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Why Curricular Coherence Matters for Kids


In my recent post on curriculum-based assessments, I noted the value of having articulated, aligned curriculum with clear pacing guides:

In the best-case scenario, rigorous state standards (and soon, national common core standards) are mapped closely onto a well-articulated, district-wide curriculum supported by robust instructional materials and professional development. The strength of such a system is that it actually specifies when and how each concept and skill will be taught. The realities of schooling may prevent students from experiencing exactly this scope and sequence of instruction, but it's better than a system in which a patchwork of individual decisions leaves little chance that students will master all of the content in the standards.

Over the past few posts, I've discussed the role of autonomy in teaching with reader Steve Peha, but I'd like to turn now to the issue of how autonomy interacts with curriculum alignment to impact outcomes for students.

I would argue that a "guaranteed and viable curriculum" (to borrow a phrase from Mike Schmoker) is essential for any school or school system. If we don't define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, and develop a coherent plan for teaching these knowledge and skills, there is little chance that it will happen on its own.

The logic of unquestioned professional autonomy suggests that professionals, left to their individual discretion, will make good choices and produce good results for students. On an individual basis, this argument has merit; any good teacher should have a grasp of what students should know and be able to do in a given subject at a given grade level, and should be able to teach this set of knowledge and skills.

The problem, of course, is that teaching is not an independent activity; it is rife with dependencies and interrelationships. Any teacher who has heard the dreaded words "We did that last year!" knows that what happens one year affects what happens the next year. This happened to me as a 6th grade science teacher—one of our science units was used by other districts for 5th grade and still other districts for 7th grade, so students who transferred between districts ran the risk of having the same life science unit twice (or even three times). This may be unavoidable when students transfer between districts, but it's certainly avoidable within a district.

In the comments on my recent posts and Steve's responses, much of the discussion has centered on whether pacing guides are appropriate for secondary humanities. Clearly, it makes no sense to insist that two 10th grade world history teachers say the same words on the same days; this takes away needed flexibility to, well, teach. Forcing teachers to do exactly the same thing at the same time does not seem like a promising way to improve student learning.

However, there is a strong argument to be made for following the same general course of study in a given subject and grade. If students need to switch to a different section of a class or a different school, it is easy to remove the risk that they will miss or repeat content. I can't think any pedagogically sound reason that everyone should decide on their own what knowledge and skills to teach, and in what order.

If we decide that students should write a research paper in the Spring of their freshman year rather than the Fall, there is no reason this can't be a system-wide expectation. This might only matter for the 10% of students who transfer between schools or sections, but the learning of those students matters a great deal—particularly since mobile students tend to be the most vulnerable.

But there's another way that teacher autonomy can create inequity: different expectations. If you're in the 9th grade English class that requires a research paper, you'll be better prepared for 10th grade than students in the class with no required paper. If you're in the precalculus class that got to chapter 23, you'll be better prepared for calculus than the students in the class that only got to chapter 15. Why should this be subject to the whims of class assignment? If something is worth teaching, it's worth teaching to all students, and teaching to a consistent standard.

Can this be taken too far? Absolutely. When the pacing guide says you should be on p. 772 today, not p. 780, we've lost our minds and need to step back and look at the big picture.

I won't hesitate to say, though, that there is a place for highly prescriptive pacing guides, particularly in math. Why? Without them, classes simply will not get through the intended material, and this dramatically affects students' success in future courses. Left to their own devices, teachers will make dramatically different progress through the curriculum, and this creates inequity for students. In some cases, this difference is due to skill, which also creates inequities that need to be addressed. More commonly, though, teachers simply make different decisions in the constant tension between moving on and stopping to re-teach.

This raises another key issue, though: We often attempt to teach far too much in a given course. If the pacing guide is unrealistic, teachers will rightly complain that they don't have enough time for reteaching, meeting individual student needs, adjusting to differences between sections, or even doing basic justice to the content. There should be a general sense that the pacing is brisk and challenging, but not absurd. Often when people claim they want autonomy, they are simply looking for a way to ensure that they can avoid some of this absurdity by making good choices on their own.

Absurd pacing guides aren't hard to find, and abusive policing of them isn't hard to find, either. But poor implementation of a good idea does not make that idea bad. I suspect that many pacing guides are absurd because they start with every single standard or chapter in the textbook and assume that everything has to be crammed into one course. Simply dividing the total amount of content by the number of days in the year does not lead to quality pacing guides.

System leaders have an important role to play in ensuring that all teachers have viable pacing guides. How do you tell whether your pacing guides are ridiculous? Ask your best teachers. If you want to develop good pacing guides, ask your best teachers what they teach and when. Have them put their heads together to make decisions about what to include and what to skip. Have them argue about whether the term paper fits better in 9th grade or 10th grade (or both). Accept that you can't teach it all, and work to instead identify the most important concepts and skills that will fit in a realistic course of study.

If we want to improve the performance of our districts, schools, and students, curriculum is a great place to start. By ensuring that all students have access to a guaranteed, viable, rigorous, and realistic course of study in each subject and grade, we can eliminate the patchwork of individual decisions that might provide teachers a measure of autonomy, but at a terrible price for student learning.

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