The "S" Word: Ten Years Later: Schools That Have Embraced a Coherent, Standards-Based Curriculum Have Closed Both the Equity and Achievement Gaps. Here's How They Did It

By Cash, Jeanie | Leadership, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview
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The "S" Word: Ten Years Later: Schools That Have Embraced a Coherent, Standards-Based Curriculum Have Closed Both the Equity and Achievement Gaps. Here's How They Did It


Cash, Jeanie, Leadership


One day last spring I was looking over the achievement data that was going into our district's Board Update. I was feeling pretty smug and a whole lot complacent. After all, most of our schools could be classified as high performing, I work with an exceptionally gifted superintendent who makes the success of students his highest priority, and I serve a Board of Education that we affectionately call the Dream Team because every decision it makes reflects its deep commitment to students and our instructional programs.

The euphoria was short-lived.

The very next morning I visited classes at one of the high schools in our district when a teacher stopped me to ask if I would send him "a copy of those new standards."

"Excuse me, I thought as I tried to hide my astonishment. NEW?!"

And, if that didn't deflate my euphoric mood, my visit to open house at one of our elementary schools that same evening certainly did. The first classroom I visited had 32 identical turkey handprints pinned in perfect rows on the bulletin board. Each finger represented a one-word description of something for which they were thankful. Since this was the month of May, I thought, "She must have each month displayed around the room." Not so! Those were still there from Thanksgiving!

Much to my dismay, I moved up a grade level and lo and behold, there was the infamous dinosaur unit boldly displayed.

Driving home that evening I consoled myself by thinking this day was the exception, not the norm. Still, I mentally went through the blame checklist--district's fault? Site administrator's fault? Why, 10 years later, isn't every teacher in this district of 27,000 students teaching a coherent, standards-based curriculum?

I reflected on my own first years of teaching and the yet unknown "S" word, a time when the word "standard" meant "traditional." In those days, Madeline Hunter and Earlene Minton taught us how to teach, but did anyone really tell us what to teach?

I began teaching in the late 1970s in the days of Proposition 13 and declining enrollment. Because of the closing of schools in my district, I changed grade levels five times in five years. One year, my rookie status landed me in a sixth grade assignment the day before school started. I managed to find an outdated set of reading books and a fairly up-to-date set of math books in the book room. I could not find any books for social studies, so at lunch I asked the veteran teachers at that grade level what the sixth-grade curriculum was for social studies.

Some 30 years later, I vividly recall their answers. One teacher said, "I went to China this summer, so I'm going to teach about China." Another said, "I went to the Middle East with my church, so I'm going to cover Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. I have a lot of slides." The third teacher, whose room was crawling with snakes, iguanas and other like creatures said, "I don't have time to teach history because I like to spend my time teaching science."

I discovered over the next few years that teachers pretty much taught their heart's desire, based on their interests and the textbooks available. It's no wonder dinosaur units flourished. Because colorful tyrannosaurus rex pictures were found in every teacher supply store, students were studying dinosaurs in almost every grade level!

When a new superintendent arrived, he surveyed the teachers as to what we perceived to be the greatest needs in the district. I recall writing at the top of my list, "A coherent, sequential curriculum of study for each grade level in every subject." Over the years we didn't get a coherent, much less standards-based curriculum, but we did adopt new textbooks and, as is often the case, those became the curriculum guides.

What is a standards-based, coherent curriculum?

Standards have been one of the hottest topics in education reform for more than a decade.

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The "S" Word: Ten Years Later: Schools That Have Embraced a Coherent, Standards-Based Curriculum Have Closed Both the Equity and Achievement Gaps. Here's How They Did It
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