A New Path to Learning

Curriculum Reform Advances in Milwaukee Schools

By David Levine

When Helen Dixon, a Milwaukee Public Schools parent and volunteer, arrived at the first meeting of the K-12 Curriculum Summer Committee, she brought with her strong misgivings. “When we started this whole thing I asked, ‘Is this going to be another set of meetings where we just end up spinning our wheels?’”

Her apprehensions were shared by many of the 80 parents, teachers, and administrators asked to spend three weeks charting a course for curricular reform within the Milwaukee Public Schools. MPS has a long history of promising reforms lost somewhere on the road to implementation.

But after three weeks of intense, difficult, and at times exhilarating work, she and her colleagues had produced a document and a momentum that have a good chance of bringing meaningful change to Milwaukee’s public schools. Dixon told a Milwaukee School Board Committee on September 11, “As the process went on and I saw and felt the sense of dedication and commitment of everyone, I thought there is no way our work will be denied success.” Phil Foster, a Social Studies teacher at Milwaukee Tech, echoed these sentiments at the same hearing, “I’ve been in the system since 1967 and the K-12curriculum reform is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened during my teaching career.”

An outcome of the committee’s work is a 30-page document entitled “Moving Forward with K-12 Teaching and Learning: A Working Model.” A marked departure from the highly detailed “curriculum cookbooks” that line a thousand dusty shelves, this report crisply articulates ten Teaching and Learning Goals to guide all K-12 teaching. Under each goal, “Performance Indicators” help to translate the Teaching and Learning Goals into specific student abilities. These indicators are broadly stated and limited in number, to “allow schools to exercise creative initiative and flexibility.”

The goals and indicators, along with implementation strategies included in the report, are guided by a core of philosophical principles which challenge current practice:

  • Curriculum has traditionally been seen as “content,” which is separate from “teaching methods.” Many people think of curriculum in static terms, as textbooks, lists of goals and objectives, or computer programs. By contrast the K-12 Report defines curriculum as what we teach, how we teach, and the entire learning environment that surrounds the child. This conception gives prime importance to the educational vision each teacher brings to her students. Grace Thomsen, a Social Studies teacher at South Division High School, comments, “What’s exciting and promising about this approach is that it’s challenging us to re-shuffle what we have in our heads and really think about what we want our kids to be able to do.”
  • Traditional curriculum practices have often meant tracking and racial inequality. Under the banner of meeting divergent student needs, such practices often trap working class students and students of color in “basic skills” classes. This report challenges teachers to teach in ways which promote equity and deep thinking for all children.
  • Traditional curriculum often relies upon teacher centered approaches which focus on lower order thinking skills and bore children. This reform advocates classroom practices which engage students in mastering skills relevant to the intellectual demands they will face as citizens and workers.
  • Traditional curriculum development has often been driven by textbook companies and controlled by central office administrators. But curriculum reform will only be effective if it comes from the bottom up. The K-12 curriculum report therefore recommends that curriculum development be based on the grassroots involvement of parents, teachers, and students.

Roots of Reform

The origins of the current reform effort go back to 1987, when the MPS administration launched a system-wide curriculum project called Outcome Based Education (O.B.E.).

O.B.E. had the commendable goals of defining what all students need to know and coordinating all K-12 instruction, but suffered from a top down approach which burdened teachers with hundreds of grade level objectives. While teachers were involved in the committees which chose the objectives, they had no say in determining the basic design of the plan. Many feared that the depth and quality of their teaching would suffer as they raced to cover lists of objectives. The plan stalled in the face of widespread teacher opposition.

In February of 1989, newly appointed superintendent Robert Peterkin responded to teacher disenchantment with O.B.E. by empaneling a 64 person task force to design a new plan. This group was determined to avoid the mistakes of O.B.E. Their January 1990 report to the school board emphasized that curriculum reform must be planned and implemented through a process which meaningfully involves parents, teachers, and students.

The task force’s efforts lead to widening circles of involvement. In May of 1990, 245 people representing all schools convened to critique and deepen the task force’s plan. In spring of 1991 a carefully planned campaign was initiated to involve the entire MPS community in setting developmental learning goals for all students. According to Grace Thomsen, “We struggled with the tremendous headache of involving hundreds of people in discussion that would address the real problems and lead to real results.” Teacher delegates from each school met several times. Principals, teachers and other staff members, parents, and community members were involved through surveys, school based dialogues, and discussions within educational organizations. The process was complex and arduous, but the teachers and administrators who coordinated it were determined to establish the principle that widespread dialogue had to be at the heart of any successful reform effort.

