Will New Curricula Jump-Start a Renaissance in Detroit?

By Brenda Iasevoli — August 23, 2018 4 min read
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After emergency managers and a near bankruptcy, Detroit in 2017 returned to an elected school board and hired a new supreintendent, who hopes that a focus on good old-fashioned instruction will pay dividends for Detroit students.

The 48,000-student district, the largest in Michigan, sprung for $7 million in new instructional materials after a damning audit revealed that its curriculum was outdated and not aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which had been adopted eight years earlier.

“We’re excited to see what our students can do when they’re actually exposed to content that meets grade-level expectations,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who was hired in April of 2017.

Detroit enlisted the help of EdReports, a nonprofit that trains high-performing teachers and leaders to evaluate K-12 curricula. Its district chose EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) for its English/language arts curriculum and Eureka for its math curriculum. Vitti says a lot of the curricula used nationwide has not been vetted by EdReports.


Some of the ways Detroit’s English/language arts and math curricula will change are highlighted below.

English/Language Arts Curriculum Changes

Students will read books, front to back. Gone are the days of reading excerpts, “little nuggets of literature,” as Vitti called them, from anthologies. Plus, the books will reflect the experience of the district’s mostly black (83 percent) and Hispanic (13 percent) population.

Fifth graders, for instance, will read Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, which is about the struggles a young girl and her family face after immigrating from Mexico to the United States, and Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America by Sharon Robinson, the story of the first African-American to play major league baseball as told by his daughter.

The reading students do will be about more than comprehension. “One thing that standardized testing has done is to reduce questions and answers simply to recall,” Vitti said. “You read a passage and answer ‘what happened?’ Choose A, B, C, or D.” Detroit’s new curriculum asks students to make connections. They may read a novel and a poem and have to compare the two based on theme or tone or ideas. Students will also have to answer questions like, “Do you agree or disagree with the author and why?” They’ll be expected to defend their point of view and cite evidence to support it.

An attempt to force the district to provide access to literacy through a court order was halted in July, when a federal district court dismissed the students’ claim that their failure to be taught how to read violated their constitutional rights.

Math Curriculum Changes

The curriculum will focus on helping kids to understand math more conceptually, as opposed to simply relying on memorization. So instead of just having kids memorize 2+1 = 3, they should be able to visualize what that looks like. Vitti said teachers might put the equation in more concrete terms: “If I have a cone with two scoops of ice cream and you have a cone with one, how many scoops do we have all together?”

“For years, we’ve been teaching math through memorization and that works for students who are naturally gifted and inclined to understand and enjoy math,” said Vitti. “But what about the other students who might take an interest and enjoy math, but they’ve been turned off to it?”

Students will learn math using more hands-on materials. They’ll use beads for counting and cubes for measuring. So teachers might ask students to use a ruler to measure an object’s length in centimeters. Let’s say the object is seven centimeters long. “What does that mean?” said Vitti. To really understand, students might break that measurement down into its incremental parts by using centimeter cubes to measure the object.

Vitti pointed out that a lot of the curriculum changes won’t be new to good teachers. The more-skilled and veteran teachers have learned over time to incorporate hands-on activities into their instruction. But he said it’s time that all teachers get the support they need to become better, too.

The changes, Vitti said, may cause some to question whether the district is doing something wrong or setting kids up for failure. What he said everyone should be asking is: Why is our data not moving? Why aren’t students reading at grade level? Why aren’t they interested in math?

“These questions aren’t asked because often we blame kids and don’t really look at what we’re doing as a system to do right by our students,” Vitti said. “We need to empower our teachers with the right tools so that they can do their job and empower children.”

Lessons Learned

As Detroit teachers work through the new materials, Vitti warns that other districts should review their curricula to determine whether they’re preparing students for academic and career success.

“Most districts throughout the country did not align their curriculum to the standards,” Vitti said. “They may have changed the curriculum, but even if it was stamped ‘aligned to the common core,’ most of it really isn’t. Aligning is difficult. It takes more thought, more expertise, and publishers don’t always invest in the development because it hurts profit.”

And the evidence suggests that he’s right: A report by the Rand Corp. in May revealed that school leaders can’t always spot standards-aligned classroom materials.

Photo: Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.—File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.