Controversial SpringBoard curriculum before Tacoma School Board

Staff writerMay 7, 2014 

The Tacoma School Board is scheduled to vote on adopting a new language arts curriculum for high school freshmen and sophomores at its Thursday night meeting.

But critics of the SpringBoard curriculum say the program will leave students ill-prepared for college-level work.

“This is not in the best interests of our students,” School Board member Debbie Winskill said at a board meeting two weeks ago, where the proposal was rolled out.

SpringBoard will cost Tacoma Public Schools $1.5 million spread over seven years, including more than $300,000 for teacher training. Tacoma’s districtwide high school language arts curriculum was last updated in 1998.

Winskill said SpringBoard incorporates too few literary classics and includes too much pop culture, such as song lyrics and movie scripts. Rather than requiring that students read complete novels, SpringBoard relies heavily on excerpts, she said.

SpringBoard was developed by the College Board — the same organization that offers the SAT test — with an eye toward college preparation.

It also comes with teacher training, which Tacoma assistant superintendent Toni Pace says is more in-depth than what’s offered by competitors.

SpringBoard is being recommended by the school district’s instructional materials committee, which praises it as engaging and culturally responsive.

Board member Karen Vialle supports it for several reasons. She likes that SpringBoard is aligned with Common Core standards — new standards that Washington and most other states have already adopted. And she said the middle school version of the curriculum has been successful in Tacoma, where it is already in use.

“Many districts across the country use it,” she said. “What I like about SpringBoard is that literature is not taught in isolation.”

Instead of just reading a work of literature, she said, the curriculum helps students understand the context — the time period in which it was written, or the cultural shift it represents.

Vialle said SpringBoard can be adapted for both high-achieving and special needs students. She believes its success will come from the professional development that will help teachers use it effectively.

But Winskill said she’s heard from high-achieving middle schoolers that SpringBoard is boring.

Two Tacoma educators — one a current high school teacher and another a retiree — spoke to the News Tribune about their critique of SpringBoard. Both asked that their names not be used.

“It’s a test-taking curriculum, written by a test-taking company,” said the teacher.

He said teachers have spoken against adopting the curriculum, and some have threatened to boycott the training.

“There’s some good stuff in the book,” he said. But he added that many components are left out — such as complete novels and long-form writing.

The retiree had similar issues with SpringBoard.

“It’s based on reading short passages of literature,” she said. “A paragraph may give you a vague idea of what the book is about, but nothing more.” And that can mean students will miss out on the true meaning of the complete work, she added.

“I think it may be appropriate for remedial classes, or for middle school,” she said. “But not for all ninth-graders.”

Superintendent Carla Santorno told the school board that SpringBoard “doesn’t preclude the use of novels, or the classical literature we are used to.”

She also said that the adoption of SpringBoard will not affect Advanced Placement literature classes.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635

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