New District Curriculum Misses the Mark

Portland Public Schools (PPS) began creating the Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) to revamp the way classes are taught across PPS schools. The GVC is a standards based curriculum, so it standardized learning goals and assessments that apply to all PPS students at each grade level, for each core subject. The guaranteed part meant equity: “Every student is provided the opportunity to learn from a rigorous core curriculum,” according to the district website. The viable part meant practicality: “assuring that the time and space is available” for that curriculum to function. Unfortunately, the GVC falls far short of these two critical goals.

PPS began creating the GVC in 2017. It is still in development for some subjects, including government and social studies courses. The math and English portions of the curriculum were created by teams of PPS teachers working with district officials last year. The science aspects of the curriculum were created by the district, and based off of the curriculums at neighboring districts, according to Franklin High School Vice Principal Emily Mather. A standards-based curriculum is not a new idea in PPS, but according to Mather, “this effort is notable in terms of its scope and the fact that the superintendent has made it such a key part of his agenda in his first year.”

Despite some uncompelling justifications the district has provided, their reasons for creating the GVC, particularly in such a short time frame, remain somewhat confusing. “The process felt very rushed,” said Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen. “Educators who had the opportunity to participate in developing it were alarmed at the pace it was going.” This hurry has contributed to creating a product that many teachers are deeply unsatisfied with. English teachers are particularly dissatisfied, according to Cohen. Elisa Wong, a language arts teacher at Franklin, helped work with the district to develop the GVC, and found the cramped time frame concerning. She and others were given only eight work sessions last school year to put together the scope and sequence of the curriculum for ninth through tenth grade language arts. “That’s not enough time to do your best work,” said Wong.

The GVC aimed to create equitable education across schools by unifying not only the standards taught at each school and the way they are assessed, but also the specific order in which those standards are taught, and the amount of time, in weeks, spent on each subject; this type of planning—creating a unified “pacing calendar”—is called sequencing. And the GVC’s sequencing is particularly stringent. PPS hopes that by unifying the order in which units are taught, they can make it easier for students to transfer between PPS schools without missing out on any important standards. Said PPS Strategic Communications and Outreach Director Harry Esteve, “providing students with standards-based curriculum, and similar course pacing, would help students who transfer from one school to another because they won’t encounter significant differences in what they are studying.” However, such regulation also restricts the way teachers choose to use class time, and ultimately creates equity issues of its own.

Franklin English teacher Desmond Spann has yet to implement the GVC in his freshman and sophomore English classes. He hasn’t had the chance to attend a district-provided GVC training that prepares teachers to use the GVC, and is waiting until next year to make the adjustments to his teaching that the GVC entails, as he and other teachers work on plans for the new GVC units during Franklin’s professional development time. Spann is familiar with the changes under the GVC, and concerned by the strict sequencing. Spann emphasizes culturally responsive teaching—tailoring each class’s curriculum to suit the culture within that particular class. “How you navigate time is cultural. So if I’m trying to be a culturally responsive teacher, you can’t take away my tool of time—how I decide what gets done and what doesn’t get done is not necessarily coming from a standpoint of what I prefer, it’s coming from a standpoint of what’s best for the culture that’s in the room,” said Spann. “GVC and culturally responsive teaching get put at odds,” he said, when teachers lose control of their timing. The timing of each unit throughout the year is a critical decision teachers make that allows them to adjust their teaching to suit the learning pace of their students.

Franklin English teacher Pam Garrett agrees. “I just don’t think someone else should dictate when a teacher does something… Part of this curriculum, and I use that term loosely, is to have us all on the same page at the same time. They say it is because of transfer students within PPS, but I don’t think that is the case. They feel equity is that everyone gets the same thing at the same time. They are mistaken about that being equitable,” said Garrett.

Indeed, equal unit timing throughout PPS does not constitute true equity. Different classes with different demographics—different cultures—move through material at different rates. One class may have a harder time studying theme, while another may need more time focusing on narrative writing. It takes a teaching plan with the flexibility to vary on a class-by-class basis for equitable, responsive teaching to be possible. Without allowing teachers this flexibility, the GVC will broaden inequity across school, class, and demographic lines.

Moreover, some teachers prefer to cycle through units and touch on them repeatedly at their own discretion rather than let the district curriculum dictate when or if they revisit a topic. Repeated exposure to an idea can help students retain information and master the standards. “I think that to ask a kid to master a standard, especially a difficult one like theme in the first few weeks of freshman year is not reasonable,” said Garrett. “Sure, some kids will, but most won’t. Here’s the inequity, theme needs to come around again and again for those students, and according to [the district’s] timing, we have to move on to something else.”

“Guaranteed” and “Viable”—out of the two criterion, the latter seems an easier mark. But the curriculum falls short here as well. Many class sets of teaching materials are rotated between PPS schools or classes throughout the year: book sets, computer carts, computer lab time. But if every class studies the same unit at the same time, these needs might overlap. “At the freshman level, they have not picked out particular texts,” said Garrett, “but in order to hit some of the standards, we might need a similar text at the same or near the same time, especially if we are holding to their timeline.” Added Wong, “If you have a research unit all at the same time for every single sophomore in the district, then even just at Franklin alone how can every single sophomore class—18 sections of sophomores—do a research unit when we have limited computers, chromebooks, lab space… That’s not even practical, that doesn’t make sense.” The GVC does not effectively account for the rotating of resources due to their limited availability. With lacking resources for each unit, this could ultimately have detriment on the quality of teaching within the curriculum. The district hopes that this will not be the case. “It’s not a one-size fits all curriculum,” said Esteve. “Standards can be covered through multiple types of resources.” However, teachers recognize that every type of resource is in high demand, and that there will undoubtedly be shortages.

