BOE battling over Norwalk schools curriculum choice

Norwalk BOE     008-20130305
These Norwalk school children will likely have a new way of learning English language arts next fall, Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said. Some teachers are worried that a choice of curriculum will be made politically.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk school officials are disputing what they call a “widespread misperception” regarding the choice of a key curriculum for Norwalk school children.

A preliminary selection has been made for a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum for the kids in grades six to 12, Board of Education members say. A new ELA curriculum for school children through grade five will probably be ready this fall, although that process is lagging, Chairman Mike Lyons said. But an email chain sent Monday to NancyOnNorwalk revealed that the process involved isn’t pretty.

At the beginning of the chain is an email sent by BOE Chairman Mike Lyons to interim Superintendent Tony Daddona.

“Tony, given the unfortunate political machinations that have arisen in response to a simple request that the Core Knowledge {CK} Foundation present its program to the review committee, at this point I think the presentation would appear to be a waste of time,” Lyons wrote on May 24.

He went on to say that he thought the CK presentation should be canceled due to actions of a committee made up of teachers and administrators.

“Had the review committee’s concerns been brought through proper channels to the Curriculum Committee instead of through ‘forum shopping’ to Board members not even on the Committee, this could have been avoided,” he wrote. “But the choice of some staff members to politicize the issue has poisoned the atmosphere around it, which is most unfortunate.”

The email chain continues, with BOE member Sue Haynie pushing Daddona to arrange site visits at schools using the CK curriculum and the Pearson Reading Street curriculum.

“We must get ELA K-5 right and we must do it with a deep respect for the teachers who will implement it and the students, their parents, and the secondary-level teachers who will be the beneficiaries,” Haynie said in one email.

Daddona said in an email it was a shame that she had missed the CK presentation. Haynie replied that she had been kept in the dark and thought the meeting had been canceled, as Lyons said it should be.

“I missed the presentation because I thought it was canceled as per the email string attached; you did not respond to the email, or did not respond to everyone, so I was unaware.”

Her other emails show that she continued to have a lack of response from Daddona.

Asked about it Monday, Haynie said that a site visit had not been arranged.

Lyons, chairman of the Curriculum Committee, declined to say what he meant by the comments about “political machinations” and “forum shopping” but explained the curriculum controversy by forwarding a lengthy June 6-7 email exchange he had with Cranbury Elementary School first-grade teacher Jen Cobbs, who wrote to urge him to listen to the teachers regarding the curriculum and to do it quickly. She said she suspected that the decision was being delayed until summer so it could be made without teachers around.

Lyons said that wasn’t true.

“You have been misinformed about what actually happened; this misperception is widespread among our teachers, so I assume it is being communicated deliberately,” he wrote. “…We HAVE to get this right — nothing is more important to children’s success than early reading.  I am inclined to take more time, study things more, and get it right, than get it done fast. By state law the Curriculum Committee and the Board are charged with setting our curriculum, and we are entitled and obligated to do our own independent review of curricular materials submitted to us. While we of course should give great weight to the recommendations of the review committee, we are NOT rubber stamps of that committee, any more than we should be rubber stamps of the superintendent on budgets or other matters.”

The email exchange is attached below, as is the email chain sent to NancyOnNorwalk.

Both Lyons and BOE member Mike Barbis say the curriculum decisions have been delayed by the superintendent search and they need to finalize a budget by June 30. Recent meetings of the Curriculum Committee have been canceled in favor of the superintendent search, both men said.

The new K-5 ELA curriculum was planned for 2014-2015, but money became available through the Board of Education’s 2013-2014 capital budget request because of the transition to Common Core State Standards, Barbis said.

He said he doesn’t understand what is going on.

“There has been this huge attack out of nowhere against one of the proposals,” he said in an email. “… The environment has definitely been poisoned. I would love to know who is behind this and what they think they are going to accomplish.”

The teacher asked in her email why the curriculum for grades six through 12 had been approved by the committee but not sent to the full board. Barbis made reference to that as he continued his comments about the “calculated attack.”

“The Curriculum Committee has heard the proposals for 6-12 ELA and we approved one (Pearson),” he wrote.  “We have not been presented a recommendation yet on K-5.  So why we are getting these attacks from a range of people, accusing us of already making up our minds, accusing us of over-ruling the Review Committee when we haven’t even heard any proposals beats me!”

The controversy is a source of discussion on Norwalk Speaks, an education blog. One writer speaks of a curriculum “program being pushed at the 11th hour” and goes on to describe topics as “developmentally inappropriate” and the quality of the student materials as “poor.”

BOE member Steven Colarossi writes of the need to keep the review process “free from untoward political agendas” and mentions one member pushing to see a school using the curricula the member favors.

Haynie did not respond to a late Monday email asking for comment about that.

Lyons said he didn’t know who was responsible for the “widespread misperceptions.”

“Clearly many teachers have been told the ‘myth,’ and have concluded that the Board members are the bad guys,” he wrote in an email. “Why that is being directed at CK, I don’t know.  If Board members were pushing CK and it was a fringe proposal, I could understand that — but this is a program endorsed by both the New York City and State of New York BoEs.”

