MCPS Pauses Search for New Curriculum After Learning Staff Members Are Taking Jobs with Vendor

The decision will delay the rollout of updated teaching materials at some schools, officials say


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Montgomery County Public Schools officials have put the brakes on their search for new math and English curriculum after learning that two employees are taking jobs with one of the textbook vendors that had been under consideration.

Superintendent Jack Smith’s decision to scrap the initial request for bids from curriculum developers will delay the rollout of new teaching materials in certain schools, according to a MCPS spokesman. But Smith believed the move was necessary to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

“There’s no evidence that there’s any kind of ill intent or anything along those lines, but we do know that perception often trumps reality, and our concern is that people will question the integrity of the process,” spokesman Derek Turner said Tuesday.

MCPS began its hunt for a new elementary school and middle school curriculum a couple months ago following an academic review that identified weaknesses with the existing instructional materials. The plan was to test the new curriculum at a subset of schools beginning this fall, and to that end, curriculum companies were given a May 11 deadline for submitting their bids to MCPS. The school system received 13 bids for the literacy curriculum and 13 for math.

But officials have learned that two district employees heavily involved in the selection process—Erick Lang, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction programs, and James Fliakas, supervisor for English and language arts in the department of secondary curriculum and districtwide programs— intend to retire and accept positions with Discovery Education, one of the curriculum companies that had been in the running.

Lang and Fliakas have recused themselves from further involvement in the curriculum search, and Discovery Education withdrew from consideration after learning the staff members were connected with the process. 

“While these job offers do not appear to have influenced the (request for proposals) process, we want to ensure public confidence in the integrity of this effort,” Maria Navarro, chief academic officer for MCPS, wrote in an email to staff. “We apologize for the disruption for our students and schools. We remain committed to acquiring a high quality curriculum, but it is critical that our teachers, students and families can have trust in the process.”

The delay was a tough pill to swallow for some teachers, many of whom have long urged a curriculum change.

“Many of us as educators had expressed an excitement and desire to begin implementing a new and better curriculum this fall. We also expressed a desire to have ample professional development prior to the beginning of school, so that we could be prepared to meet the needs of the young scholars before us. That’s why this news is challenging for so many of us, because we will not have a new curriculum in the fall of 2018,” Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, wrote Tuesday in a message to union members.

Lloyd said the union looks forward to working with MCPS on choosing the appropriate curriculum.

The existing teaching materials, called Curriculum 2.0, were developed between 2010 and 2013 to comply with the Common Core Standards adopted by the Maryland State Board of Education. A roughly $446,000 review completed earlier this year by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy concluded that many teachers have difficulty using the curriculum in language arts and math and don’t think it meets the needs of all students.

School board President Michael Durso said he understands any teacher frustrations with pushing back the curriculum update but agrees with Smith that the delay was necessary.

“Things happen that are not always planned, and we have to deal with it,” Durso said.

Turner said the school system anticipates conducting a second round of bidding this fall. Officials opted against restarting the search over the summer months, when many people are out of town and wouldn’t be able to participate in the process, he said.

It’s not yet clear when MCPS will start introducing the chosen curriculum to students, although Turner said it could happen as early as the spring semester.

Earlier this month, Navarro reported that 47 elementary schools had volunteered to try out the new math curriculum and 43 had expressed interest in testing the new language arts curriculum. She said 24 middle schools wanted to pilot the math and language arts curriculum in the fall.

For the time being, the delays will only impact the schools chosen for the first year of the rollout, Turner said. The slowdown could have a silver lining, since it will give MCPS more time to digest roughly 2,000 responses to a recent community survey on the curriculum switch, he said.

Amanda Graver, who chairs the curriculum committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said some parents had complained the search for new instructional materials seemed rushed.

“This will appease the people who feel like it was moving too fast,” she said Tuesday.

She said she supported Smith’s attempt to dispel doubts about the selection process and voiced confidence that the search will proceed without a preference for Discovery Education, should the company resubmit its bid.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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