Underscoring that teaching and learning haven’t been forgotten as control of the New York City schools shifts to the mayor’s office, the city teachers’ union last week unveiled a curriculum for English/language arts.
Leaders of the United Federation of Teachers, joined by recently appointed Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and several subdistrict superintendents, said the K-12 lessons were just what New York teachers need to make the critical connection between academic standards and assessments.
“We all want our children to achieve at high standards, but few are taking real action to make that happen,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the 140,000-member union, said. “We believed if we didn’t do it, it might not get done.”
The union undertook its UFT Learning Connection project three years ago, at a cost of $2 million from its treasury, in response to members’ cries for help in the classroom. The 1.1 million-student school system has no mandated curriculum, leaving decisions on how to meet state and city standards to its 32 community districts, approximately 1,100 schools, and individual teachers.
“We did it not out of altruism or to give ourselves more work, but because of such strong demand from our members,” said David Sherman, the vice president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate.
The curriculum was billed as the first in the nation to be written by a teachers’ union, although other affiliates also have long histories of involvement in helping teachers grapple with what and how to teach. United Teachers Los Angeles, for example, has produced two books to help teachers learn to write English/language arts curriculum materials that are based on academic standards. Both are now in wide use in the Los Angeles district.
In New York, Mr. Sherman said, teachers with less than five years’ experience, in particular, were especially eager for help. Nearly half the city’s 80,000 teachers are inexperienced, and next year the proportion is expected to rise to more than half.
Mr. Klein, a former assistant U.S. attorney general named last month by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to run the city’s schools, endorsed the standards in a letter and with his appearance with union leaders at a press conference.
The curriculum-resource guides written by the union, he said, “provide rich resources that will support teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and other school staff as they work to improve student achievement.”
The guides for English/language arts are broken into four parts, covering grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Teachers who use the material also will get a companion volume that gives an overview of the subject.
The union has created a CD-ROM version of the materials and plans to post them on its Web site. It is also seeking public and private funding to write lessons for mathematics, science, and social studies in the next two years.
Mr. Sherman said the books contain three thematic units for each grade level, each with about 20 lessons. He described them as “a structured, organized curriculum, but not prescriptive. This is not a script.”
Novice teachers can adopt the lessons wholesale, he said, while classroom veterans can adapt them.
To devise the curriculum, the union drew on its network of Teacher Centers, which are located in some 300 city schools to provide professional development. About 40 expert teachers came together in teams to write lesson plans, which were then aligned with city and state standards by consultants hired by the UFT.
The curriculum will be used in local districts that express an interest, Mr. Sherman said, noting that many of the city’s superintendents have affirmed the need for such specific lessons.
Mr. Klein’s support will be essential in gaining support for the materials, union officials said.
“What this says to the local superintendents is that this is something the chancellor supports, and therefore, the whole system supports,” Mr. Sherman said.