Friday, July 17, 2009

Curriculum Committee Considers its Role

The Board of Education Curriculum Committee met on Thursday morning to discuss how to respond to a new law, effective July 1st, which requires that the Board of Education of all school districts establish a Curriculum Committee. Several options were considered, including making no changes to the current arrangement, replacing the current Curriculum Committee with an all-professional one, and having both an all-professional committee and the current citizen's committee. There was vigorous discussion, but no decisions were reached.

A new approach
The Curriculum Committee consists of Board of Education members Bill Boyd, Sheila Daniels, and Sally Boske, and community members Susan Glass and Bill Grady. They meet once a month to discuss curriculum issues with Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Barbara Senges.
Senges informed the committee about the new law, "What's new is that now the law says it's [the Board of Ed's] duty to establish a "District-wide Curriculum Committee" (DWCC) that would establish the curriculum." She called for this new DWCC to be composed entirely of education professionals, including teachers, principals, and experts in education like her. She envisioned a group of people each with "life membership", who would concentrate on all aspects of the K-12 curriculum. There would be working groups responsible for each of the 4 areas of the curriculum (Language Arts, Mathematics, etc).

Senges contrasted such an approach with the approach that has been used, under former Assistant for Curriculum Dr. John Hennelly. In previous years, extra pay would be offered to teachers who wanted to spend time during the summer developing the curriculum. Senges said, "I don't like the method that has been used in the past. It's been a little random."

The "Leveling Brouhaha" and the role of the public
This spring parents discovered that the administrators had decided to eliminate leveling (the separation of students into different levels of ability) in 6th grade math and language arts. The committee discussed the uproar created by this decision, which was perhaps exacerbated by the lack of communication with parents. Boyd suggested that this episode indicated that the Board of Education needed to have authority over the curriculum.

Senges disagreed, saying that leveling was NOT a curriculum issue. She said an example of a curriculum issue would be the kind of math abilities that should be taught in third grade, not how students should be grouped in classes. She said that the District Wide Curriculum Committee would be responsible for interpreting the broad guidelines which the state provides to all districts, tailoring the curriculum to best serve the Middletown population.

Senges suggested that one advantage of a new DWCC would be that its meetings "would not be public meetings in my opinion... I don't think you want public to be there."

I waved my hands at this point, and Chairman Boyd graciously allowed me, as the only member of the public at the meeting, to comment. I questioned whether any committee formulated by state statute could hold meetings that were closed to the public. I also commented that after this spring's elimination of leveling, and the uproar caused in part by the lack of communication with parents, it might not be a good idea to reduce the opportunities for public information and input into curriculum issues.

Senges vigorously defended the idea that curriculum planning should be done by professionals, without any members of the public present. She said that of course Board Members would be welcome to come to any meetings of a District-wide Curriculum Committee.

Lines of authority
Boyd, Sheila Daniels, Susan Glass, and Bill Grady all questioned what the role of the Board's Curriculum Committee would be if there were a new, professional District Wide Curriculum Committee. Senges responded that Board Members "can ask about things, ... and [the board] needs to fund the curriculum development payments to teachers ($28/hour)". She also said that by state law, the Board needs to approve textbooks, although she agreed with Boyd that the Board has not done any textbook approval in many years. However, it seemed quite clear to her that matters of such centrality to education as the curriculum should be handled by professionals.

She told the board that the responsibility of the Board of Education Curriculum Committee is to be well informed, and that "Our job as administrators is to keep the Board of Education well informed... The reason we are at odds at times is because you don't have all the information."

Senges was in favor of keeping the current Board Curriculum Committee in place, after the formation of the DWCC. She agreed to create a chart with clear lines of responsibility and authority, delineating what the role of the Board, the Board's Curriculum Committee, and the professional DWCC, would be.

Board members also questioned whether the new state law unambiguously mandated a new committee of professionals. Several said that at the most recent meeting of CABE (Connecticut Association of Boards of Education), speakers from different school districts had discussed a wide range of ways that the new law could be met. Senges agreed to provide a legal interpretation of the law.

Next steps
At the next meeting of the Board's Curriculum Committee, which will occur probably on August 18th at 8AM, Senges is to present the legal interpretation, as well as the flow chart of responsibilities and authorities. The Board will then make a decision on the nature and responsibilities of Curriculum Committee(s).

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