How a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum Ruined Teaching

I sat in a meeting recently where an administrator reiterated the importance of having a “guaranteed and viable curriculum.” He shared this quote:

It’s one of those things teachers have heard a thousand times, and we all just nod our heads and say to ourselves that of course schools should know what students ought to learn and kids growing up in Minnesota should know some of the same, big, basic things as kids in Georgia. It’s uncontroversial to say that kids will learn more when they’re given the time and opportunity to do so.

But a question that isn’t asked is how our desire to provide students with a guaranteed and viable curriculum affects teachers, and whether or not we should care.

First, let’s define some terms. Kathleen Dempsey at McREL writes:

A “guaranteed’ curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do.

So far, so good. But the devil is in the implementation. Dempsey continues:

The word “all’ needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.

Ah, there’s that damn word, fidelity. As a teacher, fidelity means my district leaders trust a program more than they trust me, and it means I should suppress whatever creative instincts I might have and just open the program they’ve purchased and teach the way it says to.

Dempsey adds:

However, schools (through teachers) implement the curriculum, and, if implementation varies significantly from teacher to teacher, then student outcomes will also likely vary significantly from classroom to classroom.

Translation: If we could just get all teachers to teach the same stuff in exactly the same ways, then all kids would learn the same things at the same level. And if you believe that, well, there’s this bridge I know of…

Finally, Dempsey warns us about the dangers of teachers having choices:

These days, teachers have access to a variety of curriculum resources, such as open educational resources, playlists, digital textbooks, and teacher-developed curriculum. Having access to options is a good thing, but having many choices does not ensure all choices are well aligned to the school’s GVC.

Left unsaid: We probably shouldn’t allow teachers to decide what to use because they might choose unaligned resources. The logical solution then is for district leaders to choose so every teacher uses the same stuff, which allows the district to claim they have a guaranteed curriculum.

None of this sounds great from the perspective of a teacher. We’re going to be told what to teach. Because we can’t be trusted, we’re going to be told what to use to teach those things. Dempsey, no dummy, anticipates teachers’ objections:

Does this mean that a GVC is a scripted, rigid curriculum? No! Does this mean that students and teachers are confined to a lockstep process of teaching and learning? Absolutely not! Teachers must have the flexibility to meet student needs through different methods of content delivery, helping students dive deeper into their passions.

Which is a load of bull.

In practice, GVC all too often does mean a scripted, rigid curriculum. In fact, guaranteeing a curriculum all but demands a scripted, rigid curriculum. If your primary goal is for all students to have the opportunity to learn the same things, then you’re going to control to the greatest extent possible how instruction is delivered. You’re going to choose the curriculum teachers are to use and you’re going to demand they teach it with fidelity. You are going to confine your teachers to a lockstep process of teaching. And you most certainly will not encourage flexibility because as soon as teachers start deviating from your chosen curriculum, you open the door to the very thing you were trying to avoid in the first place, different teachers doing different things. The idea that teachers who work in a district that stresses a GVC are going to “help students dive deeper into their passions” is ludicrous unless those passions happen to align with the guaranteed curriculum.

Should We Care?

We know that students learn more by having guaranteed and viable curriculums in their schools, at least theoretically. But what do we lose? We pretend, as we so often do in education, that there are no trade-offs. We should at least ask if what we gain is worth more than what we lose. And what we lose is teachers’ motivation for the job, which is no small thing.

Make no mistake, guaranteed and viable curriculums have led to the standardization of classrooms. That is, in fact, their aim. While in a perfect world, our guarantees would be limited and teachers would retain autonomy around the delivery of the content, in the real world, school districts, in their desire for guaranteed curriculums, have stripped away teacher autonomy. They’ve taken teacher creativity out of the classroom, and by doing so, they’ve destroyed teachers’ motivation.

No teacher signed up to be a worker drone. When the curriculum tells them, “Teach this stuff,” and their employers tell them, “Teach it just like this,” then it’s small wonder lots and lots of teachers show up to school with declining enthusiasm for the work.

Once upon a time, teachers were more restauranteurs than delivery drivers. At the very least, they were chefs. Classrooms, like pizza parlors, were different, not just in how the content was delivered, but sometimes in the content itself. Teachers would invest more time, energy, and passion into topics they found interesting. I still remember a fair amount about the Alaskan dogsled race, the Itidarod, because I had a fifth-grade teacher who created a multidisciplinary unit on it. I doubt much of it was aligned to the standards.

Guaranteed and viable curriculums ruined that. Common Core amplified the effect because now we’ve got thousands of teachers across the country teaching the same exact stuff from a handful of uninspiring programs. The sheer number of standards guarantees that teachers will never have time to go off script and indulge their passions or follow their students down a bird walk, or six.

School leaders took it a step further when they demanded fidelity to the standards-aligned programs their boards adopted in their quest to offer a guaranteed curriculum. They didn’t want to leave their districts’ reputations in the hands of teachers! Better to trust the so-called research-based programs. At least then, when things fell apart, they could blame some faceless publishing company, pick a new program by a different faceless publishing company, explain away their error by uttering some tripe like, “When we know better, we do better,” make new promises, and start the cycle over again.

