Defining ‘High-Quality’ Curriculum

photo-1514339013457-0fcf969367dfHey, remember when Bill Gates and his disciples were pushing the Common Core and every day there was another info piece published in Ed World saying, emphatically and even snippily, that these were STANDARDS, not a CURRICULUM?

Remember those assurances that a national consensus on standards and reliable, aligned assessments evaluating student mastery of those core standards were merely a conceptual framework–the beginning and the end of their Grand Master National Make-Schools-Better plan. Remember when they claimed school districts and individual teachers were free to craft their own curricula? Because teachers knew the kids (duh) and how best to teach them to reach those standards–providing students continued to do well on the tests, of course.

Well, that was then. The headline now is ‘Gates Giving Millions to Train Teachers on High-Quality Curriculum,’ closing the instructional cycle: Standards—Curriculum—Assessments.

Grantees will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series that are well aligned to state learning standards.

So–teachers won’t be using hand-selected materials or instructional activities they find relevant or engaging to their students’ lives. They won’t have the authority to ditch packaged materials that don’t work for their kids and create something that does. They will merely be trained—my least favorite word, when it comes to authentic teaching—to ‘use existing series.’  Series pre-approved by Gates and constructed by off-site by textbook writers. Whoopee.

You could see it coming, with the surfeit of dismissive articles on how teachers rely on Pinterest to create their lessons and wouldn’t know rich, rigorous curriculum if it dropped from the sky. This underlying disdain for teachers is often masked by chipper sentences like this one:

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.

I went to ed school a long time ago, but I left with the conviction that my job would be centered on creation of a relevant curriculum for my students and the pedagogical skill to deliver that curriculum. If teaching is not pedagogy and instructional design, what is it that teachers are supposed to be doing?

I do—unlike some of my colleagues—see the value of a loosely framed set of disciplinary standards to follow VOLUNTARILY, especially early in a teaching career. It helps to know how to sequence core learning objectives (some old-school language from the 70s that still applies). It helps to have a toolkit full of strategies to teach those objectives. What helps most is friendly, talented colleagues who provide running support when things don’t go well—another way to teach a key concept or go-to materials that aren’t in ‘the series.’

Sometimes, I think all the hand-wringing around teachers being unable to select, organize and teach a coherent curriculum comes mostly from those who are worried that teachers might choose learning materials and goals that they don’t agree with. It’s true that teachers have a lot to do, day in and day out, but taking their most critical responsibilities away from them means stripping them of what it means to be a teacher, turning them into technicians, record-keepers and disciplinarians enforcing work they don’t believe in. It’s demeaning.

I also don’t believe this is about Gates and Company making more money. It’s about control over a once-creative, socially essential occupational field.

A few years ago, I applied to become a ‘model lesson’ designer in a project launched by my State Department of Education. The money was not impressive, but the work was done over two weeks at a beautiful resort in northern Michigan, and several of my teacher colleagues were participating. The idea was to design exemplary lessons around topics and skills in the state grade-level curriculum standards (pre-Common Core). These lessons would then be available for all teachers in Michigan to use, to enhance their curriculum.

The work was done using a nationally familiar model of lesson design. Thousands of teachers across the country have read the book and undergone the training. Because this workshop was organized in a hurry (had to spend that grant money!) the sponsoring organization didn’t have a trainer available. Instead, they sent out two teachers to deliver the training and help us write the units.

These teachers were flat-out great. Both knew the lesson design process and material well but were pragmatic in assuring us that the ‘gourmet’ lessons we were designing were not the stuff of everyday teaching. They were ambitious and creative and used technology (one of the requirements) that lots of teachers didn’t have access to. A couple days in, there was a discussion about how the Department expected these lessons to be used.

One of the teachers leading the workshop admitted that he didn’t believe ANY lesson could be used, wholesale, by another teacher.  You might find a great idea or strategy, he said—but any smart teacher will tweak and modify. Tweaking and modifying are what teaching is. And creating your own lessons, custom-tailored to the kids in front of you—that’s what great teaching is.

There was applause when he said this, but the Department folks at the back of the room, scrolling through their phones, looked uneasy. The two teachers were gone in two days, replaced by a woman from the sponsoring organization, who made us discard the work we’d done already as ‘drafts’ and start over. To my knowledge, the lessons were never used.

So much for ‘high-quality’ curriculum. It’s hard to see how the millions Gates is dropping on this project will end up benefiting real kids. There is no such thing as a sure-fire, teacher-proof lesson. The person in front of the room always matters more.

Photo: Thammie Cascales

12 Comments

  1. There’s a serious equity issue here – not news to you of course. If you work in a private school or a “high-performing” (affluent) public school, if you’re in the right state, district, zip code, you will likely enjoy more autonomy. The community is more likely to value unique and creative approaches and learning experiences, and there’s likely to be less (if any) pressure to raise test scores. Ironically, sadly, and perhaps by design, the students who most need something extra creative and engaging in school, something customized with them in mind, are more likely to be in situations where policy makers and district leaders are under pressure to hire the consultants and import the programs and curriculum that will ensure uniform “best practices” that raise scores.

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    1. I taught in an all-white middle class suburb outside–way outside–Detroit. Teachers there definitely felt the loss of autonomy, and the last turnover in superintendents, exacerbated that ‘it’s about test scores’ vision. It’s a good system, staffed by a lot of creative people, but there is continuous pressure to meet Niche guidelines and rank high in the state’s ‘Top to Bottom’ list of districts ranked by test scores. I would say the community values creative, humane teaching, but the Board and administration are led around by test data.

      In MI, the go-to source for education information has become EdTrust Midwest, and they keep up an incessant drumbeat on how Michigan’s test scores have sunk dramatically (perhaps it has something to do with our lowest-in-the-nation funding growth?) Parents who read the news and pay attention to the competitive ed marketplace are frequently encouraged to seek out choice options, based on test data.

      And nobody’s talking about good curriculum and what that means. It’s a data chase.

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  2. What Gates wants is what real teachers call lesson plans for a sub, when you don’t know who the sub might be or whether or not s/he knows anything about the subject matter to be conveyed.

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  3. Your post hits the bullseye if we really want to be honest about the wrong direction American education has taken. How can talented teachers feel like professionals when curriculum steers the ship? How can we know so much (think current brain research) and choose so poorly (endless curriculum buys)? And how does blindly following set the best model for our children?

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  4. Sadly, as is the case so, so often… “follow the money”. Publishers count on states and districts having to continually buy the next new thing that will fix everything. :0/

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    1. Yes. And thus it has ever been–or at least since the mid-20th century. For many decades, this practice was centered on textbooks, and if books didn’t ‘wear out’ fast enough for publishers, other things were changing– scientific discoveries, new countries and borders, new thinking about how to teach mathematics. When the option of digitally retrieving materials came on the scene, publishers had new challenges–how to dominate their own market, when ‘free’ materials were readily available for teachers to select and use.

      Which is why I mentioned that pushback against Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers and other sites has been ramping up in the ed-media. Granted, there’s a lot of crapola on Pinterest, TPT, etc. But there’s also a lot of unusable junk in purchased curricular materials. I see those who would like to control content and benefit financially from traditional purchased materials mounting a campaign against teacher-created materials.

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  5. […] Foundations are not hoping to have enough money to send all the fifth graders to camp, or rebuild the orchestra program, or provide more modern science equipment. Billionaires and their organizations aren’t interested in small-potatoes needs. They want Big Sexy Ideas—like gutting tens of thousands of tailor-made local curricula (easily dismissed as a ‘patchwork’) and replacing them with national standards (which somehow will evolve into a ‘more rigorous’ national curriculum). […]

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