Square Peg
Image: James Yang

YOU CAN’T SAY Seattle Public Schools didn’t need to do something: A few years ago, SPS language arts department heads sat in on classes at each of the district’s comprehensive high schools and found that, not only was there no consistency in what, say, 10th graders were learning from one school to the next, there was none from one class to the next in the same school. The district saw more than just an achievement gap. It saw gaping holes in who was learning what and when. “We had different levels of rigor and complexity being taught, so a student could graduate from one high school with a completely different education than a student who graduated from another,” says Cathy Thompson, SPS executive director of curriculum and instruction.

The solution was—at least in theory—fairly simple. Set standards common to all of the schools in the district and build syllabi around them. That way, if Sally sashays out of Franklin with a B average and Bobby walks away from Ingraham with a B average, they will have—again, in theory—mastered the same skills.

Teachers and administrators call it curriculum alignment, and as far as the district was concerned, it was long overdue in Seattle. For years, each high school had been left more or less to its own devices to set standards, write curricula, and develop classes. Some found their own niche, excelled at what they taught, and became desirable all-city draws under the old school-choice system. Others foundered. “There was the sense during that time that schools would be competitive,” says Kathleen Vasquez, the district’s project manager for curriculum alignment. “You create your own curriculum, you outperform other schools, and there would be this natural competition. I think that ended up not serving us very well.”

So last year, under Vasquez’s watch, teachers from around the district began adapting national and Washington State standards (and in some cases, standards from other states) to build aligned curricula in math, science, language arts, social studies, and world language. And no one could accuse them of slacking on rigor. (Do you remember being required to “analyze an author’s use of satire, sarcasm, irony, understatement, or other means that requires a reader to understand various layers of meaning in a text” as a senior in high school?) Those standards began to roll out in SPS math and science classrooms this year.

Sounds reasonable—unless you’re a teacher at one of those schools that had built a reputation as go-to buildings for big-brained book learnin’. Because as they see it, the new method of raising expectations at the underperforming schools is lowering them in the overperforming ones.

Consider language arts. The required courses are intro to literature and composition, world lit and comp, American lit and comp, and comparative lit and comp. Anything outside of that track doesn’t count toward graduation, which has teachers who have spent years developing specialized classes that strayed from traditional curricula but still met rigorous, school-specific standards worried that they’ll have to abandon lesson plans that worked in the past. “Part of what we do is adapt what we teach to what’s happening in the world, what we know about, what our kids know about,” says Eric Muhs, a science teacher at Ballard High School. “Education is ultimately a very personal thing. It’s about creating an environment that’s exactly what your students need at that moment.”

Muhs teaches an astronomy course that qualifies students for five science credits at the University of Washington, but as the aligned curriculum shifts to a four-year life sciences, biology, chemistry, and physics track, he’s convinced the astronomy course will die. (Strangely, the district says that the new aligned science curriculum was in place this fall, but Muhs says that for the 2010–11 school year it’s been business as usual at Ballard.)

At Roosevelt, some departments had “blocked” their lesson plans, so that when students were learning about China in social studies, they’d be reading a book written by a Chinese author in language arts. Now that language arts teachers must choose four novels from a district-approved list of 20, that’s no longer an option. “And that’s just the ninth and 10th grades,” says Maggie Everett, a language arts teacher at Roosevelt. “At the junior and senior levels, we had an options program, where students were allowed to choose classes like African American Literature. But the district has come along and said, ‘Nope, one size fits all.’ ”

Everett, Muhs, and other teachers in their position say they’re not just resisting centralized oversight after years of autonomy. Instead, their argument boils down to a simple request: Don’t punish us for doing our job well. The district insists that it isn’t and points out that students from low-income families who are more likely to change schools deserve to receive a consistent education no matter where they land. And it says teachers who believe their specialized classes meet the new standards can submit the syllabi for district approval—although it may need to do a better job of getting the word out. Neither Muhs nor Everett was aware of any process for approving their nonaligned classes.

Muhs—who will cop to sounding like a bit of a conspiracy nut—is livid about the perceived attack on his class and even wonders aloud if curriculum alignment is the first step to basing teacher evaluations on standardized tests. Everett, on the other hand, is resigned to the district’s new world order. “This isn’t a problem for me. I’ll work around it,” she says. “I just feel like teachers and people on the front lines know their students best and know how to teach them from where they are to where they can go.”