Rockville mother Deb Stahl said her younger daughter was born with a bubbly personality and an aptitude for math.
Around third grade, though, Stahl’s daughter seemed to hit a wall in school.
“The spark just went out. I felt like I was watching her fall apart over the course of the school year,” she said.
It was about four years ago, and Montgomery County Public Schools was in the middle of rolling out a new curriculum that followed the Common Core standards adopted by the state in 2010. Stahl’s daughter was one of the “guinea pigs” for what was called Curriculum 2.0, and her first few years in elementary school left her feeling burned out, her mother said. Stahl tried to share her concerns about the curriculum and underlying standards but never felt like she was getting anywhere with Common Core’s proponents.
But now, after reviewing a report that identified flaws in Curriculum 2.0, MCPS has launched a search for new instructional materials. Stahl and other parents in the school system have mixed feelings about the news.
Some are glad the school system is responding to problems that many teachers and parents have spent years trying to highlight. Others are frustrated that their children ever had to use the materials or have raised questions about the use of taxpayer dollars to develop a curriculum that is now being scrapped.
The county won a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop its curriculum and wrote the materials in partnership with Pearson, an educational publishing company. Pearson offered MCPS additional expertise and satisfied the terms of the federal grant, which required the school system to find a partner that would contribute at least 20 percent in matching funds.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the school system used the grant funds to make the original investment of $5 million in writing the curriculum, but continued to spend money on developing and introducing the materials over the following six years. He said he didn’t have an accurate number for the total cost of Curriculum 2.0.
He said the new Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy report evaluating the elementary- and middle-school curriculum cost slightly more than $446,000.
The Johns Hopkins team concluded that the language arts curriculum and elementary-level math curriculum don’t sufficiently line up with Maryland College and Career Ready Standards, which incorporate Common Core standards.
The Johns Hopkins report suggested that MCPS should consider replacing Curriculum 2.0 with instructional materials developed outside the school system, and officials have said they are starting a process to do just that.
School board member Pat O’Neill, who was in office when MCPS made the decision to write its own curriculum, said the shift in a new direction doesn’t mean the school system wasted its time and money.
“If you bought a car five years ago … you’d be replacing it with a newer car that has many more safety features on it than it did five years ago,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.
When Common Core became the state standard, the market lacked materials fitting the new framework, so it made sense for MCPS to develop its own, she said.
Amanda Graver, who chairs the curriculum committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, agreed.
“Producers were taking what they already had and putting a sticker on it saying ‘Common Core Aligned.’ There wasn’t anything that really was Common Core aligned,” she said.
But years later, curricula that align with the standards are ready for sale, and there are even some open-source materials available for free.
Graver said there are lessons to be learned from the rollout of Curriculum 2.0. For one thing, many felt that teachers weren’t given enough training on the new materials or time to absorb them.
“Curriculum 2.0 was coming out as they were still writing it. For some teachers, quarters one and two would be written, but not the third or fourth, so they couldn’t look ahead,” Graver said.
Buying a complete curriculum would alleviate this problem in the future, she said.
The Johns Hopkins report noted that currently, teachers often look outside the curriculum for instructional materials, scouring the internet for lessons and assignments.
Angela Martin, a teacher at Rosemont Elementary School in Gaithersburg, said she enjoys having the freedom to find her own resources, but she also sees the value in building these materials into the curriculum.
“Having resources is great as long as teachers have a voice in how to use those resources,” said Martin, who’s in her 12th year as a teacher with MCPS.
The report also reiterated concerns by teachers and parents that Curriculum 2.0 focused on middle-of-the-road students, but offered little for advanced learners or for those who were struggling. English language learners and special education students were also overlooked at times, according to the report.
Martin has noticed the same thing in Curriculum 2.0. For instance, some of the recommended books don’t relate well with students’ culture or experiences, she said. Martin said she hopes the replacement curriculum will address a broader array of needs and backgrounds.
“Every student in Montgomery County should be considered,” she said, adding that the curriculum should be “diverse enough to reach all the students in our diverse county.”
Martin, who co-chairs an elementary council on teaching and learning for the Montgomery County Education Association, said she welcomes a new curriculum, as long as it’s the right fit for students and teachers. Input from teachers will be essential in choosing the best materials, she said.
Graver said she’s eager for parents to have more access to instructional materials than they did with Curriculum 2.0.
“So that by being able to look at what’s being taught, that will help parents access the curriculum and help their kids at home,” she said.
MCPS officials have said they will likely present a curriculum recommendation to the school board sometime in June so teacher training can begin over the summer. Then, MCPS will begin a three-year curriculum rollout starting with a subset of schools.
Instead of introducing the new materials grade by grade, many principals want to implement them school by school, O’Neill said. That way, no one cohort of students ends up being the “guinea pig” class each year that they are in elementary school.
Martin said the school-wide rollout could also benefit educators, since teachers at a school will be able to support one another more effectively as they go through the transition together.
But even if the teaching materials changes, Stahl said the underlying Common Core standards could still cause problems because of the demands placed on younger students. In third grade, her daughter learned no fewer than six different algorithms for subtraction and was spending 90 minutes on homework each night, she said.
Though her daughter is now in seventh grade and earning high marks in math, she still gets nervous about moving to more advanced classes; Stahl said her daughter’s early childhood experience might be fueling these jitters.
“I don’t know if that’s a permanent thing,” Stahl said.
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