Custom-Built Curriculum

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Custom-Built Curriculum

Districts are abandoning textbooks and instead picking and choosing their owninstructional materials that more closely align to new academic standards.

Hardware & Software PEORIA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT #11 got a rude awakening in the summer of 2003 when it receivedthe results of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards(AIMS): The district's overall performance was good, but only20 percent of its eighth-graders passed the math portion ofthe exam. "We decided that there had to be a better way toteach that curriculum," says Kristin Phelps, administrator forK-12 curriculum in the 37,000-student district.

Phelps and her Peoria colleagues determined that the district's textbook-based instructional materials didn't match state standards. One math teacher, who now works in the district curriculum department, took it upon herself to begin building lessons from the ground up, working in small groups with other teachers. The district supported the effort with professional development, and used grant monies to pay teachers for working Saturday mornings and summers to develop curriculum materials that more closely adhered to state standards than did the textbook content.

The effect of the new curriculum was manifest on the 2006 AIMS test: 79 percent of all Peoria students passed the math portion of the exam. Eighth-graders posted a nearly 300 percent improvement.

"It was never our goal not to have math books available to teachers and students, but to find the quickest route to provide lessons through worksheets, teaching notes, and advanced organizers for students," says Phelps, adding that materials are available in hard copy, on CD, and via the district's intranet portal. "We do not recommend that teachers teach Unit 1, then Unit 2, or page 1 and page 2. We recommend the use of instructional managers and pacing guides. We work hard to be curriculum- and standards-driven, rather than to teach the content in the order and format that it is presented by the textbook."

To maintain compliance with the prescripts of the No Child Left Behind Act, and stay in step with increasingly sophisticated district and state testing, more districts are doing as Peoria has done: eschewing textbooks or limiting their use, and setting off on their own paths or collaborating with other districts to develop customized curriculum materials. The general feeling is that mandated academic standards are changing faster than textbooks are keeping up, and new technology makes both finding and rolling out supplemental sources an easier and more effective way to go.

Redevelopment Project

Plano Independent School District (TX) has been customizing its curriculum since the mid-1990s, says Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services. "We still get textbooks for every student, but our involvement with them is much less," Hirsch says. "The goal is to be as textbook-independent as possible, using textbook materials as reference, versus using them for day-to-day instruction."

Plano's curriculum reformation began in 1994, when the state toughened standards for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The district addressed its K-5 curriculum first. Administrators employed a co-teaching model, pulling one teacher from each of its 43 elementary schools for half-day curriculum development sessions, working in standardized modules for mathematics, reading, science, social studies, and health. Work was also begun in the middle schools. The co-teaching model again was employed, pulling two teachers from each of the 12 middle schools. However, while elementary teachers worked in one group, middle school teachers worked together by grade level.

Redevelopment of the high school curriculum started in 2002; Hirsch says the process is 80 percent complete. Plano high school students can choose from 180 courses, and the district couldn't figure out a way to release enough teachers to complete the work more quickly. Some teachers are released for periods of time during the school year, but much of the work is done during the summer months.

Courses are designed in six-week modules, with a clear list of objectives that must be mastered. Teachers, however, have a lot of latitude to incorporate their own materials and tailor instruction to both struggling learners and advanced ones. "Our central curriculum staff numbers 11," Hirsch says, "and they work on yearly updates, reviewing the curriculum and getting teacher input on changes."

After Peoria USD revamped its curriculum materials, deemphasizingtextbooks, the number of eighth-graders passing the math part of the2006 state test rose nearly 300 percent above the 2003 results.

Costs vs. Benefits

Developing individual lesson plans at the district level isn't cheap, but if the results outweigh the costs, says Ted Hasselbring, why not give it a try? Hasselbring is a research professor of special education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. He suggests districts perform a cost/benefit analysis of whatever avenue they choose.

"The issue is more economic, because it can be an expensive way to go," Hasselbring says. "If people involved in the process have buy-in and believe in it, that's important."

Hasselbring is the creator of Read 180, a reading curriculum that he began developing in 1984. The program was licensed by Scholastic in 1997 after a five-year pilot at Florida's Orange County Public Schools and is now used in more than 10,000 schools and by more than 1 million students. Hasselbring can see the value of aligning teaching materials to standards, something that most textbooks cannot achieve. However, as a curriculum developer, he has seen the gains that result from full implementation.

"Where we see adoption [of Read 180], districts that follow the implementation as designed get better results than from custom installs," Hasselbring says. "It's a researchbased product, and when you start mucking with it and do one-half the implementation, you get one-half the results.

"People tell us, ‘My god, you've brought all this together for us.' To reconstruct such a product, the human effort would cost much more than [the cost of] purchasing it. Why would anyone do that if a product exists and does a good job?"

Technology Leads the Way

Maize Unified School District 266 (KS) is bringing technology to its students through a modified 1-to-1 laptop initiative. Students are not assigned a laptop for daily use, but portable computers or tablet PCs are available in some core classes.

Introducing the computers has enabled the school to transition from textbook-based instructional content. In fact, says Sherry Goodvin, director of secondary education and student services, textbooks were last purchased for the 2004-2005 school year. "We started the laptop initiative in 2005, and we haven't done any textbook adoptions since then," Goodvin says. "We are spending our money on supplemental materials."

After installing the technology and showing teachers how to use it, the district has relied on such online tools as Net-Trekker, Discovery Education Streaming, and Blackboard to build standards-based courses. Teachers collaborate and share lessons, which eases the burden of moving to an online environment.

Work on revamping the science curriculum started last year. Mathematics followed this year, and work on language arts will start in 2008. This spring, Maize students will take their first state assessments following the 1-to-1 implementation, which will allow the district to assess and hone its materials.

Meanwhile, back west in Arizona, Peoria officials get feedback on the district's new math curriculum through quarterly student assessments. Results are tallied quickly and pushed back to the schools, where teachers can see how groups of students or individuals performed against each standard.

"Students will take the test one week, and teachers will receive tabulated results by the middle of the next week," Phelps says. "Arizona doesn't have deep pockets, but we support data collection through regular budgetary channels, and we think improving math scores through this method is a good use. We place our money where we believe it's important."

Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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