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Amid questions and upheaval, Chicago school board moves forward on curriculum overhaul

Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat

In their last decision before being replaced by Chicago’s new mayor, Chicago’s school board members signed off on $135 million in contracts to help the city create a centralized curriculum.

The vote came amid questions from board members and protests by parents who said it was inappropriate to make major decisions before the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, appoints a new board.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to support a switch from a school board appointed by the mayor to one selected by the public, and on Wednesday she announced that she would replace the current board members with an interim board aimed at easing that transition.

Several board members raised questions about the city’s plan, announced Friday, to develop a home-grown curriculum for all grades and subjects over the next two years.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business appointed to the board in December, asked why the city was developing its own curriculum when high-quality curriculums already exist.

“If you have evidence there are things that work better for students more at risk if they are off the shelf, that’s better than a customized thing that doesn’t work,” Goolsbee said.

Mahalia Hines urged the district to include teacher input during the curriculum development process. “Too many times,” she said, “we create things that don’t include the people we serve.”

And Jaime Guzman, the board’s vice president, said he worried that teachers would not use the new resources, which the city does not plan to require. “The proof is going to be in how we roll it out,” said Guzman.

The district’s chief academic officer, LaTanya McDade, said the district would be starting with existing curriculums but customizing them based on teacher feedback, to ensure that the materials are relevant for Chicago students. And she emphasized that training on how to access and use the core curriculums is included in the contracts.

A group of parent advocates went a step further, calling for the board to hold off on voting for the curriculum altogether until Lightfoot had appointed a new board.

Jennie Biggs with Raise Your Hand Illinois, a parent-led advocacy group, also asked that the board find a way to make sure that vendors would be contractually obligated to provide the culturally relevant curriculum promised by the district. “How will you hold your vendors accountable?” she asked.

McDade did not respond directly to those questions. But she said the contracts represented an urgent need because the city’s racial achievement gaps are in part driven created by a lack of comprehensive curriculum available to teachers at all schools.

“It’s not because our students aren’t capable,” she said. “We have to make sure we are providing the right opportunities that prepare them to be successful.”

The district also revealed more information about the curriculum contracts in advance of the vote. While the contract approved Wednesday is for a total of $135 million over three years, the district said it estimates that the cost of working on the curriculum over the four to six year span would be an additional $20 million a year, bringing the total stated cost of running the new resource to nearly $200 million.

Along with the four vendors named by the district when it first announced the plan last week Friday — McGraw Hill, the textbook and test publisher; Amplify, a curriculum and assessment company; Public Consulting Group; and Vista Higher Learning — the contract will also include Illuminate Education Inc., which collects and analyzes student data.

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