Detroit schools' outdated curriculum sets students up to fail, audit finds

It has been years since Detroit teachers have been given high-quality instructional materials.

The auditors’ findings were unsettling.

Middle schoolers in Detroit’s main school district have been taking pre-algebra classes that have “virtually no relationship” to the state’s mathematics standards.

Students in kindergarten through third grade have been taught with an English curriculum so packed with unnecessary lessons that they don’t have time to get a firm grasp of foundational reading skills.

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That “sets students up for a school career of frustration with anything that requires reading,” auditors found.

And an entire district of more than 50,000 students has been using textbooks that are so old and out of date that it’s likely that most students, for years, have been taking the state’s annual high-stakes exam without having seen much of the material they’re being tested on.

The test results can nonetheless be used to make potentially devastating decisions, like whether schools should be forced to close.

In short, the auditors who came to Detroit last fall to review the district’s curriculum found that students here have been set up to fail.

“It’s an injustice to the children of Detroit,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Recent Michigan education stories:

But while this might sound like just another example of dysfunction in a long-troubled district, curriculum experts say that Detroit is among hundreds — possibly thousands — of districts across the country that are using textbooks and educational materials that are not aligned to state standards.

Detroit is now making a fix. The district plans to spend between $1 million and $3 million in the coming year to purchase new reading and math materials.

But most districts don’t do curriculum audits like Detroit has done. And curriculum experts say that most districts don’t realize the materials they’re using aren’t very good.

That means the students in those districts are not only ill-prepared for state exams, they’re less likely to succeed in college or careers.

“If you go to college and have to take remedial classes, that costs more money, takes more time and can ruin your life,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open-Up Resources, a nonprofit organization that makes quality math and English curriculums available to schools for free.

“If you can’t do algebra by the time you graduate from middle school, it’s very hard to finish up,” Singer said. “It takes 13 years to be prepared to be a freshman in college and every year that districts go with [improperly aligned curriculums], they sacrifice more kids to a difficult life.”

The fact that it has been years since Detroit teachers were given high-quality teaching materials is only one reason why students here have routinely posted some of the lowest test scores in the nation. Students face intense personal challenges in a city where more than half of children live in poverty. Their schools are dealing with a severe teacher shortage. And many buildings have deteriorated.

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A curriculum overhaul won’t magically solve Detroit’s problems. But research suggests that even when nothing else changes — how teachers are trained or what challenges students face at home, for example — higher-quality curriculum materials can raise student learning.

And student learning urgently needs to improve in Detroit, teachers say.

“Their reading skills are so low,” said Faith Fells, a history teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the city this year after teaching in Boston. “I thought some of my students last year were struggling and some of them were reading and writing below grade level. But here I would say it’s the vast majority of our students.”

Auditors reviewing Detroit’s curriculum last fall found that most of the materials used in Detroit schools are from 2007 or 2008, before the state’s current standards were adopted.

The state of Michigan took over the district in 2009 and appointed a series of emergency managers who ran the city schools until last year. The emergency managers apparently never made updating text books a priority.

“The emergency managers were focused on closing schools, budget issues and those kinds of things,” said Randy Liepa, the superintendent of the Wayne County intermediate school district, which supports Wayne County districts including Detroit and helped find about $40,000 in federal money to pay for Detroit’s curriculum audit. “It seems like clearly the curriculum wasn’t being addressed.”

Michigan educaiton commentary:

The problem became more acute when Michigan joined 44 other states in adopting the Common Core standards in 2010. Those standards were meant to help states ensure that students would be prepared for college-level work upon graduation. Their adoption rendered old curriculum materials immediately out-of-date — and also spurred criticism that the federal government, which had encouraged states to adopt the standards, had reached too far into states’ purview.

The ensuing tumult has made state officials hesitant to get involved in what is taught in local classrooms, Singer said.

“Once upon a time, states had a very strong role in selecting curriculum,” Singer said, estimating that, five or six years ago, roughly half the states in the country would bring educators together every year to review textbooks and materials and make recommendations to school districts. The states would often provide financial incentives that encouraged districts to choose from the state’s recommended list.

