curriculum conundrum

With new focus on curriculum, Gates Foundation wades into tricky territory

PHOTO: PROThomas Hawk

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

It’s part of a revamped strategy for the philanthropy, which has become one of the most influential forces in American education over the last two decades. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Much of that work has been divisive: Gates was a key player in the push for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.

By comparison, focusing on curriculum seems like a less controversial tack. But if history tells us anything about philanthropists’ role in pushing educational changes, it’s that these efforts prove more challenging than initially thought.

Here’s what we know about the curriculum push — and three tough issues the foundation will have to navigate.

First, what is the Gates Foundation actually doing?

Henry Hipps, a deputy director at the Gates Foundation who spearheads its work on curriculum, said the increased emphasis on the topic was driven by an emerging body of research — as well as feedback from educators and advocates — making the case for the importance of curriculum.

The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, Hipps said.

One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.

Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials.

And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

Doing all three means wading into a few key controversies. Morgan Polikoff — a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied curriculum materials — said that he was optimistic about Gates’ efforts, but cognizant of those risks.

“I think it’s probably better than the status quo, which is in essence incoherent curricula in most places,” said Polikoff, who has received funding from Gates. “But then again, I completely recognize that what I’m describing is probably exactly what was said about teacher evaluation in 2007 … and also Common Core.”

Flash point #1: This is all still intertwined with the Common Core, which remains a source of opposition among conservatives and some teachers.

If the Gates Foundation wants to make “high-quality” materials more widely available, someone has to decide what earns a curriculum that label. That’s a tricky and values-laden task.

Hipps says one of the key factors will be whether a curriculum aligns with “whatever locally selected standards exist.”

That’s where Common Core comes back. In most states, “locally selected standards” still means the Common Core, or something very much like it. Polls show mixed support for those standards among both parents and teachers, with Republicans in particular opposing it as it became closely associated with President Obama. (The creation of the academic standards was heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and pushed by the federal government, though states made the ultimate decisions about whether to adopt and keep them.)

Some curriculum creators are aware of this.

“We have issues in places like West Virginia and Texas where the Common Core is a bad word,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, a Gates-funded developer of curriculums that can be freely downloaded. In West Virginia, he said, the organization was asked to a create a virtually identical version of its content without references to the Common Core.

All of that means that quality labels based on a connection to Common Core may not be broadly, or easily, accepted — just like the standards themselves.

Flash point #2: Other ways of identifying a good curriculum are controversial, too.

Educators have debated what to teach and how to teach it since forever. And English, math, and science — the three subjects Gates says it will focus on in the next five years — each have their own fault lines.

Defining a good curriculum is “a subjective call,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “Part of the problem is who’s getting to define quality.”

Some of these issues have already bubbled up with a group known as EdReports, which bills itself a “consumer reports” for textbooks and teaching materials and is supported by Gates. After the group released initial ratings of math textbooks, its approach was criticized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for focusing on only a subset of the Common Core math standards, among other issues. (EdReports said it revised its approach in response to that and other feedback.)

Another way to judge different curriculums is to focus on which materials have been found to make the biggest impact on student achievement. Studies have shown that some textbooks do better than others, though differences tend to be fairly modest, roughly akin to moving a 50th percentile student up several percentage points.

It’s also possible that instructional materials won’t be equally effective in all schools. There’s not much research on this, but one recent study found that students of color in San Francisco benefitted from a class with an ethnic studies curriculum.

Hipps said Gates was aware that different schools and students might need different things. “One of the things that we hope would be included in high quality instructional materials are structured supports that help teachers adapt their material,” he said. “That’s another dimension of quality.”

Flash point #3: Teachers may be wary of curricular changes — and Gates’ influence.

Finally, there’s the question about how all of this will interact with teachers’ sense of control over their classrooms.  

Surveys show that virtually all teachers rely at least in part on materials they’ve developed or selected themselves. Is this a problem to be solved, or an example of teachers adapting materials for their particular context?

