promotion that he says "deprecated the value of the piece of paper we call a diploma.''

"The premise was, if you sat in class every day, and didn't disrupt things, you were going to graduate,'' he says.

Now, the student-promotion policy requires teachers to evaluate student performance on a uniform scale, which measures achievement on citywide mid-term and final examinations and teacher evaluations.

Students who are not promoted are required to attend summer school.

End to 'Anarchy'

In addition to setting standards for achievement, the policy was necessary, Mr. Mattleman says, to reverse decades of "anarchy'' in the curriculum.

"When you went out in the district prior to the standardized curriculum,'' he explains, "you found, in more cases than you should have, teachers who, when asked what curriculum they were following, couldn't put their hands on it.''

This situation led to serious inequities, according to Ms. Altman. Teachers would not teach essential topics, such as the U.S. Constitution, she says, or would omit entire subjects, such as social studies or science.

"There always was the perception that some schools taught children better material,'' adds Chris Davis, executive director of the Parents Union for Public Schools, a local advocacy group. "This was a response to that.''

Teachers acknowledge that certain parts of the curriculum were ignored, but say those decisions were made by principals, not teachers.

"Studies came out that said elementary students were far behind in reading and math,'' notes William Carver, a 6th-grade teacher at the John F. Hartranft Elementary School. "Principals said, 'Let's focus on that.'''

In addition to reducing such vagaries, the policy provides curricular "coherence,'' officials say. For example, it used to be the case that students in English classes could encounter the same book in different high-school grades, suggests Harry C. Silcox, principal of Lincoln High School.

Moreover, notes Martha C. Davis, principal of Prince Hall Elementary School, the new curriculum is responsive to the fact that up to 10 percent of Philadelphia's students move to a different school within a year. Previously, "a child could have the same social-studies unit three times,'' she says.

A 'Non-Event?'

The 1987 dissertation, however, indicated that the standardized curriculum may not be addressing those problems. Based on in-depth interviews with 70 high-school teachers, the paper, written by Gail B. Raznov, an instructional coordinator at Gratz, found that the vast majority either ignored the mandates or adapted them to their own circumstances.

In particular, it found:

  • 11 percent of the 70 teachers implemented all aspects of the policy;
  • 10 percent followed the pacing schedule;
  • 4 percent followed the grading guidelines; and
  • 96 percent did not value the curriculum-based test.

"High-school teachers reject hyperrational, authority-mandated change efforts which deny their potential and intelligence,'' Ms. Raznov concludes. "They have needs for professionalism--professional growth, input into decisionmaking, responsibility, and collegiality.''

To Richard A. Gibboney, Ms. Raznov's advisor, the dissertation implies that the standardized-curriculum policy was a "non-event.''

"How can you get credit for something that didn't happen?'' asks Mr. Gibboney, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education. "What we have is a presumed reform that looks rigorous and lean. It's good for image-building, because the public won't learn the difference. It's the mirage of reform.''

The policy was doomed to fail from the start because it was based on faulty premises, he argues.

"I know of no theory of education that says this is a valid way to approach learning and teaching,'' he says. "It's a management scheme for accountability by overly controlling teachers, linked to a testing system that can't evaluate what's learned. It's both bad management and bad education.''

'Changes Made'

Other observers caution, however, that Ms. Raznov's study should not be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of the policy by all teachers.

Ms. Altman notes, for example, that the highest proportion of teachers in the study who ignored the curriculum were English teachers, who she says cling to an outmoded idea of what the English curriculum should be.

"English teachers wanted to teach grammar,'' according to Ms. Altman. "Writing was filling in the blanks.''

By contrast, the standardized curriculum required extensive writing, she says, insisting that "we are seeing a definite increase in the quantity and quality of student writing; that was not the case when we began in 1983.''

In addition, the study did not examine the views of elementary-school teachers, who were more likely to follow the program than high-school teachers, suggests Mr. Steinberg of the P.F.T.

"Elementary-school teachers want a certain amount of direction,'' adds Mr. Carver of the Hartranft school. "For years, they were teaching from whatever books were in the school. There is a lot of fear of administrators, more so than among high-school teachers.''

Mr. Silcox of Lincoln High School also points out that the study examined teachers in the first year the policy was in place. It takes time for teachers to adjust to a new policy, he says.

Furthermore, the school district has since modified the policy to reflect teachers' concerns, says Mr. Mattleman. For example, he notes, following a districtwide "instructional review day,'' during which teachers complained about the rigid pacing--or, as the teachers termed them, "racing''--schedules, the district scrapped them for more flexible "instructional planning guides.''

"We listened to them, and in the second year of implementation, there were changes made,'' according to Mr. Mattleman.

'What Works for Us'

But many teachers say they still oppose the policy.

"More and more, control for what we are as professionals is out of our hands,'' says Ms. Herlick of the Pratt school. "It is a lessening of opportunity to make individual professional judgments about the nature of the content we teach, or how to evaluate. It even sets up a standardized expectation for instruction--'you should be doing a, b, c,' according to somebody else's formula of what works. They are less interested in what works for us.''

"We should use our own style, our own humanity, our own individual way of dealing with children, and our own experience,'' she contends. "I also read research and attend professional meetings.''

In addition to reducing her opportunities to make independent judgments, Ms. Herlick adds, the policy has imposed paperwork burdens that make her a less effective teacher.

