Updated, 10:41 a.m., links to studies and an attachment added
NORWALK, Conn. – A drawing of a Mexican with a mustache was a bit much for Migdalia Rivas last week, but a description of a duel really sent the Norwalk Board of Education member over the edge.
“I can picture two children dueling and then they think they’re going to survive,” Rivas said, of the potential impact of a story in a book being considered for Norwalk’s youngest school children.
Rivas was going back and forth with BOE member Sue Haynie and Norwalk Public Schools Instructional Specialist Jean Evans Davila over the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) curriculum, one of six possible curricula currently being considered as an investment in Norwalk’s students. While Haynie and other board members seem to prefer CKLA, a panel of teachers and administrators has panned it – a source of tension that brought about 50 people to a Thursday meeting of the BOE Curriculum Committee in a show of support.
Many of them were teachers.
“They get the feeling that the board is not going to listen to them and follow their advice,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion said.
A committee of teachers and school administrators, including one elementary school teacher from each school, spent six full days over the past school year studying the options for a K-5 English Language curriculum, a necessary component of the switch to Common Core State Standards, Mellion said. They favor Reading Street, a Pearson product, and consider Journeys by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a close second.
“It appears that board members since early 2012 prefer a particular ‘ELA’ but they do not have any background in it,” Mellion said, casting aspersions on the ability of non-educators to make a decision in the matter.
“It’s like watching brain surgery at Norwalk Hospital and then trying to do brain surgery,” he said.
Mellion also said time is of the essence – the teachers need the new curricula in place by the beginning of the next school year, but preferably, they need the materials by their professional day in August so they can be trained in how to use them.
English Language Arts is the lynchpin, the cornerstone for the entire educational system, he said, likening it to the keys to the kingdom. Not having it in place is setting the kids up for a “deficit before you get started,” he said,
“Waiting hurts,” he said. “It hurts children and it hurts teachers to do the work. This is not a political thing, it’s about doing the very best we can for the students.”
Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons agreed with parts of that but not others.
“The board certainly values the input of our teachers,” he said in an email. “We adopted the GoMath curriculum they recommended (after evaluating it ourselves), and likewise are adopting the Prentice Hall English curriculum for grades 6-12.”
But state law leaves the decision in the hands of the Board of Ed, he said.
“We have an obligation to independently review recommendations made to us on curricula (just as we do on budgets, personnel decisions, policies, etc.),” he continued. “People sometimes equate ‘listening to them’ as being the equivalent of ‘doing what they say’; but these do not necessarily follow (unless the board is expected to simply mindlessly rubber stamp whatever teachers or administrators propose – in which case, why have a board?).”
The elementary school English Language curricula is the most important, he agreed, as it lays the groundwork for everything else.
“As much as we’d like to stay ahead of schedule and get it in place this fall, too, it is simply too important to rush,” he said.
Davila spent about an hour going over the complicated differences in the six options last week before board members went into an executive session to discuss the economic differences in the programs.
She said the committee had first designed a rubric to evaluate the programs, taking into account the unique needs of Norwalk’s diverse school district. What worked well in one district would not work in Norwalk, she said.
Samples of the various curricula were taken to all the schools to get feedback from teachers, she said.
Pearson has recently promised unending professional support with its Reading Journeys, she said. That meant up to four two-day visits to each school over the course of a school year, while other programs would expect teachers to travel to them, and miss instructional time with their students.
The program was designed as a “staircase of literacy,” she said, with an “explicit phonics sequence.”
She said the Core Knowledge curricula had been favored by former Superintendent Susan Marks, but she felt it had been discredited in the United Kingdom.
One of her biggest concerns was that “the synthetic phonics are taken to an extreme that kids are kept away from the writing process to a good degree of time into the middle or end of first grade,” she said. “Kids are kept away from hands-on books, actually even seeing print for a long time … The idea is not to be distracted from focusing on words.”
Journeys by Houghton Mifflin was the committee’s second choice, but she had doubts, partly because it comes with less professional development and partly because the company has gone bankrupt and has reorganized.
She let the cat out of the bag and mentioned the pricing – the company had said $1.5-$1.7 million, but last week dropped it to about $580,000.
Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona told her to save that for the executive session.
A curriculum will cost more than $1 million, Haynie said in an email. She said the decision is second in importance only to the selection of a superintendent.
Davila said Reading Wonders, which scored third on the list, was “too fledgling, too new, too untried.”
“Could we make do with Reading Wonders? Yes we could,” she said. “But we’ve been making do for a long time and it’s almost turning the do into a don’t.”
The CKLA curricula had only been shown to committee members in pieces, she said; no one had seen all the books.
What she did see concerned her, as she felt the cultural insensitivities in drawings of “slanty-eyed Asians” and African American women with big hips.
Haynie said the CKLA social studies curriculum has been chosen for the South Norwalk Collegiate Academy, which hasn’t gotten its charter yet, and is being used in Newark, N.J.
“I think the inclusiveness of the curriculum speaks for itself,” she said.
A teacher questioned why Haynie had gone to two demonstrations of CKLA and not to any of the others. Haynie said she had only been to one demonstration.
“I would have liked to go to all of them,” she said. “I do as much as I can. I missed them. It wasn’t because I didn’t care.”
She would like to do site visits, she said.
Another teacher asked why the board had sought their input if they weren’t going to listen to it.
Lyons referred to the 10-inch stack of papers in front of him.
“Who said we’re not listening?” he asked. “I’ve been listening all night. We’ve got a stack this thick to read and we’ve got to look at books. We have a capital budget that we have to stay inside of.”
Board members came out of their executive decision and approved the Pearson curriculum for grades six to 12. Lyons said it would have been approved earlier but the money hadn’t been there to buy it. There was no action taken on the K-5 curriculum.
On Sunday, Lyons explained more in an email.
“As the board member who worked most closely with the mayor, Fred Wilms and Doug Hempstead to get us the $2.1 million in the capital budget (without which funding this conversation would be pointless), I take second place to no one when it comes to the importance of getting the Common Core curricula in place,” he said. “We have implemented K-5 math, and will shortly be approving 6-12 English and middle school math. We are reviewing K-5 English, and added a science instructional specialist in this year’s budget to help with the next CCSS curriculum project after math and English — science. In short, there is a LOT going on in curricula already; we aren’t exactly sitting on our hands! … Of course, this is up to the board, not just me, but my sense is to move forward with the other curricula, but on this one take a closer look, and have (new superintendent Manuel) Rivera weigh in, before making a decision.”
Correction made, 10:36 a.m., South Norwalk Collegiate Academy.