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School autonomy for curriculum to return

By Frank Murphy on Feb 17, 2012 02:36 PM

Earlier this week the District announced a shift away from mandated, scripted curricula in favor of autonomy for individual schools. Over the past decade, the amount of autonomy a school has over its curriculum has repeatedly changed as the District leadership changes. Let's review that recent history.

Paul Vallas (2002-07)
Under the Vallas administration, the District created a Curriculum Framework and Pacing Guide to help align curricula throughout the District. This document was originally created in response to concerns that the delivery of curriculum and instruction was fragmented and varied in rigor and quality across the city. Several years of staff time were devoted to creating this guide and delivering professional development in how to utilize it. Large sums of money were also spent on the purchase of instructional materials to support its implementation.

Tom Brady and Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones (2007-08)
Tom Brady focused the attention of the Academic Office on developing strategies to deal with chronically low-achieving schools. This task became the primary responsibility of Cassandra Jones, Brady’s chief academic officer. In the spring of 2008, Jones supported a plan to issue a request for proposals for outside providers to help in providing additional services to some 70 schools in the district. These were schools that had failed to achieve adequate yearly progress, as defined by No Child Left Behind, for five or more consecutive years.

Arlene Ackerman (2008-2011)
Ackerman abandoned Brady's plan. Instead, Ackerman identified 85 schools that had demonstrated the lowest scores over multiple years under No Child Left Behind performance measures and designated these as Empowerment Schools

Regional response teams were organized to concentrate on conducting inspections at these schools and assessing the effectiveness of their math and reading instructional programs. Extra services managed by the central office were then provided to these schools. 

In September 2009, the number of designated Empowerment Schools grew to 95 schools. During this school year, scripted reading and math programs were mandated for use in all Empowerment Schools. Additionally, these school communities were allocated social workers, full-time school nurses, additional teachers, and instructional aides. These were much-needed supports. But in return for receiving this aid, the Empowerment Schools lost autonomy. As a result, the staff members at these schools were unable to develop site-specific reform strategies that utilized their own unique talents and resources. In fact, despite their many differences, all of these schools were dealt with as though they were the same.

In September 2010, the literacy program in all of the Empowerment Schools was changed. This programmatic switch marked a return to the fragmented citywide curriculum that had been eliminated during the Vallas administration. This change also involved a substantial investment in new instructional materials that replaced the reading texts that had been purchased only a few years earlier at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

During the initial implementation of Corrective Reading, Corrective Math, the Imagine It! series by SRA for grades K-6, and the introduction of literacy materials by Glenco for grades 7-8, numerous articles were posted on the Notebook blog detailing teacher concerns regarding the use of these programs. 

Concerns were expressed regarding the highly scripted nature of Corrective Reading and Math, the indiscriminate and inappropriate use of these instructional activities with many students, and the lack of compatibility between these programs and the District’s stated curriculum. These concerns were brought to a School Reform Commission meeting. Despite this cacophony of concern, Arlene Ackerman vigorously defended these programs and dismissed the constructive critiques that had been provided by teachers and other educators.

Throughout the rest of Ackerman's tenure, discussions related to curriculum and instruction were pushed to a back burner as other issues dominated the discussion. Objections to the use and monitoring of the controversial scripted reading and math programs continued to quietly simmer.

Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon (present)
This week Nixon announced that the central office will no longer mandate the use of scripted instructional programs in District schools. According to Nixon, individual schools will also be given autonomy in deciding which instructional materials to use in implementing an updated districtwide curriculum framework and pacing schedule. This decision will eliminate the separate curriculum guide that had been specially created for Empowerment Schools to accommodate their mandated use of scripted instructional programs.

The curriculum framework and pacing guide that will be updated and aligned with Pennsylvania’s Common Core standards is the one that was developed during Paul Vallas’ administration.

What District educators are saying
The response to a recent Notebook post that described the arbitrary demand by a District walkthrough team that a reading center be removed from a classroom illustrated the depth of teacher resentment and low morale that exists in many Empowerment Schools. The announcement that scripted instruction will no longer be required in these schools will be welcome news to many of these teachers.  

With the new sense of autonomy that will be offered to all schools as they implement the District’s updated curriculum framework, one might wonder how the District’s walkthrough teams will be utilized in the future. Will they be redesigned to help and support school teams to succeed rather than to demoralize them and hinder their progress?    

What is your response to this development? How do you envision your school team utilizing site-based autonomy? How should the School Reform Commission hold more independent school teams accountable? What role do you envision walkthrough teams taking in this redefined curricular landscape?

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2012 3:58 pm

As a parent, who also studied education in college, I am thrilled at this news. Teachers are supposed to creatively present curriculum to meets the needs of the students in their class, whether they are far below or above grade level. That's what they are educated to do, correct?

