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Is EL a curriculum or cult?
Some educators preach the gospel of EL with an apocalyptic fervor. But is their devotion justified?
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
My child’s school is using the EL curriculum. Since coming under fire for its controversial lessons, I’ve seen some teachers and principals treat it with spiritual devotion. Is EL a curriculum or a cult?
It’s true that some educators preach the gospel of EL with an apocalyptic fervor. Whenever I hear them, I wonder what they were doing to their students before, for I can find nothing holy, miraculous, or even interesting about the program.
EL, however, isn’t the cult; politics is, and EL is an icon of sorts for both sides.
First, for the uninitiated: EL (the letters don’t stand for anything) is a K-8 Common Core reading curriculum. Its underlying goal is social reform. According to EL, “We embrace a vision of education as a powerful engine for disrupting structural racism.” Its “Pillars of Educational Equity” include “school culture that fosters positive identity, belonging, agency, and purpose” and “explicit anti-racist discussion, practice, and action.”
The controversial lessons include third graders rewriting passages from Peter Pan to “right the wrongs” of racial and gender stereotypes. Equality is a fundamental American value, but partisans spar over whether EL’s particular brand of it is appropriate for schools. This has made it a political lightning rod.
I abhor politics in education. For what it’s worth, I can find common ground on both sides. Education should have a role in teaching the injustice of racial discrimination. On the other hand, it’s fair to question if “disrupting structural racism” is the best foundation for a children’s literacy program. “Children’s literacy” would make more sense.
Yet the politics are impossible to ignore because EL has been tainted by it. Educators and parents on both sides treat one another venomously over EL. Whatever EL’s benefits, they are not worth the cost of our civility.
A curriculum divided against itself cannot stand. Once an educational idea is contaminated by politics, it’s doomed because education must inspire unity, not division. A curriculum should be “adopted,” not “forced upon.” If a large group of parents reject it, it won’t succeed. Thus, EL is not a failure because it’s wrong. It’s a failure because we cannot agree that it is right.
But even without the political toxicity, there’s still the matter of EL’s educational deficiencies.
The Charleston Teacher Alliance surveyed 135 EL teachers: 81% said it wasn’t an improvement over the prior curriculum. They said it’s inflexible. There’s not enough emphasis on writing and phonics. The pacing is too slow. It’s killing morale as it’s haphazardly organized, materials are difficult to access and elementary teachers are forced to prepare 30 to 45 EL lessons weekly.
But quantity isn’t quality, and teachers complain that EL lacks rigor. In my grade (eighth), 25% of the year is spent analyzing a single comic book about mice. That would be a sharp drop from the roughly 300 pages of pure text my current students read over the same span.
Adherents argue that EL includes texts by and about people of color. A curriculum should reflect the diversity of its students. But EL isn’t the only curriculum that does this. They all do. They don’t all, however, delve into the social-emotional aspects of race, gender, and social justice that alarm many parents.
EL advocates believe it raises test scores. Pilot schools in Charleston show dramatic gains since 2021. But it’s much more likely that the end of COVID, not EL, deserves the credit. With kids back in school, mask mandates over, and children no longer stuck behind plexiglass, schools should see big gains no matter what curriculum is used. Other changes, like lowering student-to-teacher ratios with COVID relief funds, are contributing factors.
Yet the gains aren’t uniform. Some schools report steep drops. If EL is truly responsible for the highs, then it must be held accountable for the lows. Should we force schools to use a curriculum that has been proven to make their kids less literate?
Forgetting that teaching is an art, not a stencil, EL proselytizers claim its scripted lessons “standardize” teaching and keep weak teachers on track. But a suffocating curriculum isn’t necessary for that: state standards ensure that all children receive the same fundamental education while allowing teachers to innovate if they see a better way. EL crams standards into one dreary cookie cutter, making every classroom a clone and turning teaching into an assembly line.
This is ridiculous. Curricula don’t teach kids. Teachers do. And if we insist on a substandard curriculum for all, substandard teachers and students will follow.
Then we can all be disciples in a cult of ignorance.
Read the original column here.
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