Pittsburgh Public To Overhaul Outdated English Language Arts Curriculum

Jan 24, 2017

Pittsburgh Public Schools plans to roll out a new English Language Arts curriculum in August that aligns to state standards. A reading corner is pictured at Arlington Elementary School in the Arlington neighborhood.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

A group of 75 teachers, parents and administrators have finished reviewing options for a new literacy curriculum for Pittsburgh Public School Kindergarten through fifth grade students.

PPS currently uses a literacy curriculum that's nearly a decade old and no longer aligns with Pennsylvania state standards. In his 90-day transition report, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet told the school board that he would prioritize finding a new program for the district.

The school board approved a $7 million budget for a new curriculum in December.

The district’s literacy coordinator, Naomi York-Abdullah, said schools typically update a curriculum every five years. She said PPS planned to get new textbooks a few years ago but the commonwealth’s change to Core Standards meant the programs many publishing companies offered weren’t rigorous enough.

She said the new standards implemented in 2014 require more informational reading and analytical thinking about the text.

"In the past, students were maybe asked to comprehend text and tell what the main character might have been tell about the setting or the plot,” she said. “Now they're asked to actually make inferences that are deeper in terms of what was the author's intention in creating this character and what are the intersections between the different elements of literature that we study.”

York-Abdullah said when standards changed, the district’s second and third grade students had to comprehend texts that were being used in fifth grade. While the district did not pay for an overhaul in curriculum, she said adjustments were made to try to keep up with standards.

The committee met with 11 publishing companies to review textbooks and weigh options based on text and vocabulary complexity. It also evaluated the content of the text, favoring stories with characters and themes that reflect a diverse student body.

York-Abdullah said during public review, parents and teachers said it was important that the books featured children that looked like and had life experiences of “urban students.”

One member of the committee, Cynthia Devine-Kepner, is the parent of ninth grader at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a 6-12 school in Oakland. She said her priority was culturally relevant materials.

“Students need to feel like they could relate to what they are reading,” she said.

Devine-Kepner said she wanted to be involved in the selection to ensure equity.

“Every child deserves an excellent education and that education should never be determined by the zip code on which a child lives,” she said.

York-Abdullah said the budget does include professional development training for teachers.

“Once the core program has identified our work is not done," she said. "We will still need to engage in that professional development planning process and hopefully even offer sessions in the summer for teachers that will allow them to prepare for the upcoming school year."

The committee’s recommendation will be passed to Superintendent Anthony Hamlet for consideration. After review, he is expected to present his endorsement to the board in the spring. Following a board vote, the selected curriculum will be rolled out in August.