I never understood the walk-through concept. Why are random people spending short periods of time rating teachers and their classroom environments when there is a building princpal who can do that on a regular basis?

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on February 17, 2012 4:41 pm

Thank you, Mr. Murphy, for starting this conversation. I know you were a principal in a K-8 school; therefore I'd like to add my recollections of what happened at the high school level.

Vallas - In 2004, the Kaplan created 9-11 English, social studies, science, and math curricula were distributed and we began administering benchmark tests. The Kaplan series included daily lesson plans which, we were told, we not required. The curricula, especially for science and social studies, was a mile wide and an inch deep. English and math were skills/concepts aligned with the PSSA. During the 2004-2005 school year, Kaplan's "team" worked with curriculum staff (then at 21st St.) to make revisions. Revisions were controlled by the higher ups in curriculum - Kaplan was the "hired hand" and did what they were told to do. New textbook were purchased (Holt, Holt and more Holt except social studies which ended up being used to appease the other publishers so each year is a different publisher.) (Social Studies benchmark tests were dropped in the 2nd year and World Languages were added.)

The African American required "elective" course for high school was advocated by Dungee Glen and required by 2005-2006. Kaplan did not work on the African American curriculum.

Ackerman / "Empowerment Schools:" While schools were given more support personnel, 2009-2010 required all 9th graders to be tested for Corrective Reading and Math - apparently the Ackerman administration assumed all neighborhood high schools were filled with "below basic" students. In 2010-2011, Linda Chen introduced for Ackerman "pathways" - a synonym for tracking. English and math were tracked based on PSSA scores - not a valid measure but the one imposed. Now, we had Corrective Reading, Read 180, and Spring Board for reading. 9th - 11th grade social studies classes and 9th - 10th grade science classes had to devote 2 days per week to "Achieve 3000." Now, in 2011-2012, 9th graders who are "below basic," are put in Corrective Reading / Math, "basic" have Achieve 3000, and "proficient / advanced" have an enrichment course.

So, every year is a new adventure. We still have the same Planning and Scheduling Timeline from 2005-2006. While 440 has mentioned changes for English and math, nothing is happening in other core high school content.

Hopefully, in 2012-2013, we will be given the autonomy they promise. While I understand the rationale for an across the district Planning and Scheduling Timeline, the reality is it doesn't happen. Under Wayman in AD1, she attempts to impose a lock step, move through the curriculum, 7 step approach but that isn't teaching / responding to the needs of students. So, I hope the walk throughs are gone - we can do internal peer to peer walk throughs. The administrator can do their walk throughs. Outsiders can stay outside and let school staffs develop programs that meet the needs of our students. This is especially needed in comprehensive high schools. We need to look at what "career / college preparedness" look like for 2020 - not Wayman's 1965 version of high school.

Submitted by SocialScientist (not verified) on February 17, 2012 5:03 pm

You hit it all on the head on that Philly parent and teacher. Don't forget that Social Studies and Science teachers had to do Achieve 3000 two days a week WHILE sticking to the already impossible PST (Planning and Scheduling Timeline. I know you said Achieve, but the last part had to be added, too.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on February 17, 2012 6:00 pm

Thank you for sharing a concise trajectory of how  the Districts curriculum impacts our practice.
During my early tenure as teacher, prior to Vallas, I noticed only minor shifts from external pressures to change teaching and learning practices in many classrooms. Accordingly, many of my students thrived and found school relevant and engaging. 
I wish I could do a case study of  the many students ( who are now graduates from colleges or gainfully employed)  who thrived without scripted curriculum and less intrusion from a test driven school culture.
 In more recent years, -Ackerman / Post Ackerman Fallout-  the school district top down mandates, have caused tsunami results for teaching and learning in many classroom .
I am hopeful that the pendulum is turning and we will be able to once again create more authentic and engaging learning opportunities for more of our students.

Submitted by Christina Puntel (not verified) on February 17, 2012 6:05 pm

I learned the most about how to engage more deeply with curriculum and practice over the past years through my work with descriptive processes through the Philadelphia Learning Cooperative. One stands out that would be an amazing experience to kick up the notion of "improving teacher practice" about 500 notches, the Descriptive Review of a Teacher's Practice developed by Pat Carini and others at Prospect. Another vital tool I've used with teachers and in my own practice is from the book, Reflection is at the Heart of Practice. Some of those protocols have been eye opening, in terms of my curriculum and my leadership as a teacher in the classroom. (thanks, PhilWP!). Finally, a colleague in Baltimore introduced some of us to the concept of Appreciative Inquiry, which is exactly the opposite of how things are going down now. Check out some of this stuff. As teachers, we are in the best position to teach each other about teaching.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on February 18, 2012 8:34 am

 Thank you Frank. This is the type of organizational history that is needed to reference when the District is making changes to curriculum. It feels sometimes that leadership makes decisions in a historical vacuum. 

