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In Conversation With ... Jana Beth Francis

Jana Beth Francis

Kentucky School Advocate
August 2021

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

As assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Daviess County Schools, Jana Beth Francis oversees all aspects of learning for some 12,000 students. Education Week has recognized her for her leadership in curriculum. Here, she talks about how curriculum is developed and used in Kentucky schools in support the state’s academic standards.

Q. Curriculum has become a hot topic this summer as several bills that seek to limit how teachers can discuss race and other issues are being pre-filed for the next legislative session. Can you explain how curriculum decisions are made in Kentucky schools currently?

A. 
Curriculum decisions in Kentucky are local, which is spelled out by KRS 160.345. By statute, curriculum is a school-based decision, made by school-based councils.  

Q. Many people are confused about the difference between curriculum and the state’s academic content standards. What is the difference and how do they work together?

A. 
The state tells us what we’re required to teach in terms of the standards. For the curriculum, teachers then pick what they’re going to use to teach and decide how they’re going to teach it.

Q. What is universal curriculum and why is it important?

A.
It says to teachers and to schools that we have curated a set of resources and curated lessons. Experts have determined that those lessons teach the standards. One reason for conversations about universal curriculum is the importance of all kids having the same opportunity to learn.

Q. But there is flexibility within this curriculum?

A. 
Yes. Because teachers need to be able to respond to the needs of students, they may need to adjust and adapt these model lessons. I hope teachers are talking to colleagues so that if something’s not working, a colleague can make a suggestion for something that is. If you and I are both teaching a subject and I bring in these rich resources and teach it well and you stand up and lecture and don't give any insights, our students haven't gotten the same quality education.

Q. So with universal curriculum, you are providing a map, but sometimes teachers need to take some detours or adapt?  

A.
Think of universal curriculum as a GPS. It tells you that this is the most logical way to go. You can think of each student as an individual car. If I have a brand new car, the interstate might be fine. If I don’t, I might want to take a slower pace. I might not get on the interstate, but I still need to get everybody to Florida. That’s the challenge. And when you give too much variance, you create inequity.

Q. Is it a smooth process to meld standards with curriculum and pedagogy?

A.
No. For example, a simplified version of an English language arts standard is that students read and are able to ask and answer questions about what they read, but the standard doesn’t tell you what the students are reading. The curriculum tells you that and that’s where it becomes a local decision. In mathematics, there are only so many ways to teach kids multiplication but in subjects like language arts or social studies it is fuzzy. Compared to 20 years ago, today’s standards are broad statements that drive students’ thinking and understanding versus a set of discrete skills. So because the standards can be interpreted differently, reviewing the curriculum is important.

Q. A lot of the discussion surrounding the bills that have been profiled for the legislative session involves critical race theory. In your knowledge, is that theory something that would generally be taught at the K- 12 level?

A. 
Critical race theory is a concept law schools used to explain how laws were created that influenced the way race and gender played out and biases in the United States. So when you think about elementary, middle school and high school social studies curriculum, we’re not asked to teach critical race theory. I can’t think of a course that it would pop into, unless the high school had designed a specific course around race, law and the American society.

Daviess County Schools Assistant Superintendent Jana Beth Francis encourages school board members to read the Kentucky Academic Standards so they have an understanding of what must be taught. Boards should also make sure the district has a policy for a continual review process of curriculum. (Photo provided) 

 

Q. When the state revised its academic standards for social studies, it was a long, transparent process with a lot of comment and legislative oversight. Is critical race theory included in those standards?A. 
No, it's not.

Q. How can parents, grandparents or guardians find out what's being taught in their district and offer input?

A. 
Each school and school-based council should have in place the review process for curriculum. Each site should have in place the instructional resources that they’ve approved. When the public wants to know the standards, I usually send them to KYstandards.org, where the Kentucky Department of Education has put all our standards, but if someone isn’t tech savvy, we will mail them a copy of the standards. That is our role at the district – to be open and transparent. It is what good public schools do.

Q. How can board members support teachers and administrators who may get criticism from the public about curriculum?  

A.
I’m working with my principals, school-based councils and district to make sure they have a curriculum review process in place. This is a requirement that gets overlooked. If a teacher decides to modify anything or bring in a new resource, according to the regulations, those resources should be reviewed.

Q. Are you finding curriculum review is a weak spot?

A.
I think it’s an issue. This summer, I’m working to make sure our review processes are in place. I’m going to encourage our school councils to adopt a policy in which they review along with the state’s review of the standards, which are on a cycle. Here’s how that could work. Say, for example, this year the state reviews science standards, next year our district would review our instructional materials for science.

Q. Is there a way for parents, grandparents or guardians to challenge the instructional materials being used?  

A.
Each school board’s policy should address how to bring a challenge.

Q. So there is a mechanism and it is controlled through the school board?

A. 
Right, but I would say that before we get to January and the legislative session, the school board, district and school-based councils need to review these policies. Let’s get those reviewed before we hit the session, because we know there are bills being filed and questions being asked.

Q. Since school boards do not determine the school curriculum, which by statute is under the authority of school-based decision-making councils, how would you recommend school board members discuss the curriculum in their schools?  

A. 
The school board approves all policies and procedures. To me, the most critical thing is do the policies and procedures ask for a continual review process of curriculum? Is there a process and way for those to be challenged? How do we assure that the school-based councils are making the right decisions and how do we work with them? I encourage boards to read the standards to make sure they have a good understanding of them.

Q. How did the pandemic change the relationship with parents as far as classroom instruction?

A. 
The pandemic opened up teaching to the public. We shouldn’t be afraid to show the public what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. We want parents to be authentic partners, not silent partners. We want the learning process to continue outside the school building. And we want kids to be curious and have this drive to find out the answers. The ideas that the standards encourage students to wrestle with and think about require partnership at home. We should encourage parents to ask us about resources and to see the resources that we’re using.

Q. What can board members do to support educators who may be criticized by the public from time to time about curriculum and what’s being taught?

A. 
They can make sure they’re aware of the process and know that the school followed it. One informal thing that our board likes to do is see samples of student work, evidence of learning. Board members can visit schools; teachers and the community want to know that the board is out in the field supporting and seeing with their own eyes. I try to keep the board informed through presentations and reports about resources we’re using. Having reports about instructional materials, pedagogy and professional learning during their meetings would be a first step. The community needs to see the board listening and learning along with everyone else.

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