STAMFORD — In one year, teachers at a Stamford elementary school purchased 1,545 course materials from a website that sells learning content.
It was so much that a manager of the educator-created platform posted a note saying the elementary teachers should notify their principal that it’s possible to purchase a schoolwide subscription.
Teacher Nancy Mould said she wouldn’t be surprised if other Stamford schools had a similar number of purchases.
“Teachers are going online and buying their own materials to teach with, and aligning it to state standards themselves,” said Mould, a member of the executive board of the Stamford Education Association teachers union. “Teachers are spending hundreds of dollars a year, and more. This is not fun holiday stuff – this is to teach.”
A big reason is that four-fifths of classes in core subjects – English, math, science and social studies – have no written curriculum.
Results of a year-long audit, released in the fall, showed that, in high school, only 20 percent of classes have a written curriculum. In middle school it’s 15 percent, and in elementary school it’s 21 percent.
Creating a teaching plan without a written curriculum is like building a house without a foundation, said Mould, a special education teacher at Davenport Ridge Elementary School.
“When you’re planning without a curriculum, instead of saying, ‘OK, today I will teach Chapter One in this way,’ you’re figuring out what Chapter One is,” she said. “With a curriculum, you know what’s coming next. So you can adapt it to differentiate between students who need extra support and those who need enrichment.
“The same with assessments. They’re built into the curriculum and you can modify them as needed,” Mould said. “I’m in special education and some of my students need extended time to complete an assessment. For some, I retype the test so there aren’t as many items on a page. To do that you have to have that basic structure, a curriculum.”
This week Central Office administrators presented some mid-year assessments to the Board of Education. The assessments showed that 46 percent of elementary students and 53 percent of middle schoolers are less than proficient in reading. In math, the assessments showed that 60 percent of elementary students and 76 percent of middle schoolers are less than proficient.
During the school board meeting, “nobody asked if there’s a correlation between not having a curriculum and our children not doing well,” Mould said. “Nobody asked the question. I think there is a line to be drawn between the two points.”
Findings from the audit back her up.
The audit’s executive summary says a strong curriculum helps teachers meet students’ needs by defining learning targets and providing assessment tools for monitoring progress.
But auditors concluded that district-wide written curriculum hardly exists in Stamford schools. Classes that do have curricula fail to provide adequate direction for teachers, auditors found.
The management structure in Central Office does not support curriculum implementation, according to the audit, and either does instructional technology.
Only 24 percent of core classes and 3 percent of non-core classes have formal assessments to measure student learning, the audit found. Collection and analysis of data is inconsistent, auditors reported. Further, school district goals are not in sync with budget priorities – the district needs a cost-benefit analysis of the instructional programs it offers, according to the audit.
The auditors, from a company called CMSi, laid out fixes that will take at least three years.
The district began the work before the audit results were released last fall, Amy Beldotti, associate superintendent for teaching and learning, said Friday.
“We knew a lot of what it would say,” Beldotti said.
Curriculum committees have been formed, she said. A chemistry program selected by one of the committees is being tried out now. Teachers who took part in curriculum development training wrote English and social studies units, already implemented in the high schools and soon to be implemented in middle schools. Teams are looking at purchasing curricula for middle and high school math, Spanish, Italian and French, Beldotti said.
Several changes will be implemented in September. More is underway, including a three-year, district-wide plan for curriculum, instruction and assessment, she said.
Superintendent Tamu Lucero’s 2023-24 budget includes more than $1 million for new and ongoing curriculum work, Beldotti said. School officials will present Lucero’s budget to the Board of Finance Monday evening.
Curriculum development is unending, Beldotti said.
“It’s never done. You collect feedback and make revisions and tweak things,” she said.
Comparable districts, including Norwalk, have published curriculum. According to Norwalk Public Schools spokesperson Emily Morgan, that district’s “core curriculum is complete. We do have a couple of high school courses that are in process – business and 12th-grade electives.”
So how did the Stamford district fall so far behind? It was a combination of budget cuts, a changing student population, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beldotti said.
The district once had more Central Office administrators and curriculum got more attention, but “through many, many budget cuts … curriculum fell through the cracks,” Beldotti said.
The district has had an increasing number of English language learners, and “to meet the needs of the students, teachers moved farther away from the curriculum,” she said. After the pandemic hit and schools switched to remote learning, teachers began to feel that whatever curriculum they had “didn’t meet students’ needs or their needs as teachers.”
Schools over time developed a good deal of autonomy, she said. Auditors determined that “there is a strong need for more centralized control,” Beldotti said, but teachers should retain some autonomy.
“We want teachers to feel they are responding to the needs and wants of students, but there can’t be a lack of guidelines,” she said. “And we need more consistency. We have a transient population of students who move from school to school, especially in K-5. A student may attend Stark elementary one year and Springdale the next,” so grade-level learning has to line up.
The Connecticut Department of Education requires that local and regional boards of education provide prescribed courses of study, but curriculum development “is generally guided by local and regional Board of Education policy,” according to information from department spokesperson Eric Scoville.
For grades 9-12, courses must fulfill subject matter standards to satisfy state graduation requirements, and the state provides curriculum frameworks and models, but school districts “have the flexibility and authority to develop and implement their own curriculum,” according to Scoville’s email.
Given that statewide assessments gauge student achievement using CT Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, Connecticut English Language Proficiency Standards, and others, according to the email, “it is in the district’s best interest to develop or procure resources that align with those standards.”
It’s tough to see students miss their benchmarks, said Mould, who’s been teaching for 26 years.
“It’s heartbreaking, because teachers work every day with a smile on their face for the kids, and we want them to succeed,” Mould said. “Curriculum is the place to start. It’s the building block.”