The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The importance of asking hard questions about what students learn in school

Baltimore City Public Schools Superintendent Sonja Santelises calls for a more thoughtful approach to curriculum. (Courtesy Baltimore City Public Schools)

Conversations about inadequate school resources usually bring to mind images of tattered, outdated textbooks that include maps of the Soviet Union. Such long-running inattention to classroom materials in this country is inexcusable, but simply buying new textbooks won’t fix the problem. If we want to ensure that all students — no matter their Zip code, family income or background — get what they need to be successful, we must take a far more thoughtful approach to curriculum: the actual content kids learn in school.

Uneven, scattered curriculum isn’t just boring or confusing; it can widen the gaps between students from affluent backgrounds and their peers from low-income families. Those who are well-off can fill in the blanks left by disjointed curriculum through parental guidance, outside tutoring and the rich experiences that are the hallmarks of privilege. But students whose parents work three jobs to make ends meet or who constantly face the threat of deportation don’t often go on weekend trips to museums, take family vacations to living history attractions or attend academic camps in the summer.

The research on the inequities in school curriculum is staggering. An analysis conducted by the Education Trust recently found that a significant percentage of educators are not delivering rigorous content in math — and the problem is especially acute in schools with concentrations of poverty, where families aren’t able to supplement the lack of rigor.

Here in Baltimore City Public Schools, we wanted to gain a better understanding of the academic content for every grade. We partnered with several experts, including those at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, to conduct a thorough review of our curriculum — and much of what we found was heartbreaking.

We learned that much of our content did not provide mirrors and windows. It didn’t reflect students’ own histories, and it didn’t give them opportunities to connect their experiences to other people’s histories and the larger world. For example, our more than 80,000 students — 80 percent of whom are black — were taught about tragedies of African American history such as slavery and Jim Crow but learned nothing about the Great Migration and very little about the Harlem Renaissance. Our students didn’t learn about the systems of the human body until ninth grade. Some students didn’t learn about decimals until after they were tested for our gifted and talented program, meaning they couldn’t gain access to enriched classes. And in history, they learned much about the Civil War but little about the American Revolution.

Our patchy curriculum not only was failing to serve our students well — it was exacerbating knowledge gaps for our low-income students.

Working in partnership with teachers across the city, we immediately began overhauling our districtwide curriculum to ensure we have high-quality, comprehensive content that invites critical thinking at all levels. Though some of our teachers initially wanted to write their own curriculum, they came to recognize the problems associated with that approach and how it can cause students to miss content that’s critically important. Together, our team has made a great deal of progress. We will soon roll out a new curriculum for English Language Arts, and we’re developing a unit about the history of Baltimore — an important mirror that reflects to our students their own personal history. We want our students to learn about the incredible historical figures from our city and not just what’s often portrayed about Baltimore on TV.

This deep dive into our curriculum is not just a helpful exercise; it’s a moral imperative if we truly are working on behalf of every student. And it’s not just an issue here locally. The same patterns play out in so many communities around this country, especially those that enroll large numbers of low-income students and children of color.

That’s why I joined my fellow members of Chiefs for Change in issuing an important statement about the need for every school district to use a curriculum that will ensure students get the highest-quality content possible. I encourage every state and district leader to tackle this issue head-on, so that all students get what they need to be successful. And I encourage parents to ask us hard questions about what kids are learning in school.

We live in an age when information is a form of fast-flowing currency. Students whose content learning is choppy and threadbare will find themselves information-poor, which will translate into so many other forms of exclusion. It’s on us to make sure all our kids — especially those without the advantages of affluence — end up rich in learning.

Sonja Santelises is the chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools.