K-12 Curriculum Reform to Begin

By David Levine

As MPS tests out the viability of its newly decentralized organizational structure, plans are underway to begin the next phase of Superintendent Peterkin’s reform process: an overhaul of the MPS curriculum. A draft plan for curriculum reform, now in the final process of revision, will soon be submitted for consideration by the School Board’s Instruction and Community Relations Committee. The plan calls for an in-depth five year re-working of how curriculum is developed, implemented, and assessed within Milwaukee Public Schools.

The report grows out of the work of the K-12 City wide Curriculum Steering Committee, a group of teachers, administrators and community leaders convened by the superintendent last spring to propose new directions for MPS’s curriculum. This summer, a working group of the Committee spent July and August translating the general ideas of the committee into a more specific plan of action. If carried out in a purposeful, flexible and imaginative manner, the curriculum reforms proposed in the report could dramatically improve teaching and learning within Milwaukee’s public schools.

Teddi Michele Beam, a middle school teacher and committee member, stresses that the report’s recommendations need to be implemented in a way which departs from previous MPS practice. “Teachers have been skeptical of curriculum reform in the past, as evidenced by the Outcomes Based Education disaster. Most curriculum changes have been seen as coming from

’on high.’ After the initial ballyhoo and corresponding complaints by teachers, most people went back to ‘business as usual.’” At the same time. Beam is optimistic about the potential impact of this new initiative. “Our report, since it comes from teachers as well as administrators, recognizes that—the classroom is the essential place where change must occur and mandates that curriculum development must be an ongoing process. As professionals we are engaged in curriculum planning every day in the classroom. No one knows the needs of our students better than we do. The approach advocated in our report will enable us to more effectively meet those needs.”

Curriculum has often been thought of as “course content” or lists of goals and objectives. The report challenges these limited and traditional conceptions, arguing that curriculum encompasses content, methods of instruction, materials, and activities, as well as values and ideas which are communicated by the ways students and adults interact in a school setting. The report contends that to be successful, schools must weave these varied elements into a comprehensive approach based on four core premises:

1) A Good curriculum is student centered.

This means building on the skills and understandings each student brings to the classroom, believing that all children can learn, and promoting an environment in which students feel valued and comfortable enough to take risks. The report notes,  “To suggest that the curriculum must be student centered does not mean that good curriculum lacks rigor, structure or high standards — quite the contrary. It does mean that educators set those standards with the best interest of every child in mind and that they find a way to connect the child’s experience with the desired concepts and skills.”

2) A Good Curriculum Promotes Equity

This means building high expectations for children of all colors and finding ways to hold all schools accountable for overcoming the achievement gap between white and non-white students. All students deserve access to rich and challenging curriculum. Special care should be taken to prevent the grouping and tracking of students along gender and ethnic lines. An equitable curriculum is based on methods of instruction which are effective with diverse students and helps teachers root out biases in methods of assessment. Finally, a suitable curriculum helps all students value their own cultural heritage as they come to learn and appreciate the cultural heritage of others.

3) A Good Curriculum Promotes Deep Thinking

All students need to learn to think conceptually and critically. Even basic skills are best taught in the context of larger ideas. Learning should be integrated across curriculum areas and “prepare students to exercise independent, socially responsible choices in their lives.”. Finally, we need to recognize and develop a variety of intelligences, such as those identified by Harvard professor Howard Gardner linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

4) Curriculum Development Should Be an Ongoing Process

An effective curriculum is in, a constant state of renewal. Teachers and schools need to engage in ongoing reflection, evaluation and experimentation. The report notes, “As society changes, as new understandings emerge about teaching, learning, and running schools; as new generations of students come to MPS with different backgrounds, experiences, strengths, and

needs; so must schools change.”

Decentralization With Accountability

The authors of the report realized that good curriculum can only flourish in a school system which gives schools and teachers the freedom to explore diverse approaches while maintaining rigorous system-wide accountability. For long hours committee members struggled to find a way to establish a core of essential learning goals that all schools would strive to reach while not stifling school-based initiative with cumbersome lists of objectives for all grade levels and all subjects. They finally decided that the answer to this problem was to find a way for the entire MPS community to come to hold in common a core set of educational principles and a limited number of learning goals which were interdisciplinary, age appropriate and broad enough to allow plenty of room for creative teaching.

