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Curriculum Plan Raises Equity, Policy Issues

Developers say pilot program will raise the bar, but teachers say it is 'educationally unsound'

Administrators behind a pilot that will put Level IV Advanced Academic Placement (AAP) curriculum in every third- through sixth-grade classroom of one Fairfax County pyramid say it will "raise the bar" on student achievement and offer teachers more learning tools.

But teachers charged with implementing the program are calling it "educationally unsound," not only in the way it creates inequity among county students but also in how it was developed without staff input or buy-in — concerns shared by some school board members who say it begs broader questions about how the board makes policy decisions.

Level IV classes offer students a more challenging version of the four "core" classes, putting a heavier emphasis on discovery learning and critical thinking skills and methods like Socratic seminars.

The pilot — which would make the curriculum available in all third- to sixth-grade classrooms at Chesterbrook, Franklin Sherman, Haycock, Kent Gardens and Timber Lane elementary schools next fall — is part of a several-year county goal to expand the advanced classes available to students, Superintendent Jack Dale told the board at a work session Thursday. 

"I don’t view this as necessarily a new thing," board chair Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said on Friday. "It’s a continued expansion."

But teachers belonging to the county's two major unions disagreed, saying the pilot was mandatory in nature and offered opportunities to only a small group of the county's students; it also added another requirement to the already unmanageable teacher workload at those schools because of teacher training requirements.

"This is a huge change," board member Patty Reed (Providence) said on Friday. "If we’re talking about raising the bar for all children through a program that is essentially mandatory, then that is something that should get widespread attention from the board and really all stakeholders. Is this a pilot project? How will it be measured? Is this something only going to be offered in this pyramid? Why not others? In my view this was a significant policy issue and I wasn’t even consulted or communicated with. It’s both the content of the program and the process I take issue with."

Raising The Bar

For years, students identified as Level IV learners had to enroll at one of the county's 24 elementary-level Advanced Academic Program Centers to take advantage of the program.

Half a decade ago ago, schools gained the ability to offer local Level IV services, which kept general education classrooms in tact but also allowed advanced students to remain in their base schools to study core subjects in level IV classrooms. Thirty-five schools across the county are offering this type of environment, said Cluster I Superintendent Marty Smith, who is leading the pilot at the McLean Pyramid elementary schools.

The proposal, which would take effect next fall, differs from both of these approaches, Smith said: It would make Level IV Advanced Academics available in all classrooms, eliminating "general education" and "advanced" classrooms in favor of allowing teachers to "teach up" with advanced materials in all classes but "scaffold down" based on the subject and individual student needs.

"We’re not closing the door to the general education curriculum. We’re just opening the door to another set of resources that teachers can use with students and to support students," Smith said.

Haycock Elementary School, one of the five in the pilot, is already a Level IV Center, Smith said; Timberlane and Chesterbrook already offer local services.

At Timberlane, where Level IV classes are often small, Smith said teachers invited some general education students into the classroom, and those students "were performing very well, were engaged in the curriculum and were outperforming the students [intentionally placed there]," Smith said. "We started to say, 'Well, what would it look like if we could provide that access to level IV with more students? If we teach up, and teach to the highest level with higher expectations for students  — while still recognizing there may be some students who have difficulty reaching those expectations and we meet those students where they are — we start to pull all students up." 

Smith said teachers would not be required to attain full certification, which calls for four training courses over five years. Instead, teachers would have to take two courses on their own time. The system is exploring ways to offer the training in-house over the next two years or connect teachers with resources to do so.

An Equity Issue

Smith says the idea has been discussed in all of the affected schools at various times over the past two years, and staff was supportive in moving forward with the program.

But the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and the Fairfax Education Association say that's not true. In some cases, members didn't know the proposal — which they say requires uncompensated, out-of-school teacher training — had not been formalized until the day before their schools sent letters home to parents, the unions wrote in letters to the school board this week.

Teachers never agreed to the training and were never "genuinely involved in the decision of making the curricular change," wrote FCFT President Steve Greenburg. "Instead, the decision was 'handed down' from administration without staff support or collaborative engagement."

Beyond the workload and engagement issues, teachers are also concerned about the impact an advanced curriculum will have on students, especially those at-risk; the equity of making this change only in McLean and not countywide; and longer-term, divison-wide impacts, such as parents insisting their children continue with advanced classes in middle school or that an even higher level of coursework be created because their child is far ahead of the class.

FCPS’ Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted currently requires students be screened and selected for advanced programs, FEA President Michael Hairston said. But in the teachers' opinion, the pilot would automatically qualify all elementary school students in the McLean pyramid.

"FCPS purportedly has four levels of advanced academics so that students can learn at their own pace, but the curriculum that is actually being delivered to our students is too often one-size-fits-all," read a separate letter from the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted. "This ... is another example [of that]."

"As long as the teachers are given enough time to prepare themselves for the curriculum, I think allowing access is great," Strauss said. "I think parents are also very interested in individualizing instruction to give challenges at whatever level is suitable for their child."

