School board hears mixed opinions about proposed reading curriculum

Elementary instructional coaches Abigail Espegard (left) and Joey Mertel (right) brief the Edmonds School Board of Directors on the proposed Units of Study for Reading curriculum for K-6 grade students.

As the Edmonds School District considers a new K-6 reading curriculum, some parents and district staff worry the proposed Units of Study curriculum is not the right fit for all elementary school students.

At its Nov. 12 business meeting, the Board of Directors held its first reading for the proposed Units of Study in Reading curriculum, which teaches students to read through classroom workshops. The curriculum is part of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project co-founded in 1981 by educator Lucy Calkins. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, the curriculum was piloted in classrooms across the district, with teachers using workshops to teach reading.

(You can view district staff’s slide presentation from the meeting here.)

During the meeting’s public comment period, some teachers and parents said they were not convinced the proposed curriculum should be adopted. Kristyn O’Connor, a fourth-grade teacher at Cedar Way Elementary School, said after piloting the curriculum in her classroom, she does not support it, because it does not meet the needs of all the district’s students.

“I support balanced literacy instruction and the workshop model of teaching where students are exposed to small bursts of meaningful instruction,” she said. “I oppose adopting the Lucy Calkins Units of Study as an additional core curriculum on the grounds that it does not meet the needs of our students who are not meeting standard.”

Kristi Pehl, a first-grade teacher at Cedar Way, also piloted the program in her classroom and said she is opposed to adopting it. She agreed that it will not meet the needs of all students and said the pilot process was unfair and biased against students who read below their grade level. Pehl said 19 of her 23 students started the school year reading below grade level.

“The curriculum lacks resources and scaffolding lessons for students who are struggling readers or English language learners,” she said.

The board also heard testimony from parents against the curriculum. Katherine Berg said her son August, a Cedar Way fourth grader and avid reader, does not enjoy reading after learning from the new curriculum. Reading a statement from her son, Berg said August did not enjoy stopping in the middle of reading to engage in activities like writing in a reading log about what they read.

“This made reading a chore and at fourth grade that’s just really hard to see,” she said. “It’s really hard seeing your kid who loves reading all of a sudden say, ‘I don’t want to read.’”

However, not all teachers who have used the curriculum oppose its adoption. Madrona K-8 School teacher Katrina Monroe, who served on the Units of Study review committee, said she has been using the curriculum for two years and said it has benefited her students.

“It does allow for a workshop model, which is current best practice in teaching reading,” she said.

Additionally, Pehl said the district’s current curriculum is not challenging enough for students.

“If we don’t choose a curriculum with rigor that allow both our teachers and our students to rise to the level we need to be at we won’t be successful,” she said. “I don’t believe we can choose a curriculum that’s watered down to meet the lowest common denominator.”

Adoption of the curriculum would bring the district into alignment with the state’s Common Core State Standards for reading literature and other informational text, said elementary instructional coach Abigail Espegard. According to Espegard, Edmonds has consistently been outperformed by surrounding school districts with similar demographics, like Seattle and Everett.

Units of Study is one of three curriculums being considered by district staff as a recommendation, in addition to Bookworms and Core Knowledge Language Arts/EngageNY X.

According to feedback, 67% of the teachers who piloted the curriculum supported its implementation. However, district leaders are hesitant to approve a curriculum that 33% of teachers disapprove.

“One third of the people evaluating (the curriculum) don’t think we should adopt it; that’s a lot of people,” said Board Director Gary Nobel.

After gathering feedback, Espergard said there were three reasons teachers opposed the curriculum. First, they said there was a lack of phonics instruction. However, Espergard said the curriculum is only being proposed to focus on reading literature and informational text, since the district already lessons in place for phonics instructions.

Additionally, she said that some teachers were concerned the curriculum would not meet the needs of all the district’s students. However, Espergard added that the Units of Study has been proven to provide “guaranteed viable” curriculum for all students.

“We know that this curriculum is structured in such a way that it offers differentiation to meet the needs of all of our students,” she said.

