Jesus Jara hasn’t been on the job long as Clark County School District superintendent, but he’s already identified a critical need for the district.
In an interview this week with the Sun, Jara said he was working toward establishing standard curriculum for district schools.
This is a long overdue step, and Jara deserves credit for recognizing it as a necessity.
As is, the district’s curriculum is a hodge-podge that varies from school to school. Although state standards for educational aptitude are in place across the district, the actual curriculum plans are approved at the building level. With more than 350 schools in the district, that’s a lot of different variations on educational programming. And considering that each school can select from a range of instructional materials that have been adopted by CCSD, that’s a lot of different sets of textbooks and supplemental items, like worksheets, software and lab kits.
Throw in the fact that teachers can customize their own supplementals by choosing from a CCSD-approved list, and students at the same grade level can be taught in substantially different ways from school to school and even classroom to classroom.
That’s a major problem in Las Vegas, given its transient population. Jara, who took over as superintendent in mid-June, said several principals had told him “they’re seeing kids going from one school to another, and they have to start over.”
Beyond that, the law of averages dictates that with curricula differing from place to place, some approaches are bound to be less effective than others. Experience and expertise matter in the development of curriculum, too, meaning students at low-income schools that tend to have high staff turnover could be at a disadvantage. The lack of conformity in coursework and materials could help explain why Clark County schools vary so widely in student aptitude.
The school-by-school approach also is expensive. Jara correctly noted that standardizing the curriculum and adopting widely used sets of textbooks and supplemental items would allow the district to use its purchasing power to negotiate good deals on materials.
Jara said he faced a similar situation in his last role, as superintendent in Orlando, Fla.
“When I first got there, we had 188 different reading programs in 123 elementary schools, because every principal was buying their own,” he said. “So we centralized our curriculum.”
In Orlando, Jara said, the district worked with principals to develop the curriculum, then purchased materials that were used districtwide. The principals paid for those materials out of their schools’ budgets, but due to the economy of scale, the price was cheaper than if they’d negotiated deals on their own.
Granted, developing an effective curriculum won’t be easy in Southern Nevada’s diverse and sprawling district. The danger is that coursework that proves to be effective in one school environment — say, one with a large percentage of students from wealthy, English-speaking, two-parent households — wouldn’t work in other places.
Also, since no two schools are exactly the same — heck, no two classes are exactly the same — principals and teachers should be given some latitude to tailor their curriculum to the aptitudes and needs of their students.
But Jara is off to a good start in talking to principals about their curriculum needs. Building-level staffs know best when it comes to the learning environment at their schools, so it’s critical for the district to obtain their input in crafting coursework.
As Jara goes about the process, though, he deserves support from principals, teachers and the community. What he’s doing might not be easy, but it will benefit the people who matter most — our children.