Also attached below are two documents supporting the Core Knowledge curriculum, provided by Lyons.

BOE emails sent to NancyOnNorwalk on June 10

Lyons and Cobbs re curriculum

CK Early Literacy Pilot 3 12 12

American Educator


8 responses to “BOE battling over Norwalk schools curriculum choice”

  1. Piberman

    Is it really helpful for internal emails among BOE members and school officials to be “leaked” to the press before formal decisions have been made by the BOE ? Does this institute investigative reporting nowadays ?
    With election time coming is this the new campaign tactic – leaking internal emails so individuals will receive “press attention” by being asked their comments ?

    Lets encourage everyone to respect BOE governance. We can all wait for the campaigning.

  2. M. Murray’s

    I generally assume a scheduled meeting is taking place unless I receive notice that it is canceled.

  3. M. Murray’s

    Part of the email chain appears to be missing. I can’t tell who sent the email to Nancy. Shouldn’t full disclosure be part I the transparency?

    1. @MMurray
      It was sent anonymously. I have never seen the email address before – it may have been created to send me that. There was no name attached.
      All the email addresses included in the chain were sent from accounts that are covered by public records laws.

  4. M. Murray’s

    You should probably post it anyway. I could probably trace it back and positively identify her for you. All for the sake of transparency.

  5. Ergo

    I have to commend Ms. Cobbs for taking time and emailing the BOE about the curriculum. An entire year passed without a superintendent. We encountered unprecidented budget cuts losing library time and elementary vice principals. Now we don’t even have a curriculum?

    What is going on at the BOE? To me, a mere outsider, it appears that Mr. Lyons needs to spend less time on the defensive and more time making actual decisions. Who cares what people think of you? Just get the g-d job done. And then people won’t complain.

    I have VERY little faith in our BOE and I find it very comforting that at least the teachers, who will teach the curriculum, who see first had what is going on, are reaching out and trying to be proactive about the next school year. I wish the BOE would do the same for all of us.

  6. Lisa Thomson

    You may not know it, but this is the most functional BOE in years! You have five members doing their utmost to challenge the status quo that ran out Marks, a superintendent who brought in new programs and money for the kids – $5M, one of the best principals in Norwalk – NHMS Bob McCain and now Elio Longo – the COO who was straightening out NPSs finances. Don’t you see the pattern here? Any NEW blood that comes in and tries to do right by the kids or taxpayers is thwarted by the NPS status quo. Mike Lyons is demonstrating to me that he has said enough is enough! There are now reformers on the BOE trying to clean the place up and willing to break a few eggs in the process. Norwalk is underperforming due to institutionalized mediocrity – I see Chairman Mike Lyons trying to change that. As a parent and taxpayer, I am extremely grateful!

  7. Steve Colarossi

    Context, please (putting aside the misinformed assumptions of some posters here that would merit rebuttal if only the curriculum question wasn’t far more pressing).

    The decision regarding curriculum needs to start with the professionals trained to evaluate curriculum- with the BOE to independently assess if the professional recommendation meets our community values and is cost-effective. The email chain does suggest that some seek a greater role in the work of the professional review committee which could delay the ultimate review of their recommendations by the Board of Education. The teachers who have emailed me indicated that those two issues (and not particular predilections of BOE members for curricula preferences) are motivating their concern about the process.
    Some background is needed to understand the debate the email chain and other released communications reveal.

    The Core Knowledge Foundation has put together an interesting program that suggests that if we integrate “the precise content” that children are to learn across all academic areas (including English language arts, science, history, art and music) “knowledge will build on knowledge” . How that program is to be taught to children, and how instruction can be differentiated if children struggle with some concepts, is the subject of a curriculum based upon the Core Knowledge program. Core Knowledge has enjoyed some successes, as well as some failures (like the Milner Core Knowledge school in Hartford).

    But, if we are evaluating how to improve our English Language Arts curriculum for grades K-5, then what’s required is to evaluate the materials which meet that specific need. The English Language Arts curriculum for the Core Knowledge Foundation is published through Amplify, Inc., but it only exists for grades K-3 (you can see for yourself at http://store.amplify.com/core-knowledge-language-arts-c23.aspx)
    The email chain reveals that there has been an insistence that the Core Knowledge Foundation be given an extra opportunity to have their materials presented, even though their publishing partner, Amplify, Inc., was given the same presentation opportunity as other publishers.

    For some to try to distance the Core Knowledge Foundation from their “partner” Amplify, Inc. contradicts the statements made on the Core Knowledge Foundation website (http://www.coreknowledge.org/mimik/mimik_live_data/view.php?id=1833&record_id=356): “The Core Knowledge Foundation has partnered with Amplify Education, Inc. for nationwide distribution of CKLA because Amplify is a leader in teacher-friendly, rigorous, digital educational resources that has the capacity to support tens of thousands of schools and, over time, to create a technologically rich version of CKLA. We’re grateful to Amplify for allowing the Foundation to remain focused on developing more knowledge-building instructional materials and on expanding our network of Core Knowledge Schools.”

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