Curriculum 2.0 – Been There, Done That

May 21, 2012

Nekyia: Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BCE, from Vulci, February 13, 2007. (Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikipedia). In public domain.

This school year, my son’s school district, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, began implementation of what they call Curriculum 2.0. This new curriculum, formerly known as the Elementary Integrated Curriculum, has been in the works for the better part of a decade. As MCPS explained in a flyer to parents, Curriculum 2.o will be one that will “better engage students and teachers, and dedicate more learning time to subjects such as the arts, information literacy, science, social studies and physical education. By blending these subjects with the core content areas of reading, writing, and mathematics, students will receive robust, engaging instruction across all subjects in the early grades.”

Why is better engagement of teachers and students necessary, and how will an integrated curriculum make this possible? The answer to the first part of this question is much more obvious than the answer to the second part. In light of county-level and state-level testing (in the latter case, the MSA for third, fourth and fifth grades), an engaging and integrated curriculum will enable students to be better prepared for the heavy doses of critical reasoning and reading comprehension that this testing involves, at least theoretically.

What hasn’t made much sense has been the implementation process itself, as Curriculum 2.0 became the curriculum for kindergarten and first graders in this 2011-12 school year, with the option of having it for second graders at some schools (like my son’s school in Silver Spring). Meanwhile, third and fourth graders won’t become part of Curriculum 2.0 until 2012-13, and this year’s fifth graders won’t see Curriculum 2.0 at all. It seems as if the implementation process was about as well planned as the SS Minnow’s tour of the South Pacific.

But that’s not the only story here. For someone’s who’s spent a great deal of time attempting to understand

A One Thousand and One Night manuscript written in Arabic under the second half of the Abbasid Era (750-1258 CE), February 9, 2008 (Danieliness via Wikipedia). Released into public domain via cc-by-sa-3.0 license.

the circumstances under which I grew up, including my times in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools in the ’70s and ’80s, MCPS’s Curriculum 2.0 is sort of like deja vu all over again. Except that in the period between ’76 and ’93, the kind of curriculum MCPS is implementing now was mostly for Mount Vernon’s gifted and talented students then, students who were part of the district’s Humanities Program, particularly those in the Grimes Center for Creative Education. The motivations for developing a similar curriculum three and half decades earlier came out of the need for racial integration and preventing White Flight, and in the process, a measure of academic excellence. Different circumstances in search of the same results, I guess.

A piece of evidence I uncovered a few years ago while working on Boy @ The Window shows how much educators reinvent the wheel in terms of curriculum development, a pitfall in education on which Diane Ravitch has been proven correct for the past thirty years. Charlotte Evans wrote in her April 1981 New York Times article on the Grimes Center that there “is a flowering of creativity at Pennington-Grimes [Grimes had combined with Pennington in the 1980-81 school year] that is evident in the hallways as well as in the classrooms.” Leroy L. Ramsey, New York State Department of Education Administrator of Intercultural Affairs and Educational Integration, when asked by Evans to comment, said that “the intent” of a school like Pennington-Grimes “was to break racial isolation and to stop white flight, and we have done that in Mount Vernon.”

As detailed by Evans in her April 1981 New York Times article, with the

[c]oordinating [of] language, math and science with social studies in the same way, first graders study the family and its roots, how people live and lived in different places. Second graders focus on prehistoric times – the old and new Stone Ages; third graders on the ancient Middle East, fourth graders on Greek and Roman civilization and sixth graders on the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Discovery.

This interdisciplinary approach to creating a magnet-style gifted track curriculum did not stop with a focuson other histories and cultures in social studies. “Fifth-graders, for example, specialize in studying the Middle Ages in Islamic nations and in Africa and Europe,” but they also “read Arabian Nights in connection with their Islamic study and went on to African folk tales,” according to fifth-grade teacher Mattie Lucadamo. In addition, there were other “flourishes,” such as “learning the foundation of Hindu-Arabic numbers” and “study[ing] astronomy, tracing it back to the Babylonians.”

