Updated Wednesday, 5:45 p.m. - Many Colorado educators are enthusiastic about a curriculum framework being developed to help school districts implement new standards, But three State Board of Education members question the whole concept.
Education Commissioner Robert Hammond and staff members briefed the board on the initiative for the first time Wednesday. Hammond went out of his way to explain that the framework is voluntary and that the idea originated with school districts, not the Department of Education.
But three Republican members of the board questioned the whole concept, led by Debora Scheffel, who represents the 6th District in the Denver suburbs.
“I just think it’s not the work of CDE,” said Scheffel. She fears the project would lead to creeping centralization, “even though it’s not required it becomes pervasively adopted” because it will be easy for districts to do so. She also said she’s worried about lack of parent involvement in the process.
“The districts need to do their own work,” she concluded.
Paul Lundeen said districts will “default to something that is already prepared. … I’m concerned about the effort. … I just need to say that publicly.” He represents the Colorado Springs-based 5th District.
But Republican Marcia Neal vociferously disagreed, saying small districts need the help the project could provide in connecting state content standards to classroom teaching. If the state doesn’t do this, she said, “We’re just deserting our rural districts.”
Neal also said, “It’s just not realistic” to expect small districts to do such detailed curriculum work themselves. Her 3rd District covers Western Colorado, and the idea for the sample curriculum originated with superintendents in that part of the state.
The board’s fourth Republican, Chair Bob Schaffer of the 4th District, chimed in later, saying, “I tend to agree with Debora” and complaining that the legislature didn’t provide sufficient funding to support the law that led to the new state standards.
“I’ve got to think there are a number of budding curriculum entrepreneurs around the state. … It doesn’t have to be government employees” doing this work, said Schaffer, who’s principal of a Fort Collins charter high school.
Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman of the 1st District asked a few questions, but the board’s three Democrats generally stayed out of the discussion.
“We take the comments very seriously,” Hammond said.
While he stressed, “We are not in the curriculum development business,” he said it is the department’s responsibility to make sure the content standards are implemented. He also noted that it will be up to local school boards to adopt curricula that are based on the standards.
“Common,” “statewide” and even “model” can be tricky words in Colorado, where many educators and school boards fiercely defend the state constitution’s guarantee that local boards “shall have control of instruction.”
But a new initiative to create what’s now being called Colorado’s District Sample Curriculum, sparked by a group of rural superintendents and assisted by the state Department of Education, is drawing praise from most parts of the education community.
The project is seen as a way to help make the connection between the high-level goals in the state’s new content standards and day-to-day teaching in Colorado’s classrooms.
The initiative isn’t intended to provide detailed instructional programs down to the textbooks but rather a way to help curriculum experts and teachers map how classroom work connects to student mastery of the content standards.
Curriculum is “an organized plan of instruction. … (It’s) not about the instructional materials,” said Melisa Colsman of the Colorado Department of Education.
Using volunteer teachers from across the state, the project intends to create a set of templates for every unit in every class in every grade. The project may be less detailed for high school, where there is greater variety of classes.
The templates will provide guidelines for what content, concepts and skills should be taught to ensure that students meet the standards for that class. See this page on the CDE website for links to sample templates in six classes.
While “common” has been used in many conversations about the project, and the words “model” and “statewide” have appeared in documents, CDE is now using the even more neutral phrase “sample curriculum.”
Reflecting the sensitivities around state involvement in curriculum, education Commissioner Robert Hammond described the program as “Optional, optional, optional,” during a recent interview. Because of those sensitivities, “Nobody’s ever wanted to touch it” before, he said.
The whole idea got started at the local level, sparked by small-district superintendents struggling to prepare for a wave of change. Districts large and small are starting to implement the new standards and to prepare for the new state tests that are required by a 2008 law. They’re also getting ready to launch new principal and teacher evaluation systems called for by a 2010 law. At least 50 percent of evaluations will be based on student performance on statewide tests and other forms of assessment.
All that’s a lot of work, especially for small districts lacking a central office staffed with administrators and curriculum and testing experts.
Mark DeVoti, superintendent of the 1,400-student Archuleta School District in Pagosa Springs, said the idea had its origins in a meeting last February where administrators were “brainstorming” about how to meet new requirements in a time of declining funding.
That led to a March letter by DeVoti to Western Slope superintendents in which he called for greater collaboration among school districts:
“So, what if we explore such a model and consider a statewide curriculum? We all have to get to the same place, achieving optimum student growth on our agreed-upon standards, as measured by a common annual assessment. Why not consider the creation, and sharing, of a statewide curriculum?” DeVoti wrote.
During a recent interview, DeVoti said that after the letter went out, “Immediately, local control jumped in” to the discussion. But, he said, the more people talked about the idea, the better they liked it.
The next step is to fill out all those templates. More that 400 teachers representing 80 districts have applied to participate in four workshops this fall to flesh out the templates. That work is supposed to be finished by December. Next year, the plan is for regional groups of educators to tailor the templates to local needs. The plan is for the resources to be in place for districts by the start of the 2013-14 school year.
While much of the impetus behind sample curriculum has come from superintendents, other sectors of education have been watching the process.
Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “We very much like it as a benefit for small districts. … It’s going to be very helpful.” But, she added, “Our only reservation would be if, in the long term, it would become something of a state mandate.”
Linda Barker, director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Education Association, said the teachers’ group also supports the project, especially its “collaborative” character.
“This curriculum template is really the how-to” for implementing the standards, Barker said. She feels the project could benefit districts of any size. “It would be beneficial if the state had the template. … You have a starting point for every district.”
“This is all part of the standards work,” noted Hammond, who said he feels the project could provide the practical link needed to help teachers fully understand the standards and teach them in their classes.
Urschel recalled that the link wasn’t made after Colorado issued its first statewide content standards in 1993: “There was no connection made in the mind of the teacher between what was being taught and that standard.”