Some Anchorage School District teachers are questioning how a new phase of its reading and language arts curriculum is presented in elementary classrooms.

"We need updated curriculum and materials, we always do," said Anchorage Education Association President Tom Klaameyer. "That's not the problem. The problem is the implementation in terms of being overly prescriptive."

Some teachers, Klaameyer said, feel forced to take a cookie-cutter approach that ties their hands. 

"Having to be on a certain page on a certain day, being told, 'You will do this' -- it just doesn't sit well," Klaameyer said.

ASD has invested $6 million in the curriculum, including materials and ongoing professional development, after the state adopted more rigorous standards a few years ago.

"Interestingly enough, our standards were ranked among the lowest across the 50 states," said district Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop. "Presently Alaska standards are ranked 13th, so there is a lot asked of our students."

The district was responsible for approving the curriculum, but teachers and AEA members were also involved in the selection process. 

"We did go through a lengthy process," Bishop said. "Teaching something new is difficult. Learning a new process, pedagogy is difficult. The why behind all of this is what we are accountable for."

"During last year's rollout there were a lot of lessons learned," Klaameyer said. "A lot of feedback from our members in the selection process that wasn't heated. Things like unnecessary testing in the early grades and a lack of training. I will say the district has done a better job this year by incorporating more of our concerns."

Bishop said students, especially at the elementary level, didn't have the skills where they needed them to be. 

"We are ensuring that the kids who leave the Anchorage School District have the fundamental skills of reading," Bishop said. "Reading helps you learn for the rest of your life; 21st century skills revolve around problem-solving and grit. If we don't get this right early on, students essentially have a glass ceiling on them. You learn to read so that you can read to learn." 

The materials were introduced to teachers in May, giving them the summer to look over the curriculum -- something that didn't happen the previous year. 

"The curriculum publishers have to sell their books to everybody," Klaameyer said. "What they do is put everything in so they can sell it to everyone. What happens is that it becomes far too much to teach. The district is weighing through things and determining what is the most important to cover."

Klaameyer says there are potential costs to pushing such an aggressive curriculum on students.

"There are certain methods the district is promoting that they say are proven to work," Klaameyer said. "Even if that's true, if the kids end up hating to read as a result, have you accomplished your job?"

Bishop, however, feels making the change is essential. 

"Whether it's our home life, social life or work life, changing a process, changing a system and orientating yourself for something new is difficult," Bishop said. "Our teachers are working extremely hard to learn the curriculum and materials moving forward. I am really proud of the engagement we've had from our staff."

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