Today, he said, nearly every state leaves those decisions exclusively to local districts, which may or may not have the staff and resources to fully vet the claims of textbook publishers.

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“A lot of districts just rely on what vendors tell them,” Vitti said. “[Publishers say], ‘Of course it’s aligned to the new standards.’ They even put on the front cover of the books ‘Aligned to Common Core standards’ but there hasn’t been a lot of time spent unpacking whether that’s really aligned or not.”

The state of Michigan does not track what curriculum materials are being used in local schools. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said it has no way of knowing how many of the state’s more than 500 districts and 300 charter schools are using materials aligned to the standards.

“The MDE doesn’t dictate or track local curricula, or alignment with our state standards,” William DiSessa, a department spokesman, wrote in a statement. “This is a local education state and we’re not charged with doing so.”

People who have paid close attention to curriculum across the country say the result is curriculum materials that often do not reflect what students are expected to know.

“It’s far too common” for districts to be using poorly aligned materials, said Eric Hirsch who heads an organization called EdReports that’s like a Consumer Reports for curriculum. The three-year-old non-profit brings expert educators from around the country together to review curriculums.

Of the first 197 math programs EdReports reviewed, just 48 met the organization’s criteria for alignment. Of the first 111 English Language Arts curriculums EdReports reviewed, just 58 met the organization’s criteria.

Many teachers know they’re not using great materials, Hirsch said, noting that a recent survey of teachers found that only a fraction of teachers — fewer than 1 in 5— believed the materials they were given by their districts were aligned with state standards.

Instead of relying on those textbooks, he said, teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week searching for lesson plans on the internet.

“They’re on places like Pinterest and Google, which are not curated,” he said. “It’s hard for a teacher who has probably 150 kids to do that level of work.”

That story rings true for Nicole Cato, a ninth-grade English teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School who returned to the district this year after four years in a suburban school. “I spend a lot of time looking for additional resources,” Cato said. “All of my prep periods, plus the weekends.”

After the audit, district officials are eager to send help Cato’s way. The audit, which was conducted by New York’s Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization whose founders include some of the people who wrote the Common Core standards, awarded the district’s English curriculum 3 out of 21 possible points.

The math curriculum fared even worse. It got zero points.

Sonya Mays, a member of the Detroit school board, which resumed control of the district in January 2017, described the results as “chilling” when they were presented to the board last month.

Now, she said she’s hopeful that the audit can lead to better things.

“As outraged as I am,” Mays said, “the silver lining is it’s really, really hard to make a case that something doesn’t need to change quickly and drastically.”

Curriculum is a relatively easy fix. Buying new materials is significantly less expensive and more practical than lowering class size — especially in a district that already has nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

A quality curriculum is also especially important in cities such as Detroit where the vast majority of students are growing up in homes where they’re less likely to have access to books and less likely to hear the kind of expansive vocabularies that more affluent children do.

“A lot of our kids are entering kindergarten already behind, their vocabulary exposure, their background knowledge, their recognition of letters and sounds,” Vitti said.

If their teachers are well-prepared with a quality curriculum, it can be an equalizer that will put Detroit students on even footing with their peers in the suburbs, he said.

The district is now soliciting bids for a new curriculum that will be used across the district next year.

A team of teachers will review the options, making sure materials meet the needs of special education students and those who are learning English, and that they’re culturally sensitive, meaning students will see pictures and read stories about people who look like them. They’ll consider cost — the district is budgeting between $1 million and $3 million a year for curriculum, Vitti said — and factor in things like whether the materials are user-friendly.

But this much is sure, Vitti said: “Regardless of how nice, how user-friendly the materials are, if they’re not highly aligned to the standards, then they won’t move on.”

The district will select the curriculum later this spring and start to train teachers on it for next year. The process could be difficult, Vitti said. Students might struggle with suddenly being asked to do work for which they haven’t been fully prepared in prior years. But it’s something that the district is going to have to go through, he said.

