Schools need standard curriculum guides

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Efforts to downsize, streamline and reduce the bureaucracy of the Chicago Public Schools are essential and commendable. However, these efforts may not be enough to impact student achievement scores. Curricular, instructional and evaluation components need to be reviewed.

As the CPS’ seven-year experiment with bottom-up administration has gone down in flames, so has the individual-school-determined, bottom-up, non-test-aligned, decentralized curriculum. The major shortcoming of the Chicago public schools instructional program is the lack of a common curriculum that is aligned with an evaluation instrument that measures what is being taught. Standards without a core curriculum have not and will not do the job, particularly when they keep changing every year.

Instead the CPS curriculum appears to be chaotic and inconsistent, based on a variety of textbooks and dubious software programs. There are no common districtwide curriculum guides in the classrooms. Teachers use different textbooks from different publishers that may or not be aligned with the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills or the state IGAP tests. The textbook content is the curriculum. Each teacher interprets the standards and hopefully selects or invents the curriculum content that matches the particular standard. Why should teachers go through this two-step process, interpreting the standards and then writing the curriculum?

Coupled with a high mobility rate, it is no wonder that a significant number of inner-city students have low standardized test scores. Each time a student transfers he is confronted with a different instructional program and curriculum.

Since test scores and academic achievement are driven largely by socioeconomic factors, schools that serve lower socioeconomic students generally have low achievement test scores. Inner-city schools cannot depend upon the socioeconomic level of the community to support or increase student test scores. Thus, these students are wholly dependent upon the schools as the only avenue open to them to perform well on standardized tests.

If the curriculum does not match the test or the test does match the curriculum, how can the test be used as a measure of the quality of instruction? Also if there is not a districtwide, continuous and grade-overlapping curriculum that is aligned with a diagnostic test, how can one expect students to achieve and test scores to improve? Suburban school districts have a basic, common curriculum and guides and an instructional program, supplemented by textbooks and software and aligned with and evaluated by diagnostic test. CPS should have the same.

CAT, not ITBS

Also the recent homework mandate for all students, coupled with the retention policy, will not significantly influence achievement scores unless the curriculum-test alignment problems are resolved. Teachers should be mandated to teach the curriculum, and students should be tested as they enter and exit each grade and when they transfer between schools.

Since the CPS instructional program is driven by test scores, I recommend that the California Achievement Test (CAT) replace the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The latter test has low item and sampling validity—i.e., not enough test items in the content areas to determine students’ mastery of the area. Also the entire test, including math sections, is highly dependent on students’ ability to read. The Iowa is basically a reading test, which makes it difficult to determine how well a student has mastered other content areas independent of reading.

Although the Iowa may be useful for making decisions about curriculum emphasis at the school level, it is not useful for making decisions at the level of the individual child. The CAT will provide teachers with the necessary diagnostic data to determine how well a student has mastered a content area and indicate specific remediation needs. The implementation of these recommendations should not only improve student achievement scores but accountability as well.