Submitted by Veteran of WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on February 18, 2012 3:52 pm

There are some hopeful sentiments here, and I don't want to throw cold water on the hopes of teachers and parents that a new and positive era is beginning with the promise of "autonomy" -- but...

I'm afraid that the definition of autonomy that some of your comments reflect and the definition of autonomy that the SRC/Knudsen have are not quite the same -- and it won't be evenly distributed when all the studies and consulting contracts finally translate into policy. I'm afraid that autonomy in the minds of those now calling the shots means figuring out how to run a system that is going to consist largely of charter schools. Will all schools have autonomy, or just the charters?

If you go back even further in time to Hornbeck -- you may recall that his strategy was very similar to what Penny Nixon seemed to be saying. His approach was to create standards & curriculum frameworks and give schools the freedom and responsibility of figuring out how to deliver it. Instead of widespread enthusiasm, however, there was tremendous resistance on the part of teachers, who both feared the new and unknown world of standards (and this was pre-NCLB) and were not provided with the necessary support and capacity to operate in a standards-based world -- which at the time meant project based learning, believe it or not.

In this moment, if neighborhood schools do get more autonomy and they fail to capitalize on the opportunity and up their games, the result will be another round of repression on top down mandates. It is a cycle -- made even more efficient in the era of big data, where schools' successes and failures can be tracked relentlessly. I think that Christina's suggestions are important -- invest in teaching, create strong and supportive networks that up the teaching and learning capacity of schools and show these guys that we can do it if they just give us the space and respect. But if we miss the opportunity, get ready for more recrimination and punishment.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 18, 2012 3:46 pm

 Well said, "Veteran",   The version of autonomy practiced in Denver, which apparently is the new Mecca for school reform, includes heavy sanctions for schools that fail to translated autonomy into rapid test score gains.

Also autonomy in the context of shrinking resources has usually meant closed libraries, losing art and music teachers, etc.   All schoos should have these things.   They should be mandated.   


Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2012 6:30 pm

It will never happen. This approach would require actually respecting highly trained, educated and motivated teachers and trusting them (who know their kids better than anyone) with the freedom to best reach the standards set through the most effective means for their particular, and unique, students in each class.

Haven't you received the memo? Suited and high heeled business men and women, ex-teachers and current administrators who couldn't survive in the classroom as teachers, educational theorists and administrators who have never been in a classroom are the "good, know all" guys, Teachers are the "bad, no-nothing" guys.

Submitted by Frank Murphy on February 18, 2012 11:13 pm

You are right on the mark with regards to the Hornbeck administration. He did give schools the freedom and responsibility to figure out how to address his “Children Achieving Agenda”. And you are correct in stating that there was tremendous resistance on the part of teachers, who both feared the new and unknown world of standards. The same can be said of many of their principals. 
It is also true that school teams were not provided with the necessary support and capacity to operate in a standards-based world -- which at the time meant process oriented instruction and experiential learning. But if you were a school team who could figure out how to implement Hornbeck’s Children Achieving Agenda it was a golden era.
The Meade School team did some of their best work during his tenure. We reduced our class size in grades K-3 using certified teachers to an average of 18 students per class. We created a balanced literacy program that used appropriately leveled children’s literature for direct instruction and independent activities. With the assistance of the Philadelphia Writing Project we planned and delivered our own site based professional development. We developed after school and summer programs that addressed the particular needs of our students.   We revamped our math program to one that emphasized conceptual understanding rather than focusing on drill and skill activities. 

It was an exhausting yet satisfying time. We were given the space and respect we needed to do our best work. Our students thrived in the environment we created for them. They found school to be relevant and engaging.  And we were treated as the competent, intelligent and hard working professionals that we were and still are.   

Submitted by Veteran of WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on February 19, 2012 1:28 am


Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 19, 2012 9:10 am

 My experience during these years was similar.   Where there was a culture of collaboration and strong leadership people did some great things.   Hornbeck, reviled by so many, deserves some credit.    

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 21, 2012 11:04 am

As a member of the team you spoke of, I was never exhausted then by the work, focus or creativity. The team spirite gave me the strength needed to keep driving forward. What I am finding exhausting is the lack of respect, constant focus on little nit-picky stuff that is not supporting the growth of my children. The constant putdowns from leadership is degrading and tiring. The time wasted on matching one state standard to a lesson of several minutes instead of one activity that meets, surpasses and intertwines several standards with constructive practice of several skills is useless and this is tiring.
What we did as a staff, as a team all those years ago was energizing because of the focus and respect we felt.

