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Proposed Duval Middle-School Curriculum Balances Rigor, User-Friendliness

Cyd Hoskinson

Duval County middle-schoolers may start learning language-arts in a new way this fall. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended a new curriculum this week.

The learning plan scored high for both user-friendliness and alignment with new state standards.  


Vitti says Duval’s current middle-school language-arts curriculum is adequate but not complete.

“We shifted the curriculum to focus more on novel-based instruction and the incorporation of more informational text, or nonfiction, which met the demands of the new standards,” he says.

The district shifted to comply with standards Florida adopted in 2014that require more focus on critical thinking and problem solving. But Vitti says without a new core curriculum, teachers are having to fill gaps.

Last year, elementary students switched to new math and language-arts curricula. The district picked them based on how well they align with the rigor of the Common Core standards using a rubric called the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool.

“So instead of the publisher telling them — as historically has happened, not only in this district, but throughout the country — which is, ‘Oh, yeah, our materials meet the rigor of the standards,’ or it’s assumed to be the case, our reviewers are actually doing that,” Vitti says.

This year reviewers used the same rubric to rate middle-school curricula. Teachers, parents, principals and district staffers looked at seven curricula and identified one called Paths to College and Career Readiness as the most aligned with standards.

But that doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for students, says Duval 10th-grade English teacher Leisha Cowart. She was on the review team that chose Paths, but she’s not a fan of basing her score only on the rubric.

“It doesn’t take into consideration important things such as student interest,” she says. “In other words, will a student want to read these things? Will they get personal meaning out of them? Will they be able to relate them not only to their lives but be able to write about them in a way that shows their true understanding?”

In Cowart’s classroom at Frank H. Peterson, she said she can’t deny Paths is the most aligned with state standards, but it’s too repetitive and not engaging. She doesn’t like it.

“You spend so much time going over and over and over the same two or three pieces of literature for literally weeks, and the fact that it is so scripted,” she says. “I said in the committee meeting, 'If we are trying to make kids hate school, we couldn’t do a much better job of it than we’re doing right now.'”

The School Board shared some of Cowart’s hesitation at a January meeting. So Vitti enlisted 29 middle-school teachers to review Paths and its runner-up. This time they also looked at user-friendliness, and 70 percent of the teachers picked the runner-up, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Collections, or HMH.

School Board member Becki Couch says she’s more comfortable with that one because it provides more supplemental materials like online help, Weekly Reader-style booklets and textbooks.

“I think that's been a big complaint that we’ve heard with the K-through-5, and I just wanted to make sure that we don’t really go down that road with middle-school curriculum,” she says.

That elementary curriculum came from the same developer as Paths.

This week, Vitti changed his recommendation to HMH, though he says most principals prefer Paths. HMH is also a little cheaper, at around $2.2 million over three years.

Vitti says schools will still be able to supplement HMH with Paths so long as they keep HMH as the base.

The board is set to vote on the curriculum next month.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.