If it's Tuesday (in Chicago), it must be polygons

A strict new plan reins in teachers by spelling out what to teach when, exactly.

There's a new military-style order being injected into Chicago public schools - and it includes just about everything but the jack boots and kevlar helmets.

In the nation's boldest experiment in building more structure into the classroom, administrators here are giving teachers a regime of strict marching orders that spells out exactly what, when, and how to teach.

To be sure, the regime is voluntary - teachers aren't drafted into it. But once they sign up, they're given a schedule of Pattonesque precision. If it's day No. 8 of the school year, Algebra 1 students discover polygons. If it's day No. 21, first-graders use sugar cubes to learn about geology. And so on. Every lesson in every grade spelled out with specifics.

Called a "structured curriculum," the idea is to ensure a basic level of quality in chaotic urban public schools. But critics say the approach, taken too far, turns teachers and students into automatons - and stifles creativity. Is this school or boot camp?

The idea grows out of the "accountability" or "standards" movement sweeping American education. Nationwide, districts are tightening the reins on teachers. But Chicago has gone the farthest.

"Chicago leads the parade on this one," says Chris Pipho, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. But "the standards movement is putting the screws on people to produce, so we may see more of this as the movement continues to kick in."

One school that's fully embracing the idea is the Harold Washington Elementary School deep in Chicago's South Side. In a desert of potholed streets, worn houses, and sinking poverty, this place is a brick-solid oasis of order and discipline. Principal Sandra Lewis insists on it.

While the 750 uniformed students move through the halls, they must stand quietly in line with their arms crossed over their chests (so they can't tweak their classmates). Every teacher - new or old - must use the new curriculum or give Dr. Lewis an alternate lesson plan. "I don't want to have soldiers, but I sure do want order," Lewis says.

When the structured curriculum was offered as a pilot program last year, she jumped at it. Over the years, she says, the many swirling educational-reform movements have muddied what exactly a teacher is supposed to teach. "What can I expect to have her cover?" asks Lewis. "Before this, who knew?"

Indeed, the lesson plans - written by 100 of the city's top teachers - set out specific skills students should learn. Those skills are linked to the standardized tests students will take. And the tests aim to cover all the basic skills a child needs. So, in theory, if a teacher covers each skill in the curriculum, students will learn everything they need to know.

One major criticism, however, is that it sucks all creativity out of teaching. "It assumes a kind of factory mentality" in which teachers treat kids "like widgets," says Jacqueline Ancess of the National Center for Restructuring Education Schools and Teaching at Columbia University in New York.

But Paul Vallas, chief executive of the nation's third-largest school district, argues the realities of an urban system demand some standardization. He hires 1,500 new teachers a year who may need help getting up to speed. Also, up to 10 percent of teachers are teaching out of their specialty area. And up to 7 percent of teachers are substitutes. Others are burned out or overwhelmed or both.

All these teachers need help, he says. And in corporate America or in the military, these kinds of employees would get help. "Only in public education," he says, "do we rarely give teachers standards or help on instructional methods and then say, 'OK, go to it.' "

Others worry Mr. Vallas is undermining his nationally recognized efforts to hold teachers accountable - to set high standards and reassign or fire those who don't measure up. "You can't hold someone accountable if you tell them what to do every minute of the day," says Michael Petrilli, program director at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. He worries teachers will say, "You can't fire me, I used your curriculum."

Vallas says he's willing to take that risk. So what do people in the trenches think? Many are lukewarm. "We take our jobs much too seriously" to rely on it completely, says Emil DeJulio, a principal on Chicago's North Side.

But at Harold Washington, where 26 of 31 teachers have been on the job for less than two years, most say they love it (even out of Lewis's earshot). "It's a skeleton we can build our lessons onto," says first-grade teacher Daniel Baker. It allows teachers to "go step by step or be creative."

In a recent science lesson, for instance, the curriculum directed teachers to teach about solids and liquids. Mr. Baker had his kids make ice cream, turning liquid milk into solid dessert. It wasn't in the curriculum, but it covered the bases. So Baker was happy. Lewis was happy. And the kids? They ate it up.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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