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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.