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.  

Can anyone help?

11 thoughts on “The Problem with Scripted Curricula. . .

  1. Kathie

    What would happen if you didn’t follow the script? Well, for me it would mean using my 34 years of experience, including previous experience developing curriculum for a reading intervention class, to craft a thoroughly engaging curriculum that encourages at-risk students to take a risk again and use effort and interest to improve as readers and writers. With the district’s scripted curriculum? Not so much. Lots of “it’s boring” instead and pushing students through a workbook.

  2. Simon Oldaker

    Scriped curriculum? Good Lord. Don’t standardized tests already ensure that teachers cover what they have to?
    So…what would happen if you didn’t follow the script?

  3. Bob Heiny

    Good post and reasoned comments. Glad to hear you follow “the 3 thick binders.” I wonder if “fun” in teaching (not a contracted expectation) is more related to teacher personality and personal preferences than to binder content? I’m guessing you enjoy teaching more than alternatives you’ve considered.
    As I suspect with you, not all teachers who use “teaching scripts” (however defined) have joyless classroom time with students.

  4. LaureSue

    Your parent was very insightful.
    Because I live in a state where the numbers are supremely important, experienced teachers are losing their enthusiasm and drive through scripted curriculum. New teachers know nothing more than the script and are not developing the skill set, creativity and instinct of seasoned teachers.
    Also, our state places the ultimate focus on mediocrity – not excellence. Just get them all to grade level.
    We need the business leaders to clearly communicate (scream from the rooftops!) to our legislators that our children deserve to develop the skills and knowledge that will be important to them in the future. Important to us all as a nation. We need to get our most innovative business leaders on board, fighting to keep our children engaged in the learning process.
    How can we encourage them to step into this fight?

  5. Gail

    Wish I knew who to attribute this quote to, but I think a major weakness with scripted curriculum is that “you can script teaching, but not learning.”
    I can appreciate the value of having a flexible scripted curriculum available for those who are new to teaching or to a particular subject area. My concern is that scripted teaching appears to be promoted and more rigidly enforced in our high poverty schools, effectively locking “those kids” out of opportunities to collaborate, connect, problem solve, create, and share – 21st century skills.
    I look forward to following this important conversation.

  6. Mike H

    I have a few random thoughts on this subject. First, when I was in high school, and there were no state mandated tests and such, every class I sat in was the same. Lecture. Gym class was about the only creative class I had. While I can imagine there were innovative teachers like you back in the mid-1980s, I’d guess my experience was the norm. Why didn’t teachers push creativity or collaboration then? Maybe, and I’m no friend of tests, these tests have at least created a new motivation for what we now call 21st Century skills. Which, I would argue is a side effect, not the desired outcome.
    Second random thought: as you know, soon I’ll be in charge of social studies in my county…22 schools, 250 teachers where some of the schools largest departments are their exceptional ed depts. Maybe districts are too large, here in Va at least. I know some states have smaller districts, so maybe it’s easier to let go of the reigns some when you only have a handful of teachers to trust for the HR problem. This theory is part of my “so much is out of the hands of the teacher” philosophy.
    Third, it would be interesting to differentiate with teachers as we’re told to do with students. I’ve often felt for the state scores, I’d rather have 90% pass with some creative lessons thrown in, than 100% pass due to boring drill and kill. One thing I can promise though, is if successful schools (based on state testing) were allowed to “go their own way,” the schools that still had to follow pacing guides would revolt. Would still be interesting though.

