On script

Professionals follow protocols or scripts, writes Jenny D. But when teachers are asked to follow a script, they’re offended.

A professional cellist needs to know how to read the music (the protocol). In addition, he needs to know how to play the cello (the skills). Or a doctor. She needs to know how the procedure for doing an appendectomy (the protocol) and also needs to know how to use a scalpel, how to tie off bleeding arteries, how to clamp the appendix, etc. (the skills). All of these professions have protocols, which are replicable, to some extent measurable, and repeatable procedures for doing the work of the profession. Protocols allow for professional standards to be developed, for specialized knowledge of the profession to grow, and for professionals to be more powerful by having and using that specialized knowledge. Without protocols, it’s barely a profession because there’s really no way to distinguish the work of the professional from similar work by anyone else.

Several have argued that teaching is so individualized between teacher and student that it can’t be routinized, or that it shouldn’t be because it would be demeaning. On the contrary, I think some standardized, scientifically based protocols would actual improve the standing of teachers.

Psychologists, pressured by managed care plans to show results, have moved to short-term standardized therapies designed to produce specific outcomes, she writes. Studies show the protocols produced the desird results.

These protocols were not entirely scripts; they could be tailored to fit the individual patient’s needs. But they provided a fairly tight framework that kept the therapy on track, and prevented the process from drifting into inertia.

The psychologists I spoke to said this new way of viewing therapy (which was loathed by most shrinks when first introduced) has actually shed new light on their work. It has allowed them to see results, and to build on the results by doing more research and measurement of their professional efforts.

Many teachers think of teaching as an art. But not all teachers are great artists.

Jenny D’s also looking for links to stories on parents complaining about Christmas celebrations in schools: Either too much Christmas or too little will work for her, as long as people are complaining. Which they usually are.

About Joanne


  1. Write “lesson plan” instead of “script” and the problem goes away. The problem is it’s also a rare thing to see a well-written lesson plan.

  2. Boo – The problem doesn’t really go away with the word change. Many in the teaching establishment still rail against lesson plans, or scripts, written by other people.

  3. Teachers, like most of us, do better when empowered, not restricted.

    Measure the outcomes.

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    Robert, that comment is unfortunately so vague as to be seriously misleading. I like to be empowered too, and in many ways I do have a lot of autonomy in my job as a forensic scientist. However, the other side of the coin is that for very good reasons, I have to carefully follow a comprehensive set of written procedures for everything I do. And in writing those procedures I was in turn strongly constrained by national standards against which I am audited annually, as well as best practices in my professional community (of DNA analysts). Without those cosntraints on my “empowerment” I would be less of a professional, not more of one, and my reports would have less credibility, not more.

  5. At the risk of getting Robert and Steve to attack me simultaneously:

    As a linguist, I value what we call “discovery procedures” and so I am not reflexively anti-protocol. I think protocols have value for math and science (in which there may be some “best” ways to impart highly structured material) and even for reading (e.g., phonics) but I do have the followign questions:

    – Are there aspects of teaching which are not compatible with protocols? How can writing and literary analysis have “replicable, measurable, and standardized” protocols? I suspect this is why Robert sounds less than enthusiastic about the idea. English teaching is not like forensic science.

    – Who comes up with these protocols? Imposing standards always sounds great until your least favorite school of thought is in power.

    – How will these protocols be disseminated? Will they be forced from above, or be spread voluntarily?

    Jenny D. has an interesting idea, but I need more details to judge it. I look forward to her sequel.

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    > – Who comes up with these protocols?

    As long as the protocol choice is driven by measured and publically disclosed outcomes, it doesn’t matter to those of us who value outcomes.

  7. Steve LaBonne says:

    Amritas, I think your questions are very good, and Jenny’s ideas do need clarification. What I am thinking of in terms of “protocols” for teaching is mainly avoiding things like the whole-language fiasco- i.e. not re-inventing the wheel, badly, in ignorance or defiance of scientific results obtained by real (as opposed to “educational”) psychologists and cognitive scientists. In these terms I would imagine that as the grade level goes up teaching does become even less of a science and more of an art, and mastery of content becomes more important than mastering particular ways of teaching. Still, even university teaching is subject to fads and fashions (for example, the dislike of certain kinds of humanists and social scientists for lecturing leads them to try to eliminate the lecture method as well from science and math, where it continues to be a valuable tool) and a little more standardization of best practices probably would improve the average quality of instruction there as well.

    The biggest problem I see for Jenny’s ideas is the continued existence and power of the snake-oil salespeople known as education professors (see Prof. Plum’s site for ad nauseum documentation of their follies); in the current situation they hold the power to fill any proposed “protocols” with their toxic nonsense.

  8. Education is about deciding what knowledge and skills are to be taught, when they are taught, how they are taught, what level of performance is required, when and how to test, and whether the student should be promoted to the next grade.

    It’s ridiculous to expect that individual teachers get to choose how to do all of these things. In fact, I don’t know of any school that allows that. I presume that this controversy over scripting has to do with just how the material is taught, rather than any of the other issues.

