The Mandated Curriculum

A number of weeks into the school year, teachers start to get into the rhythm of their work.  The initial units of study are complete, beginning-of-the-year assessment results are coming in, and classroom dynamics are starting to take shape.  Teachers are figuring out who their students are, which ones will require a lot of support, which will require extensions to keep them challenged and engaged.  September is the longest month of the year for teachers because they don’t yet know who their students are.  Once you make it past the Columbus Day long weekend, you know what lies ahead; you have your work cut out for you.  

Around this time a perennial dilemma arises for some, as teachers begin to review available data and look ahead at their instructional goals for the year.  One wonders, what kind of impact is the curriculum I teach having on my students, and could I improve the effectiveness of my practice if I were not tied to teaching that curriculum?

It’s also a dilemma for those in charge of approving curriculum.  Ideally, you want a high quality curriculum that engages students, that teachers approve of, and that has some record of success. Then everybody is happy.

Frequently, it doesn’t work out that way.  There is someone among a teaching force that feels as though he or she could better serve students without the mandated curriculum.  It’s not always black and white; sometimes teachers just want some flexibility to stray from the curriculum from time to time.  Sometimes teachers have that flexibility and other times they don’t.

When I was presented with this dilemma once years ago, my principal gave me some sensible advice. He said, “You’re a young teacher, and pretty confident in your ability to teach math.  But I want you to teach this new curriculum with fidelity for two years. Then, after you’ve got some experience under your belt and you know this curriculum inside and out, we can sit down and talk about which lessons of yours you’d like to incorporate into the curriculum.”  It made sense. Looking back, I was naive to think I could create better lessons and assessments on my own, and after teaching that research-based curriculum for two years I was indeed completely sold. It was a great curriculum program.

Not all of these ready-made curriculum programs are great.  I’m of the philosophy that any team of eager, open-minded and competent teachers can turn even a weak curriculum into a success.  The dilemma arises when you have a highly competent, experienced teacher and a curriculum that does not jive with that teacher’s style.  It cannot be denied that some teachers are just really good at doing things their own way, and that’s what makes their classes special.  For them, a mandated curriculum feels like a hindrance, and a roadblock to achieving one’s true potential as a professional educator.  Some teachers became teachers so they could be innovative in the classroom, and utilize their expertise, whether it might be teaching mathematics, reading, writing, or any combination of content areas.  This happens at all levels of public education, but mandated curriculum programs are most often implemented at the elementary school level without total teacher consensus, because elementary teachers teach all content areas and have various levels of expertise in various content areas.  You can’t please everyone all the time, so eventually a decision needs to be made on a curriculum plan.  The modern trend is toward research-based curriculum programs that include scripted lessons,  textbooks and online components.  It takes the creative component away from preparing to teach a lesson, but it then replaces it with carefully crafted lesson review and rehearsal.

I once transitioned to a school that had no curriculum at all, just a closet full of outdated texts and old math manipulatives.  I saw it as an opportunity to be innovative and introduce my own lesson ideas.  I enjoyed the freedom, but I quickly realized my own unvetted lessons sometimes failed and were not as ingenious or as engaging as I had predicted.  That meant going back to the drawing board and revising.  For the first half of that year I designed nearly all my lessons, and all my assessments.  It was exhausting, and left me coming home late every day, and working until late at night.  Most public school teachers can remember a time when they have burned themselves out.  I distinctly remember that feeling when it hit– It was after 10PM, and I was not close to being ready for the next day.  I put my head down and I cried.  I was a 6’5” middle school teacher with a beard, with my head on my desk and tears streaming down my face.  I was up after 10 for yet another night cranking out my next day’s lesson.  And I’d be up at five in order to exercise, have breakfast and bust into my classroom thirty minutes before my students arrived.  I still had to photocopy things and get all my manipulatives together.  I had no planning period the next day, and I’d be right back at it again the next night, planning lessons for the next day. I was having trouble staying afloat, as they say. This wasn’t my first year teaching, either, but it was my first year in a new district. It felt like my first year teaching all over again.  

As the year progressed, I began incorporating lessons from the curriculum I had taught in my previous district, and life quickly got more manageable.  For me, a less experienced teacher at the time, flying by the seat of my pants, having lessons on my computer from a previous district’s curriculum was a saving grace.   But the teacher I replaced had retired after teaching at the school for thirty years.  Kids and staff loved her, and they performed well on standardized math assessments.  She had no problem working without a mandated curriculum, and probably would not have enjoyed having to abandon her tried-and-true lessons in order to adopt one.

That’s the dilemma.  Some teachers really need that mandated curriculum, whether it is because they are not strong in a specific content area, or because they are inexperienced teachers and not prepared for the task of teaching an improvised curriculum.  Other teachers are highly capable of pulling it off, and have been pulling it off for years.  For one, having that researched based curriculum, and all its resources, is almost necessary.  For the other, it feels like an insult.

This may be the result of an unique disposition of the teaching profession in the United States.  New teachers in this country come into the profession with a diversity of experience and a wide range of confidence and ultimately, competence.  Some elementary teachers were math majors and are very confident in their math instruction, while others came into the profession to share their love of writing and would prefer not to have to teach math at all.  For consistency and equity in instruction, their district would arguably be better off just asking both teachers to tackle a mandated curriculum program rather than innovate their own instructional units and assessments.

If there was no shortage of confidence in content teaching, this would not be an issue.  Some elementary schools address this by allowing teachers to specialize in specific content areas, similar to middle school. For example, one teacher might teach multiple math classes and no literacy, while another teacher in the same grade level teaches multiple literacy classes and no math.  I’m a proponent of this model, as it allows teachers to become specialists in a content area over time, if they aren’t already.  Ultimately, the kids benefit from that by getting their instruction from a confident expert. The problem with this model is that among elementary teachers, most are more confident in literacy instruction than they are math.  So if an entire school implements this model, it is likely someone will be stuck teach only math when it might not be their strength.

Is it realistic to expect every elementary teacher to enter the profession with expertise in both math and literacy, as well as science and social studies?  I don’t think it is, but we can expect all teachers, elementary included, to enter the profession with expertise in one or two of these areas, which means we need to have a hard look at the academic preparation that is part of teacher certification programs and teachers’ master’s programs.

In next week’s post, I’ll consider a (radical?) approach to address that.


James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.