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A rigorous curriculum in every school


[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on July 19, 2021.]

A rigorous curriculum that truly connects to who students are — to their identities and life experiences — is a critical factor to students’ engagement in school and in their learning. As two educators with decades of experience in our city’s schools, we can testify to the excitement about learning that children experience when they can see themselves in well-developed, challenging classroom lessons and materials.

What’s more, such a curriculum will be an invaluable tool for our teachers, freeing up a huge amount of time and space so they can focus on the art of teaching.

The Universal Mosaic Curriculum announced this month by Mayor de Blasio, to be rolled out citywide by the fall of 2023, doesn’t mean that every student will learn the exact same thing at the exact same time, as some critics suggest. Educators will continue to meet students where they are and deliver the right material at the right pace for each child.

We want to create classrooms that acknowledge the diverse talents, gifts, and learning styles of each and every student. The entire point is to ensure that the materials used better reflect the myriad of identities contained in each school and classroom.

The art of teaching is, at its heart, the ability to lovingly weave curriculum with knowledge of students’ understanding. This way, you create a classroom that acknowledges the diverse talents, gifts and learning styles of each and every student, channeling the late Mayor David Dinkins, who famously described the city as “not a melting pot, but a gorgeous mosaic.”

The work starts this year with an infusion of books that every single school will receive. These books will capture the variety of histories, languages and experiences that make up New York City, invigorating storytime for younger kids and English classes for high schoolers alike.

Also during the upcoming school year, work will begin on English Language Arts and mathematics curricula that, again, every school will share.

These materials will reflect New Yorkers’ experience in a new way, because they will be written by and for New York City educators. The curricula will consider the identities and needs of our accelerated learners, multilingual learners and students with disabilities as part of the diversity of our city.

And while we do intend it to be used in every school, there’s room for some schools to do things differently. That’s why there will be a waiver process; if a principal thinks that she has a curriculum aligned to standards that’s working well for her teachers, she can communicate with her superintendent and get the flexibility to continue doing things differently. We get that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to a place as complex as New York City.

But the vast majority of educators in the five boroughs will implement the curriculum. And those who do will find it more than a student engagement strategy. It will save precious time in a teacher’s day.

Right now, teachers — particularly newer educators — spend hours scrounging individually or as a school community for interesting, inclusive materials. At best, they are scavenging to fill in gaps in lesson plans. At worst, they are forced to write curriculum from scratch by grade, subject matter or content.

There is yet another benefit to a more widely used curriculum. We are one system, not an amalgamation of 1,600 independent education franchises. While teachers and school leaders can adapt and make changes to meet the needs of their school communities, as a matter of fairness and accountability, our schools need to be working off the same learning playbook.

While a universal curriculum is not the norm in New York City, we both acknowledge the need to create a “new normal.”

We all know by recent New York City standards, we do not live in normal times and we cannot go back to “normal,” because COVID-19 has been a life-changing experience for all the children and adults of our public school system. And for all its challenges, recovering from the pandemic is presenting us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity for deep, systemwide change.

Through the $635 million Academic Recovery Plan developed and announced with the mayor, we are making major new investments in our schools, including unprecedented investments in early literacy, and new social-emotional and psychological supports for students who are suffering from the after-effects of COVID.

But as part of a full recovery of our system and our city, we need to improve our learning materials and to help teachers concentrate their efforts on making the classroom connections that will help our children become healthy, independent, successful adults.

That’s what a universal curriculum can do — use New York City’s incredible diversity to help reach all students and to free teachers to do what they do best: teach.