The problem with scripted curricula. . .

I had the chance to spend about an hour today talking about education with a parent who is also a business woman.  It was one of the better conversations that I’ve had in the past few months.  She started by mentioning how “over the top” our state’s end of grade testing program is:

“This kind of testing doesn’t tell me anything about the students that you’ll turn out and that I’ll want to hire someday.  The kinds of skills that it takes to answer a multiple choice question aren’t the kinds of skills that I need students to have in the workplace.”

She went on to describe what she’d like to see students doing in my room:

“You’re a science teacher.  Why can’t you pair with the math teacher to study buoyancy.  The students could build boats in your classroom made of different materials, experimenting with density and floatation.  They could study friction and resistance.  And in math, they can study surface area when making sails.

You have a pond outside.  You could set up races on the pond and hand out awards for the students who can figure out the best ways to get their boats from one side of the pond to the other.  Learning between your classrooms should be completely joined.  Imagine how excited the kids would get!”

As our conversation went on, I mentioned how the kinds of learning experiences that she was so passionate about were becoming less and less common in many classrooms simply because teachers are bound by pacing guides that don’t leave a ton of room for experimentation.  Literally, instruction in most subjects is spelled out day-by-day in some of the thickest three-ring binders you’ve ever seen.

“I know how many days I’m supposed to spend on light, sound, heat, the solar system, the rock cycle, and the carbon cycle,” I explained, “and if I get behind because of an activity that takes too long, I feel incredible pressure, knowing that the only thing I’m going to be held accountable for is performance on the standardized tests.”

She was pretty shocked by the idea that there was no room for exploration in the school day—and she picked up on something that few parents ever notice:

“That amount of structure has to take the joy out of teaching, doesn’t it?  So why are these kinds of rigid pacing guides even used?”

Good question, huh?  And one that I’ve figured the answer out to:  Rigid scripting of the work of classroom teachers is designed to raise the quality of instruction in classes with underqualified teachers—and I’m ashamed to admit it, but scripted curricula often produce “measurable results.”

That shouldn’t be too hard to believe, though.  After all, with scripted curricula, teachers who knew little about their content areas are given lessons that cover the kind of critical content that they regularly avoided in the past, teachers who spent months on their favorite subjects are forced to touch on objectives that they may never have taught, and teachers who have little time to plan no longer have any excuses because every lesson—down to the words that teachers should say—is assembled ahead of time by instructional experts working beyond the classroom.

In districts that embrace scripted programs, every teacher in every classroom has at least an AVERAGE lesson that they can deliver—–and that means that every child in every school is getting some kind of “education.”  The greatest impact of these attempts to control the work of teachers are seen in our poorest schools—where undercertified or inexperienced teachers are common and where scripted curricula have resulted in HIGHER test scores than ever before.

Of course, the hidden damage is that scripting curricula DOES take the joy out of teaching for our most accomplished teachers—-and those teachers flee classrooms, looking for positions where they will be given the professional flexibility to explore their field and leaving their schools struggling to find competent replacements.

After listening to me describe the impact that scripting has on schools, my parent said something brilliant:

“That’s crazy.  Schools are letting an HR problem—-attracting enough accomplished teachers that you can trust to do the job well without a script—-create a curriculum and instruction problem.  Address the HR problem instead.”

She’s right, isn’t she. Now, what do we do about it?

Can teachers take the lead, working to make the impact of scripted curricula transparent to parents and policymakers?  Is this an issue that parents have to champion, standing up for the kinds of instructional experiences that they want their children to have? Are we all waiting for a legislator willing to put his neck on the line and advocate for new salary structures that reward the best and brightest who choose to teach?

I get all worked up because everyone—-including parents and business leaders—-seems to realize that what we’re doing isn’t enough and yet nothing ever seems to change!  I want to take action, but I don’t know what that action should be.