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Monitoring: Avoiding Curricular Chaos without Creating a Police State


Last in a series of posts about curriculum pacing guides

Over the course of my past few posts on curriculum pacing guides, the issue of monitoring has come up several times. If we want all students to have equal access to rigorous, high-quality curriculum, it follows that some degree of monitoring will need to be in place to ensure that teacher autonomy (which I believe is a good thing) does not turn into curricular chaos, with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

The bible uses the phrase "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" not to celebrate the triumph of wisdom and autonomy, but to describe a deplorable period of lawlessness and anarchy. I don't think the reality is quite so stark in education, but I would still argue that a system of lone rangers is no system at all. We must work together to give students the best possible chance of success, and this includes aligning what we teach into a coherent and sensible sequence. Educational leaders have a responsibility to ensure that this sequence is actually taught, but this is a path fraught with potential missteps.

Let's start by looking at two extremes, and then try to find a place in the middle that avoids the dangers of either.

On one hand, it's possible to pay so little attention to what is taught that there is virtually no chance that students will emerge from the school system having mastered the intended standards. "Just do your best," we say, crossing our fingers. Sometimes this doesn't seem like such a wild idea, particularly when there are so many standards that everyone tacitly agrees they can't be covered, so no one even pays attention to what is taught.

On the other hand, it's possible to so over-police ill-conceived expectations that teachers are bullied into ignoring their own professional judgment out of fear that they will be punished for being a day off of the pacing guide or failing to cover standard 6.3.a.8. Teaching is a profession, and when professionals cannot use their professional expertise and judgment, their performance inevitably drops, like a rally driver who is forced to obey the GPS at every turn, even when the bridge is out.

What, then, are principals to do?

First, give people a roadmap—or better yet, have them develop one based on what they actually teach. Common expectations about what to teach—and what to skip—can make a huge difference in how much students learn.

Second, listen when teachers say they're being asked to teach too quickly for their students to keep up, or when they're resorting to "covering" instead of teaching. That doesn't mean the right answer is to slow down, but it does provide the opportunity to examine the reasons for the difficulty. If other teachers aren't having the same problem despite having similar students, perhaps the solution is simply to have teachers compare notes and discuss what they're doing. Or perhaps the scope and sequence itself is unrealistic and needs to be revised.

Third, remember the original definition of "accountability," and hold teachers accountable for what they're teaching and how well. If we have a curriculum guide and a teacher has deviated from it, they should be held accountable. But I do NOT mean they should be punished; I mean they should be expected to give a defensible explanation for the deviation. Perhaps the bridge is out, instructionally speaking, and students need the teacher to take a detour. The benefits to this type of accountability run both ways: teachers must be thoughtful about their instructional decisions, and administrators and other teachers regularly have the chance to learn from this thinking.

As an administrator, I don't have the "right answer" as to what should be taught in what subject and grade and at what speed. Even if the ultimate curriculum committee came up with the ultimate curriculum guide, we'll only learn in the actual teaching of the curriculum what works and what doesn't. Changes will be necessary, and must be guided by the experience of practice.

When it comes to implementing well-established, commercially published curricula, my maxim is a bit different: First follow the rules, then break the rules as needed. No offense to any of us, but the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project has probably done more thinking and research about how to teach math to 2nd graders than any of us ever will. Moreover, it's foolish to think we'll get better results by half-implementing a new curriculum. We should strive to first implement a new curriculum with as much fidelity as possible, then make professional judgments about what to change in our second year and beyond.

It seems to me that most of the horror stories about pacing guides gone awry involve either foolish administrators, unrealistic expectations, or both. I would argue that neither is necessary, and that charting a reasonable course between anarchy and police-state will give us the best chance of ensuring that all students learn what we want them to learn.

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