Education, Featured

Textbooks? Curriculum? Achievement? Failure to communicate in Jeffco

In the 1967 classic film Cool Hand Luke, the angry warden whips the free-spirited title character and famously drawls out a subtle warning to Luke’s fellow chain gang members: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The warden just as easily could have been speaking for the Jeffco community regarding the public education system. The two sides of the education debate seem to be talking past each other.  There is much we can agree on, assuming we can agree on the facts.  We cannot simply rely upon “that’s how it’s always been done.”

What are the true achievement results of billions of dollars of investments? While there are many bright spots in Jeffco, are the relative performance results in Jeffco good enough to produce graduates that are career and college ready?

What’s the difference between a curriculum and a textbook? Why does it matter?

Who has been guarding the status quo processes and results pretending that keeping secrets will improve achievement? And what has been the role of the community in providing input into these important aspects of educating more than 85,000 children each year?

Why are we even talking about non-existent censorship instead of student achievement?

Jeffco’s recent controversies seem to pit students and teachers against the school board. In reality, there is a small handful of status quo protectors who have been generating fear in the community, and the anxiety is doing nothing to help students.  While the discussions of AP U.S. History are the focus at the moment, the misinformation regarding the new board began almost from the moment they were elected.

For at least the past decade, 20 percent of Jeffco’s third graders have not scored proficient on reading tests, and yet they are moved into fourth grade. Most education experts agree that it is nearly impossible for children to catch up if they miss this milestone.  Fifty-five percent of 11th graders do not score career or college ready on the ACT in math or reading, while 61 percent are ill prepared in science.

What is worse, the neighborhood middle and high schools for children in the 80232 and 80214 ZIP codes receive F grades, according to Colorado School Grades.  At Jefferson High School, 98 percent of the 10th graders are NOT proficient in math according to the 2014 TCAP scores. Jeffco is not providing their most at-risk students with quality school options, and it is simply unfair to hide behind scores at our best high schools that make the overall district rating appear to be at or above the State average.

The outcomes of any curriculum review committees should relate very closely to student achievement.  It should be clear how decisions about which curriculum might best meet the needs of the students were made and the fact that achievement scores have not improved measurably, might mean that the current committee structures have not been effective.

In whose interest is it not to have the public aware of how curriculum decisions were made?

While it is true, the district has policies which address who is supposed to review the curriculum which is then approved by the Board of Education, the make-up of those committees has been difficult to discern. Tom Coyne, a member of the District Accountability Committee submitted a Colorado Open Records (CORA) request in order to determine who sits on the curriculum committees, when they have met, what was on the agendas, and what recommendations were made. All the district sent back was a modest list of textbook reviews.

Do we have a failure to communicate?

Curriculum is the course of study, the substance and sequence of the material taught in classrooms. Your curriculum helps you know what should be taught, when, and how much time to spend on particular concepts. If properly paced, the curriculum should ensure that students meet the achievement standards set by the board.

Textbooks, on the other hand, are common tools of instruction. They may or may not include everything in the curriculum. A teacher may need additional resources in order to cover all of the concepts in the curriculum, or there may be more in a textbook than is called for in a year’s worth of instruction. Think of curriculum as the vision: if you were remodeling your kitchen, curriculum would be the blueprint, while the textbooks would be the tools (hammer, nails, etc.) that will be used to ensure the kitchen turns out as it was designed.

Now if the sole purpose of Jeffco Public Schools curriculum review committees has been to select textbooks, as district-provided information indicates, it is no wonder the district’s achievement scores have been stagnant for nearly a decade. And it turns out that some of the community members who have been on those review committees are those now screaming the loudest that there is no need for a change in the process.

The controversy over the last couple of weeks surrounds the Jeffco school board’s efforts to enlist more support in taking a closer look at what is taught in district classrooms. At the October 2 board meeting, a 3-2 vote changed the policy framework surrounding curriculum review. The new policy invites more participation and input from the community—including students—and makes the process more transparent by requiring it to report directly to the board.

Who is protecting the status quo?

Some of the board majority’s most vocal opponents have pushed back against the idea. “It opens the door wide to censorship,” Jeffco PTA president Michele Patterson told al-Jazeera America. She noted that she finds the “curriculum and textbook review committee…thorough and adequate.”  According to the records provided by the school district, Ms. Patterson, along with District Accountability Chair and PTA vice president Shawna Fritzler, a recent guest on Fox News Channel’s The Kelly File, are members of the current committees.

What makes their assessments accurate? Again, the records provided from the school district when asked about the “district curriculum committee,” confusingly refer to the committees as the “textbook review committee.” Which is it?  Why were district officials unable to provide any meeting notices, agendas, or minutes, nor any indication of how members were appointed to the committees? The results of those meetings were recommendations for new textbooks—the tools—not the curriculum.

An actual curriculum committee would determine if the course of study would create academic achievement consistent with content standards and the unanimously approved goals set by the Board of Education. Presumably, it also would make recommendations on the course of study.

On the other hand, it’s not even clear what criteria, if any, the committees would take to review textbooks. Maybe some scrutiny was given to whether the actual textbooks and instructional resources listed met the pace and path of the established curricula. No trace is left to let us know, as the work of these committees is shrouded in mystery and shadow.

Ironically, Fritzler and the political advocacy group Support Jeffco Kids she co-founded frequently borrow from union field-tested talking points to attack the board majority with allegations of operating behind “a veil of secrecy.” However, key members of the secret textbook review committee seem to have aligned with the union to defend the status quo.  Why would that be?  Why accuse the board of the same transgression you yourself are committing?  The new committee reporting structure increases transparency. Why is that bad?

Perhaps their attacks can be explained in part by the very fact the board members want to create a more open and inclusive process. The gatekeeper “queens” of the textbook review committees show no interest in sharing power or even looking at which curricula might actually help improve student achievement. Ms. Fritzler and Ms. Patterson were active supporters of the losing slate of union-backed school board candidates in 2013.

The Colorado Education Association, whose preferred candidates lost the school board election in 2013, called reinforcements into Jeffco this summer. Forty-eight national union operatives came to address a self-proclaimed “crisis.” The “crisis” is not about the schools and students within the district that are missing the mark. No, it’s a “crisis” of power that’s being threatened by ideas and policies that seek to empower more parents, and to bring more community voices into this important discussion.

What’s being reviewed: Textbook or curriculum? How is it being done? How do more people get involved? If we’re going to help more kids learn and succeed, we need to address Jeffco’s “failure to communicate,” and do it soon.

Sheila Atwell is executive director of Jeffco Students First, a local grassroots organization dedicated to educating and informing community members about sensible, pragmatic changes that drive improved achievement in public education. To stay informed or become involved, please visit, enter your information, and we will stay in touch.


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