It never ceases to amaze me how we as educators, education researchers, and governments spend time, money and human resources recreating what was already in existence, in this case, when I was my son’s age. But, like with the experiment that was the Grimes Center and Humanities, parents with resources will find a way to game the system. In one case, an innovative program was moved to Mount Vernon’s predominantly White North Side in May ’80, and tended to give more preferences to White students in general.

In the case of Curriculum 2.0, the more aware parents will send their kids to Kumon or Kaplan or other testing centers to give their kids every opportunity to do well in this new curriculum, score in the top percentiles on the MSA, and garner the gifted label in time for middle school.

No Rhodes Lead to College Park

February 4, 2011

The Road to the University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Note the Maryland flag colored shell on the Terrapin (turtle).

Three years ago I did an interview at the University of Maryland for a director position with their National Scholarships Office. It was a day-long interview that went from 9 am until 6:30 pm, meeting faculty and administrators throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour process.

It was one of my best interviews. I didn’t feel like I made any obvious errors, and I genuinely liked all of the people I met that day. But there was one question, one topic, that felt out-of-place, awkward, even stupid as part of the discussion of this position. It was the question, “If you get this job, can you guarantee that the University of Maryland will have a Rhodes Scholarship winner in five years?”

I was almost speechless after hearing the question. Not because I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to detect academic excellence or strong leadership skills in students. Not because I didn’t think I could handle the job. Mostly, I just thought that it would be ridiculous for any responsible professional to guarantee a prize like a Rhodes Scholarship based on variables beyond their control. “I can guarantee that I can get more students into the pipeline for a Rhodes, but I think it would be foolhardy for me to guarantee that I could get a Rhodes Scholarship in two or five years.”

Former U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar, NBA player, and alumnus of the University of Maryland, 2008. BGervais. Creator has granted permision for free use via Creative Commons.The conversation continued over the next fifteen minutes between me, another director and two deans. I discussed other important scholarships and fellowships. Fulbright. Truman, Mellon Mays, Ford Foundation, and so on. But the conversation returned three times to the mandate of then President Mote and his emphasis on raising Maryland’s prestige by having a student win a Rhodes Scholarship. After all, the university had not had a Rhodes Scholarship winner since basketball star Tom McMillen won the award in ’74. One administrator actually said, “We see no reason why we couldn’t do as well as the University of Michigan.”

I thought, “Wow! He said that with a straight face!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was as if I was listening to my ex-stepfather talk about how great a father he was while his kids were running around 616 with graying drawers and grumbling stomachs. Given the state of the scholarships office at the University of Maryland, they weren’t ready to compete with the University of Pittsburgh yet, much less the most prestigious land-grant public university in the country, and arguably the world. I graduated with and found myself in the same classes with one Rhodes Scholar when I was an undergrad at Pitt, and knew a finalist for the scholarship when I was a grad student there as well. And Pitt had nowhere near the academic reputation in ’91 or ’94 that it had earned by 2008.

I nudged the administrators who were interviewing me to think more systematically about how the scholarships office at the University of Maryland should go about setting goals. That a university must build its reputation for high-achieving students over time, so that its Rhodes Scholarship candidates will survive to at least be finalists in the process. That our competition was more the University of Virginia or University of Delaware or even Johns Hopkins before setting goals on par with the University of Michigan.

I obviously didn’t get the job. Given that conversation, though, I wasn’t sure if I wanted the job. The university found someone who had previous experience working in a university scholarships office. As with most staff positions at universities, experience working as a staff member (considered different from faculty, in case folks don’t know the difference) is more important than nonprofit management or academic teaching experience. I was definitely disappointed.

Still,  I wanted the challenge of creating a more academically enriching environment at the University of Maryland. And after three years of teaching in the University System of Maryland (via University of Maryland University College), I’ve taught enough College Park students to know that much work remains to create the kind of university necessary to produce Rhodes Scholars. Who knows? Maybe Maryland will have its first Rhodes Scholar recipient in thirty-seven years this spring. However, given the split personality of both the campus and the academic culture there, I seriously doubt it.

Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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