Espergard said another concern from teachers was the burden of taking on another curriculum they do not have the time to learn. Should the curriculum be adopted, teachers would receive professional development instruction how to implement the lessons in classrooms.

Responding to criticism of the curriculum, Board Director Ann McMurray asked district staff how they would work to address the concerns from teachers who are opposed to it.

Espergard said the solution lies in educating teachers on how to best implement the curriculum. If adopted, it would include a two-year professional development plan for teachers to learn how to best use it in classrooms. Espergard said one issue with the pilot was that teachers were not given enough time to learn about Units of Study before using it to teach students.

If adopted, the teachers would have the choice to begin using the curriculum for the remainder of the year or waiting until the 2020-21 school year.

“We know there are teachers that are just not ready to take on something new, so we are providing a soft start,” she said. “Teachers who are ready can start this winter or spring if adoption is approved.”

–Story and photo by Cody Sexton

  1. Thank you for reporting this important story. I hope more teachers who oppose the materials will express why. I also appreciate being quoted accurately! My concerns about the curriculum being considered have to do with meeting the needs of all students, addressing a diverse population of students, and the cost of purchasing comprehensive materials when the intent is to use them for filling gaps in our current core curriculum. I also question the rationale of only piloting one set of materials because it’s the only curriculum we can afford. That’s not reason enough to adopt.

    The common core standards are our curriculum. A workshop model of teaching and learning is best practice but not tied to the materials being considered. What we need more are ongoing opportunities for professional development in the workshop model as well as ample classroom libraries with high interest books at a range of levels so our students have access to lots of books at their independent level. We don’t need a cumbersome curriculum that will consume teacher time and prevent us from planning meaningful instruction and differentiation.

    I spent hours reading the materials on nights and weekends. It took thirty minutes to read one lesson but I’m expected to teach that lesson in ten minutes. Teachers don’t have hours to read lessons for one content area. We spend most of our day with children; we’re certainly not sitting at our desks reading while students are present. We have 20-30 minutes here and there to plan multiple lessons in all content areas. The Units of Study do not fit the reality of time in the classroom.

    Correction, regarding August’s feelings about reading. Kate was referring to the homework component of the materials being considered, not the in class instruction. The homework associated with the Units of Study asks students to complete a tedious reading log which includes: title, author, level, page started, page ended, time started, time ended, and whether reading was done at home or school. The same is expected in class every time they read! I too disliked that burdensome component. Additionally, students were asked to write two thoughts they had while reading and record them on sticky notes in reading journals. This was supposed to be an extension of the classroom learning, but again for many students it was burdensome. The most important thing children can do to become stronger readers is to read more. Enjoying reading is vital to accomplishing that task. Adding burdensome work at home is not my standard practice, but I was implementing the materials as written during the pilot. Now that it is over, the expectation is that students read at home every night and build a joy of reading!

    Also, I agreed with Ms. Pihl that the pilot process was biased. Many teachers piloting have been using the materials for 3-5 years. They already knew them, liked them, and wanted them. In their words, they also had the “privilege” of comprehensive classroom libraries which is not a reality in all district classrooms. An authentic pilot would have used all teachers new to the materials. It would have also been given more time. We had 24 school days to try out and assess these materials. A quarter or half a year would have been more appropriate to truly understand their impact on our students and potential value. Unfortunately, the process was rushed. Additionally, we were only allowed to discuss the merits of the materials in reference to balanced literacy criteria. We were not allowed to have a debate about whether or not these materials met the needs of our students. That debate happened for the science adoption, why not reading? When asked how these concerns would be addressed the reply was that they would be addressed through implementation. So, the problems with the curriculum won’t be discussed or addressed until after the materials are adopted and purchased. Does that make sense? I don’t think so.

    I hope the school board decides that more time is needed to address the valid concerns of the 33% of us piloting who opposed moving forward. Our questions and concerns were met with redirection and defensiveness instead of open dialogue. We need to critically consider what materials will best suit the needs of our students before money is spent on materials that aren’t a good fit.

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