Attempting a Turnaround: All-new $8.4 million city school curriculum

This is the third in an occasional series about efforts to change the course of Pittsburgh's public schools.

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When Arthur Cooper and his friends compared notes about their world history classes at Brashear High School last year, he learned something: His teacher was more demanding than his buddies' teachers.

"We had tests like every three days," said Arthur, 17, of the Hill District.

Because course content is uneven and out of sync with state standards, the Pittsburgh Public School district is paying New York-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services $8.4 million to write standardized curricula for grades six through 12.

Kaplan Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., has transformed itself from a publisher of test-preparation materials to an educational goliath reaching into the nation's biggest urban school systems and thousands of classrooms worldwide. It reported revenue of $1.4 billion last year, up 24 percent from 2004.

Teachers in other districts have complained that Kaplan's detailed curriculum turned them into automatons and deprived them of time to cover material in adequate detail or help students with individual needs.

"The lesson plans are set and, pretty much, the teacher says this and looks for this response," said Sid Chapman, president of the teachers union in Clayton County, Ga. Clayton County Public Schools, 12 miles south of Atlanta, has 49,000 students.

Pittsburgh school officials cite an urgent need to bring coherence and rigor to what's taught and tested in the district's classrooms.

Some courses have a curriculum -- a written plan for what will be covered during the school year -- and others don't. Teachers at two schools might use different textbooks for the same class.

Material in a lower-level course and upper-level course might overlap, wasting learning time. Or a higher-level course might begin at a different place than a prerequisite course ended, creating gaps in students' knowledge.

Arthur, entering his junior year, will take Algebra II this year. But there's no guarantee the course will pick up where Algebra I left off.

Because the curriculum varies, students might become lost when they switch schools. Student mobility is common in an urban school district.

Some teachers cover the state learning standards better, or cover more of them in a year, than their colleagues do. If course content is out of line with the state's expectations, students will be less well prepared for the tests used to judge a school district's performance.

Everette Middlebrook, 14, of the Hill District, who is entering 10th grade at Schenley High School, said she'd noticed differences between what's covered in class and what appears on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test. One year, she said, the PSSA tested her about the Pythagorean theory before it came up in her math class.

Kaplan and school district officials said the new curriculum would eliminate such problems and bring more rigor to courses so that students will be more likely to achieve a "proficient" score on the PSSA and to compete better in college.

Little boxes all the same

Under Kaplan, standardization will be seen in matters big and small. Seppy Basili, Kaplan senior vice president, said, for example, the company would provide the same rock boxes to all classrooms where students study geology.

The curriculum comes with some bells and whistles. Teachers will have access to a computerized student data system, and students will have access to online SAT-prep materials.

John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said he understood the district's need to revamp the curriculum, but that he didn't want teachers to be deprived of authority to run classrooms as they deem necessary.

"We're really going to watch it very carefully," he said.

Kaplan Inc. is The Washington Post Co.'s largest-revenue-producing and fastest-growing division.

The company began writing curricula about three years ago and quickly made inroads among major school districts with a name respected for its SAT preparation materials, among other test-prepartion services.

But the company's reach is broader. It offers personal tutoring, and after-school and corporate education programs. It offers online degrees through Kaplan University and operates traditional degree programs at more than 70 campuses around the globe. It operates certification-preparation programs for engineers, home inspectors and real-estate agents.

In 2003, the company began providing professional development and instructional materials to the 97 schools in low-performing District 5 in the New York City school system. Two years later, Kaplan said, District 5 was leading the school system in test gains.

Districts sometimes are criticized for spending money on Kaplan instead of developing curriculum internally.

But districts said they needed a fresh perspective and a large company's expertise. Because of three years of low test scores, Pittsburgh wanted a new curriculum right away.

"I haven't found anyone that is as thorough," said Lynn Spampinato, deputy superintendent for assessment, instruction and accountability.

The company will develop 27 courses in English, math, science and social studies. Nine will be in place for the coming year. Ten more will be offered the next year, and the rest will be in place for 2008-09.

Kaplan is still writing the first set of courses, and teachers will get the curriculum in stages during the school year. Dr. Spampinato said she believed teachers, many of whom are using books from previous years, would have enough time to acquaint themselves with the material before teaching it.

The new curriculum is the hub of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's plan to increase student achievement.

It will be used in every middle school and high school and in the middle grades of all K-8 schools. It will form the foundation in the eight new accelerated learning academies, which will have the America's Choice package of teaching strategies and curriculum supplements.

Dr. Spampinato said the curriculum would set specific expectations for each course and reflect the latest in learning. Some of the district's social studies and biology curricula, she said, haven't been updated since the 1980s.

Parents of some gifted students fear that their children will be shortchanged if the new curriculum focuses on boosting the proficiency of midlevel students.

Mary J. Armstrong, president of the St. Louis Teachers and School-Related Personnel Union, urged Pittsburgh parents to monitor the curriculum. She said the St. Louis version didn't provide time to help students in the bottom or top tiers.

"If you go with the mainstream student, you're going to have the top and the bottom that are very frustrated," she said.

Kaplan and Pittsburgh school officials said that wouldn't happen here.

Dr. Spampinato said students in advanced studies programs would have a separate English curriculum, while ninth-graders struggling in math will receive additional class time. Also, the curriculum includes special exercises for students at both ends of the spectrum.

Content will be based on the state learning standards. Every six weeks, students will take a test, written in the style of the PSSA.

Mr. Roosevelt has said he would use the results to provide extra help to struggling students. But he also wants to provide coaching or other assistance to teachers when results show large groups of their students falling behind.

That approach might have helped Fred Martinez, 19, of the Hill District, who completed graduation requirements with a summer school program last week. Mr. Martinez, who attended Brashear, said he never learned a strategy for cracking math questions on the PSSA.

The PSSA adds a layer of complexity by requiring students to set up problems before solving them.

Mr. Basili said Kaplan addressed that challenge with course work and testing that requires students to "analyze and extend and compare."

For each course, Kaplan will write a curriculum guide breaking the school year into "units of instruction" lasting three or four weeks. The guide lists the "key concepts" to be covered during each unit and spells out what students have to know and to be able to do by the unit's end.

Every teacher will be expected to cover the same key concepts during the time allocated to each unit. But, Mr. Basili said, teachers will be free to cover the material however they want.

Kaplan said it had been well received even in schools that have a more scripted curriculum. It said a survey of 170 St. Louis teachers showed that more than 90 percent were "totally willing" to "moderately willing" to implement the curriculum and that 80 percent were adhering to the curriculum guidelines.

No system will be perfect.

While officials hope a standardized curriculum will keep students on track as they move between district schools, students who transfer from another district, a charter school or a private school still will be at a disadvantage.

Classroom environment affects learning, too. Mr. Tarka stressed that students wouldn't learn all they can if schools aren't safe and orderly.

The changes come too late to help Mr. Martinez, who plans to study management at a business school. With his diploma, he took away a bland assessment of the city school system.

"It wasn't easy," he said, "but it wasn't tough."

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Everette Middlebrook, 14, says what's covered in her classes sometimes is not what she sees on tests.
Click photo for larger image.
Previous stories:

Benefits seen putting middle schools into K-8's (06/25/06)

All-in-one plan for reforming underachieving schools (06/11/06)



Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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