Report of Committee to Redesign Middle School Curriculum: Top Secret for Now

An administrative report recommending changes the middle school curriculum district-wide that was due in late December is now expected some time in January. Shwaw Vang, chair of the Performance and Achievement Committee of the MMSD school board, held a second meeting on the expected report on December 19. According to minutes of the November meeting on this topic, the December meeting would be an opportunity for Board members to provide feedback or input.
Unfortunately, the Board received no new information about the likely proposal of the committee, although the recommendations will affect most areas of the middle school curriculum, including Fine Arts, Life Skills, Mathematics, Wellness, and World Languages as well as Student Support Services. Among other things, the recommendations will result in equal minutes of instruction across subject areas.

At a November 14 meeting, the Performance and Achievement committee heard the following overview of the work of the Middle Grades Design Team to Develop a Consistent Curriculum for 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Students.
“Pam Nash noted the design team was formed at the request of the Superintendent and charged to design a consistent sixth through eighth grade educational experience across the middle grades that address the areas of learning, engagement, and relationships. The goal is that all middle grade students will have an equal opportunity to gain the academic and interpersonal skills necessary to be prepared for the rigor of the ninth grade. She presented an overview of the work of the team to date. Recommendations will be provided to the Superintendent by the end of December and then to the Board of Education.
• Considerations/affect on a magnet school program (Spring Harbor).
• Board opportunity to review recommendations. Board needs a real role before decisions come about budget and curriculum change.
• Focus of “learning” is that all students are prepared in the same way for the rigor of high school curriculum. Parents (not just low income) are concerned about rigor.
• Focus should be on priorities and a way to measure progress.
• Question is how to guarantee equal challenge as well as the opportunity to explore.
• Focus has been on emotional and social aspects and not enough academic challenge. Part of the issue will be bringing the staff along.
• Real goal is a consistent, rigorous academic program that does not look different from school to school, or teacher to teacher. Upgrade academic program and make it as consistent as possible.
• With continuing budget cuts, different schools made different choices about curriculum; widened from each other. Issue has been visited. At a point to do this now because it is the right thing to do for students.
• Ask for input from students as well. Need to know any budgetary impacts.
Follow-Up: Shwaw Vang asked for another presentation in early December. This would also be an opportunity for Board members to provide feedback or input.”

From draft of Minutes of Performance and Achievement Committee on November 14, 2005.

Like the public, the Board of Education remains in the dark as to the scope and content of the committee’s likely recommendations to Superintendent Art Rainwater, let alone his thoughts. We will all get our first chance to review potentially sweeping curriculum changes in the New Year—at the same time that the board will be resolving school boundary and construction issues, monitoring the “$100 budget process”, developing the budget for the 2006-07 school year, and receiving the recommendations of the new task force on the district’s “equity policy”. A similar secrecy and delay last year kept the board from knowing about recommendations affecting high school sports until budget decisions were imminent.
The reason that the board and public will not be able begin thinking through the curriculum redesign is that the superintendent invoked a new form of “executive privilege” at last Monday’s meeting. When I asked for information as soon as the committee makes its recommendations, the superintendent successfully argued that no one outside of administration should have access to the recommendations until he decides which recommendations he supports. According to Rainwater, public discussion of the recommendations before he makes his choices would interfere with his discussion with the experts on his staff. Apparently protecting administrative discussion is more important than opening the curriculum-choosing process to public scrutiny and input.
The longer the curriculum design recommendations remain secret, the stronger will be the argument against implementing the recommendations at all middle schools in 2006-07. Parents, teachers and the public deserve sufficient time to review the recommendations and the basis for all proposed changes.