Is A Solid Curriculum a Constraint on Teacher Creativity?

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.”

—Werner Heisenberg

Not three months after graduating from college, I got a job teaching middle school science at a local parochial school. For my orientation, I was given a tour of my classroom and the keys to a closet that contained my students’ textbooks. Whether I used them was entirely my call. It’s the kind of freedom many teachers could only dream of—and a freedom that is perhaps common in the Catholic school world.

@mskatherineq via Twenty20

As it turned out, the closet held two full sets of eighth grade science textbooks—one for earth science and one for physical science. My first big decision as a teacher was which one to use. When I met with the teacher I was replacing, she recommended I used the earth science textbook because it was “easier.” I followed her advice for one chapter, at which point I realized I didn’t much enjoy earth science and would rather teach physical science. So I switched—pivoting to an entirely different set of content and hoping my eighth grade students would follow along. I had the “freedom” to make this call as a twenty-two-year-old with absolutely no expertise to inform my decision.

In looking back on this experience, I now know that my students would have been far better served if someone had said to me, “Here’s what you need to teach. Your creativity and freedom lie in deciding how to present this information to the twenty-eight students in your charge every day.”

I thought a lot about my first experience with teaching as I read Tom Nichols’s new book, The Death of Expertise. While his book ostensibly isn’t about education, it sheds light on the challenges we face. We would do well to grapple with the implications of the cautions he raises, particularly as it pertains to the role of curriculum in school reform.

Nichols argues that we are living in a dangerous age. Although people have access to more knowledge than ever before in history, the paradoxical result is that we’ve become resistant to valuing or even trusting knowledge and expertise. The problem is that:

[W]e cannot function without acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and trusting the expertise of others. We sometimes resist this conclusion because it undermines our sense of independence and autonomy. We want to believe we are capable of making all kinds of decisions, and we chafe at the person who corrects us or tells us we’re wrong.

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than when it comes to what is taught and learned in America’s classrooms. We valorize teacher “freedom” and “creativity” over things like proven curricula, which are too frequently perceived as a constraint on teacher autonomy. But constraining yourself to something proven to work is the surest path to getting results.

I see this challenge every time we interview young, eager recruits—particularly those from top colleges and universities. Perhaps the most common question we get asked as we interview high-potential new teachers is, “What creativity will I have in the classroom?” The second question is often, “I prefer to use inquiry teaching methods. Can I do that here?”

I will confess that I bristle when I hear these questions. Not because I don’t appreciate the zeal of young teachers. It’s an enthusiasm I share, and that I shared at twenty-two, when I was given my first teaching job. But I cringe a little when I reflect on the cost to students of the freedom I was given at the time.

In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. And, as Robert Pondiscio has persuasively argued, it simply makes “an already hard job nearly impossible [for teachers] to do well.”

Yet study after study has demonstrated that requiring teachers use a proven textbook or curriculum to guide their teaching is one of the surest ways to improve outcomes for students.

In 2009, Cory Koedel and Morgan Polikoff published results from a study comparing the effects of mathematics textbook choices on student achievement in California. They found that “non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials.”

Similarly, Brookings scholar Grover Whitehurst has repeatedly argued that, if we’re trying to do “what works for kids,” we should pay far more attention to curriculum. Whitehurst and his colleagues have shown that “the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than” other reforms, including improving the teacher workforce, expanding choice, expanding preschool, merit pay, class size reduction, and more.

That so many ed reformers have steered clear of advocating for proven curricula speaks volumes about how resistant our culture is to anything that puts limits on individual autonomy. Despite the overwhelming research that suggests that the most important thing school and district leaders can do is choose strong curricula to drive teaching and learning in core content areas, most teachers are repeatedly left to build their own curriculum, on top of everything else we ask them to do to plan, prepare, and teach every day.

A RAND study revised last April found that 98 percent of secondary school teachers and 99 percent of elementary school teachers draw upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. And those materials are most often pulled from Google (96 percent) and Pinterest (74.5 percent). The results were similar for math.

What’s most distressing is that the study also found that, in schools in which at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, teachers use Google and Pinterest even more often than their peers in schools with fewer such students.

When I stepped into the role of superintendent at Partnership Schools in 2014, one of the first decisions we made was to implement research-backed curricula across our six schools. Given our limited resources, we felt that it was the most cost-effective way to drive change and to support our teachers as they worked tirelessly to meet our students’ needs.

Since then we have found that teachers who drove the largest achievement gains in their classrooms embraced our adopted curriculum—and were thus able to focus their very real and creative energy and expertise on unlocking the potential of our curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students they serve every day. These are teachers who leverage the expertise of others in curriculum to then focus on areas like planning, classroom management, and building relationships with students, families, and the community.

In hindsight, that’s what I wish I had when I first stepped into the classroom. And it’s what we strive to provide to our teachers, who we know deserve much more than the keys to a closet.

In a world overrun with information—and in an age where our (sometimes justified) suspicion of expertise has too often swung the pendulum too far away from valuing knowledge and experience—we owe it to our teachers to give them the tools they need to succeed. And, more importantly, we owe it to students to avoid the mistake of pretending that the difficult work of teaching and learning can be done well with little more than a quick Google search after a taxing day.

— Kathleen Porter-Magee

Kathleen Porter-Magee is the Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of Partnership Schools.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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