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

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