Elementary school curriculum changed

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Changes in the way Marshall County's elementary school students spent their day will be the subject of a School Board work session tonight. Teachers, parents, and students were surprised by curriculum changes when they went back to school earlier this month.

"We have had a major strategic shift in our curriculum in elementary school without the input of key stakeholders," explained school board member Craig Michael. "The board was not aware; the teachers were not aware - that's why I brought it up at the board meeting. I think many people will be very upset."

Elementary students now have 90 minutes of class time every day for mathematics, and 90 minutes for reading. According to Michael, this has resulted in significantly less class time for language arts, science, and social studies. Art and music have been cut from once a week to once every two weeks, effectively eliminating Oak Grove Elementary's excellent choir.

Michael is even more concerned about physical education. The state mandates 90 minutes of "physical activity" per week, and last year elementary students had three 30-minute sessions per week taught by a certified physical education teacher.

This year, children have only two 30-minute classes with a PE teacher; the other 30 minutes of activity that the state mandates are supposed to be taken care of by the classroom teacher. With childhood obesity a concern statewide, any reduction in children's exercise time worries pediatrician Denise Warner M.D.

"Dr. Warner wore me out," said Michael about one of the many telephone conversations he has had on curriculum changes since school started.

The art, music, and PE teachers are spending less time teaching their subjects, so they are being used as interventionists in math and reading.

"I never would have gone to work teaching art if I'd known I'd be spending half the time acting as a tutor," one teacher is reported to have said to Michael.

The teachers' "planning time," when they can correct tests and organize what to do next in the classroom, has been cut to the state minimum of 30 minutes per day, and Michael says teachers are "outraged."

"I asked elementary principals to make a plan," schools director Stan Curtis told the board at their Aug. 13 meeting. In a telephone interview, Curtis explained that the changes allowed interventions in math to be fitted into the school day. Interventions in both math and reading are considered essential if a district is to keep its test scores up, and research has shown interventions work better if they are conducted during the school day.

"We're still in compliance with state mandates on art, music, and PE," Curtis pointed out. "Some things have to be sacrificed when you're being held accountable. It's something every district is struggling with."

The School Board's letter to Curtis after his evaluation recommended actions they wanted to see him take in the upcoming year. The first of these was "involve the Board more on major decisions regarding the school system."

"If the board had been part of the process prior to implementation we would know how to answer questions better," Michael concluded. "Advance notice would help us sell it: it's a substantial change. I'm not against looking at new ways to do things, but this hurts us (the school board) as an organization. We need to find a way not to put ourselves in these positions."