The Bigger Picture

Hairston said the AAP issue is just the most recent teacher workload concern, adding to this year's new math curriculum, and next year's new language arts and science curricula, and requirements for school progress reports. 

Like the AAP pilot is another instance of curriculum and policy changes being made without thorough analysis and conversation with all stakeholders, including teachers and school board members, he said.

"It’s a process that I think is broken," Hairston said. "That, I think, is a bigger issue that we need to address." 

Reed said she didn't know about the change until a constituent contacted her.

"From a policy perspective, no board member should by caught by surprise," she said.

Other members also took issue with the program at Thursday's work session, including Sandy Evans (Mason) and Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who said she was dealing with similar confusion and discrepancies in how honors courses were being restored in her district.

Reed said if the plan is truly a pilot program, there should be discussions about how it is tracked and measured, and there should be plans to offer it at all schools. If it's a mentality shift, she said, it should be part of a conversation about what advanced academics mean for the county.

"I don’t think there was any malice involved. I think the people involved in this thought it was a great idea and the people who were going to implement it understood it. But I don't agree [with how it was done]," Reed said.

The board agreed to discuss the AAP pilot program and its implications at an April work session; in May, it will discuss how information about pilot programs and curriculum changes are communicated to the board and how heavily it wants to be involved in their implementation.

"That’s the fine line ... at the end of the day, it’s a question of what do we view as the role of this board when it comes to policy decisions?" Reed said. "Is the trigger a pilot program? Is it something bigger? We can use this as an example to have this discussion to make sure everyone is in agreement, so the next time it happens there's an expected procedure in place and people are not caught by surprise by not being included."

Catherine February 26, 2012 at 01:32 AM
How interesting that all the schools chosen for this pilot are in precincts that voted for Janie Strauss. She sure does love to play favorites. It would be nice if she would focus on class size first.
Greg Brandon February 26, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Peter Noonan, the outgoing Assistant Superintendent Instructional Services, has actually stated that it is good for the higher-performing students to help the lower-performing students in the classroom. In other words, its okay for students to be Instructional Assistants. I disagree. In the classroom students are students and teachers are teachers. The teacher should be feeding the higher-performing students enriching curricula, not enlisting their help. Of course, outside the classroom I believe it is good for students to help each other.
Kathy Keith February 26, 2012 at 02:55 AM
Noonan's idea sounds like a good way to set up a "caste system". Sending fourth graders down to listen to first graders read occasionally is okay--but putting them there to tutor their peers? Occasionally, that is certainly okay and kind. But, instructional assistants-not a good idea. Unfortunately, a lot of FCPS teachers already do this with "group work." From elementary school to high school, group work is way overused at all levels. I think it is fine in the classroom as part of learning to cooperate, but when evaluation is involved, it can work to the detriment of the good and the poor students. My personal opinion is that most kids do better in a heterogenous class--kids do learn all kinds of things from each other. As a teacher, I can say that it adds spice to a class and that all children benefit from this. I do not like the center approach. I think kids are better off in their own communities, and I think there are many unintended consequences to separating the GT kids from the others. (The AAP classes are no longer just for the very highly gifted. The program is not what it used to be. If FCPS is going to have AAP-IV separated, it should be much more selective.) I don't know enough about the program described in the article to judge it. I think it sounds like a good idea, but I get the impression it did not have much input from the teachers. I suspect that most good teachers already use a lot of these tools-no matter who they teach.
Cassie February 26, 2012 at 09:28 PM
I like the idea of a heterogeneous class, but the spectrum from low to high just keeps getting wider putting too much strain on teachers to teach to all of these levels effectively. Teachers have to teach to children 3 years ahead of grade level all the way down to children more than 3 years behind. When I was at school teachers only had to teach from a range of 1-2 grade levels with under 20 children, not 6 like they do now with 30 children. I hear some schools switch classrooms by subject making it easier for children to interact at different levels. Perhaps one of the classroom periods could be more heterogeneous. Just a thought.
Kathy Keith February 26, 2012 at 10:55 PM
Cassie, Here is a secret: If you have 20 kids in a class, you have 20 different levels-even when you were in school. Not only that, children may start at the bottom and work their way to the top. If they are "identified" early and put in a class at their level, they usually stay there. If they are in a heterogenous class, it is a lot easier to move them up--or down. Naturally, the mobility within a class decreases as they get older--but children still "blossom" at different times. Even in AAP classes you will find a very wide span. As a teacher, I cannot think of anything that pleased me more to see a child who had been designated as "slow" to begin to "get it" and take off academically. This extreme does not happen in every class or every year, but it does happen. And, almost always, there are some who start in the middle and end up near the top. Sadly, there are some who plateau, as well. The ones who plateau are usually the ones who have been pushed with tests and worksheets early instead of developing language and curiosity. There have almost always been kids a year or two-or more- above grade level-and those who were two or three years behind. It is difficult, but possible. Those that are very far behind should be in special programs, although this does not always happen. Also, it is not unusual for kids to be above grade level in one area and not in another.

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