Position Paper on Curriculum Priorities

Russell Yates

June, 1999

At our elementary school there are several layers of control over both the formal and the informal curriculum that the students experience. Most of the informal or hidden curriculum is left to the various teachers at our school. This accounts for a wide variety of classroom climates and in many ways allows for better matches between our diverse student population and our teachers. There are federal mandates that affect the formal curriculum although those are generally filtered through our state. As is happening in most states, Washington State is going through a curriculum and education reform movement. Overall this is a top down process but has involved many educators including practicing teachers. Because of this input, most teachers, those most important for actual implementation, have accepted the new curriculum standards as a move in the right direction. Testing in the form of a statewide criterion referenced test, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), is being implemented primarily as an accountability measure. The test is given during the benchmark years of 4th, 8th, and 10th grades. It is designed to measure student performance of our new state frameworks, the Essential Accademic Learning Requirements (EALRs). Working through these EALRs, fine tuning them to match local needs, finding curriculum resources that can best support teachers and students in meeting those requirements, and implementing curriculum in ways that support the EALRs, are decisions left for the local school districts.

At my elementary school, Chimacum Elementary School, we have been working through a renewed curriculum process for several years now. Areas of need such as math or reading that have been identified by the curriculum director, become the focus of committee attention. When the committee (made up of the curriculum director, a representative group of kindergarten through grade 12 teachers, and at least one community member) has done enough background work, the entire building staff joins in on the process. This includes creation of a district framework that matches the state frameworks and identification of possible curriculum materials among other things. Eventually this process leads to the implementation of a renewed curriculum that includes materials, support through inservice workshops, and other supplementary materials.

This process does provide some levels of control for nearly all of the stakeholders of the formal curriculum as it is being developed. The place where the process has a tendency to break down is when an unplanned mix of people of the various schools of curricular philosophy takes part in the process. An example is when one compares the outcome of our two most recent "adoptions," math and reading. When the math subject area committee was formed, it consisted of a number of "traditionalists" with quite strong personalities. This led to an "adoption" of a purchased math curriculum that every teacher in the elementary school, K-5 was to implement in a consistent manner (read "teacher-proof"). Although this was two years ago, there are still disgruntled teachers whenever the subject of the math curriculum comes up. A year after this, the reading subject area committee was formed. This committee membership was more balanced as to "traditionalists" and "progressivists." As a result of a more heterogeneous mix of committee members, the staff has much more happily accepted the selected curricular materials. Implementation has been much more productive and has allowed for acceptance of diverse teaching styles. The difference in expectation of implementation has been that with math, the curriculum was defined as that that had been purchased and that all teachers were to slavishly adhere to each page of the teachers' manual. With reading however, teachers were expected to use the materials to support their particular group of students in their quest to master the various aspects of the curriculum frameworks as measured by the WASL. The math curriculum is held together by the purchased materials that all teachers and students must walk through, whereas the reading curriculum is held to be consistent K-5 through the frameworks (also called Chimacum Learning Targets). The latter allows for the teacher to find the best match between the three parts of implementation - the particular group of students, the learning targets or frameworks, and the curricular materials available.

The difference between how these two important parts to the school's formal curriculum have been developed and the issue of control of development and implementation, point to what I see as the most important or vital aspect of curriculum at my school. I see the curriculum renewal process as a good one overall; however the formation process of the subject area committee needs to be done thoughtfully and consistently in order to best represent the diverse needs of the staff. By including people who can work together but that represent both broad philosophical schools of thought, the outcome of the curriculum process can be productive and will be more successful.

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