Hipps thinks the balance is tilted too far in one direction. “Too often [teachers] are left to scour the internet for hours to curate and tailor instructional materials for their students,” he said.

Many teachers, though, aren’t eager to have more forces pushing them to do specific things in their classrooms. The potential for conflict seems especially clear when you remember that defenders of the Common Core often argued that the standards were not curriculum and thus did not dictate how or what to teach. Now, Gates is diving right into that especially sensitive territory.

“Part of teaching is [using] your own expertise,” said Kathy Dahdal, an English teacher at a middle school in the Bronx who said teachers in her school work together to design a curriculum drawn from multiple sources.

Dahdal is encouraged by increased attention on curriculum, but said she would be skeptical of any efforts to turn ratings or recommendations into mandates. Tom Rademacher, a Minneapolis teacher and former state teacher of the year, recently wrote for Chalkbeat about how counterproductive it has felt to be told to use a standard curriculum.

“Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things,” Rademacher wrote.

José Vilson, a math teacher and author in New York City, is apprehensive about the foundation’s push. “I shudder to think what the Gates Foundation might do,” he said. “I’m always nervous about any organization with that education reform outlet coming into schools … because usually what follows is a lack of teacher input, a lack of student input.”

Hipps said the goal is not to get schools or districts to mandate a best curriculum, but to identify a variety of good choices.

“I don’t think there will ever be a one size fits all,” he said. “There should be some baseline by which those various options are deemed either high quality and good versus not, but there should always be variety.”

Going to court

Memphis charter school sues former principal at center of student protests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students say Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School has been uneasy since the principal was fired in August.

A Memphis charter high school is seeking $300,000 in damages — alleging that its former principal has been encouraging students to transfer from the high school and that he has violated his severance agreement.

In recent weeks, many students and parents have insisted that Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School’s’ former principal, Reginald Williams, was fired unfairly. Parents who support Williams and Patricia Ange — another educator, who was recently let go — crowded into a recent school board meeting to register their disapproval of the school’s decision. And earlier this week, students led a walkout in support of both educators.

Florence Johnson, the lawyer for Memphis Academy, argued in the complaint filed late Wednesday that Williams “conspired” to “disrupt the operations of the school, to lure students away from the school, and to cause financial harm and public embarrassment to [the academy’s] standing in the educational community.”

Williams said he has neither been on campus since he was fired Aug. 10, nor has he spoken with Memphis Academy parents since then.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

“All of this is embarrassing to me,” he told Chalkbeat, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.” “I haven’t, nor will I ever, impede students’ progress.”

In the court filing, the charter network noted it “allowed Williams to retire early rather than fire him outright for poor performance,” which differs from what school leaders had told parents and students. Parents were told Williams resigned and did not know his departure was about poor results on the state’s test this spring. But in internal emails obtained by Chalkbeat, the network’s executive director explicitly tied Williams’ departure to the scores. Using state test scores to fire teachers is illegal this year in Tennessee after major technical glitches to computerized testing, but it is unclear if the law applies to principals.

Under Williams’ severance agreement, the charter school gave him about $40,000 in exchange for assurance he would not speak ill of his former employer or speak about the agreement. Johnson argues Williams violated that during an Oct. 16 board meeting.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift was at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School to protest firing a beloved principal and teacher.

Ange, a vocal supporter of Williams, had called the former principal and put him on speakerphone during the meeting as parents demanded answers. Williams said at the meeting that he did not have a problem with the decision to let him go.

“My only concern was how it was done,” he said. “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.”

Markayla Crawford, a senior at the high school who was among those who led protests after Williams and Ange were fired, said Williams did not ask her to protest on his behalf and had not heard of Williams contacting other students.

School leaders are “still not giving us answers about what happened,” she said. “All the kids are basically saying the same thing. The school is falling apart and no one knows what’s going on.”

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 in Memphis chancery court.

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”