In Chicago, Every Day Brings A New Lesson Plan

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It's Day 13 at Harold Washington Elementary School, and that means the 6th graders are studying plot development.

Principal Sandra F. Lewis knows that's the English topic for the day because the central office has sent her daily lesson plans for the whole school year telling her so. The 4th graders are revising writing samples, while 2nd graders are practicing soft vowel sounds.

Sample Lesson
Here are excerpts from one of the daily lesson plans issued by the Chicago public schools:
Topic: Changing environment, Cleaning oil spills
Day: 037
Subject: Science
Grade Level: 2
... Ask: How many of you have seen or heard about oil spills? Can you tell what causes them? How big do you think the spills are? Based on the responses of the students, add any background information that is needed. Ask: Why is an oil spill so bad?...

... Have the students put their headings on sheets of notebook paper. Distribute a tray with the listed materials on it to each group of four students. The best method to color the water is to mix the food coloring with the water in a pitcher or two-liter pop bottle. Walk to each team and fill their plastic cups or jars halfway to create an ocean...

... When the students complete the activity, have them zip the plastic bags closed and dispose of them in the garbage. Continue the clean-up by collecting the ocean cups and the remaining oil. Wrap up the newspaper and dispose of it. Spend a few minutes discussing the results and forming some conclusions from the data. ...

SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools.

The lesson plans spell out in great detail what students should be learning, what questions teachers should ask, and perhaps most significantly, which parts of district and state tests each lesson addresses.

This unusual degree of intervention into the daily lives of teachers and students marks the latest push by leaders of the Chicago school district to lift achievement in the 430,000-student system. Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, says the lessons--which are optional for schools--will help "institutionalize excellence."

While other urban districts are taking a greater interest in the specifics of teaching in their drive to raise achievement, experts say the plan introduced this fall in the nation's third-largest district is out in front. And like many other initiatives by Mr. Vallas over the past few years, this one has touched off debate.

Some principals, like Ms. Lewis, say the lessons are a godsend. "I begged for this," she said of the structured curriculum, as the program is called. "I need to have every teacher cover the information that students need at grade level. I don't want it to be hit or miss."

Mr. Vallas believes that the lesson plans are badly needed in a district that has long struggled to raise teaching quality, and that the road maps will prove especially useful for new teachers. "We think it will help our newer teachers develop and acclimate faster," he said. "We also think it will help alleviate a lot of the burnout that our teachers experience."

Not surprisingly, though, some educators resent the intrusion, saying they don't need a script to tell them how to teach. Others here decry what they view as an unyielding emphasis by the district administration on test scores to the exclusion of all else.

Whether the lessons will work remains to be seen.

"The jury is still out," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington. "I haven't seen anybody who has come up with a good evaluation of this approach."

Urban Reform

Chicago has become a laboratory for a new brand of governance in urban education since 1995, when the Illinois legislature handed control of the ailing school system to Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor named a new school board and installed Mr. Vallas as the CEO.

Since then, staff and student accountability has been the order of the day. Principals and teachers in troubled schools have been reassigned, and summer school is mandated for thousands of low-performing students.

So it's a natural that Mr. Vallas is turning up the heat another notch.

The bespectacled, hyper-energetic schools chief quickly dismisses criticism that his plan amounts to a scripted curriculum. It is not, he declares. Instead, he says he is offering voluntary, detailed lesson plans aligned with the city and state standards on which students are tested yearly.

The district says it doesn't know how many schools are using the materials this year.

But Mr. Vallas predicts the guides "will guarantee a level of quality instruction systemwide that the system has not previously enjoyed." And, he said, "you won't have that teacher who isn't teaching you anything."

Mr. Vallas also points out that, in a system where each year about one of every four students changes schools, consistency is important.

A team of about 100 top Chicago teachers developed the plans over the past two years, and they were mailed this fall to 30,000 teachers and their schools.

The lessons cover a semester's worth of K-12 language arts, science, and arithmetic, and include ideas for enrichment and fine arts activities and ways to assess learning. Book lists and other resources are included.

"We want this to be so rich and enticing that teachers will pick it up and say, 'This is good,' " said Audrey J. Donaldson, who oversees curriculum and instruction for the Chicago schools. "We want to use it because it helps them, not because they are forced to."

Getting Attention

But a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best for a district as diverse as Chicago, says Suzanne Davenport, the acting executive director of Designs for Change, a local nonprofit education group that has long opposed what it sees as excessive district intervention into the control of local schools.

