Not a ‘flawless implementation.’ Wake schools to learn from math curriculum fallout.

Wake County will take more time to plan and fully implement large-scale curriculum rollouts in the future after backlash over the implementation of math and reading programs in recent years.

Wake County school administrators recommended Monday at least six to 12 months of planning time and a phased rollout of three to five years for new curriculum. The recommendations come after a presentation of a study showing mixed teacher reactions about how the new math and language arts curricula was quickly adopted.

“We’ve looked back now on the last five years of some really hard work, some work that has been productive in some areas and we’ve seen some growth and other areas where we haven’t seen the growth that we want to see,” said Drew Cook, assistant superintendent for academics.

“How do we apply those lessons with the next iteration of long-term sustainable, transparent curriculum procurement and evaluation in our district?”

Some Wake parents and students have protested the math curriculum used in middle and high schools. Some Wake teachers have complained about the math and language arts curricula.

“I hear the regret about moving too quickly and what’s been learned and also the impact on our staff,” said board member Karen Carter, who had been one of the critics of the curriculum shift. “But I want to point out the impact on our students, and many that have already left our system and there is nothing that we can do to help remedy that situation for them.”

Parents and students protest the use of the MVP Math curriculum outside the Wake County Public School System’s headquarters in Cary, N.C., on June 18, 2019,
Parents and students protest the use of the MVP Math curriculum outside the Wake County Public School System’s headquarters in Cary, N.C., on June 18, 2019,

Open educational resources

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education adopts the standards that should be taught in each subject. But it’s up to individual school districts and charter schools to pick the curriculum to teach those standards.

The new standards, particularly in math, were based on Common Core learning standards.

In 2017, Wake County began the switch from using traditional textbook publishers in favor of “open educational resources.” Prior to that, the curricula had widely varied in individual Wake schools.

“We moved forward with a large-scale fast-paced curriculum implementation,” Cook said at Monday’s meeting of the school board’s student achievement committee.

“There is a reason that we moved fast and the reason was because we all collectively agreed this is an emergency and our students deserve the very best in curriculum resources.”

Open educational resources, or OER, are materials that are either in the public domain or can be freely used or edited under a license. Wake contracts with OER providers for support services such as training teachers and printing materials for students.

Wake uses EL Education for elementary and middle school language arts. The new curriculum brought changes, such as more culturally diverse books and students spending more time in groups discussing what they’ve read.

‘Productive struggle’

Group work is also a major part of the math programs from Open Up Resources in middle school and the Mathematics Vision Project (MVP) in high school. MVP Math is also used in middle schools by students who are taking high school level math classes.

Instead of hearing a lecture and memorizing formulas, the focus has shifted to students working in groups to solve problems while teachers act as facilitators. The programs use the concept of “productive struggle,” in which students learn through increasingly challenging problems.

Some parents complained that the new math curriculum has left their students behind, forcing their children to use tutors or take less-challenging classes. Protests were held at school board meetings, and hundreds of students walked out of Green Hope High.

Carter, the board member, said it became so bad that some high school teachers were significantly using bell curves to help students pass in math.

At one point, MVP filed a defamation suit against a parent leading the opposition before ultimately dismissing the lawsuit.

“Nobody has said from the beginning that this was a flawless implementation,” Cook said.

High-quality curriculum?

On Monday, school administrators released a summary of a study on the implementation of the EL, Open Up and MVP curricula. While Wake said the majority of teachers were supportive of the programs, a large minority of educators raised concerns.

The full report will be released Wednesday.

Among the findings:

The percentage who felt they were able to implement the curriculum with fidelity ranged from 56% in middle school math to 61% in high school math, 69% in middle school language arts and 71% for elementary school language arts.

The percentage who believe the curriculum to be of high quality ranged from 64% in middle school language arts to 70% in elementary school language arts, 72% middle school math and 73% high school math.

Most teachers felt the curriculum supported students learning the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

Approximately 20% of teachers responded that the elementary school language arts curriculum was “not at all appropriate” for all students.

The percentage of teachers dropped over time of those who felt the elementary school language arts curriculum “definitely” met the needs of academically and intellectually gifted students and English learners.

But the percentage of math teachers and middle school language arts teachers who felt the curriculum “definitely” met the needs of gifted students, English learners and struggling students increased in 2021.

“I think the immediate move was not helpful to the majority of our students,” said board member Roxie Cash.

Mixed feelings on impact on students

Brad McMillen, assistant superintendent for data, research and accountability, told the board that the pandemic prompted them to rely more on surveys than on test data to assess the academic impact of the curricula.

Over time, McMillen said more teachers felt that the new curricula had a positive impact on student achievement. But a majority of teachers at some grade levels still don’t feel it’s having a positive impact.

About half of teachers felt the elementary school language arts curriculum had a positive impact on their students’ academic achievement, about one-third felt it made no difference, and the remainder asserted that it had a negative impact.

It went from about a third of middle school teachers feeling the language arts curriculum had a positive impact to 44% to 63%, depending on grade level, in the most recent survey.

It went from about a third of middle school teachers feeling the math curriculum had a positive impact to 44% to 58%, depending on grade level, in the most recent survey.

In the first year, only 29% of Math 1 teachers and 28% of Math 2 teachers felt MVP Math had a positive impact on student achievement. It’s now risen to around 53%.

Despite the concerns, Cook said there’s no data point “that says the wheels are so far off the track that we must stop what we’ve started, scrap it and start over again.”

McMIllen added there’s no data showing that Wake should go back to the old curricula.

“We don’t have teachers saying that the old curriculum was significantly better,” McMillen continued.

Family input in curriculum

School administrators are working on a new process for adopting curriculum that will include more public feedback and a longer process before making changes. The process calls for Wake to pilot new curricula before taking three to five years to phase it in district-wide.

Under the draft timeline, Wake will spend this school year reviewing changes to the social studies curriculum based on the recently adopted state standards.

The new process will include creation of a Family Curriculum Advisory Committee to advise the district. There will also be a new website that explains the curriculum development process.

“You’ve done a really, really good job of including everybody in this,” Cash said.