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Teaching reduced to its essentials New curriculum issued for elementary grades


Responding to years of complaints about "curriculum overload," Howard County school officials yesterday introduced a streamlined curriculum to the county's 1,100 elementary teachers to guide them in focusing their teaching time on the essentials.

The new curriculum guides for each grade from kindergarten through the fifth grade spell out for the first time in a series of relatively concise documents the content and skills essential for all students to learn every year.

The manuals will replace the dozens of competing objectives, directives and guides that teachers say have left them feeling overwhelmed and confused. At every grade, they also drop certain areas of study in order to hone in on others deemed more essential.

"This is a step in the right direction," said Peggy Sheer, a fifth-grade teacher at Clemens Crossing Elementary School. "It appears that they listened to what we've been saying."

Teachers long have complained about "curriculum overload" in the county, saying that they're given more lessons than it's possible to teach in a school year -- without a clear set of priorities.

A report to the school board last spring -- based on discussions with the staffs at every elementary school -- found that teachers feel "overloaded" with directions and responsibilities and TTC hampered by a lack of instructional and planning time.

The inclusion of more special education students in regular classrooms also had made instruction more difficult, they said.

The report offered 22 recommendations, including reducing the number of standardized tests and introducing curriculum changes earlier.

The streamlined curriculum introduced yesterday was developed during workshops with teachers and school officials last summer. It addresses one of those recommendations: "Identify essential learnings in each subject and streamline where appropriate."

"This alone isn't going to solve teacher overload," said Sandra Erickson, the associate superintendent for curriculum, supervision and the office of staff development, at last week's board meeting. But she said it's a major step forward.

The streamlined curriculum eliminates some instructional areas and moves others to different grade levels.

For example, the fifth-grade science curriculum drops two of the six current units, making aviation and solar energy optional. Fifth-grade social studies eliminates the economics unit, giving teachers more time for the Civil War. In the third grade, a keyboarding requirement -- teaching students to type -- was eliminated.

In the math curriculum, objectives in the third grade were spread out across the grades two through four to ensure that third-grade teachers aren't being asked to teach more than is possible in one year, said Kay Sammons, the elementary mathematics supervisor.

"It's hard to describe it as a whole, but generally every subject area reduced the number of objectives," said R. William Sowders, the county's coordinator of fine arts and social studies and the person who directed the new curriculum development. "It's not the minimals. It's the essentials."

The new guides will go into effect next fall as a countywide pilot program but were presented to teachers yesterday to give them time to study it and offer suggestions. A final version of the guides is expected to be completed for fall 1997.

However, teachers will be permitted to use the guides as soon as this year to help direct what they teach students.

"For a first-year teacher, this will be really helpful," said Lori Speelman, a fifth-grade teacher at Bollman Bridge Elementary School who helped develop the guides last summer. "Now, in one place they have a guide as to what they need to have done by the end of fifth grade."

The new guides also have drawn rave reviews from school board members, parents and the teachers union.

"I'm very encouraged. This is an issue all of us have heard a lot about," said board member Stephen Bounds during last week's meeting. "From what I was hearing in the community, they were thrilled to be heard from."

For the Howard County Education Association, which represents the county's teachers, the streamlining efforts are overdue. The union had conducted its own survey of teacher overload in 1991.

"I'm glad they're recognizing the problems and collaborating with us to help elementary school teachers do the best job they can," said Karen Dunlop, president of the association.

The new guides also eventually could be helpful for parents who want to know what their children should be learning each year but are as overwhelmed as the teachers are by the half dozen or more curriculum guides for each grade.

"I think it is an excellent idea," said Barbara Strong Goss, PTA Council vice president representing the elementary schools in western Howard. "I think it is imperative that parents know exactly what their children are learning each quarter."

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