Cato, the Mumford English teacher, said she looks forward to having top-notch instructional materials to use with her students next year — even if she might still supplement with things she finds online.

“Teachers need at least a game plan and a curriculum provides that,” she said.

Originally published March 8 by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.:

About the Detroit Journalism Cooperative

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

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Comments

Matt
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 8:10am

Outdated curriculum? Has addition, subtraction multiplication and division or the human mind really changed that much over the last 100 or 500 years? If a kid can't do basic arithmetic, flash cards and times tables aren't really that had to come up with. Biggest challenge maybe getting parents to step up, especially when they don't know basics either.

Bob Beans
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 1:13pm

You clearly do not understand how education has changed and how the standards have changed what children are expected to learn, know, and apply. Basic math is no longer part of the standardized tests. Knowing 9+9=18 will not help you pass a standardized test. I get it though, most people not involved in education do not know the changes that have come and the agenda behind those changes. Education is no longer about being successful, but instead a system designed to produce failure and a government waiting to use that failure to justify dismantling public education and privatizing the public tax dollars that fund education. Most people fail to recognize both how standards have changes, how tests data is used, and the agenda behind it all.

J Hendricks
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 9:14am

I can’t speak to language arts but I fail to understand how algebra teaching materials can be a problem “ because they are not aligned” with Common Core. Unless the world has turned upside down, algebra has not changed! If you have a competent math teacher, he/she will keep throwing analogies out to the class until the eyeballs start sparkling with the “yes! I see now!” expression that tells you you have succeeded. Teaching materials be damned - there was a time when we just used chalkboards and pen and paper - and maybe a 20 year old text for reference. But you need a math teacher who KNOWS HIS STUFF inside and out.

Bob
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 1:19pm

Times have changed and so have the standards and what students are expected to know and do on standardized tests. Most teachers are highly educated in Math. I have a math minor and have had math classes through Calc. The problem today is the tests don't care about the answers in math, but instead want children to explain how they found the answer in a way that demonstrates a strong understanding of the concept using proper terminology and depth of knowledge. The right answer holds no weight. Most people fail to understand how education has changed and the agenda behind that change. Testing companies are judged on the failure rate of the children taking the test. That failure rate is then used to drive political discourse on education. That discourse is psid for by people looking to dismantle public education and who want to profit off the tax dollars that fund education. DeVos and the Koch brothers are just two examples of such people. You can add to it the Skillman foundation. If most people dive deep enough into the political moves around education , they would see that all decisions around education is driven towards continued failure, continued dismantling, and continued privatization.

John Gregg
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 11:24am

Quality, research-developed curricular materials are an important tool to support effective learning. While many adults long for traditional materials that were "good enough for me," there is significant evidence showing more students can develop greater understanding when current learning theory is incorporated into instructional materials.
For example, traditional Math instruction, where a teacher models a problem-solving algorithm and students practice those problems in class and as homework, is effective for approximately 30% of students. Over several years, this success rate leads to fewer students being able to access advanced Math (Algebra2 and beyond) in high school and the related, broader opportunities for those who are successful in learning Math.
While an informed evaluation of available curricular materials before an adoption is essential, any expected gains from this investment will be directly related to the amount of training teachers receive in using these materials. This includes both introductory and ongoing training. Beware any plans to spend money on materials that do not set aside resources for ongoing teacher training and support. Our students deserve the best we can give them to help them give their best.

Lee
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 2:42pm

Does Mr. Gregg mean to assert that nobody got a good education in the past? Just how does " current learning theory" differ from traditional learning theory? Did only " 30% of students" learn Math in the past? Nobody mastered Algebra 2? Results have significantly declined just in the last decade. Why? What changed?

