Monday, December 19, 2011

Wishful Thinking about Curriculum

Jay Matthews:

(Bruce Friedrich) thought it was odd that despite the forward-looking reputation of the Baltimore district and Teach for America, beginning teachers had to construct their lessons from scratch, as they have done for centuries. They were shown samples of the state tests their students would have to take. They were told where they might find good material. But as rookies, they had little idea which of a million possible options would work. ...

Jeff Wetzler, Teach for America’s executive vice president of teacher preparation, support and development, showed me a 2010 survey of the organization’s beginning teachers in 30 states. Forty-one percent said they were provided with low-quality instructional tools such as lesson plans or none at all. Twenty-seven percent were provided with tools they were required to use and an additional 7 percent got tools they used because their colleagues used them. Only 15 percent said they were provided tools that they used freely because they were of such high quality. ...

I asked Friedrich if textbooks filled the gap. His school had them, he said, “but there was no requirement that they be used and no guidance regarding how to use them.”

Mark Anderson:

Why is this proverbial teacher alone? Why doesn’t he have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide his task analysis, aside from some glossy multi-colored binders of biblical proportions with large fonts and tons of sidebars (“teacher-friendly”) that came along with his district’s purchased curriculum? Why isn’t this teacher sitting with other educators during a scheduled, paid time of his day?

The thing I notice here is that both teachers complain about not having a curriculum, but then admit they have a textbook, which in 2011 usually is intended to be sold and purchased as a full curriculum assembled by experts, aligned to standards and approved by administrators, but they don't like it. The TFA survey unhelpfully lumps together (as 41%) those who have no curriculum and those who regard it as "low quality."

There is a world of difference between "there is nothing" and "I don't really like what they gave me, and they don't require I use it."

I can completely relate to the feeling of a new teacher rummaging around a basement classroom in late August trying to figure out what he is supposed to be spending the next nine months teaching a bunch of 12 year olds (after being trained to teach 14 to 18 year olds). I was that guy too, and it was just as absurd then. But a little historical context is in order. I knew, for example, that a complete English curriculum had just been written in the preceding years as part of a multi-year, intensive union-management collaboration. And then tossed away by the new superintendent when the old "outcomes" became the New Standards.

The problem, in short, is not that nobody thought of curriculum before. The structure and implementation of American education turns out to be incredibly hostile to developing and maintaining stable curriculum. It is a cause of lower student performance, but not a root one. Lack of curriculum is a symptom of deeper problems.

  • Instability, inconsistency, trendiness and reform churn: (see example above).
  • Hyper-politicization of curriculum: I'll be the first to say that all curriculum is political, but this has really been taken to an extreme in the US today, particularly in terms of the modes of basic reading and math instruction. To, say, 25% of the population, essentially every curricular decision connotes a political stance in a highly polarized environment. That's not going to work.

    See also Charlie Pierce today:

    There is a dangerous viral lunacy afflicting our politics even at the most basic level, and a lot of somebodies are making a lot of dough in the business of making people angry and stupid. These are our airwaves, dammit. They also belong to the oyster farmer, who I imagine could use a break right now.
  • Lack of professional respect for teachers: This manifests itself in an inability to maintain an appropriate level of flexibility, variation, continuous improvement, and consistency. I guess this is in part the cause of the instability mentioned above and in part a result of the over-politicization of everything.

All this isn't to say that you shouldn't try to improve the curricular situation at your school; more to explain why what you're doing probably won't work any better than the last twenty attempts in your district over the past thirty years.

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