I've Got a Map For That

Updated: May 15


In a previous position, I worked for a district that had board members who felt very strongly that teachers should create curriculum and that curriculum should not be purchased. The two key reasons behind this sentiment connected to:

  1. The board felt the teachers were well paid—so why would we pay more money for curriculum that the teachers were capable of creating?

  2. The teachers did not like the curriculum that was purchased for them in the first place and complained about it publicly, loudly, and frequently.

As an administrator in the district, when I heard the board say they wanted teachers to create their own curriculum, I broke out in a cold sweat. Here is the litany of reasons why I get nervous when there is talk about teachers creating curriculum.

Issue 1: Curriculum VS Programs

Let’s first start with the fact that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what curriculum is versus what a program is. That district was not alone in their confusion. In reality, when done well, programs are purchased resources that the buyers use as a foundation or supplement to the curriculum that they design. Generally speaking, the more money you spend on the resource, the more foundational the resource should be to the created curriculum. Programs need to be designed for use in a variety of different settings and within a multitude of conditions. Therefore, programs are often too large in scope to be used “off the shelf” rather than “tailored for the user.” This is why when people try to use programs with fidelity, teachers often run out of time (there are exceptions to this rule—for example, direct instruction intervention programs are intentionally and literally scripts for a reason). The timing issue is generally connected to the fact that the program was designed with many options that the buyer misinterprets as required. In short, if the board of education and the teachers really understood what curriculum was—a tailoring of the purchased resources—I would have been okay with what was being proposed. Unfortunately, they were actually saying they wanted the district to stop buying resources for teachers to use.

Issue 2: What Curriculum IS and IS NOT

It would have also have been important if the board and the teachers couched curriculum into the bigger picture with standards, instruction, and assessment. I do this using the analogy of a cross-country trip. In my book and in the post, "If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You're Likely Not to Get There," I wrote about the differences between standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but it bears repeating here.

Standards are the “destination,” which all students must arrive at by the end of the year. This is determined by the government, not a local school district.

The curriculum is the “vehicle” the district uses to get the students from NY to LA. Some districts may choose a car, others might chose a bus, another might choose a plane, and another might choose a combination. The point here is that there are actually many different vehicles that will achieve the task of going from NY to LA.

Instruction is the area where teachers have the highest levels of autonomy since instruction is the “route” the teacher uses to get the vehicle from NY to LA. Even if we all have a car, there are many different trails that will allow us to complete the journey. What’s more, the route is dependent on two very individual variables—the knowledge, experiences, and skills of the teachers (the operator of the vehicle) and the knowledge, experiences, and skills of the students (the passengers in the vehicle). This is why you can hand the same curriculum (vehicle) to two different teachers and see wildly different routes (instruction) that still get to the same destination (the standards); you can also see that even with the same vehicle, one teacher can get to the destination and the other does not. Robert Marzano talks about this as the intended, the taught, and the learned curriculum. The intended curriculum is what was planned to have been taught, the taught curriculum is what is actually taught, and the learned curriculum is what the students walk away knowing.

Finally, there is assessment which is the “GPS” that communicates are you where you’re supposed to be on the journey. If you’re supposed to be in LA, your GPS (assessments) will let you know if you’re there or if you somehow came up short or are further along than you expected.

Issue 3: Time and Training

Stick with me. Here’s a multiple choice question:

During the school day, what is the main task of a teacher? Is it…

a. Working with the government to create standards?

b. Interpreting standards and designing a multitude of resources to ensure pathways for learning?

c. Working directly with students to teach them what they need to know and be able to do?

d. Assessing students about what they have learned?

This is not a trick question so please do not overthink this. Though teachers are trained in choices b, c, and d and have strong feelings about choice a, we call them “teachers” not “standards experts,” not “curriculum designers,” and not “assessment psychometricians.” If teachers’ time is mainly spent in front of students, then the main task of a teacher is to TEACH and that is connected best to instructional design. The time it takes to actually design resources and programs not only is its own full-time job, but one that requires a depth of understanding about curriculum, standards, and assessment that people who are instructing as their main focus just simply do not have.