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Finding the Right "Grain Size" for Standardization

Teacher and writer/speaker/tech expert Bill Ferriter suggested in a blog post last Thursday that scripted curriculum is the equivalent of running shoes that do more harm than good, constraining healthy, natural functioning.

I don't know anyone that particularly likes scripted curriculum (except people who are selling it), but I also think it's useful to an extent; it's merely a question of degrees. I agree with Ferriter that over-standardizing can take away something crucial, but there's something to be said for having everyone on the same page—though not literally.

My district's elementary math curriculum does have a fairly prescriptive pacing guide, and no one particularly likes following the pacing guide. However, if you don't keep up with it, you won't finish the curriculum, and your students won't learn what they are supposed to learn in your grade. This means teachers have to constantly make choices about what to emphasize, what to gloss over, and what to stop and really concentrate on. This is the essence of professional judgment: Do what your students need. As a principal, I make a point of never discouraging this crucial aspect of working as a professional. At the same time, though, you have to stay more or less on pace.

Standardization is essentially the process of making decisions about what happens inside of classrooms, but from the outside, and applying those decisions everywhere. While this seems like it may conflict with professional judgment, I think it's a question of grain size.

"Grain size" refers to the level of detail we're talking about in a given discussion. When it comes to educational standardization, there's widespread agreement on the boulders: Kids should be taught reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and a few other subjects in their K-12 years; they should be taught to get along with others; and they should generally be prepared for citizenship and college/career.

Everyone who works in education accepts the "boulder" standardization, and a good deal more. No one who is hired to be a math teacher expects to be allowed to spend all year on art projects, and no art teacher expects to get away with assigning silent reading all year. There are boundaries to the jobs we're hired to do.

State (and now the Common Core) standards extended the reach of standardization further, into the specific objectives students are to master at each grade level. I realize this feels to many people like an encroachment on professional judgment, but it's really the only way to ensure any kind of equity. What you learn should not be based entirely on something so arbitrary as who your teacher is. We want all students, not just the lucky ones who get the best teachers, to learn at high levels.

Imposed, scripted curriculum—the kind with bold text that tells you want to say out loud—strikes most of us as going too far, because it encroaches on not just the what but on the how of teaching. Teachers should know how to teach, so when you treat them like they don't, it's insulting.

The problem is that everyone has different areas of expertise and need, strength and weakness. Curriculum publishers cover all the bases by scripting as much as they can, so if you need the fine-grained detail—the specific words to speak aloud to your class—you have it. This is only problematic when we teach it as the way to teach, rather than a resource.

Lucy Calkins publishes some of the best writing curriculum in the world. It's used by hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country. It honors their professionalism, encourages them to develop as teachers and as writers, and draws on every bit of their expert judgment and knowledge of their students. Teachers often pay their own way to her trainings, which always have waiting lists. Yet her curriculum is heavily scripted. If you want to know how to think about writing memoirs, how to introduce the genre to your class, and even how to craft a personal anecdote that can pique students' interest, you'll find an incredible level of fine-grained detail in Lucy's books. You can use as much or as little of it as you want.

The wrong way to use this kind of curriculum is to force people to use a finer grain size than they need, and that's what I think Bill is arguing against in his blog post:

There's no need to flex your intellectual muscles when you're being held accountable only for delivering predetermined lessons on predetermined days. Just like natural movements are impossible for feet strapped inside plaster casts, innovation is impossible for practitioners bound by rigid guidelines. As a result, skills that we once took for granted waste away and are forgotten.
Some guidelines should be rigid, at least at the larger grain sizes. It's the job of educational leaders to provide the guidance and resources teachers need, but to stay out of the way when it comes to the how and the fine-grained detail. It's the job of instructional coaches (and administrators who can be good coaches) to help teachers realize when they could benefit from the finer-grained guidance in their curriculum. And it's the job of teachers to look at the whole spectrum, dust to boulders, and constantly seek out what will best help their students.

Standardization may run counter to some of our natural impulses, but it's a good thing, coupled with adequate autonomy to exercise professional judgment.

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