Omaha Public Schools curriculum for math, reading, language arts and science line up well with state standards and sometimes even exceed them, a recent audit found.
Portions of the district's curriculum also align with Common Core requirements, which could prove beneficial if Nebraska decides to approve the controversial standards.
Nebraska is one of four states to hold off on adoption of any of the Common Core, an initiative to create universal education standards across the country.
Denver-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning only reviewed curriculum documents and did no classroom observations — a point that school board members brought up. A recent needs analysis found significant room for improvement when it came to classroom instruction in OPS.
McREL is the same organization that recently compared Nebraska's statewide English language arts and math standards with Common Core requirements. The group presented its findings at Wednesday's school board meeting.
McREL generally gave high marks to OPS's curriculum in the four key subjects, based on a review of lesson plans, reading lists, pacing guides and other curriculum materials.
The consultants studied the level of difficulty of the curriculum, whether it aligned across grade levels and if there were any major gaps between OPS's materials and state standards that dictate which core concepts must be taught in each grade.
Ninety-eight percent of OPS's math curriculum met state standards and the few discrepancies found are small and highly specific, said John Kendall, McREL's senior director of research. Differences could include something as minor as having students study conic sections before they learn coordinate geography, the opposite of the state teaching sequence.
Small fixes were recommended. Science curriculum guides could be more specific, and in reading, consultants found that several book titles were repeated across grades. Recommended reading lists for some grade levels, especially in middle school and high school, could include more challenging texts, but they did include books from diverse authors, Kendall said.
“The idea of looking at book lists is an ongoing process in a school district,” he said. “This isn't an 'oh yikes' moment for your school district.”
Board members said they were relieved to learn that there were no major holes in the curriculum, but pointed out that a disconnect remains between the curriculum and the actual level of teaching going on in classrooms. “It seems like our curriculum is pretty sound, but maybe the instructional practice is the biggest room for improvement,” board member Katie Underwood said.
OPS administrators agreed that more coaching was needed at the teacher and classroom level to bridge the gap between the rigorous curriculum that McREL found and the low level of difficulty that another consultant identified in the course of more than 200 classroom observations.
“There needs to be a higher quality of rigor and better implementation,” OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said. “That's the work that needs to be done, to be getting down to the classroom level.”
The district-wide needs assessment released in December found that students rarely engaged with their teachers or with each other. The consultants also noted a low level of rigor when it came to lesson plans and limited deployment of the teaching strategies outlined in OPS's district action plan.
“It's the delivery of the curriculum or instruction that we need to focus on,” said ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment. “They found the lowest level of rigor at high school — a 25 percent level of engagement at the high school level, which means more lecturing is going on than anything else.”
Board member Yolanda Williams said that at a recent community forum, many parents and teachers had asked her about the curriculum audit and complained about Common Core-aligned textbooks.
“Are there options that aren't so Common Core-standard related?” Williams asked.
Kehrberg said the widespread adoption of those standards made it nearly impossible to purchase non-Common Core textbooks. “There are basically four big publishing companies left, and they only produce Common Core-aligned textbooks.”
Board member Tony Vargas asked how OPS's curriculum compared with other districts and their alignment with state standards, but Kendall said the company didn't do comparisons across district or state lines. “We provide material that will help you refine your standards,” he said. “We did not find any significant problems. ... I would not feel comfortable comparing it to how other districts align with their state standards.”