Reading the words, it seems self-evident: “We needed to know if our kids were getting it. You don’t know unless you look at what they do.” That was curriculum coordinator Marcie Siegel’s simple explanation of how teachers at Corkery Elementary School in South Lawndale came to examine student work for clues to how they could improve their own work — teaching. While the notion is simple, the process is not. Teachers need to go beyond counting the number of right answers and determine, and with the help of a rubric, or template, identify where students’ thinking falls short. They also need to summon the courage to let colleagues examine their methods and confront their own shortcomings. School officials in Boston, where examining student work is a major element of a citywide improvement plan, say it took two years for the first two waves of schools to get comfortable with the process.

Given the potential benefits, that was time well spent. For one, the rubrics make quality concrete for students, parents and teachers alike. During a recent visit by Catalyst, Corkery’s Maria Goslin lead her 1st-graders through examples of work of varying quality, pointing out where they fell short or met the mark. As an aide for improved learning, the approach renders traditional test scores and grading (6.8, 67th percentile, “needs improvement”) almost laughable. Teachers who have bought into this budding trend say that they now give more challenging assignments.

While this bottom-up approach to improved instruction has begun to creep into the school system, a new, top-down approach recently emerged full grown: the Chicago Public Schools Structured Curriculum Handbooks, which contain lesson plans for every day at every grade in each of the four core subjects. The plans are comprehensive; they spell out needed materials, test objectives the lessons cover, appropriate assessments, homework assignments and ways to integrate subject areas. They even script what teachers are to say to their students. Just the idea sends shivers down the spines of many who advocate greater teacher professionalism. Yet, the word filtering back to Catalyst is that the plans are good and do promote challenging work. This being the case, they, too, have potentially significant benefits. Both local and national studies have shown that teachers typically underestimate how quickly students can move ahead and that lessons are rife with repetition. Geared to the Chicago Public Schools Learning Standards, the new structured curriculum shows the pace required for all students to meet the standards.

To be effective, both approaches to improved instruction require sensitive school leadership. As a Boston school official said about that city’s focus on student work, “Teachers had to understand we were not evaluating them.” Schools chief Paul Vallas has said repeatedly that Chicago’s pre-packaged lesson plans are optional. Yet some Nervous Nellie principals see anything coming out of central office as a command. One principal, we’ve been told, set his entire faculty on a forced march, directing them to follow the plans day by day. Fortunately for his students, some teachers dissuaded him, arguing that they’d be leaving many kids behind. Teaching directly to standards is not going to happen over night, and a mandate usually is an abdication of leadership. In contrast, a principal who welcomes the plans for her many new teachers told her staff to use what they consider helpful. However, even with well-crafted lessons, the board’s structured curriculum carries a danger: Teachers may see their job as sticking to the scripts rather than getting their students to learn. An antidote is at hand: the organizations and schools that are trying to help teachers examine student work.

Catalyst ON THE AIR The Dec. 12 edition of “City Voices,” broadcast from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. on WNUA 95.5, will feature a discussion on helping new teachers. The participants: Principal Sandra Lewis of Harold Washington Elementary School, James Pudlewski of Golden Apple Teacher Education and Frank Tobin of Teachers for Chicago.

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