"Preparation periods are used to complete the record-keeping we have to do,'' she explains. "I used to use that time to make materials for children. I haven't done that in I don't know how long.''

Need for Remediation

Teachers also criticize the curriculum itself, predicting that its demands may be too stiff for many students.

"The standardized curriculum does not reflect the need for remediation,'' argues Maxine Stepman, a Chapter 1 math specialist at Strawberry Mansion High School. "Kids are falling further and further behind.''

"Even if children are developmentally unprepared in 1st grade,'' adds Ms. Herlick, "teachers have to follow the curriculum. They fail children in 1st grade. That's a great way to start.''

Ms. Davis of the parents' union agrees that the policy provides little opportunity for remediation but says, "That was true before the curriculum, too.''

"The amount of remedial help for students a little behind is very, very
limited unless the child is in a Chapter 1 program,'' she says. "There are not resources available in individual schools.''

Ms. Altman responds that the district has established tutoring and summer-school programs to help students who cannot meet the curriculum requirements. "The question remains whether students avail themselves to all possibilities,'' she says.

Teachers in the past may have dwelt too long on topics some students struggled over, she suggests. These practices may have been harmful to students who were able to grasp the material, and also left many topics untaught.

"At what point is it counterproductive to drill multiplication tables?'' she asks.

Teachers now must be more creative than ever before, according to Ms. Altman, to ensure that they teach all students the required material.

"We are challenging teachers to modify how they teach,'' she asserts. "With a heterogeneous group, you can't use one modality. You may have to develop a concept in a variety of ways. Other modalities, such as cooperative learning, haven't been exploited enough.''

"People may perceive this as a loss of flexibility,'' she adds. "It's really a loss of spontaneity. Teachers need to plan what they do.''

"The word 'standardized' conveyed the sense of limitation,'' says Superintendent Clayton. "For any good teacher, that is not nor should it be the case. They have the authority to go beyond this.''

"The strategies for teaching were always left to the teacher,'' she concludes.

Accountability

But now, many teachers say, they are also being held accountable for the success or failure of students.

"If they pass, they are promoted,'' says Ms. Herlick. "If they are not promoted, it's the teacher's fault, because the teacher didn't teach the curriculum.''

Ms. Altman insists that the policy was not intended as an accountability measure, but she acknowledges that it could be used that way.

"We do have expectations for students,'' she says. "If I'm a principal, and I have four 4th-grade teachers with comparable classes, and three are moving along nicely and one is not, that one is going to surface faster.''

But Mr. Silcox, Lincoln High's principal, denies that principals would do that. "It might happen if we had devised a test that would measure precisely which teachers taught the material and which didn't,'' he says. "The truth is, at this point, the test has never reached that point.''

But teachers must be accountable to parents one way or another, suggests Ms. Altman. The district publishes handbooks for parents that outlines what is in the curriculum, and parents can keep track of what their children are expected to be studying, she notes.

Individual schools also supply additional information to parents, points out Martha C. Davis, principal of the Prince Hall Elementary School. Teachers in her school, she says, tell parents when major projects are due.

But Ms. Davis of the Parents Union thinks communication with parents about the policy still needs improvement.

"When something new is implemented across a large system, there is some misunderstanding about the way things should be implemented,'' she says. "For example, a 2nd-grade student reading a particular book can only get a B unless he does extra work. This is information parents are not always aware of.''

Lead Teachers

Other changes in the policy are also necessary, most parties agree. According to Daniel J. McGinley, president of the Philadelphia Association of School Administrators, elementary-school principals need administrative support to help them work with teachers as instructional leaders.

The teachers' union, which is currently negotiating on a new contract with the district, is also seeking "lead teachers'' in elementary schools, who would serve the same functions as department heads in high schools.

"One of the problems in bringing about change in a large system is providing instructional leadership at the school level,'' agrees Mr. McGinley. "That piece of it so far is missing.''

Mr. Mattleman, the school-board president, acknowledges that administrative support is necessary but questions whether the district can afford it.

"I don't doubt everybody would like to have more people on the premises,'' he says. "But there is a balance between what we'd like to do versus what is fiscally feasible.''

The district is also considering some fine-tuning, such as changing the grading system to place less emphasis on the mathematics achievement test and to modify how grade-point averages are calculated, Ms. Altman notes.

And district officials continue to work on the substance of the curriculum, she says, adding that content directives for teachers are "three-hole punched'' so they can easily be replaced.

The social-studies curriculum, for example, is about to be completely overhauled. The Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities in the Schools, a branch of the Philadelphia Partnership for Education, is developing a world-history curriculum that will be tested in 10 schools in the fall of 1989.

The new curriculum allows teachers much more flexibility than other subjects, according to Ms. Hodgson, the partnership's executive director, by allowing them to choose which topics to cover within major themes.

Superintendent Clayton has also announced plans to overhaul the city's comprehensive high schools with an eye toward allowing teachers to work more closely with students. Such changes might include more team teaching or interdisciplinary instruction, which would affect the curriculum, notes Ms. Hodgson.

"What the system is trying to do is pitch the standardized curriculum to accommodate the need for structure some teachers have, but not squash the independence others have,'' Ms. Hodgson says. "They will probably end up with some sort of compromise.''

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