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Following national scrutiny over ineffective English curriculum, Portland Public Schools adopts new framework

PMG FILE PHOTO - Eementary students in Southeast Portland get instruction during their first week back in school in spring 2021. Portland Public Schools adopted new curriculum that will be rolled out in fall 2022.In a move school district leaders hope will close achievement gaps, Portland Public Schools will roll out new math and English Language Arts curriculum, starting in fall.

District leaders said PPS hadn't updated its curriculum in decades and noted persistent "gaps in outcomes based on race."

In a nutshell, students of color in PPS haven't been performing as well in school as their peers. In 2018-19, the most recent year for which complete data is available, only 56% of students met English Language Arts grade level expectations and 48% met expectations for math. Less than 20% of Black students and those whose first language isn't English were proficient in English and only 8% of Black students were proficient in math. The numbers were even lower for migrant students.

The school district believes some of that could be traced to teaching methods and materials that don't resonate with them.

"The steps we're announcing today will make a real difference for our students this fall," said Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities for PPS. Proctor said the new instructional framework is "grounded in a common vision and a common language about what great teaching should look like."

While school districts across the nation are facing increasing scrutiny over school materials and books that some parents don't agree with, Portland's was a different issue: whether it actually works.

PPS is one of many school districts that previously used the Units of Study curriculum, developed by renowned learning expert Lucy Calkins. Many districts, including PPS, are moving away from Calkins's method after research concluded it may not be effective at teaching children, particularly those learning English, how to read.

The nonprofit Student Achievement Partners published a report in January 2020 that commended Units of Study in some regards, but concluded it "would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America's public schoolchildren, given the research."

Research reviewers suggested the curriculum lacked enough emphasis on phonics skills and noted that some children who need extra help would likely struggle with the framework.

Calkins pushed back on the criticism, noting "we have always been clear to the districts with which we work that they need to adopt a research-based, systematic approach to teaching phonics."

Instead, PPS will use an English Language Arts curriculum called Wit & Wisdom. It's the same one used by Eugene, Tillamook and North Wasco school districts, as well as in Baltimore, where Forbes recently highlighted its success in schools there.

Nancy Zuckerbrod of Great Minds, the publisher of Wit & Wisdom, said students and teachers should expect "a more systematic emphasis on explicit phonics instruction and the development of deep background and content knowledge about subjects like science, social studies, and art within the literacy classroom."

Zuckerbrod said research shows a strong knowledge base supports reading comprehension and the ability to read more complex books.

Renard Adams, chief of research, assessment and accountability with PPS, said the district consults independent sources like EdWeek, as well as a curriculum review committee and teachers, before changing its instructional framework. Adams came to Portland from Baltimore County Schools, one of the districts reported success with Wit & Wisdom. Adams confirmed the district also looks for curriculum that is evidence-based or backed by research.

District leaders said $53.4 million was set aside for new curriculum adoption using 2020 bond dollars.

Teachers will have to learn and get familiar with the new materials and teaching methods this summer, before it gets implemented in classrooms this fall. The district said it will offer extra compensation to teachers who attend work sessions this summer, in a race to get acquainted with the curriculum.

New teaching materials for math and English will get adopted during the 2022-23 year, with science and social studies due next.



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