Curriculum Opinion

Writing a Curriculum— It’s Union Work

By Randi Weingarten — January 15, 2003 9 min read
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We make no apologies for stepping in where others were either unwilling or unable to go.

To raise student achievement and increase accountability, states and school districts nationwide have, over the last few years, developed standards for student performance and implemented assessments to determine how well students are reaching those standards. The requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will only accelerate this trend. As laudable and necessary as these changes are, though, in too many places a critical piece of the equation, the curriculum, has been missing. And teachers know it.

In my role as the president of the nation’s largest local teachers’ union, I spend a lot of time visiting schools and speaking with teachers. I hear from them the customary comments and questions about salaries, health benefits, pensions, working conditions, and, of course, educational issues. As the standards movement rolled out, bringing with it the pressure of high-stakes assessments, I noticed that questions and comments about instruction gained in prominence and intensity. No matter what grade they taught or how many years of experience they had, teachers took wary note of what was in place: an abundance of mandates, misunderstandings, and consequences for failure. Over and over again, these same teachers complained of what wasn’t there—a curriculum.

In New York state (and every other state, according to the American Federation of Teachers’ report “Making Standards Matter 2001"), there was no comprehensive curriculum aligned with the standards and assessments in the core subjects of English language arts, math, science, and social studies. There was no grade-by-grade continuum of knowledge, so that teachers could be aware of what their students should already know, and would need to know to succeed in subsequent grades. There were no guides or “road maps,” organized in a format that teachers could use, with information about specific content, instructional strategies, texts, and additional resources. There were no collections of model lesson plans or units on which teachers could base, adapt, and modify their instruction to meet the needs of individual students.

The lack of a common curriculum has particular implications for teacher retention. New teachers often don’t know what to teach, and all too frequently they get little guidance to help them. They spend hours after school and on weekends jury-rigging content and searching for materials. That time could be so much better spent creating exciting lessons, communicating with parents, or analyzing students’ work.

With the increasing focus on standards, accountability, and teacher retention, the need for curricula becomes more critical.

I remember my own experience as a new high school social studies teacher. I used to devote my weekends, often working well past midnight on Sunday, to the formidable task of creating a body of knowledge, writing my week’s lessons around that knowledge, matching resources to the lessons, and then developing classroom assessments to determine how well my students (and I) had done. Talk about a recipe for frustration, burnout, and teacher turnover! And I was lucky, because in my school there were many experienced teachers who kindly shared with me and other teachers the lessons and materials they had created and refined over the years. That gave me some precious time to focus on my students.

In some schools, groups of teachers develop curriculum by grade or by subject. In other schools, teachers use the textbook as a curriculum, or even copies of old state tests. None of these curriculum proxies quite cuts it.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of curricula. But as standards increasingly drive instruction, as accountability becomes the name of the game, and as more and more teachers retire or leave the profession in search of a livable wage (currently, nearly 50 percent of New York City’s teachers have less than five years’ experience), the need for curricula becomes more and more essential.

My experiences as a new teacher were not unique. The wealth of knowledge, skills, and expertise that existed among the experienced teachers in the school where I taught can be found in schools everywhere. That is why, when the teachers in my city felt the need, we also were able to observe, firsthand, the capacity. Why not do something crazy? we asked ourselves. Why not take on the writing of a K-12 curriculum for New York City’s teachers, by New York City’s teachers? Trusting in the ability of teachers, and frustrated by the state’s and the district’s lack of a systemic approach, I decided that teachers and students couldn’t afford to wait for others to take on this task. In 1999, the United Federation of Teachers decided that developing a curriculum would become union work.

Some business leaders, politicians, and editorial boards said developing a curriculum was not "appropriate" work for a union.

There were those who questioned this decision. Some business leaders, politicians, and editorial boards said developing a curriculum was not “appropriate” work for a union. (Others who are not in schools on a daily basis found the undertaking incomprehensible, assuming in their innocence that a curriculum had to exist.) I preferred to let our teachers and other union members define what was “appropriate” union work. And they agreed with me.

It was clear from the beginning that the project would take time, money, and hard work in equal measure. The first thing we did was talk to teachers. They told us that, in addition to a grade-by-grade common base of knowledge that all students need, the curriculum should include supplemental material such as sample lessons, lists of resources, and a guide on how to teach the material, especially to diverse groups of students. The curriculum should allow teachers to use their professional judgment regarding instructional choices and be linked to meaningful, embedded professional development. And it should be widely available, so that teachers could build upon what students learned in the previous grade and know what knowledge would be essential in the next grade.