In the meantime, teachers, no longer trusted to decide what or how to teach, stripped of their autonomy and bereft of motivation, keep walking out the door. Some of them stay away for good. Others return week after week, serving up uninspired instruction that they have no say in.

A guaranteed and viable curriculum guarantees that students will have a better chance of passing a standards-aligned test, but it also guarantees that teachers will continue to be disillusioned with what has become of their job.

A guaranteed and viable curriculum guarantees that students will have a better chance of passing a standards-aligned test, but it also guarantees that teachers will continue to be disillusioned with what has become of their job. Click To Tweet

6 Replies to “How a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum Ruined Teaching”

  1. This is very interesting and I don’t disagree with you but wouldn’t you say that most school districts are trying to find the best curriculum that is best for students and will help teachers. I do believe that teachers should be trusted to use the information given in the way that is best for their students. Having said that, the other side of the problem is the lack of time available to teachers DURING WORKING HOURS to design and create lessons that will best benefit their students. I love teaching but I can’t just give over my entire life, all waking hours, to my profession. So on one side, sometimes it is nice to have everything you need to teach already laid out for you. This gives you time to enjoy your life! On the other side, I would love to come up with my own lessons and wonderful activities that I know will benefit my students. I just don’t have the time or energy sometimes to devote to it unless I want to give up my personal time. I know you have written on this before. I totally agree with all you are saying but it seems we can’t have it both ways. Either we teach something prescripted that is easier on us or we have time to create and really plan. The latter will require more money for more teachers or support staff to help teachers. I really don’t think that will happen. I do thing it’s the answer or at least going in the right direction!! I love your articles. I always believe you are right in target with your thinking!! Thank you!

    1. I agree that teachers are not often given enough time or resources to design and create lessons. Teachers should definitely be given curriculum which is approved by whatever the district’s governing body comes up with. Boards of Education are typically voted in and if the democratic process holds up, they represent the will of the community overall-school curriculum should reflect this.

      Teachers should also be give a certain amount of flexibility in how the curriculum is used. Maybe teachers should be expected to use the curriculum 70% of the time and express their professional creativity 30% of the time? I’m not sure, but I know that a ton of beginning teachers have the unfair task of coming up with their lessons from scratch, while others have a proper curriculum that they can rely on. Aren’t the dozens of minds that come up with a curriculum better than a few at a school coming up with their own?

      Ultimately, if a teacher is upset with how a curriculum is designed, then they should spend some time as a curriculum designer. There should not be one or a few teachers deciding the academic fate of their group of students.

  2. I regularly read your posts and feel a deep ‘yes’ emanating from my core with every one. This post is particularly pertinent to the education scene in Australia, grappling with its less-than-five-year-old Australian Curriculum which has already had at least three MAJOR overhauls (the first before the entire curriculum was even instigated across all faculty areas!). Sometimes, when I see the shiny new graduates so full of hope and optimism, I think I have become so cynical… but I also know I have seen a huge erosion of conditions and ability to ‘teach to the situation, enabling kids at a local level’ since I first started 30 years ago… I love the teaching but abhor the government/department-overlaid BS that goes with it.

  3. Brava, Annabel! Perfectly stated. One of the things i discovered upon my return from independent/write my own programs in my teaching in Japan was that Australia seemed to have gone all USA in teaching and management of teachers – dreadfully so! Political interference in all directions!

  4. I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I have seen many education “magic pills” fail. They benefit publishers, legislators, and NOBODY else. Often people ask why I’m not opposed to the common core; it really isn’t that different from what I’ve always taught. Yes, they break it down into an inordinately large number of objectives, and it is a real pain to break down your grading and report on EACH objective, but overall, it hasn’t changed how or what I teach that much. In fact, my principal asked me years ago to compare the old textbook to the new “common core aligned” textbook. I went through it page-by-page, the only difference was the common core standards printed on the pages. The stories used, the questions, the side notes…all the same. We didn’t purchase the “new and improved” textbook, and we have done just fine without it.

    I agree that GVC does mean we are asked to be robots, dispensers of the curriculum. Put a quarter in, get a lesson out. What REALLY bothers me about it, is that after asking us if we used the prescribed curriculum with fidelity, administrators ask up to provide evidence that we differentiated for each student and learning style. Did I engage each student? Did I make it relatable? Um…no. I can’t teach all the students in MY classroom exactly the same way John Doe teaches the students in HIS classroom AND individualize instruction. You can’t have it both ways. It comes down to a level of trust. For whatever reason, the people who hired us don’t trust us to know what we are doing. Since autonomy and passion for their subject and students is what drew most teachers to the profession, there are fewer and fewer reasons to stay.

  5. I’m going to simplify this, but it all boils down to authenticity. Teachers are not trusted to handle the job on their own, so they’re handed the lessons and how the lessons are taught. A teacher is valued by his or her ability to manage classroom behavior and fidelity to curriculum. They’ve become robots basically lacking authenticity. My wife and I homeschooled our daughters without a curriculum, without assessments. Both graduated with honors from distinguished universities. Imagine.

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