John Gregg
Wed, 04/04/2018 - 11:11am

Great questions, Lee. I do assert that the long-standing, primary instructional practice, of demonstrating a single "correct" step-by-step approach to specific problems, as the predominant approach to Math instruction does not build deep conceptual understanding for most students.
I am not claiming that many knowledgeable and dedicated Math teachers haven't made it a point to intentionally emphasize sense-making and engage students in tasks that require them to build deeper connections to content. These are key aspects of "current learning theory." The main idea is to build a deep understanding of foundational concepts at each step along the learning path, connecting ideas with each other using multiple representations.
With respect to your questions about the 30% statistic I cited and Algebra2 mastery, please allow me to clarify. Passing Algebra2 and mastering Algebra2 are different outcomes. With the latter outcome, students are able to succeed in more advanced courses. This report showing national data is a couple of years old, but figure 1-6 provides a pretty clear picture: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c1/c1s2.htm
Over the last decade, national scores have been stagnant (for 12th graders please see: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_g12_2015/#mathematics/acl for 8th graders: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#mathematics/scores?... )
Declines in Math performance on state assessments are another story that has rightly come to the forefront of the gubernatorial race. The past decade gave us significant changes to both the standards and the funding of schools. Michigan's Math standards are more demanding than ever, and require much more than recall of skills. As other commenters have indicated, the standards expect students to be able to think and communicate mathematical reasoning. Meanwhile, as Bridge Magazine has pointed out in numerous articles, school funding in Michigan is not only inconsistent, but also inadequate, see http://gomasa.org/2018/01/17/school-finance-research-collaborative-annou...
While the success of each individual student depends on a variety of factors, many of the resources that we know will increase successful learning for more students are not being deployed because of lack of resources, commitment, or awareness. The students of Detroit and all children should be taught using instructional materials informed by current research on learning. However, without a clearly articulated, long-term commitment to the ongoing teacher support, materials alone will not have the expected impact.

John Gregg
Wed, 04/04/2018 - 11:24am

Great questions, Lee. I do assert that the long-standing, primary instructional practice, of demonstrating a single "correct" step-by-step approach to specific problems, as the predominant approach to Math instruction, does not build deep conceptual understanding for most students.
I am not claiming that for many years, knowledgeable and dedicated Math teachers haven't made it a point to intentionally emphasize sense-making and engage students in tasks that require them to build deeper connections to content. These are key aspects of "current learning theory." The main idea is to build a deep understanding of foundational concepts at each step along the learning path, connecting ideas with each other using multiple representations.
With respect to your questions about the 30% statistic I cited and Algebra2 mastery, please allow me to clarify. Passing Algebra2 and mastering Algebra2 are different outcomes. With the latter outcome, students are able to succeed in more advanced courses. This report showing national data is a couple of years old, but figure 1-6 provides a pretty clear picture: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c1/c1s2.htm
Over the last decade, national scores have been stagnant (for 12th graders please see: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_g12_2015/#mathematics/acl for 8th graders: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#mathematics/scores?... )
Declines in Math (and English/Language Arts) performance on state assessments are another story that has rightly come to the forefront of the gubernatorial race. The past decade gave us significant changes to both the content standards and the funding of schools. Michigan's Math standards are more demanding than ever, and require much more than recall of skills. As other commenters have indicated, the standards expect students to be able to apply their skills and communicate mathematical reasoning. Meanwhile, as Bridge Magazine has pointed out in numerous articles, school funding in Michigan is not only inconsistent by community, but also inadequate, see http://gomasa.org/2018/01/17/school-finance-research-collaborative-annou... School districts throughout the state have had significant budget cuts since the recession costs have been shifted from the state to district budgets, and student enrollments decline.
The lack of resources and the year-to-year budgeting “adventures” have led to a reluctance and inability to commit resources to long-term projects. I contend that the amount of time needed to successfully implementing new instructional materials is at least four years, assuming ongoing training and support for teachers and some level of personnel stability.
So while the success of each individual student depends on a variety of factors, many of the resources that we know will increase successful learning for more students are not being deployed because of lack of resources, commitment, or awareness. The students of Detroit and all children should be taught using instructional materials informed by current research on learning. However, without a clearly articulated, long-term commitment to the ongoing teacher support, materials alone will not have the expected impact.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/08/2018 - 10:39am

So if the new core curriculum standardized tests evaluate how the answer is determined and the correct answer does not matter, does that mean the test recognizes only one correct way to arrive at any answer. Hmmm.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/03/2018 - 2:10pm

"And an entire district of more than 50,000 students has been using textbooks that are so old and out of date that it’s likely that most students, for years, have been taking the state’s annual high-stakes exam without having seen much of the material they’re being tested on."