Submitted by Karen Mainor (not verified) on March 9, 2012 4:13 pm

Hooray for Meade School! I am a proud alumnus (class of 1964). Meade has a history of great teachers, good students, and dedicated principals, both before the "Hornbeck era" and after. Meade, which, by the way, is located in a so called "disadvantaged" neighborhood, consistently makes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). "Somethin' good in the neighborhood" is happening at Meade. The teachers, and administration at Meade serve as a model for other urban schools.

Submitted by Darryl Williams (not verified) on February 19, 2012 3:45 pm

Mr. Murphy,
I'm Darryl Williams

I'm a student from your 1992-93 Charles R. Drew 6th grade class
You took on us on so may trips that year including the Smithsonian and White House in Washington,DC

You were always my favorite teacher, you made learning fun
You had that awesome yellow doom buggy and would bring your son to visit our class sometimes

I went on to attend Parkway during high school, currently furthering my education in the evening, while working as a classroom assistant in Special Education (Autistic Support) at Ben Franklin HS, my 3rd year there

Thursday, I was at an outing, the world is 6 degrees of of your former teachers from Meade knew a former coworker of mine, we begin to talk and she mentioned your name

She's currently working in West Philadelphia near Drew on 40th & Lancaster at a catholic school, I wish I could remember her name

She instructed me to look you up on Philadelphia notebook which I did, hopefully I'll find you on Facebook...I'm Darryl Williams on there or look me up via

I told her, when I worked at APCS Charter School during 2001-02 school year, I didn't know you were at Meade, because we had a partnership with Meade APCS would utilize the Meade building for award ceromonies and student graduation, probably walked past you and had no clue who you were and ditto for you

Hopefully you keep in touch, enjoy the retired life

Just wanted to know you made a difference in my life

Ms. Shaw, Ms. Greene etc...the teachers I had before and after you at Drew were good but you were great

Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson passed away a few years ago our principal from Drew

Submitted by Raheem (not verified) on February 19, 2012 8:48 pm

I love this letter.

Submitted by Frank Murphy on February 23, 2012 7:05 pm


It is great to hear from you. I fondly remember you and your classmates. Yours was the last class I taught before becoming an assistant principal at Vaux Middle School and then the principal of Meade Elementary School. In my offices at both schools, I displayed several large framed photographs of my students from your class. I did this in order to remind myself that I should always be a teacher first and then a principal. You were in one of those pictures.   I   greatly enjoyed having the privilege to be your teacher. Thank you for your kindness. 

Submitted by Ms. Mattie Davos (not verified) on February 20, 2012 10:23 pm

Mr. Murphy, that beautiful letter detailing your former student's fond school memories focused on numerous field excursions. For the last decade, many students attending "empowerment" schools would not be able to relate.I sincerely hope all schools will (now) be able to allow every student to experience learning outside of our school walls. These excursions help our children to make connections to the learnerd content.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on February 20, 2012 11:18 pm

Amen! When my oldest son started 1st grade, the SDP inaugurated the 2003 "Core curriculum" in elementary schools. In kindergarden, they took a number of trips. The school sent home a letter in 1st grade stating because of the core curriculum and testing (Terra Nova), there would only be one trip at the end of the year. We have denied an entire generation of students the opportunity to learn beyond school walls.

Submitted by Social St. teacher (not verified) on February 21, 2012 11:07 am

I came into the district in 06-07 and was handed the volumes of the Social St. PST. I came here as a new teacher from Cincinnati, OH where they only had a scope and sequence. Ohio had also just instituted their graduation test. As a new teacher the PST was the most daunting, intimidating, and source of stress when it came to lesson planning and trying to balance engaging the students and fast forwarding through history. I have never once been able get through the entire thing without skipping things.

My honest opinion*, based on observing other SS teachers in my building when I came in, is that the PST was designed to eliminate teachers from having students do "book work" and get them re-engaged in the classroom". However, now, a lot of those "I only have 3 years left" teachers are gone and there is a new breed of teachers who are working hard day after day and year after year who constantly push themselves and their students to not just learn history by become fully engaged citizens and don't need a PST to tell them how to do it.

I think the district needs to scale back to a scope and sequence model for the SS.

*All comments on old vs. new teachers is me generalizing. As a teacher leader now and having been an Ac. Leader, I have also seen a need for guidance for new teachers in the district*

Submitted by I Teach in Philly on February 21, 2012 4:12 pm

It's hard to say how walk-through teams will fit into the new order. But one thing's for sure: those walk-through people will do anything to avoid returning to schools on a full-time basis.

They know they'll learn first-hand: "Be careful how you treat people on your way up, because you'll meet them again on your way down."

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