Tag Archives: Curriculum

Meeting recap: November 13, 2012

In November, the Board routinely cancels the second meeting of the month due to the Thanksgiving holiday; agendas tend to be short this time of year anyway.  Tonight’s meeting was over by 7:30 p.m., with a few items of note:

– A proposal from the Superintendent, introduced for first reading, which would allow the district to exempt students under certain circumstances from physical education if they do not pass the required four semesters by the end of 10th grade.  This is one of a number of components of the district’s action plan to address the fact that large numbers of the class of 2014-15 are not on track to graduate with the required A-G course sequence. Exempting students from P.E. after the 10th grade would free up space in their schedules and allow them to re-take other core courses required for graduation. The proposal will be discussed at the Rules committee on November 14 and then return to the full Board for a vote on Dec. 10.

–The Superintendent’s Thoughts for the Evening, which stressed the district’s commitment to providing every child with a well-rounded education. This commitment has been a topic of discussion recently, after claims in the press that some schools in the district–at least one in the Superintendent’s Zone– were teaching only English and math — “no science, no social studies, no art, no music.”   Based on my discussions with the Superintendent, I have no doubt of his personal commitment to providing every child in SFUSD with a rich, broad curriculum featuring art, social studies, science and music as well as math and English.  But I’ve also reached out to teachers, and to their union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), which has a more skeptical view.  And over the weekend, after I was quoted in the Chronicle article asking for evidence of the narrowing curriculum, I met with two longtime educators in our district. While they didn’t completely agree with the characterization that no science was being taught in our classrooms, they did stress–strongly–that teachers are not receiving enough support for teaching science and that many are scared to veer too far from literacy instruction to teach truly hands-on science lessons.  UESF officials, who also met with me this week, underscore this point. But UESF has refused to identify specific schools named in the reports  they have received from members, citing fears of retaliation (I know of one school, but I have not yet revealed the name to anyone because I am also concerned about maintaining the anonymity of the people who spoke with me).  UESF plans to conduct a survey of its members to determine how widespread the problem is but declined my suggestion that they work with district staff to come up with specific questions.

–Also tonight, Board members accepted the annual required Williams Settlement report certifying that students at the 28 lowest-performing schools were enrolled in classrooms with adequate staffing and instructional materials and housed in facilities that meet basic standards of cleanliness, maintenance, heating and cooling.

Finally, there were several commendations recognizing the 25th anniversary of the  Omega Boys’ Club, an amazing organization that mentors students and encourages them to dream big for their futures;  the Indian Education Program on the occasion of Native American Heritage Month; and the Lowell HS JROTC cadets who competed (and won) a national academic competition for an unprecedented fourth year in a row.

Unscientific survey: TV and movies in the classroom?

I received a heartfelt email recently from a parent who has decided, with regret, to  leave SFUSD for private high school next year. There are a lot of reasons for the decision, but one particular thing really rankles:

Both of my children have watched dozens and dozens and dozens of hours of film and video that is often totally content free, and as a rule, unrelated to curriculum.

The parent went on to offer one concrete suggestion — keep track of and limit the amount of television and videos that are being shown in classrooms.

I’m not opposed to using TV and movie content in the classroom if it can be directly related to the standards and the curriculum being taught, and that is also the official district policy, as I understand it (I don’t know if there are specific limits on how much TV is too much).  Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Henry V is a case in point — if this doesn’t bring Shakespeare alive, I don’t know what does!

News clips from CNN, “The Daily Show,” documentaries or other content can really enliven a lecture and engage kids in discussion.  Personally, I think the “Daily Show” report on the Ethnic Studies debate in Tucson is the sharpest social commentary I’ve seen in quite a while and would spark a great discussion in any high school or middle school classroom.

When my kids were in elementary school, teachers occasionally showed movies in class — usually on the last day before a vacation or at the end of the day after a class party when everyone (kids and teacher) was fried. I didn’t/don’t love the practice but I never felt it was so widespread or common that I had to protest.  I’m not aware that my daughters’ middle school teachers are using much, if any TV or movies in the classroom, and officially it is district policy for such content to be directly related to what is taught.

When I was in middle school, my beloved biology teacher Ms. Pensky used to have Friday movie day and show us reels of educational science films (some of them admittedly pretty hokey but still with legitimate scientific content).  But showing “House” and calling it science? (I’ve been told this recently happened in a high-performing high school but haven’t personally verified the claim).   Last year I was visiting a very low-performing school with an assistant superintendent and we came upon a math class watching the movie “The Blind Side.” (The teacher was aware enough to be embarrassed when we walked in).

So, here’s my unscientific survey for current SFUSD parents: what are your kids’ experiences with TV and video in the classroom? Do not name schools or teachers in the comments — this is not a “gotcha” exercise but instead I’m trying to get a sense of how widespread these practices are and whether a clarification of district policy is needed. I’d also love to hear from teachers about how you use TV and video in your classrooms — as I said above, I think there are some very legitimate uses.

You can answer in the comments or send me an email if you would rather comment privately: comments “at” rachelnorton.com

Middle schools at the Curriculum Committee

Tomorrow night at the Curriculum & Program Committee we’ll be hearing several items of interest in the current middle school debate:  strategies for serving high-achievers and parent perspectives on middle school quality.

Serving high-achievers in middle school: Originally, I had asked staff to present a report on the various strategies we use to serve high-achievers, the research behind them, and the guidance, if any, we give sites as far as accelerated programming, ability grouping, and tracking to serve students of varying academic preparation and ability.  Unfortunately, several key staff members will not be available tomorrow, so instead we’ll start the discussion with a short staff presentation, and hopefully hear from members of the public with perspectives and questions on this issue.  As a result, we’ll have to return to the topic later in the year, but it will be helpful to have specific input and questions from the public and the board to shape the discussion. In the meantime, I’ve received this survey of programs at various middle schools; the K-8 schools serve students in heterogeneous groupings without specific “honors-only” programming. I’ve also been doing a bit of research on my own with respect to programs for truly gifted students; from the little I’ve read it seems clear that the two strands of conventional wisdom in our middle school debate (students must be tracked by ability vs. students can be served in heterogeneous classrooms with no additional resources or training for teachers) are both wrong.  If you are interested in exploring this topic further with an open mind, start here:

Parent perspectives on quality middle schools: A panel of PAC and PPS members will be on hand to share a variety of perspectives on quality middle schools after participating in the community engagement survey earlier this year.

The Curriculum Committee will meet tomorrow (June 6) starting at 5 pm in the Boardroom.