...

"The problem became more acute when Michigan joined 44 other states in adopting the Common Core standards in 2010. Those standards were meant to help states ensure that students would be prepared for college-level work upon graduation. Their adoption rendered old curriculum materials immediately out-of-date — and also spurred criticism that the federal government, which had encouraged states to adopt the standards, had reached too far into states’ purview."

The fundamentals of math doesn't change. The fundamentals of reading & writing doesn't change. The fundamentals of science doesn't change.

What HAS changes are so-called "experts" who have gummed up the works with their latest educational fads so much, that they have caused the very problems that they claim to be solving.

The solution to the problem should be patently obvious by now.

Elena Herrada
Fri, 04/06/2018 - 11:30pm

Still no audit of 3.2 billion missing bond money, Barbara Byrd Bennett's 45 million dollar text book contract for which Chicago schools saw fit to convict her. Detroit never even investigated hers or any other contracts. The newly purchased school board doesn't inspire much hope for Detroit students, so the most we can hope for is a teachers strike for decent conditions.

Douglas Carey
Sat, 04/07/2018 - 10:34am

Chastity, an email I sent in September, 2011
Douglas Carey <djcarey@umich.edu> Sent Sep 15, 2011 at 01:07
To: rroberts@reliantequity.com

Dear Mr. Roberts,

I wish you well in your battle to bring order from chaos in the Detroit Public Schools. Here are some of my thoughts on educator priorities:

Message to Detroit Public Schools Educators & Administrators

The gravest mistake we make as educators is trying to teach to standards established by people who know little about our students. As long as we teach to a curriculum out of touch with student needs, adhere to an unforgiving pacing chart, and at the same time discount classroom teacher input, we will fail.

I am an educated, learnéd, and well-traveled man. Like nearly all teachers, I know what my students need in the classroom. That we are forced to teach to standards (that clearly do not meet students needs) or risk losing our jobs is an abomination. This is, to me, another glaring example of oppression and institutional racism.

Until we take issue with the forces that constrain our efforts to truly educate our children, we will continue to sacrifice far too many of our young people. Until we value the education of our children as much as we value having a job, we will fail each succeeding generation of children

Douglas Carey
Sat, 04/07/2018 - 10:37am

Chastity and Bridge Staff, an email I sent in September, 2011
Douglas Carey <djcarey@umich.edu> Sent Sep 15, 2011 at 01:07
To: rroberts@reliantequity.com

Dear Mr. Roberts,

I wish you well in your battle to bring order from chaos in the Detroit Public Schools. Here are some of my thoughts on educator priorities:

Message to Detroit Public Schools Educators & Administrators

The gravest mistake we make as educators is trying to teach to standards established by people who know little about our students. As long as we teach to a curriculum out of touch with student needs, adhere to an unforgiving pacing chart, and at the same time discount classroom teacher input, we will fail.

I am an educated, learnéd, and well-traveled man. Like nearly all teachers, I know what my students need in the classroom. That we are forced to teach to standards (that clearly do not meet students needs) or risk losing our jobs is an abomination. This is, to me, another glaring example of oppression and institutional racism.

Until we take issue with the forces that constrain our efforts to truly educate our children, we will continue to sacrifice far too many of our young people. Until we value the education of our children as much as we value having a job, we will fail each succeeding generation of children

Bennie Jones
Sun, 04/08/2018 - 10:28am

The children need us, time to stand up and be counted as a positive, productive member of your community. Network and Build.