School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

When the Philadelphia Board of Education voted to purchase $70 million in new teaching materials for next school year, Lou Lozzi and his fellow teachers started downloading and saving in Google Drive whatever they could from their current materials. 

“We’re just grabbing everything we’ve got from the programs that we own already,” said Lozzi, a school-based teacher leader for STEM at Paul Robeson High School in West Philly. 

The board voted at the end of May to approve new contracts with Cengage, Imagine Learning, McGraw Hill and other education companies, to replace the previous 6-year contract. The School District of Philadelphia’s stated goal is to create a more consistent curriculum across the city. But teachers have reservations.

A major problem with the new materials, they say, is they assume all students are at grade level. In reality, Lozzi told Billy Penn, most students aren’t — and desperately need to get caught up. 

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the curriculum should be tailored to each school, Lozzi suggested. 

“85% of our kids come in with below basic math skills every year,” Lozzi said. “So you’re talking about starting an Algebra 1 class with kids that have a sixth-grade math level. Not easy.” 

Just 12% of Robeson students scored proficient or advanced on the Algebra 1 Keystones in the 2021-22 school year, according to district data. District-wide, 15% of students were proficient or advanced. 

An eighth-grade math teacher said he was so distressed when he saw the new curriculum, he had to take the rest of the day off.

(Like several other teachers who spoke about this issue, he asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.)

The new materials are “scripted,” meaning teachers have to use pre-written dialogue and can only accept certain responses as correct, the eighth-grade teacher said. This is a problem for math because there are many different ways to get the same answer, and different methods work better for different students, he added. 

“Being told that you have to stand in front of a room and read this script, that’s it. That’s not teaching,” the teacher said. “Anyone could do that, they could just pick a random person and say ‘Stand in front of the room and read this book.’” 

The scripted method also makes it harder for teachers to adjust lesson plans if students need extra support in certain areas, and will primarily benefit students who are already doing well and don’t need extra help, he said. 

“I think they really intended for it to be the same access for everyone on paper —  and it sounds good on paper,” he added. “But I think you’re going to see the gap widen even more.” 

After this article published, district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek pushed back on this characterization of the new curriculum.

“Teachers are not expected to stand in front of a room and read off a script — that is insulting to the role of a teacher,” she said. “The new core instructional resources actually shift from teaching math in a procedural way, allowing students to take an active role. This new approach … follows a shift across the country that allows students to engage with mathematics through problem-based learning, where the teacher engages in an interactive process.”

All parents, students, and district employees — including teachers — were invited to provide feedback on the curricula in March and April, per Orbanek, who said responses from over 3000 people were taken into consideration when deciding what materials to buy.

Not enough time for teachers to plan

The district plans to implement the new materials in waves, starting with new math materials from Imagine Learning for the 2023-24 school year, according to a press release. “We look forward to working with SDP to create lively, interactive learning communities that foster student agency and drive equitable learning outcomes,” Imagine Learning said in a statement. 

New English Language Arts materials will be implemented the following year, followed by English Language Development, science and special education at a later date, according to the district.  

Purchasing new materials at the end of the academic year means teachers won’t have enough time to familiarize themselves with the new materials over the summer, said an English teacher, who also spoke on condition of anonymity — though she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s not uncommon for them to do something in May or June and then roll it out in August and then the teachers have to learn it like a week before they have to start using it,” she said. 

The district should start professional development for non-math teachers now, she suggested, so they won’t be left scrambling in the future. She doesn’t expect that to actually happen, she added. 

Math teachers feel similarly. “I have no confidence that they will be ready to roll it out in September,” said Lozzi, from Robeson. 

The school district will offer training over the summer, spokesperson Orbanek told Billy Penn, as well as information sessions throughout the school year, because learning the new materials is an ongoing process, she said.

Another Robeson teacher, who did not want to give her name, recalled the district going through similar changes before. Superintendent Tony Watlington took over last year, and every time a new administration comes in they want new materials and declare former textbooks obsolete, she said. 

Once, she found old economics textbooks in a closet while cleaning her classroom. Another teacher informed her they were for a finance class that no longer existed. 

“Is this going to be the same thing,” she asked, “where we’re going to have books lined up in closets with dust on it?” 

Clarification: The school district does have a policy barring employees from speaking with reporters, spokesperson Orbanek said. The directive, which is known as Policy 911 and was criticized by some as a “gag order” in advance of its adoption last year, “provides guidance to staff when engaging with media,” Orbanek said, and allows the district communications team to “provide context and correct potential misinformation.”