After these discussions, a summer committee of 80 parents, teachers, and administrators was chosen to carry out the next phase. This group reviewed the many pages of draft learning goals generated by the spring meetings, and distilled out of them the system-wide goals, performance indicators, and plans which comprise the K-12 curriculum report. According to Rita Tenorio, kindergarten teacher at La Escuela Fratney, “Without the hours of hard work put in by hundreds of people during the spring, our accomplishments this summer would have been impossible.”

As the committee members struggled to produce a new curricular framework, they were also creating a model of the kind of working relationships which MPS will need to forge an effective education for all.

Cynthia Ellwood, who coordinated the spring and summer curriculum process and now directs the MPS Department of Curriculum and Instruction, explains why she deemed it so important to involve many people in the change process. “Improving teaching and learning is a challenge we have to tackle together. Good teaching is incredibly demanding. You not only need a strong command of the subject matter, you have to make complex judgments about how to motivate students and help them to understand. You really have to be able to get inside a student’s head — or thirty students’ heads — and figure out how they’re seeing things. It’s a lot like parenting in that there are no easy answers; every interaction is a judgment call. You have to know when to encourage and when to demand, how to be firm and caring at the same time. What examples or questions can you pose so that a student will really understand? And what works with one student will not necessarily work with the next, just as parents find their children have different strengths and personalities.”

Ellwood says curriculum reform mandated from the top down will never produce teachers who can make these complex professional judgments on behalf of children. “There’s no way good teaching will ever come from a script. If we want change we’ve got to have a process that asks people to think, and there have to be opportunities for people to learn from each other about the children whose education we share responsibility for. I think teachers and administrators have a lot to learn from parents, for example. And since the kids we teach come from diverse backgrounds, we’ve got to talk seriously to adults from backgrounds different from our own if we hope to understand and educate all kids.”

The summer process was, by all accounts, a transformative experience. One participant commented, “All the pain, frustration, anger, and impatience were essential. I was impressed, educated, and inspired.”

One reason the summer process was successful was that participants were given time to focus on “the big picture” in a supportive environment. Sandra Waldon, French and English teacher at Pulaski High School, explains “We got to know each other first. At the beginning each of us was given some markers and asked to draw a picture of what good education meant. That kind of broke the ice. When we explained these pictures we found that many times we were on the same wavelength.”

During these early sessions, committee members focused on essential educational questions: What is critical thinking? Why is multicultural education crucial? What kinds of assessment best measure learning? As they sought to answer these questions, participants relied on both their own knowledge and critical advice from such experts as Enid Lee, a multicultural consultant from Toronto, and Mary Diez, who helped design Alverno College’s authentic assessment program.

Committee members met most often by developmental level: primary, intermediate, middle school, and high school. But these meetings were balanced by other kinds of groupings: teams which included teachers from all four developmental levels, separate caucuses of parents, teachers, and administrators, discipline specific meetings, and sessions of the entire committee. This fluid reliance on different kinds of groups meant committee members were constantly considering new perspectives and sharing their ideas with new people.

Participants were encouraged to express differing views. Rose Guajardo, principal at Kagel Elementary, notes “What I liked about the whole thing was that you could speak your mind freely. You could disagree with someone and give your reasons why. Everyone had a chance to speak and give their ideas. We valued and respected everyone’s input.”

One of the most important features of the committee’s work was that parents were able to play a crucial part. By insisting that educational jargon be kept to a minimum, and that parents be paid as consultants, the committee organizers were able to insure the full involvement of parents. This marked an important step in healing the gap which has grown between many members of the community and the public schools.

Patrice Robinson, a parent committee member, testified in front of the school board, “I am a student from the MPS system. I came out with nothing. Very angry. I’m not angry any more, because I’ve been a part of this committee and I know what we can do together. I think that our children have a very bright future.”

New Priorities

From the start of the curriculum reform process in 1989, everyone involved had to confront this challenge: How can a school system provide coherence and accountability within its curriculum while not stifling the flexibility and creativity teachers need to be effective?

