One city, one curriculum

Consistency is the goal in New York City's efforts to improve its schools. But learning to work from one central playbook is not easy for its teachers.

Suzette Rose's class at Public School 284 is quick to react. In unison, the seventh graders in Brooklyn agree that "Fast Sam, Cool Clyde & Stuff" is a "good book."

"It shows how friends can help other friends with their problems," explains John, who sits at a group of desks near the front of the room.

"I found it interesting because it shows certain real-life situations," says Monet. "It's things that happen to us, like fights and stuff like that."

Similar discussions about "Fast Sam, Cool Clyde & Stuff" are taking place in seventh-grade classrooms across New York City - from the Bowery to the Bronx. And those classrooms now all look very much like Ms. Rose's. Their desks are clustered in small groups, a lending library sits on the windowsill, and a math lab is tucked in the back.

This is education reform, New York-style. In one of the most ambitious experiments in the nation, America's largest school system is being transformed in a matter of months in almost every way - from the textbooks and teaching techniques used in the classroom to the way desks are organized.

The defining characteristic: one central playbook. Almost all schools throughout the district now work with the same curriculum. They are governed by the same standards. Even the artwork hung on classroom walls is consistent: Bulletin boards are used to showcase students' work.

While few of the ideas being tried here are new, New York has packaged them more exactingly and applied them on a broader scale than perhaps any other American city.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in fact, is counting on the changes to turn the city into a national model for urban education - so much so, that he is hanging his political future, and in some ways the future of 1.1 million students, on their success.

Yet several months on, the radical makeover is yielding mixed results and opinions.

To educators like Cynthia Pond, the principal of PS 284, the reform is a much-needed "leveler." It is giving her school in the middle of the Brooklyn projects much of the same attention and resources as schools on the city's affluent Upper East Side - and the changes in the classroom are tangible.

But others see the push for more standardization as a straitjacket. The local teachers' union, in particular, believes the changes are preventing educators from doing what they do best - using their own initiative and creativity in the classroom.

"This administration doesn't ... even want to know what teachers think about what works for kids," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, at a recent rally outside City Hall.

The changes being implemented here represent a backlash to the more hands-off approach taken in the city's public schools in the 1970s. Back then, individual schools had more leeway to choose their own curriculum and pursue their own teaching methods.

But over the years test scores and education performance have fallen - though for many different reasons. Now Mr. Bloomberg and his education czar, Joel Klein, are trying to bring more consistency to one of the nation's most diverse and Balkanized districts.

While early opinion remains sharply divided over their vision and approach, virtually everyone agrees on one point: The speed and scope of the reforms are virtually unprecedented.

Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg have moved ambitiously - and controversially - to cut through seemingly intransigent layers of bureaucracy.

"I have never in my years seen such a substantial structural change in such a short period of time," says Mark Alter, chair of the department of teaching and learning at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

PS 284 offers a telling look at how these changes are beginning to affect things in the classrooms of New York. Located in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the school is a 98-year-old granite monolith surrounded by towering brick projects - testaments to the government's vertical experiment in public housing in the postwar era.

It is just the kind of inner-city school that Bloomberg administration officials want to transform the most. And it has a principal, Pond, who has already put in place some of the reforms Klein & Co. are now enforcing.

Indeed, when word came down last year from the central office that the entire curriculum would be upended and replaced, Pond saw it as both daunting and as an opportunity. She knew there would be new, much-needed resources, and that it would dovetail with many of the changes she has mandated in her six-year struggle to reclaim 284.

Still, there was now a whole new curriculum - dictated from above - to put in place and only a few months to understand it.

"It was swift and big. That might have made it a little uncomfortable," says Pond. "But it was also indicative of how much importance was put on it."

She spent the summer in workshops and meetings, learning as much as she could about what was coming into her school in September. And she worked closely with her own reading specialist, Anthony Gallo, whom she'd recruited to PS 284 early in her tenure, to help smooth the transition.

Initially, Mr. Gallo was hesitant. Under the traditional decentralized system, he worked with teachers and Pond to determine what materials they'd use each year. Suddenly, that authority was taken away.

"This time it all came from the central board. We were simply told, 'These materials are coming into your class- rooms,' " he says. "It was not difficult, so much as it was confusing. This only started last June, and it gave us very little time to plan."

To the extent that PS 284's teachers have encountered difficulties, they have not been alone.

"A lot of teachers are still struggling to find a way to make [the centralized materials and teaching approach] their own ... individualize it for each student," says Michele Genor, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "A good teacher is able to do that, but the new material was presented so quickly, and it is so early, that that is not happening as much as it needs to."

Some experts, in fact, believe a one-size-fits-all approach can be detrimental in the classroom.

Dr. Alter, for one, notes that no "one way" has been proven for all students. He's concerned about the impact of enforcing uniformity across such a large school system.

"Teachers have to have the ability to teach, to be creative, and work with the students they have," he says.

While it is too early to know if the Klein-Bloomberg experiment will improve learning, many of the same reforms instituted at PS 284 have had some impact. Attendance at the school now averages around 93 percent, up from about 60 percent a few years ago. Serious disciplinary problems are rare.

Most telling, test scores have improved - though not enough to move 284 off the "failing school" list. Over the past three years, the number of students meeting the standard for English has risen from 19 percent to 23 percent, according to district statistics. For math, it has climbed from 17 to 23 percent.

"Change takes five to six years, so I'm predicting [that] within the next year or so we'll have even more of an upswing," says Pond.

But even with the modest gains on test scores, Pond says other benefits are coming with the new reforms. She has been able to hire "teaching fellows," students working on graduate degrees at local universities, to supplement her staff.

She now has a full-time parent coordinator. And then there are the books - 500 new "authentic texts that kids can relate to and read."

"It has been the most fulfilling experience I've every had," she says of the past year. "I've embraced it [the new system] and I'm thriving."

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