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Charter network moves from hand-crafted to more centralized curriculum

STRIVE Prep Excel, in foreground, and North High School, in background.
STRIVE Prep Excel, in foreground, and North High School, in background.

As Denver Public Schools makes plans to allow schools to choose their own curriculum and materials, at least one Denver charter school network is moving in the opposite direction.

STRIVE Preparatory Schools, a charter network with nine schools in Denver, has traditionally relied on teachers to create their own resources for everything from the scope and sequences that define the year’s coursework to individual lessons. Some teachers might not have drawn from traditional textbooks or resources at all.

But as the network has grown from one school in 2006 to the current nine, and as its schools have started to implement the Common Core State Standards, STRIVE is creating a set of “Core Curricular Resources” for all of its teachers.

The idea behind the old approach of using hand-crafted curriculum is that teachers should have as much autonomy in their classrooms as possible, said Joshua Smith, the network’s chief schools officer. “We provide them with exemplars, best practices, existing or purchased curricula they can start with,” he said. “But by and large, we rely on teachers to build their own curricula.”

That’s not uncommon in the charter world. The other large network of charter schools in Denver, DSST, also relies on teachers to create units and lessons, which are then often shared among teachers.

But it’s a different approach than some districts, including DPS, have traditionally taken: Adopting a set of textbooks and, increasingly, online materials, and outlining the scope and sequence of the year’s lessons for many courses in most schools.

Smith said as STRIVE has grown, however, the network has decided it makes sense to provide teachers with more standardized templates and resources.

“We feel like we’re very much centralizing and saying, here’s our approach to close reading, here’s our vision for how this works,” Smith said.

STRIVE is not unique, according to Alex Medler, the Vice President of Policy and Analysis for the National Association Charter School Authorizers. He said that more charter schools are part of networks and more of those networks are setting defined curricula than in years past.

At STRIVE, there are a few reasons for the timing of the shift. The network saw a drop in test scores at schools last year. Smith said more consistency and structures are part of an effort to address that drop.

It’s also part of an effort to make teachers’ workloads sustainable and to improve quality control.

“It seemed silly to have everyone creating things from scratch,” Smith said. “We want to have a common vision of what should be happening in the classroom.”

Smith said creating Common Core-aligned lessons is more challenging than what teachers have had to do in the past.

“There’s a level of critical thinking, a level of rigor, and a level of being able to dive deep into complex text that’s harder and more time-consuming,” Smith said.

STRIVE’s teachers are currently provided with materials from EngageNY and College Preparatory Math, both of which are advertised as aligned with the Common Core. DPS plans to use EngageNY for literacy in some grades starting next year.

At a meeting on Monday where DPS board members decided that schools should have the ability to choose their own curriculum, board members suggested that schools might even contract with a group like STRIVE, which has had several years of strong academic results, to use their curriculum.

But Smith said the switch to a more established curriculum is still a “work in progress” STRIVE has been moving toward over the course of a few years.

Smith said that the network’s plan is to have teacher leaders who are paid a stipend outline units, weekly schedules, and even sample lessons for others who teach their same course, starting in 2015-16. He said teachers would still have the ultimate control over their planning.

Smith said that regardless of the resources, “teachers have to be bought into what they’re teaching, and curriculum is just a bunch of words on paper if there’s not a deep understanding of what the choices are and why it’s designed the way it was.”

“Anyone can print a lesson or a unit off the internet. But you can’t print it, read it, and expect it to lead to student learning,” he said.

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