Days after eager children leave their classrooms for summer vacation, their desks are filled with teachers and administrators debating what the students should be taught when they return.
Which books to read. Which science to learn. How history should be studied. It is a hot-weather ritual at school districts throughout the state and country, especially the larger ones in the Baltimore area that have staffs dedicated to curriculum development.
In this age of high-stakes testing, it is important work, affecting not only whether the students can progress to the next grade but whether their schools will be taken over by the state.
But it is becoming more difficult and complex, affected by the many forces buffeting public schools these days, from the push for accountability to the grip of limited resources to the insights from new research that says not all children learn the same way.
The experiences of three curriculum work groups in Baltimore County are emblematic, especially this summer when schools have had to decide the content of classes while the state develops a new assessment test.
In the county, the specificity and significance of curricula have varied over the years. Some administrators have dismissed them as bureaucratic gobbledygook that can only detract from the quality teaching that really counts. But supporters say they are especially necessary now because the county is hiring hundreds of inexperienced teachers each year.
Certainly, with standardized tests measuring whether students have satisfactorily learned certain topics, curricula have regained detail and weight.
At Towson High School, nine educators recently were discussing what to include in a beefed-up Algebra 2, which they will try out in select classrooms this academic year and unveil throughout the system next.
The state will require all students entering high school in fall next year and beyond to pass an assessment test in algebra and data analysis to graduate.
"The dilemma we face is, the assessment programs drive what has to be there, but our goal is to prepare children for the next level," says Penny Booth, who oversees math curricula for middle and high schools.
A balancing act
Her office must walk a tightrope, making sure Algebra 2 teachers cover everything that the state and College Board will measure without merely teaching to the tests.
The state has told school systems what it expects them to teach, but it has not finished writing the assessment test, leaving Booth and her colleagues uncertain about what the curriculum they are drafting should emphasize.
Cheryl Bost, the county's teacher of the year last year and vice president of the teachers union, complains that curricula offices too often have fallen off the high wire during the past 10 years, constantly changing curricula in response to modifications by the state.
Bost frets that the district will "change everything" once the new state assessment test is released, thereby taking away from the basic education of children.
"You can't fatten the pig if you're always weighing it," she says.
Curriculum and state officials say the offices won't have to make wholesale changes after the new assessment test is released because the test will follow the standards already given to school districts.
During the recent Algebra 2 discussion, teachers worry that high-stakes testing's new emphasis on data analysis means they won't be able to teach matrices, which they have long taught.
"We have so much other math to put in," says Catherine Purnell, chairwoman of the mathematics department at Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Randallstown, arguing for excluding matrices.
Sherri Malloy, a mathematics teacher at Parkville High School, scribbles, "I love matrices" on a pad and holds it up for everyone to see.
"Maybe we could weave them in," she pleads.
At Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville, teachers working on an economics class for high school seniors face a different challenge. The four had one week to revise the curriculum, which was written and tested last year.
In the school library, they are hunched over desks, busily leafing through the thick binder that contains the curriculum. The notebook is full of adhesive notes marking recommended changes.
Teachers are paid for the work. Before budget cuts, there would have been many more teachers and far more time devoted to the task. But during the early 1990s, Superintendent Stuart Berger, facing a resource crunch, shrunk curricula staff and the amount of time allotted to develop curricula.
"There has been a trend over a number of years to make smaller workshop groups with fewer teachers and less time," says Nancy J. Boyd, who coordinates social studies for middle and high schools.
The cutbacks made it harder to produce a high-quality finished product, Boyd says.