Textbooks. Microscopes. Electronic maps. Musical instruments.
All of that and more, along with training teachers to use it, is curriculum.
The Pasco School District and its teachers have sparred for weeks over the issue, leading to protracted teacher contract negotiations and a teachers strike since Sept. 1, the first day of school.
Administrators and teachers in the Kennewick and Richland school districts agree curriculum as a critical component to educating students. While no district approaches it exactly the same way, making sure teachers have the proper tools in the classroom takes a lot of work, time and money.
“It’s not as simple in the old days when they picked a book and went with it,” said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Chuck Lybeck.
Starting with standards
Districts in Washington are required to teach students to the state’s adopted K-12 learning standards. These include the more recently adopted Common Core State Standards for math and language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards. There also are learning requirements for social studies, health and fitness and the visual and performing arts.
Students are taught to the standards through curriculum and it’s up to school districts to select what they think will work best. And each goes about it differently.
Pasco teachers have cited a lack of teaching materials and support as a key reason for being on strike.
Some have said they don’t have textbooks or enough for each student or books that haven’t been updated in 20 years or more. They claim curriculum decisions remain bogged in committee leading to nothing being selected for classrooms.
In its latest contract offer to teachers, the district has proposed spending $5.9 million on curriculum over the next two years. But union officials say they are pushing for more specific deadlines to make sure curriculum is provided.
Teachers say they spend numerous unpaid hours doing their own curriculum research and preparing to fill the gaps.
“District policy said bilingual teachers should have extra pay to develop curriculum,” said Steven Nelson, a Pasco High School biology teacher who previously taught bilingual courses. “I have not seen district money for that.”
Pasco district officials have said there is curriculum and an ongoing process to review and adopt it.
The district’s website indicates there is designated math curriculum for elementary and middle school students, literacy resources for all grade levels and a tentative curriculum training schedule for the 2015-16 school year for the district’s science teachers.
“The board and the district are committed to putting the necessary and available resources toward ensuring that teachers have what they need,” district spokeswoman Leslee Caul has said.
Not just about materials
For eight years, the Kennewick School District has taken a districtwide approach to curriculum adoption. That means when a new curriculum is implemented about every seven years, it goes in every applicable school.
Much of the work that goes into the process happens in the final year of the process, Lybeck explained.
However, that’s largely possible because a curriculum advisory committee of teachers, administrators and parents has been meeting monthly for years seeing what’s out there, what the best current methods are and even visiting other districts to see what they are doing in their schools.
That same group is folded into a curriculum adoption committee with 30 to 60 members, who make a final recommendation to the school board. The overall goal, Lybeck said, is to come away with a curriculum that is easy to train teachers to use, engages students, aligns to learning standards and has good support from the company its purchased from.
“It’s a pretty big process,” Lybeck said.
Kennewick teachers also coordinate outside of committees, meeting regularly to discuss what’s working and what’s not, said Alan Butler, a physical education teacher at Washington Elementary School. And they make sure that all district students receive the same lessons, planning it down to what needs to be covered each month of the school year.
“If you’re a new teacher, you should know exactly what you should be teaching,” Butler said.
Richland School District, on the other hand, has a curriculum renewal process where teachers and interested community members consider the curriculum the district already has and looks for new material to fill gaps rather than replacing it wholesale.
But the 18-month renewal process still requires teachers and others to examine what the learning standards are and how to best to teach them.
Richland is currently renewing its social studies curriculum and teacher trainings are scheduled throughout the year, including a trip to a national social studies conference in New Orleans. New books and other materials will be purchased by the end of May.
“What does the instruction look like, not just the materials,” said Erika Doyle, Richland’s curriculum coordinator. “We haven’t even looked at materials yet.”
Costs, state requirements
The state has rules about how districts adopt curriculum. Parents and teachers must be participants, notably as members of an instructional materials committee.
That committee doesn’t make recommendations of materials but rather reviews the process the district used to select curriculum. Materials being consider also are made available for the public to look at.
“It’s great to have a lot of checks and balances along the way,” said Nicole Blake, Richland’s executive director of teaching, learning and curriculum.
Then there’s the money. No one curriculum costs the same and some subjects cost more than others, with language arts being among the most expensive.
“The reading adoption generally has more pieces to it,” Lybeck explained.
But, generally, Kennewick budgets $1 million or a little more on each new curriculum per subject. That doesn’t count the $300,000 set aside annually by the district to allow schools to buy supplementary materials on their own.
Richland district officials estimate it costs about $4,700 per classroom to bring in new curriculum. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s enough textbooks for every student to have their own to take home, though if a student wants one accommodations are made.
The Richland district does provide each student access to an online textbook.
No publisher offers a curriculum that matches 100 percent with what any district needs to teach at every grade level, administrators said. That means districts inevitably have to seek supplemental material to get what they need.
Then there are the state standards themselves, changing as state education officials and lawmakers reconsider what children need to learn.
The implementation of Common Core led Richland to stall renewing its language arts and math curricula because only a few publishers are providing materials that align with the new standards, Blake said.
But Richland and Kennewick educators said the process is worth it in the end.
“It’s just an awesome opportunity to stay current,” said Kym David, a physical education teacher at Southridge High School.