Montgomery County, Maryland District Pulls RFP for Curriculum Decision Worth Millions

Associate Editor

One of the country’s largest school districts—Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland—suspended its search for new K-8 curricula after it was discovered that two of its high-level employees were retiring with the intention of taking jobs at Discovery Education, one of the bidders.

As soon as the employees, who would have been involved with the RFP review process, announced plans on Monday to retire from the 162,000-student district and accept job offers from Discovery Education, they recused themselves from the selection process, according to a district spokesman.

On Wednesday, the district’s chief academic officer, Maria Navarro, sent an email to staff explaining that the math and English/language arts curriculum search would reopen at a later time. She indicated that the employees are the associate superintendent in the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs and the supervisor for English/language arts in the Department of Secondary Curriculum and Districtwide Programs.

“While these job offers do not appear to have influenced the RFP process, we want to ensure public confidence in the integrity of this effort. Therefore, Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith is recommending that the Board of Education rescind the current RFP so that a new RFP can be issued at a later time,” Navarro’s announcement to the staff indicated.

For its part, Discovery Education said it has pulled its proposal submitted in response to the RFP, which was originally issued in April with a May 11 deadline.

“As soon as it was brought to the attention of Discovery Education’s leadership these individuals were connected to the RFP, citing an abundance of caution, we took the initiative and immediately withdrew from consideration,” the company said in a prepared statement. A spokesman for Discovery said he could not confirm that the two individuals had received job offers from the company.

Derek Turner, the spokesman for Montgomery County’s school district, confirmed that the retiring school administrators had had no input in the RFP review process at the early point. “There was never a moment in the selection process where these people were reviewing the bids,” he said.

When the district eventually chooses its curriculum providers, the anticipated cost for the curriculum and accompanying training could be between $4.5 million and $5 million, Turner said, although the selection process had not approached any consideration of price, and could include open-educational resources.

Self-Styled ‘Curriculum 2.0’ Got Poor Marks

The need for a new curriculum surfaced earlier this year when a review the district commissioned from the Johns Hopkins School of Education found deficiencies in “Curriculum 2.0,” which was developed by the district with the help of educational publisher Pearson.

The review looked at curriculum, classroom practices, and student performance based on the MCPS curriculum created in 2008-09.

Montgomery County’s curriculum has a number of issues, the researchers found, including the fact that “overall, participating teachers do not have a positive view of it,” and it is used only sporadically by the 4,000 teachers it is intended for. In fact, English language arts teachers are using non-Curriculum 2.0 materials more often than they do the sanctioned materials. Math teachers use Curriculum 2.0 materials more frequently than do ELA teachers, but about 87 percent also use self-developed materials. And, teachers do not believe Curriculum 2.0 adequately meets the needs of special education or ELL students.

Hopkins recommended that the district “move away from utilizing central services staff and teachers to write curriculum and assessments,” and that it adopt external curriculum and assessments developed by experts in the field.  The Hopkins researchers also recommended that the county base its decisions on “external evaluations and ratings” like EdReports, according to a PowerPoint presentation made to the board in March. Hopkins recommended a staged implementation with a full implementation of a new curriculum for the 2020-21 school year.

RFP To Be Reissued

In a few months, the district will issue an RFP very similar to the one from April, Turner said. That one sought scoped and sequenced curricula, accompanying materials, and instructional implementation guidance. All curricula submitted were required to be evidence-based and include tiered interventions. Proposals were to include resources for English language learners, students with disabilities, and students performing below grade level. The district was also looking for evidence of culturally responsive practices.

When proposals were opened earlier this month, 13 were received for the math curriculum and 13 for English language arts, according to Turner. The plan was to make a selection this summer and start training educators at 30 elementary schools in math and English/language arts, and 20 in middle school.

The RFP will be reissued in the fall when summer break is over and all stakeholders can take part in the process. About 2,000 responses were received in a community stakeholder survey about what people hope to see in a new curriculum, Turner said. The extra time will allow for a deeper analysis of that feedback, he added.

“While we know this delay may cause a disruption for our schools that were to begin implementation next year, we believe this delay will help us ensure transparence and trust in the process,” Navarro wrote in an announcement distributed to parents in the district.

The district has “no reason to think there was inappropriate action, any wrongdoing or interference,” Turner added in the interview.

Discovery Education’s headquarters is located in Silver Spring, Md., about 13 miles from the Montgomery County district’s school central offices. The company, like most education businesses, employs former educators from across the country in varying roles. It would not verify that job offers have been made to the two individuals who submitted their notifications of retirement.

“Discovery Education’s leadership acted proactively, diligently and collaboratively in the MCPS RFP process,” the company said in its statement. “Discovery Education employees receive training on identifying and avoiding ethical conflicts, and holds its employees to the highest standards.”

In the message to parents, Navarro pledged to “continue to provide enhanced professional development for staff that will focus on addressing some of the concerns cited in the curriculum review.” The steps to address those concerns include: developing instructional strategies that support every learner in every classroom; creating high levels of student interaction with rigorous and complex text; and establishing deep levels of mathematical understanding aligned to grade-level standards, she wrote.

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