"It's cookie-cutter curriculum," she said. "Every child's development is different and individualized." Ms. Davenport added that more focus should be placed on helping teachers assess where and why students have difficulties, and less on test preparation.

Chicago officials hope the new program will fare better than the "mastery learning" reading program the district required schools to adopt in 1981. The highly structured program, which also provided individual lessons to teachers, was scrapped by the school board in 1985 amid concerns that teachers were relying on it too much.

Yet some experts believe that in the current push for high standards, teachers and students must be given specific tools to help them meet those goals.

Educators sorely need curriculum guides that are aligned with local curriculum standards, said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education.

"Teachers need good and rich materials that translate standards to suggested lessons and topics," she said. "Textbooks, which have been the curriculum by default, are not necessarily up to date."

"There might be some need for structured lesson plans for novice teachers or someone experiencing difficulty," said Allen E. Bearden, who directs the Chicago Teachers Union's Quest Center professional-development institute. "But the majority of teachers are quite capable of teaching to standards and writing their own lesson plans."

But even when teachers have such specific materials, there's often no guarantee that, when the bell rings and the classroom door closes, they'll actually use them.

A report last January by researchers at the University of Chicago found that teachers in the district's summer school program often ignored its mandated, highly structured curriculum.

In math and science, teachers omitted just over half of all mandated activities, the study found. Teachers were also far more likely to use workbook-based activities than they were to hold group discussions.

Teachers told the researchers that the pace of the curriculum was unrealistic. The report argued that the structured curriculum did not "negate the highly autonomous nature of teaching."

More Challenges

In his efforts to increase consistency, Mr. Vallas faces another problem, said Rae Lynne Toperpoff, the executive director of Teachers Task Force, a local teacher-advocacy group. "There are 569 schools," she said, "and 569 different impressions about what's supposed to happen with this material."

Some principals interviewed here recently said they had not received the lesson plans as of late September, well past the start of the school year. A high school principal conceded that he didn't know what structured curriculum was. Some said they didn't even plan to take the materials out of the box.

Such news can't be welcome for Mr. Vallas, whose lofty goals for the curriculum plans include lowering the attrition rate for teachers.

"Teachers get overwhelmed with classroom-management problems" the district chief said. "Sometimes having classroom help can be a relief."

Retaining new teachers is an important goal. Some 30 percent of teachers new to the Chicago public schools leave within the first five years, according to a recent study by Catalyst, an independent education publication of the Community Renewal Society, a local advocacy group.

A Catalyst survey of first-year Chicago teachers found that most cite lack of support from principals, poorly run schools, and poor student discipline as their main reasons for leaving.

"Whether structured curriculum is helpful to teachers probably depends on whether the principal thinks it's important and provides help with training," said Linda Lenz, the editor of Catalyst. "Simply distributing pieces of paper will not do it."

Teachers React

Teachers interviewed during a recent visit to several schools that are using the materials largely welcomed the extra help.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was an insult," said Christophe Teulet-Cote, an ex-Marine in his third year as a social studies teacher at Wendell Phillips Academy High School. "It was as if someone was saying they knew my students better than I did."

But, after receiving the materials, he added, "I looked at it and realized it was a good guide and reference."

Wendell Phillips, a 737-student school that is on the district's academic-probation list, was one of 18 schools citywide to join a pilot project last school year using the curriculum.

Mr. Teulet-Cote's main critique was that the plan's recommended civics textbook "was awful," so he used another.

He says he could really have used the materials in his rookie year. "I can teach a class," he said, "but this helped me know what to teach."

Steven Taylor, a third-year teacher at Harold Washington Elementary on the city's South Side, says he doesn't have the time or the materials for all the science experiments recommended in the curriculum. He also sees why a veteran teacher could see the plans as a crimp on creativity.

But he added that he's not ready to discard them. "What it does is help me pace myself, stay focused, and integrate," he said. "Last year, I moved faster, but this year I'm more thorough and integrated."

Jocelyn Bryant-Eames, a 7th grade teacher at Harold Washington and a veteran of 21 years in the classroom, says she is thankful that someone took the time to help make her a better teacher, and concedes the plan helps her organize her classes.

And, she noted, teachers who dismiss the plans and run their classes the way they want to are taking a risk: "Because if you fail and don't use the curriculum, then it's your fault."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as In Chicago, Every Day Brings A New Lesson Plan
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