To accomplish this end, the report recommends that MPS adopt a set of “District Wide Learning Standards.” These standards will include a curricular philosophy, general learning goals relevant to all grade levels, and more specific developmental goals. The developmental goals will focus on what it is essential for children to know at different stages in their academic life. For example, the report recommends that the middle school years, grades 6-8, be considered a developmental stage. The proposed middle school goals would consist of limited lists of objectives designed to guide learning and assessment during these years in the areas of critical and creative linking, social and affective knowledge, skills and abilities, and content knowledge.

Since the Learning Standards will encompass the principles and goals to which all teachers will be held accountable and through which the success of each school will be judged, the report recommends that they be developed and adopted via thorough-going discussions which involve teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members. If the report’s recommendations are approved, the initial phase of these discussions will take place during the 89-90 school year and the Learning Standards will be in place by June of 1991.

The intent of the Learning Standards will be to strike an appropriate balance between systemwide expectations and school based initiatives. As the report explains, “While the Learning Standards will define, in broad terms, the district’s expectations for what all students are to be given an opportunity to learn and for the underlying principles of instruction, each school will have a great deal of flexibility in determining how to meet these standards. Teachers, students, parents and administrators will work together to develop the best ways for teaching and learning to go on in their building.”

The City Wide Learning Committee

To help guide the development of the District Wide Learning Standards and to coordinate several other curricular initiatives, the report proposes the creation of a “City Wide Learning Committee.” Composed of 70 teachers, students, parents, administrators, specialists and community members, this committee will help Central Office, Service Delivery Areas and schools plan and implement curricular reforms. During the 1989-1990 school year most of the work o f the CWLC will focus on initiatives in four areas:

Professional Development: The committee will work to provide teachers with expanded opportunities to learn about and try out new approaches to teaching. One of its top priorities during this school year will be to provide every staff member with the opportunity to attend (for pay or course credit) curriculum development workshops in the following areas:

  • Current scholarship and debate in specific subject areas
  • Working with heterogeneous grouping in the classroom
  • The regular education initiative
  • Alternative approaches to assessment Principles and methods of collaboration 

Structural Reform: School structure and organization often interferes with effective instruction. The CWLC will help schools experiment with changes which give teachers more opportunities to plan, to consult with each other, to collaborate, to integrate subject areas and to reduce class sizes. One of its prime responsibilities during the upcoming year will be to identify a limited number of schools interested in piloting new forms of school organization during the 90-91 school year.

Parent Involvement: Parent involvement in shaping and assessing curriculum has been highly limited. The CWLC will explore ways that parents can become more actively involved in helping to determine what their children learn in school. In the words of Fran Breest, Primary LD teacher and member of the K-12 Curriculum Steering Committee, “Parents are vital. They are the primary teachers of children and it is essential that they be involved in the whole educational process, especially such essential areas as curriculum. By giving parents the opportunities and” resources they need to become active participants in the process of curricular reform, we demonstrate the high respect we have for them and their role in the lives of their children.”

Research and Assessment: The prime responsibility of the CWLC in this area will be to establish meaningful ways to assess achievement of the goals contained within the District Wide Learning Standards. Building on the report and recommendations recently completed by the MPS Assessment Task Force, the CWLC will help schools develop methods of assessment which measure the attainment or real and meaningful skills.

A Good First Step

If adopted, this report could be a promising first step down the road of curricular reform. But its promise will only be transformed into reality through careful planning and a determined effort to encourage teachers, parents, and other members of the MPS community to step forward and get involved. School Director. Mary Bills underscored the urgent need to begin this work now, “The recently issued Indicators of Educational Excellence [commonly known as the MPS Report Card] shows that our schools are still not where we want them to be. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will not have children adequately educated for the 21st century. Changing the curriculum is the heart of educational reform, and this curriculum report is a step toward the future.”

David Levine teaches English at Shalom High School and was a member of the K-12 Curriculum Steering Committee.