9,360 lesson plans on the way

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As school opens, central office is rolling out drafts of daily lesson plans in math, science, language arts and social studies for every grade in the school system—9,360 lesson plans in all.

Officially titled a “structured curriculum,” they are pegged to the system’s learning standards, and they’re aimed principally at teachers who are new, uncertified in their subject areas or just “burned out or worn out or preoccupied with classroom management,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas told the National Science Board at a recent Chicago hearing on math and science education reform.

“Every single teacher in this system will have a model for good instruction,” he said.

“Teaching to standards is a shift in what teachers are accustomed to doing,” notes Director of Curriculum and Instruction Andrea Kerr, who oversaw the project, and some are uncertain how to transform the board’s general guidelines into specific classroom activities.

Each plan is a page or two in length and includes step-by-step directions for teachers, and examples of student activities. Lessons in elementary-level math and language arts generally are designed for use with small groups of students. “Some teachers have a hard time teaching small groups,” says Kerr. “They want to teach whole-class activities and then zero in on the ones who didn’t get it. We know that doesn’t work.”

Plans include references to pages in commercially produced textbooks and teachers manuals and other published materials. To help schools that haven’t purchased those products, the plans also describe the content on those pages. “In no way are we encouraging [schools] to run out and buy the textbooks,” says Kerr.

At press time, central office declined to give CATALYST examples of the lesson plans.

The ambitious undertaking was inspired by the success of the summer Bridge Program for students whose test scores fall short of promotion standards during the school year. Bridge teachers received detailed lesson plans and generally gave them good reviews.

While many other school districts have adopted academic standards or a core curriculum, Kerr believes Chicago is unique in developing day-to-day lesson plans. The current effort is not a first for Chicago, however. In the late 1970s, the district produced a set of scripted reading lessons called the Chicago Mastery Learning Reading Program. Some teachers thought highly of them, but they fell into disfavor in the early 1980s after Supt. Ruth B. Love mandated their use at some 300 schools with below-average reading scores. Love’s successor discontinued the program in 1985.

Unlike Mastery Learning, the new lessons are not scripts. Rather, they provide general guidelines for teachers. Nor are they mandated.

Twelve Chicago public school teachers with expertise in different areas directed the project, working full time during last school year. Another 100 teachers worked outside regular school hours from January to July. They were selected from 400 applicants recommended by their principals; each had to submit sample lesson plans. By using full-time teachers as writers, Kerr notes, plans could be field tested as they were developed.

The 12 lead teachers will continue working full time on the project this fall, this time assisting the 13 elementary schools and seven high schools that have agreed to field-test the program. They will answer questions, visit classrooms and model lessons. Piloting should help identify any “glitches” in the program, Kerr says. Armed with field test results, her office will revise lessons this spring for final printing by the end of the school year.

Central office is still considering how to assist schools that decide to use the plans in coming years. Kerr says it’s unlikely funding will be available for the kind of support the pilot schools will get. One possibility is bringing participating teachers together for staff development meetings, she says.

Margaret Harrigan of DePaul University, a former sub-district superintendent, cautions that workshops alone seldom lead to improved teaching. Without follow-up support in the classroom, teachers can quickly run into difficulties and “they go right back to what they were doing before,” she says. “The best professional development occurs on site.”