Furthermore, the way the GVC’s standards are assessed places an unnecessary strain on teachers. “Quite a few teachers on the work team expressed concerns about writing standalone assessments for every single standard rather than writing assessments that were able to assess multiple standards at once,” said Wong. The sheer magnitude of assessments that teachers would be expected to grade would be overwhelming.  “Most of the time with an authentic assessment, we assess more than one standard. For example, with a paper we might assess organization and conventions or understanding of theme,” said Garrett. The individual assessments would place strain on students as well as teachers, increasing workload, taking up class time, and homogenizing assessment types.

Many of these problems with the GVC could perhaps have been prevented if teachers had been allowed more of a say in creating the curriculum. Wong felt that the district disregarded teacher concerns about the assessment workload. “I recall other teachers, even a principal at a school saying that’s a lot of work on so many assessments,” she said. “There was no response [from the district]… I don’t think there was a lot of give and take in terms of teacher feedback.” Cohen got a similar impression from other teachers who had worked on the curriculum. “Whenever things are implemented without input from people who its affected by, it’s hard for it to be a successful program,” she said. Though the district did enlist help from teachers to design parts of the curriculum, Wong points out that “they already had the structure in mind… That’s not freedom in development. And it certainly didn’t come from [the teachers] organically.” If the district had been more open to teacher advice, or had gotten PPS teachers involved earlier in the process, the GVC could have been more equitable and more widely accepted by teachers.

The district did make some effort to collaborate with teachers, even if some teachers viewed this as insufficient. “We certainly listened to their concerns and made adjustments where we thought was appropriate. In some cases, there were legitimate differences of opinion,” said Esteve. The district also has surveys on their website that teachers can use to provide feedback about specific parts of the GVC. Based on what I have heard from teachers at Franklin, these surveys were not widely publicized.

But despite its many flaws, there are some benefits to the GVC that most teachers recognize. The GVC’s common standards, assessments, and rubrics allow for some much-needed uniformity in education throughout the district. Says Mather, “We know that right now a student can be more or less likely to earn a specific grade in a class based on what teacher they get. The same performance level in two classes could earn you a B in one class and a D in another. That is not fair to kids.” The standardized grading system that is part of the GVC ensures that all students are graded fairly, based on the same criteria. And having a specific set of learning goals for each core class helps students be equally prepared for the next year’s courses. Franklin English teacher Elle Wilder elaborated, “The other part is ensuring that all students are getting a decent education. I think that really is the underlying goal of it. And it’s everyone’s underlying goal. Obviously we want accessible and rigorous curriculum for students. It’s one thing we all agree on.”

Having common standards and rubrics is helpful in all types of classes. Franklin math teacher Rob Jamieson is used to using such standards in his classes. “It aims to provide students with consistent expectations for learning in each class,” said Jamieson. “I agree with the idea that one Algebra 1-2 class shouldn’t be drastically different from another one.”

Ultimately, many teachers value their independence not because it allows them the convenience of not having to abide by strict district-wide requirements, but because in many cases, it allows them to better educate their students. “The GVC doesn’t work for many of us,” said Wilder, “because it doesn’t allow us to apply our expertise to the best way to teach our students and to meet the district goals of individualization and equity. Not because it’s a hassle, or it’s too difficult, or we don’t want to be told what to do.” Garrett agreed, “I just want to be able to plan my own lessons and assessments around the standards. I know best about the pacing… and that can change from year-to-year, from group-to-group. The GVC does not respect my professional opinion as a teacher.”

Fortunately, the GVC may not be set in stone. Franklin administration can determine the degree to which the curriculum is enforced. “We support teachers making adjustments to the GVC that are good for kids,” said Mather, “but that work should be done collaboratively across grade level teams, rather than by teachers in isolation.” Franklin administration encourages teachers to use the GVC as a guideline, but does not expect them to adopt it entirely. Spann expected this. “There’ll be people who’ll comply when they’re being watched and when they’re not being watched they’ll do their own thing,” he said. Garrett is critical of the GVC assessments, and tried one out at the beginning of the year but did not use any of them again. But she is also open to finding a middle-ground between her teaching style and the district curriculum. “We have been talking about how we can make this our own,” said Garrett.

The district has been concerningly lax about providing teachers clear opportunities to give feedback about the GVC. However, many teachers have hope that it will either be altered, or not strictly enforced—particularly the problematic pacing calendar. It is a good sign that Franklin’s administration recognizes the problem with the GVC. By allowing teachers to incorporate only parts of it and still maintain the freedom they need to teach their classes effectively, the GVC could perhaps become a useful tool. But as it currently stands, it will take a much larger conversation to make the curriculum truly guaranteed and viable. It will take a district-wide effort to standardize not just our assessments, but our own understanding of equity within this great, city-wide classroom of which we are all a small part.

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