kitchen table math, the sequel: Can teachers write their own curriculum?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Can teachers write their own curriculum?

A few years ago, our then-assistant curriculum director, a terrific woman and an advocate for children whom I miss to this day, explained to the school board that our math curriculum was not Math Trailblazers.

I was in the audience at the time, and I was annoyed, because our curriculum most certainly was Math Trailblazers.

"People say our curriculum is Trailblazers," she said, "but it's not. We write our own curriculum."*

At the time, I was somewhat regularly in touch with a parent who had worked as an editor for a textbook publisher. Apprised of the 'we write our own' exchange, she was aghast.

In the world of publishing, where curricula actually do get written and published, writing a curriculum is a massive undertaking that consumes months of effort and multiple bodies playing multiple roles.

Not here. In my district writing-our-own-curriculum meant giving teachers two-week stipends over the summer to meet with a Trailblazers specialist from Bedford (the only other district still using Trailblazers, everyone else having dumped it) and be briefed on tweaks.

Trailblazers finally disappeared last year, but the curriculum situation has not improved. It's probably worse; the old-time curriculum adoption process seems to have been scuttled in favor of unilateral decisions made by the central executives. And our current curriculum director's new Powerpoint, titled "Teaching for Understanding," includes the observation that "Conventional linear (text-book [sic] driven) scope and sequence is a major impediment to developing understanding."

Naturally the words "we write our own curriculum" make me crazy because, as an adjunct who actually does write her own curriculum, not to mention an author who writes her own books, I know exactly how time-consuming writing a curriculum is.

Writing a curriculum takes forever.

Here's Siegfried Engelmann on the subject of writing and time:
As part of the endorsement of whole language, the ["Report Card on Basal Readers"] concludes that teachers should throw out basal readers and teach without them, using literature. The baseless are seen as an evil that deprives reading specialists of their right to make instructional decisions.

There are several problems with this solution: The first is that teachers are typically slaves to instructional programs and follow them very closely (even when they tell other that they don't). The second is that there is no evidence to support the assertion that typical reading specialists are capable of designing instruction that is effective (and a lot of data to suggest that they aren't). The third and most serious problem is that a reading specialist who designed even one grade-level of a program that worked well with the full range of kids, wold have to work on it no less than 6 hours a day for a minimum of two years.

War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse by Siegfried Engelmann, p 24
Six hours a day, five days a week, for two years.

Sounds about right to me.

Full disclosure: I am writing part of a textbook.

It's taking forever.

Later on one of our school board members, whom I had lobbied heavily on the subject of Singapore Math, took to calling our curriculum "Irvington math."


Auntie Ann said...

But these days, "our own curriculum" is often the teacher spending 5 or 10 minutes googling for a worksheet--this was our kids' 6th grade math from start to finish.

Our school likes to say that the curriculum they buy (formerly EM, now moving over to SM) isn't their "curriculum", they just use that as the basic outline and go from there.

Now, there are some websites I love for worksheets ( is my favorite,) and good sites for information and explanations ( for example), but nothing compares to a carefully constructed, brick-by-brick textbook for completeness, coherence, and consistency.

froggiemama said...

Well, I develop all the material for my courses, three a semester, constantly changing, some at the graduate level and some on cutting edge technologies like cybersecurity. Outside of the core CS courses, there usually are no textbooks and no materials available. I just found out on Monday that they are swtiching me to a different course which I have never taught before, a hybrid so it will be a flipped course (don't start throwing books at me!), so I am now frantically trying to get some kind of working screencasting setup going on my computer that works with my presentation style, of course with no help whatsoever from IT. Oh, and I am responsible for the big program self-study document due in a week, and also am the main person revising our overall curriculum for accreditation.

So yeah, I know how much work it is, and how little time I have to do it.

One thing though - while I think it would be really impossible for a K12 teacher to design a full course, largely because of time constraints, I also think that the Big Textbook industry has been a major culprit in the dumbing down of US education. Perhaps, in fact, the biggest culprint. They are trying hard to dumb down higher education too.

Anonymous said...

When I was a new teacher I would have croaked if I had had to write curriculum. And it would have failed miserably. What I did develop over time was the ability to extend curriculum in some realms. But I was glad to have a logical, tested curriculum for Grade 1 Reading. It's too important to be left to multiple teachers winging it.

lgm said...

Our district did design its math curriculum. It does work well enough to get the majority to pass the state exams , but it is not up to the level of thinking that something like the Arlington Algebra Project has built in, so it shorts STEM bound students.

Kai Musing said...

Wasn't Englemann the same one who said (paraphrased), "Making curriculum and teaching it at the same time is like building the airplane as you try to fly it...".

Curriculum is hard. At one of my schools I spent 30 hours over the summer just making a scope and sequence with four other people. "Making your own curriculum" is just shorthand for non-systematic throw it against the wall and see what sticks.