Curriculum, Part IV: The Open-Source Imperative

In my last post on the necessity for a coherent, ground-level consensus on the content that we deliver to our nation’s children, I concluded with a reference to the disturbing reality of teachers planning lessons alone. Picture a teacher sitting alone at his desk, planning lessons for his students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may not be a content expert in the subject he is planning, given that teachers are generally managed as public employee widgets (described well in The New Teacher Project’s 2009 policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and thrown into different grades and different subject areas each year, nor trained specifically in a given content area.

Why is this proverbial teacher alone? Why doesn’t he have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide his task analysis, aside from some glossy multi-colored binders of biblical proportions with large fonts and tons of sidebars (“teacher-friendly”) that came along with his district’s purchased curriculum? Why isn’t this teacher sitting with other educators during a scheduled, paid time of his day?

Herein, I believe, lies the rotten core of our educational woes: Teachers working in isolation from each other and from content experts, with only the curriculum purchased by their district — and manufactured by a major corporation or educational institution — to reference their work. Some may think that a well developed textbook and resources (we’ll pretend for a moment it’s “well developed”) should be reference enough for a teacher, but that material tends to be distant from the actual needs of the students that a teacher has before them. Most teachers — especially teachers of children with exceptional learning needs, English language learners, and/or students living in poverty — must adapt, jerryrig, recreate, or otherwise MacGuyver whatsoever material that can be scrounged on-line, bought on their own dime, or obtained from other teachers. This necessary process of drastically modifying curriculum is what is known as “differentiation” (and thus is generally reviled by practitioners).

But teachers shouldn’t have to desperately reinvent authentic, meaningful, and cognitively challenging (better than “rigorous,” ain’t it?) lessons out of blood, sweat, and duct tape. If we had a coherent, comprehensive curriculum that addressed social and emotional skills and needs (character education) and built up — in a sequenced, logical, and vertically and horizontally aligned progression — the concrete academic background knowledge , vocabulary, and domain specific facts necessary for comprehending higher-level content, then students would be much better prepared to deal with abstract academic texts and tasks, even with the added challenge of a learning disability. We’ve stopped teaching our students comprehensive character, grammar, phonics, and vocabulary, and — I can tell you because I see the effects everyday — it is devastating on already disadvantaged children.

Teachers should never plan content in isolation. Not when the curriculum is this important, not when the future of our children —and thus our nation’s — hangs in the balance. We should be sitting down together at the table and holding a structured, disciplined conversation in which we share our professional knowledge and expertise of best practices so we can systematically address our students’ needs. This type of professional learning community, in which knowledge and expertise is leveraged from within schools themselves, is precisely where we must target our education reform efforts, rather than wasting vast amounts of taxpayer money upon contracts with external vendors with little accountability for the sustainability and depth of their programs.

In our interconnected, collaborative, technology-driven new world, we can extend that table of professionals to include educators from all across the nation. I’ll discuss exactly how this is happening — and how teachers in New York City can take a seat — when I conclude my series on curriculum tomorrow.

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