The curriculum would only be as good, we knew, as the uses it was put to in city classrooms. Cooperation and collaboration with the school system was crucial; and fortunately, the UFT has had a long history of collaborating with the district on improving teaching and increasing student achievement. We have worked jointly on the development of small, innovative schools (now numbering over 100), on the design of a national model for turning around low-performing schools (known as the Chancellor’s District), and on the creation of a professional-development network, the UFT Teacher Centers, operating in almost 400 schools.

This culture of working together to improve schools is reflected in our collective bargaining agreement, which states on its first page that “the union and the board mutually agree to join together with other partners in the redesign and improvement of our schools.”

“We must challenge ourselves each day to improve student learning, based upon academic rigor, newfound flexibility, meaningful assessments, and true accountability,” it continues. “We must focus on ... instructional and operational change, each designed to support the children and their teachers, whom we expect to meet these rigorous standards.”

Now, three years and over a million dollars later, we have a grade-by-grade, K-12 curriculum in English language arts and a similar curriculum for math in the works for the end of this school year. Science and social studies will follow, and eventually we hope to add other essential areas of study, such as the arts, foreign languages, and even physical education.

Curriculum development is very hard work. Alignment with city and state standards, especially in cases where those standards themselves were not aligned, took many months to accomplish. The teacher curriculum-writers told me that, on average, each unit of study went through 10 drafts and rigorous peer review and field-testing before completion. The work does not mandate a particular kind of teaching or canon. It identifies what needs to be taught, not precisely how to teach it in some scripted, “teacher proof” format. The union’s goal was to provide guidance and assistance in the areas of content and pedagogy, a capacity-building tool for both new and experienced teachers.

In fact, over the course of our work, the name was changed from “core curriculum” to “resource curriculum,” a not insignificant transformation.

The resource curriculum is divided into daily lesson components called sessions. (Some of these daily lessons may take more than one day, depending on the class and the judgment of the teacher.) The writers discuss strategies they and other teachers found effective when presenting the lesson, but the format accommodates many varieties of teaching approaches and levels of teacher experience. Examples of author studies, word-recognition strategies, vocabulary-development strategies, and genre studies that teachers can use as written or adapt for their students are included. So are suggestions for incorporating independent learning and both small- and whole- group instruction.

To us, teaching and teacher unionism are about the same thing: ensuring that teachers have all they need to provide the highest-quality education to all students.

Between five and 20 of these sequential sessions are combined to form a learning experience or unit. The curriculum guides include resources for three thematic units per grade, enough to give teachers a solid foundation for designing subsequent units on their own or with colleagues. The feature of the curriculum I find most exciting is the section of each unit where the teacher- authors provide a running commentary, reflection, and rationale for the choices they made in presenting the lesson. These sections should inspire deep professional conversations about ways to teach English language arts.

Despite encouraging words from Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and others, we are saddened though not surprised that a chorus of union bashers has been unable to move beyond ideology, ignorance, and posturing to embrace the new curriculum guides. Many, in fact, have criticized us for having the audacity to spend union dues on something our members have been clamoring for: the tools to help them help their students.

One local tabloid editorial, for example, in sentiments echoed by a few education pundits, publicly questioned the union’s motives in undertaking this project. A principal quoted in another newspaper article even tried to explain our motives by trotting out that hoary canard that “it’s another way the union seeks to protect incompetent teachers.” (That one, frankly, even I was not expecting; how can something that serves as a rich resource—one that people have asked for—be viewed as a tool to impede?)

The real story is this: Administrators, principals, and teachers from throughout the city and across the country (as well as in England) have been requesting copies of the curriculum in numbers that have gratified but also somewhat overwhelmed us. Requests have come in, too, from policymakers, businesses, and higher education institutions.

The resource curriculum is currently available in print and CD-ROM formats. We’re also designing an enhanced online format that will include helpful links, videotapes of exemplary lessons, and an interactive component. This will take time and money, and we are currently seeking funding from foundations and other sources to realize our goal of making the curriculum available and useful to all our teachers.

We make no apologies for stepping in where others were either unwilling or unable to go. We hope that our work will prompt others to take on this challenge. And in doing so, we hope that myths of what teaching and teacher unionism are about will be shattered.

To us, teaching and teacher unionism are about the same thing: ensuring that public schools and their teachers have the resources, the professional status, and the tools they need to provide the highest-quality education to all students. That’s why we took on this curriculum project: because it’s union work.

Randi Weingarten is the president of the United Federation of Teachers, in New York City.


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