School & District Management

Chicago Latest District to Call for Core H.S. Curricula

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 04, 2005 7 min read
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The Chicago school district will accept proposals this month from outside vendors seeking to craft core college-preparatory curricula in English, mathematics, and science for high schools.

The move by the nation’s third-largest school system echoes strategies of other big-city districts, experts said last week, as urban education leaders wrestle with the dismal academic achievement of many secondary school students.

Chicago’s curriculum plan for grades 9-11 will include student assessments aligned to Illinois standards and college-entrance requirements. Teachers are to receive related professional development and in-class coaching. The effort will consume the bulk of a $100 million investment in revamping the city’s roughly 100 high schools, district officials said.

In moving to standardize what is taught in its high schools, Chicago joins districts such as Boston and Philadelphia. Their emphasis on such curricula comes even as all three districts also are encouraging the development of more small, personalized secondary schools.

Boston students in all high school grades are enrolled this fall in district-mandated courses in English, mathematics, science, and history. In Philadelphia, school officials attribute academic gains to a common high school curriculum in 10 core subjects in grades 9-11, now entering its third year. Both districts are fielding calls and hosting visits from educators eager to learn more about their high school improvement efforts.

In the Market

The Chicago school district has issued a request for proposals for the development of core curricula in English, mathematics, and science at the high school level. Elements of the planned “instructional-development system” include:

• A unit-by-unit guide for teachers identifying clear goals and targets covered in each uinit;

• Model lessons outlining the concepts and skills students will learn;

• Summative and diagnostic assessments;

• Professional development focusing on implementation and assessments; and

• Intensive, classroom-based coaching for teachers.

SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools

“The goal is twofold,” said Barbara Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer for the 431,000-student Chicago system. “We want to ensure that students are prepared for postsecondaryeducation or the workforce.”

Ms. Eason-Watkins noted that the district’s current high school course offerings differ not only from school to school, but also within the same building.

“This really has the potential to take our high schools to the next level,” she said of the curriculum initiative.

‘Entry Point’

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 210,000-student Philadelphia public schools, said such moves by urban districts result, in part, from work by the Education Trust and the Council of the Great City Schools, Washington-based groups that have both identified a managed instructional program, aligned with state standards, as key to improving student learning. “I really think that the trend nationally is going to move toward a more standardized high school curriculum,” said Mr. Vallas, who earlier was the schools chief in Chicago.

In Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, private vendors are playing a central role in writing the curricula and devising the assessments. Philadelphia tapped Kaplan K12 Learning Services Group, a division of Kaplan Inc., to develop its college-prep curriculum in a range of subjects, including geometry, biology, world literature, and algebra. (“For-Profit Writes Mandatory Courses for Phila. High Schools,” Feb. 9, 2005.)

The New York City-based Kaplan also has produced high school curricula for districts in St. Louis; Camden, N.J.; Clayton County, Ga.; and Lynwood, Calif.

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has awarded some $1 billion in grants nationwide to help create smaller, personalized high schools with different academic emphases that prepare all students for college, helped spur Chicago’s decision to commission a new curriculum. The foundation gave the district a $2.3 million grant in May to pay for a strategic-planning process that led to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s announcement last month of the high school initiative.

Tom Vander Ark, the foundation’s executive director for education, said it has learned that working in individual high schools has “severe limits.” The foundation’s early work, he acknowledged, focused more attention on school structure rather than quality of instruction.

Now, he said, Gates is emphasizing district-level leadership, because high schools have a multifaceted relationship with their district offices. And it is working more closely with the designers of school improvement models, such as the Talent Development High Schools program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, to give schools instructional road maps for change.

“We still think that good high schools have to create a rigorous, interesting, and supportive environment,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “But for many communities, the right entry point very well may be with curriculum and instruction, and then attending to the structure and support services.”

District Control

Donald R. McAdams, the president of the Houston-based Center for the Reform of School Systems and the author of a forthcoming book on urban school governance models, said city districts are becoming aware that they must manage instruction even at the high school level. In many districts, high schools have been allowed to set their own paths, with textbooks, Advanced Placement courses, academic departments, and even individual teachers determining what is taught.

“They can’t just assess the results and assume that schools are going to get it right,” he said.

Mr. McAdams cautioned, however, that while a standard high school curriculum may represent the “leading edge of change,” it must drive the complete redesign of the traditional high school.

While local control by the community and individual high schools has been an American tradition, districts now bearing the brunt of high-stakes accountability systems are wresting that control back, said Michael D. Carr, the spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va.

Michael Dannenberg, the former senior education counsel for Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, attributed the trend to high schools’ taking note of the success many elementary schools have enjoyed by adopting a uniform curriculum.

“What we’re seeing here is a phenomenon,” said Mr. Dannenberg, who is now the director of education policy programs for the New America Foundation, a Washington public-policy institute.

Like Mr. Carr, he pointed to the increased accountability demands under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Some Teachers Wary

As part of a decade-long plan to revamp its troubled high schools, Chicago will pilot the new “instructional support programs” in 15 schools in the 9thgrade in the fall of 2006.

The district is seeking up to three curriculum models for each subject that would include instructional materials, teacher training, and classroom coaching. The schools will be able to select which instructional model best suits them. Regardless of the model used, the English, math, and science curricula will be aligned to state standards and be intended to prepare every student for college.

The district, whose budget for this year is roughly $4 billion, will depend on private funding and a reallocation of its own money to pay the bill, which is expected to cost millions of dollars over 10 years.

The effort is intended to build upon the district’s Renaissance 2010 plan, which aims to replace 60 low-performing schools with 100 smaller ones over the next five years. The district opened 22 new schools this fall.

Ms. Eason-Watkins said the key will be the instructional support that teachers receive. “We’re not just taking something and shoving it at teachers and telling them ‘Do this,’ ” she said.

But some teachers in Chicago greeted the district’s announcement warily.

Ted Dallas, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union agrees with standardizing the high school curriculum. However, it remains skeptical, given what it sees as the district’s tendency to shift directions.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago education reform group, added: “They’ve rolled out so many different plans for improving high schools, it’s difficult to believe that this is going to have much impact.”

Boston, meanwhile, made its high school courses mandatory districtwide this fall. The 58,000-student district also restructured all of its high schools into small, autonomous schools or small learning communities this year, said Chris Coxon, the deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.

While the district selected which curriculum its high schools would use, the schools could decide how they would teach the material: in a traditional high school course schedule, through an interdisciplinary approach heavy on the humanities, or by creating their own course sequences as the city’s exam-entrance schools have done. Most of Boston’s 36 high schools took the traditional approach this year.

“I’m not limiting teachers’ creativity,” Mr. Coxon said. “I’m being very explicit in what they need to teach and what level they need to teach it.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Chicago Latest District to Call for Core H.S. Curricula


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