The K-12 Summer Committee sought to resolve this dilemma by recommending performance indicators which are broad, developmentally appropriate, and focus the energy of teachers and students on essential skills, understandings, and attitudes. For each of the ten system-wide Teaching and Learning Goals, one to five performance indicators are articulated at the primary, intermediate, middle school, and high school levels. Each school is responsible for developing plans to teach and assess these indicators. Central Office staff will support schools as they plan, develop resources, and pilot assessment tools. This approach builds upon Superintendent Howard Fuller’s commitment to channel money and decision-making power down to each school.

This bold reliance on the initiative and ingenuity of each school staff can only work if all the schools are unified by a coherent and powerful vision of what children should be learning. The goals and performance indicators provide such a vision. Taken as a whole, they present school as an invigorating laboratory in which students master the skills and understandings they will need to flourish in a complex and challenging world. Kathy Swope, third grade teacher at Neeskara Elementary School, explains, “We will not be spoon-feeding information to the children. We will be helping them learn the process of learning, not just specific facts. Children will be the focus, with the teacher providing resources, encouragement, and prompting to students, as they work cooperatively and learn to collaborate.”

Many of the performance indicators are designed to help students become critical thinkers and problem solvers. For example, high school students are asked to “demonstrate critical thinking and decision making” through a problem solving process which involves: 1) identifying the problem, 2) gathering information, 3) formulating options, 4) establishing/evaluating criteria, 5) choosing options, 6) acting upon an option, 7) evaluating the results, and 8) reassessing the problem.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the K-12 document is the high priority it gives to building a curriculum which celebrates diversity, insists upon equality, and is explicitly anti-racist. While such goals commonly adorn the mission statements of urban school systems, here they are fleshed out by performance indicators designed to make them a reality in every classroom.

Putting these principles into practice will challenge teachers to treat the cultural background of each child as a valuable source of ideas, themes, experiences, and self-esteem. Olalekan Benson, a teacher at Lloyd Street Elementary School, explains “We’re telling the teacher — look for the richness in your classroom in terms of diversity of culture and build on it. Use it to help your children grow. Use it to help them work together. Use it to enrich yourself and your students.”

One of the most important ways that the committee wants teachers to build a multicultural curriculum is by having children at all levels study a second language. As committee members reviewed the ideas of parents, teachers, and administrators, they were struck by how many people wanted children to strive to be bilingual.

The committee came to see second language acquisition as an important way to broaden the cultural horizons of students.

The report argues “Fluency in a second language enables students to pursue higher education, to expand their career opportunities, to gain an understanding of other peoples, and to participate fully in a global society.” The report includes performance indicators which give children meaningful experiences with a second language at all grade levels. The report also recommends that the school board make a commitment to provide schools with the resources they will need to eventually insure that every student acquire a second language by the time they graduate.

Will It Work?

When the School Board’s Instruction and Community Relations Committee approved the K-12 report on September 11, Director Joyce Mallory added a cautionary note to her support, “The accountability will happen when I see young people excited and not dropping out of school, when I see students achieving and excelling, and going on to college. Then we’ll know that this is real. If we don’t have any of these outcomes, then it was a good idea that didn’t work successfully.”

To become more than a good idea, the curriculum reform process has a far road to travel. The first step will be to take the K-12 report back to the MPS community. The 80 participants in the summer process view their work as a key step in an extended dialogue leading to ongoing revision and refinement.

During these discussions, it will be important for teachers and parents to ask if the goals and performance indicators cover the essential elements of a good education. In some areas there may be crucial gaps.

For example, under the goal which involves applying mathematical and scientific principles of inquiry, there are just two performance indicators for high school students. They will be expected to “Analyze past and newly acquired information to develop creative solutions to changing societal issues.” and to “Exhibit use of scientific inquiry as a strategy.” This seems a sparse set of expectations. Are there no broad mathematical skills or understandings of the physical universe important enough to earn mention?

Similarly, it is important to explore how each performance indicator can be translated into classroom practice. For example, what does it mean to say that high school students will “Adapt their knowledge of existing technology to different and future technology?”

Another area that merits further debate and clarification involves what students will learn about the world of work. The goal and indicators in this area stipulate that students will explore career interests and opportunities, but don’t go much farther than that.

Yet our children need to learn how to analyze and make value judgements concerning the social hierarchies and power relationships they will find within work-places. And they need to learn to define what makes work an important experience.

In addition to debate and revision, the performance indicators will need new forms of assessment if they are to be effective.

