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Teachers complain about access to new curriculum

Law EnforcementU.S. Department of Education

Westowne Elementary teacher Kathleen Mannion has spent long hours after classes using a cumbersome website to access the curriculum she is supposed to teach the next day.

"I almost feel like I am living in an alternative universe," said Mannion, who told of how she and fellow teachers at the Catonsville area school regularly leave school at 9 p.m. "I do feel frustrated."

One month into the new school year and rigorous new standards known as Common Core, a number of glitches have arisen within Maryland's public school districts. In Baltimore County, officials are still writing local versions of the lessons. In Anne Arundel, teachers had trouble getting lesson plans because of a limited number of computers.

And in Carroll County, officials are debating whether the curriculum should have been implemented. The County Commissioners announced plans for a citizen study group to examine concerns about the impact of Common Core.

While proponents say the new standards put more emphasis on teaching students to analyze, write and read nonfiction, teachers, parents and others complain implementation has been rushed and some schools are ill-prepared.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance acknowledged problems but expressed confidence the glitches would be worked out, and that teachers and students would adjust.

"We are building the plane as we fly it," he said, adding, "but let's be clear our passengers are safe."

The Baltimore County teachers' union has fielded dozens of complaints on behalf of elementary teachers working as late as 10 p.m., as they grapple with accessing the new language arts lessons, and parents say they are concerned their children are being put at a disadvantage.

Carmita Vogel, the parent of a third-grader at Cedermere Elementary near Reisterstown, said it's unfair to put "amazing" teachers in a situation where they can't do their best.

The school system "needs to do their job. Their approach to this is shoddy at best," Vogel said.

Shirelle Jones, a teacher at Chatsworth Elementary School in Reisterstown, said teachers have not received proper training. At her school, she said, the principal has pitched in to help train teachers.

"We are all pretty stressed and confused right now," Jones said, referring to teachers' problems accessing the curriculum. "We are truly fortunate to have a principal who understands our pain. We are all trying to fly the plane while we are making it."

Mannion, who is a veteran teacher, said when she signs on to the Baltimore County school website that allows her to see part of the curriculum, it takes her dozens of clicks to locate the materials and the remainder of the lessons she needs to teach.

County officials say they are working to correct the problems. The chief academic officer, Verletta White, said officials expected the transition to be challenging.

"We do care about and value how we are supporting our school-based personnel," she said.

She added the school system has been delivering printed versions to schools for teachers until computer access is improved, probably by the end of October.

The county has not attempted to put its middle or high school English lessons on the digital platform yet, according to White. In the meantime, White said, teachers have been given training on how to adapt the old curriculum to the Common Core and have been told to work the new standards into their existing lessons.

Curriculum, teachers say, is at the heart of what goes on in the classroom. The Common Core standards tell teachers what students should know at a certain grade level, but they don't dictate how those skills are taught.

For instance, the new standards state that by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to "compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text."

But it is left up to local school systems to decide what poetry or stories the fifth-graders read and how they are taught to compare and contrast characters.

In Anne Arundel County, school officials also decided to transition to a digital math curriculum for teachers. In an effort to cut down on paper use, they decided to engineer their website so lessons couldn't be printed out in schools.

But Andrea Kane, assistant superintendent for instruction, said they soon realized not all schools had a computer for every teacher, making it difficult and time-consuming to get access to the lessons. As a result, Anne Arundel, like Baltimore County, decided to deliver printed copies of the curriculum to schools.

The school systems in Baltimore City and Harford and Howard counties did not respond to requests for information on how the implementation of the Common Core is progressing.

While teachers are concerned about the logistics of common core, some conservatives around the nation have begun to raise questions about what they see as the takeover of local schools by the federal government.

On Thursday, Ellicott City parent Robert Small, 46, disrupted a public forum in Towson conducted by the State Department of Education with concerns that the curriculum will lower education standards in Maryland.

Small was escorted out when he refused to stop talking, and said to other parents, "You are sitting here like cattle. Is this America?" A police report said Small tried to push the officer away, and he was later charged with second-degree assault of a police officer.

The Common Core standards, a collaborative effort of the National Governor's Association and the association of state school superintendents, have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The effort has been encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education, and states that agreed to adopt the standards and make other changes received additional federal funding.

In January, six months after Dance took over as superintendent in Baltimore County, the school board approved a $5.3 million contract with a company called edCount LLC to write the new curriculum in conjunction with school system staff and deliver it online by August. This was after previous, costly curriculum rewrites were shelved.

Then Dance said he decided school personnel could do the job more efficiently and cheaply than edCount. So after the company had developed a framework for the curriculum, the school system decided to get out of the contract. The county has not provided information about how much it paid edCount.

Baltimore County teachers had their first look at the curriculum only days before the beginning of school. Even now, Baltimore County elementary teachers say they only have a language arts curriculum for the first six weeks of school.

By mid-October, White said, teachers will get the next set of lessons as well as the curriculum framework for the year.

In some cases, she believes teachers have abandoned the new curriculum and are returning to printouts of curriculum they used last year, while others are trying to meld the two.

Despite the problems, Mannion, the teacher at Westowne Elementary, is not complaining about the new standards.

"In theory, I love the language arts curriculum," she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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