With its announcement earlier this month that it will adopt a culturally responsive curriculum, after a unanimous vote by the city's Panel for Educational Policy, the New York City Department of Education joins a number of other districts that have also overhauled longstanding Eurocentric curricula in recent years.
The change follows the release of a report by the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice in February that noted a “lack of representation, diversity and inclusivity” in the district's teaching materials.
According to the report's findings, nearly 67% of the district's student population is black or Latino, yet about 84% of the authors students read in elementary school are white. The nation’s largest school district, with a student population of nearly 1.14 million also has a significant percentage of students who are English learners (ELs), economically disadvantaged or have disabilities.
The district will now undertake a process of reviewing existing material, curriculum selection and teacher training to put in place more culturally inclusive content — not unlike what other districts have completed in recent years.
Curriculum reviews and replacements
Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), one of the districts already moving in this direction, began its own curriculum review after noticing waning results in student achievement following an initial audit in 2015.
“We weren’t seeing any huge growth across the district,” said Janise Lane, the executive director for teaching and learning in the district. “We just kept revising, and what we noticed was that our results were really stagnant.”
The district eventually relaunched its search for a better curriculum last year, after an audit conducted in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University. This time, the audit honed in on literacy as well as social studies and science content. Results suggested it was time to adopt a new curriculum.
“We led a rigorous process,” Lane said. “We searched around cultural relevancy, standard alignment and rigor to build a curriculum for Baltimore.”
Two strategies were critical to the success of this process, she said:
- training a team for over a month prior to its review of curriculum materials, teacher survey data and audit results.
- holding 11 separate community events with parents and teachers to make the eventual transition a community effort rather than a central office decision.
“Parents wanted their children to be able to see themselves in the curriculum,” Lane recalled. “We also heard from teachers that they were looking for a comprehensive and realistic curriculum.”
The result was a unique selection of authors and artists from different backgrounds, with an integrated portion of the curriculum dedicated to providing local context. The new curriculum’s goal includes, in part, connecting classroom materials to the history and reality of Baltimore while addressing students' own personal identities.
“Students are looking at their values and identity, and the identity of Baltimore locally, nationally and then around the world,” Lane said.
Each module, four of which are spread across a quarter, includes a central question and comes with an art integration extension, which has been particularly important for the district’s ELs since the curriculum was implemented last year.
Other districts, such as Guilford County Schools (GCS) in North Carolina, are also adopting inclusive teaching materials. The curriculum overhaul began with an initial 75-person task force that included representatives from local higher education institutions, parents, teachers and other members of the district staff, including those in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
After a selection process, the 126-school district chose just a handful of schools that represented its larger demographics in which to test the curriculum before it was applied districtwide.
“We made sure that we had a culturally-relevant curriculum where students could see not only themselves in the instructional materials, but they could also see through the windows in the classroom to the world and realize the application of those materials,” said Whitney Oakley, the interim chief academic officer of GCS. “We are just at the cusp of this work.”
Following the pilot implementation of the literacy curriculum, teachers, she said, are “raving” about the inclusive materials, which include a Hispanic-inspired Romeo and Juliet.
“A lot of kids get stuck reading books by dead white people that aren’t that interesting, frankly,” Oakley said. “Shakespeare is important and it has its place, but it's not the only thing we should be focusing on.”
Now, she said, students “won’t put the books down,” and teachers are focusing on effective delivery of the inclusive instructional material instead of digging for them in yard sales.
Teacher training, coaching both needed
Lane and Oakley emphasize that thorough and ongoing teacher training is key to implementing and building teacher support for an inclusive curriculum. Lane said BCPS' new curriculum faced the most pushback from teachers of younger students.
“What it was, [was] that teachers had to sit down and understand the curriculum,” she recalled, noting the curriculum shift from skills acquisition to knowledge-based learning took some getting used to.
However, BCPS officials ensured teachers they would receive common planning time where they could collaborate to unpack the curriculum, study student data, make sense of the new content and rehearse their teaching. The content team from the district's Teaching and Learning office also provided resources to supplement teacher collaboration.
In GCS, teacher training for culturally responsive curricula begins with a two-day general introduction followed by a year of “job-embedded coaching days” where technical assistance partners provide feedback on instruction in the classroom once a month.
“Training can’t be one-size-fits all,” Oakley pointed out, and this is where the individualized coaching comes in.
While GCS has kicked off its pilot program for the new curriculum, it is still trying to incorporate a local context that takes into account the county’s racial history, modeled after Baltimore’s own version, and will be expanding its new curriculum to high schools as well.
Along with conducting annual reviews and making occasional tweaks to the curriculum, the district also considers feedback from internal surveys and focus groups providing teacher and school leader perspectives.
For BCPS, which is a year into implementation, state test scores are set to be released this month, and Lane said the district is “excited” to see how curriculum changes show up in student performance.
Nationally, many districts still have much work to do. Though students of color now represent 50% of America's public school student population, the teacher workforce remains notably less diverse, and a majority of states don't include clear and comprehensive definitions of cultural responsiveness in their professional teaching standards. With an increasingly diverse student population, experts suggest making curricula more equitable is key.
“A high-quality curriculum can be a lever for equity because it provides access for all our students and ensures our children have rigorous tasks every day,” Lane said. “We’re not just teaching, we’re creating a generation of citizens that are really well-informed and can own their learning to apply it to a greater context in the world.”