The report questions the school system’s longstanding reliance on multiple choice and short answer tests as the dominant method of evaluation. Testifying before the Instruction and Community Relations Committee, Mary Diez, Dean of Education at Alverno College, said “For the goals you have set, your assessment needs to be much more complex than the de-contextualized, discrete items of a multiple choice test. It’s not just the answer, it’s the process that is important.”

Diez went on to support the report’s call for “authentic assessment” which measures skills important in the world beyond school and gives students and teachers helpful feedback. A good example of this approach appears in the MPS Assessment Task Force report which she co-authored. To measure students ability to argue for a position, authentic performance options might include “a group discussion setting, structured so that each student prepares in advance an assigned position on a question (e.g., that of the employer, the employee, the tax payer, the consumer, etc. regarding raising the minimum wage); an outline that reports on several different resources and concludes with the student’s own opinion — with reasons why the arguments found in the resources were effective or not; a letter to the mayor or student’s congressperson about an issue that the student has researched and cares deeply about.”

While the K-12 report barely mentions structural reform, the changes it calls for demand that MPS develop creative means to support new ways of teaching and learning. Teachers will be asked to exercise both greater independence and greater collaboration. To do so, they will need effective inservices, smaller class sizes, and flexible school structures and schedules.

The interdisciplinary, project oriented thrust of the curriculum report, if implemented, will begin to strain against such pillars of school organization as the rigid division of the high school schedule into 48 minute slices. Administrators and teachers will need to work together to evolve forms of school organization which better meet the needs of children.

One of the most crucial ingredients teachers will need to implement this report is more preparation time. At present, dedicated teachers must put in long evening and weekend hours to feel adequately prepared. Their efforts at cooperative planning with colleagues must be squeezed into hurried hallway consultations, discussions over lunch, or faculty meetings already jammed with too many agenda items.

One way to provide this time would be to give teachers a week of paid preparation time at the start of the school year and additional preparation days during the year. Other ways include giving elementary teachers a half day of planning each month, reducing the high school teaching load to four classes a day, or providing additional funds to pay teachers for planning special projects. While there is no one magic mechanism to provide more planning time, the school system will need to experiment with many options.

Just as importantly, everyone involved in MPS will need to work to establish what committee members call “norms of collegiality.” Grace Thomsen explains “We’re going to have to put a great deal of effort into bringing teachers together to talk to one another. In schools that work there is a sense of collegiality. Teachers aren’t afraid to come together to share ideas.”

The future success of the work begun this summer will depend upon the school system’s ability to sustain growing waves of involvement in a process which will demand years of difficult effort. One encouraging sign is that the Summer Committee members view their work as just beginning. They clearly communicated their commitment in testimony at two school board hearings, and have begun to spread the word back at their individual schools. The parent participants have continued to meet and are working on involving more parents.

This grassroots support will need to be matched by practical action on the part of policy makers. Rose Guajardo says, “While we’re very excited about the K-12 curriculum we’re also realists. Central Office and the Board need to know that if this curriculum is going to succeed, they have to support it not only with enthusiasm, but also with money.”

As the K-12 initiative expands, it will challenge teachers not only to create new ways of working together, but also to take a careful and honest look at their own approaches to teaching. Olalekan Benson explains, “We are asking teachers to examine the inner self in terms of what is required to be able to do this job. And we are asking them to be open-minded to change. The teacher must be willing to put the children’s interest first. This is the future of our kids we’re talking about.”

Future Direction

The report defines the 1991-1992 school year as a time of “growth, risk, and first stage implementation.” The first phase of this process is now being accomplished through the briefing of principals, teacher delegates, and involved community members. The next step will be for each school to review the report and choose three goals to begin implementing during the year. According to Jocklyn Smith, coordinator of the K-12 initiative, “Now comes the really challenging part. The struggle will be to get people freed up mentally to try new ideas and to take some risks. Each school community needs to figure out a process to talk about these learning goals and to look critically at what they need to do.”

As MPS travels farther down the path of reform, and encounters the inevitable setbacks, frustrations, and barriers, it is important that insistence for progress be tempered by commitment to a long term process. The new forms of learning, organization, and collegiality our schools need will take time to develop. But if we are willing to settle in for the long haul, there is good reason to share Helen Dixon’s view that “These wheels have started moving, with the involvement of parents, teachers, and administrators we will be seeing progress instead of just speaking progress.”