  7. R Baer

    You and your readers always offer such thought-provoking insights into today’s education system. But, the solution is not just collaboration, or hiring qualified teachers, or having scripted or non-scripted curriculum. The solution has to include all of the above, as well as remembering what our focus should be…our children (notice, I used the word children and not students – a child is a person, and “student” is a label).
    A teacher has to be willing to admit they don’t know everything and willing to learn along with their students. I taught middle school English Language Arts this year for the first time, having taught sixth grade social studies to date. The pacing guide and curriculum guides were helpful tools, but my most useful tools were my colleagues, other ELA teachers and the instructional coaches that I have worked with during the past few years. While I feel I had a good year with a new school, new subject, standards, curriculum, and grade, I am pumped for next year! I learned so much this year from other teachers; I can’t wait to put some of it to work next year. That is what collaboration does for you.
    I am fortunate to work in a school where cross-curricular instruction is expected, we are an IB school. Some teachers are still resistant to change. What I have found, though, is to lead by example. I can share my enthusiasm and my children’s enthusiasm with everyone, whether they want it or not. It seems to be contagious, just like a cold. I love when a student says, “Hey, we talked about that in science today!” and, even better, when a teacher says, “Johnny mentioned what you all said in class…” Most teachers and students want to make those connections…with the curriculum and with each other.

  8. Kevin

    I couldn’t agree more, especially about the pacing guides and lessons helping the less effective and/or new teachers but hurting more experienced teachers. There should definitely be certain things a class should cover but there can be flexibility. I teach an International Baccalaureate class and that is how the curriculum is set up. The tests give the students options of which questions they will answer based on various themes.
    Although I am not a big business model supporter, the parent’s HR comment is right on. I’ve always understood one model of business is to hire the best people for the job and let them do their job. That too frequently does not happen in education.

  9. Sam Rosaldo

    Brilliant post, Bill. This one pulled me back into the fold after a prolonged absent.
    And that parent is brilliant, as well. Keen insights.
    The one area where she fell short is in her observation that this is purely an HR problem. We know that there are two sides of this equation: 1) attracting motivated, talented and qualified professionals, and 2) nurturing and developing their talent. After all, how many of those who of us who have taught felt like highly skilled practitioners in our first and second years in the classroom?
    I raise the second point because there are plenty of folks who see this as purely a hiring issue and are working on that angle. Most of those folks don’t believe that much training should be a prerequisit to teaching. And if we focus exclusively on hiring, then the answer to a bad hire is to fire. That’s both short-sighted and probably not feasible.
    And then there’s the the chicken and egg component of this issue. Are too few talented people attracted to the profession because they see how little room for creativity there is, or is there little room for creativity because not enough talented people are entering the profession?
    I guess where I fall in all of this is with the opinion that there is plenty of untapped talent in the system right now. Sure, there could be more. But I think the type of collaboration your parent is suggesting requires a high degree of skill. It won’t be enough to trash the scripted curricula and hire more talented folks. Unless we train teachers–those we have right now–to collaborate, be creative, to find the joy in teaching and learning…it won’t happen.

  10. Dave

    Best post ever.
    I love that the parent so strongly wanted cross-disciplinary class lessons, and it’s being prevented by a process that any businessperson can see the flaw in. Education can’t be cross-disciplinary because educators aren’t being cross-disciplinary!
    That said, education faces a unique HR challenge: a certain number of teachers must be hired by a certain time. If enough great teachers can’t be found by August, then HR really just has to hire the best they can find, even if they’re sub-standard. I think lessening the impact of that problem is the first step to fixing education HR. Maybe an apprentice system is necessary, where all teachers-to-be start as teacher assistants and must prove their skill to earn the promotion to full-time teacher?

  11. Paul C

    This topic hits close to home for me because it is an issue that I’ve been grappling with myself over the past couple of years. As a Science department chair for my school, I have tried to make my view of scripted curricula (which is shared by many seasoned educators) heard at the district level. The result is that my district’s pacing guide is actually pretty flexible. Our state is developing and sharing high-quality lesson plans built around the 5E inquiry model that can be used by any science teacher. They don’t cover every aspect of the entire curriculum, but they (as you noted) are designed to support novice educators. We are told repeatedly at district meetings that these are not required and should be considered a toolbox that any teachers can add to what he/she already has in their repertoire. I find this to be a great balance between holding hands of new teachers and restricting the creativity of experienced ones.

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