    In other fields, there might be a widely agreed upon best way to do something, but for teaching, some room should be given to the teacher if they have a proven track record. It all depends on whether they are specific scripts or just guidelines. However, the guidelines should already be there. They are the specificity of the rest of the curriculum; what is to be taught and what are the grade-by-grade expectations. A certain level of specific scripting might be required for new teachers or for those teachers who don’t meet tangible goals of the curriculum.

    Unfortunately, most modern curricula don’t do that. They are very fuzzy in their requirements of knowledge, skills and when to expect mastery of those skills. Full inclusion, spiraling, developmentally appropriate learning, and social promotion all lead to fuzzy expectations. Ironically, some of these curricula lead to the most scripting, such as for child-centered, discovery learning, where the teacher is almost forbidden to teach. They have to be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. These curricula see the process as being more important than meeting some specific knowledge and skills goals. This leads to scripting because how something is taught is the key to the curriculum.

    A traditional direct teaching approach, where there are specific grade-by-grade goals of knowledge and skills, allows more freedom for the individual teacher to use their own experience and knowledge to achieve the goals. That is, of course, if they meet those goals. This all breaks down if the goals are fuzzy or vague, or if the process is more important that the results.

    >”I think some standardized, scientifically based protocols would actual improve the standing of teachers.”

    This sounds like grasping at straws without looking at the overall picture. Let’s start with high expectation, clearly written curricula that state the specific knowledge and skills that are required for each grade. Unfortunately, some educators don’t think that this is the goal. I have found over the years that there are deep, fundamental differences in opinion between parents and schools over what constitutes a good education. Without defining those differences, many of these discussions over improving education are meaningless.

  9. And I see the toxic fads of the ed professors as another symptom.

    Andy’s protocols “driven by measured and publicly disclosed outcomes” are only the measure of success or failure. What’s missing is some way to implement that information. There has to be a way to close the feedback loop.

    Absent a mechanism to effect the course of public education in the direction indicated by “measured and publicly disclosed outcomes”, why would anyone expect any change?

    The attraction of education fads comes from the lack of an accountability mechanism that represents the public interest. That doesn’t mean there’s no one charting a course for public education, it means that the course charted is one chosen by some group other then the public. In the case of edu-fads, it’s the interests of the education professors that are being served. And why shouldn’t they be calling the shots? No one else can.

  10. In general, the more measurable an employee’s job is, the more discretion he can be given in how to perform it. The job of a field sales person, for example, is totally measurable, and sales people usually have quite a bit of freedom in how they spend their time–just bring money at the end of the month.

    If teachers really want professional autonomy, they are unwise to resist testing and measurement.

  11. Wow. You have some wonderful ideas. I have to think hard about the idea of protocols some more. I’m swimming in deep thoughts about dissertations, determined not to drift into irrelevance. (Good luck, right?)

    Anyway, thank you Joanne for giving this a bigger forum. You have helped me alot. Meanwhile, I continue to post reactions, comments, new ideas, plus some thoughts on the goings on in education on my blog http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com. I suppose if I had a cat I’d do cat blogging on Fridays too. Can I do kid-blogging?

  12. I’d like to recommend the book, Reinventing Government by David Osborne.

    When workers are evaluated on the basis of their outcomes, they often come up with better methods.

  13. Mike in Texas says:

    A professional cellist needs to know how to read the music (the protocol). In addition, he needs to know how to play the cello (the skills).

    The cellist in this case follows a score written by a recognized expert. In the scripts written for teachers, and in this case we are probably discussing Open Court and Direct Instruction, teachers are not being asked to recite something written by teachers but by people far removed from the classroom, hawked by people who for the most part couldn’t cut it in the classroom.

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    MiT misses the point.

    One way or another, we’re going to get a system that results in someone being fired when kids don’t learn, a system where said learning is measured by reproducible and outsider-measured means.

    No, we actually don’t care why the failures occur. If someone can’t do the job, we want someone else. If no one can do the job, we’re going to stop paying.

    As far as respect goes, respect comes with accountability. As long as teachers insist on being less accountable than burger-flippers….

  15. Aren’t testing and measurement necessary to determine which students are capable of benefiting from which curricula and which aren’t? As I’ve just finished reading “The Bell Curve” by Charles Murray perhaps I have taken myself outside the realm of civilized discourse. But the question remains. Are all children the same? If not, shouldn’t their differences matter to how they are educated? And how does one detect these differences without testing and measurement?

  16. If we want to expand this just a little bit, if different children learn in different ways for different reasons, why shouldn’t the identification of who learns what way be a protocol, much like a medical diagnosis. It takes skill and a great deal of knowledge and experience to make a diagnosis for certain diseases, but the basic formula doesn’t change much: identify symptoms and match them to disease or diseases, and run certain tests to see if that’s what’s happening. The protocol itself derives from the scientific method, and the information used when implementing it was most likely not discovered by the doctor himself. Does this make the doctor an automaton merely plugging numbers into a formula? Of course not. The difference between a doctor making a diagnosis and me sitting at home looking at WebMD making a diagnosis is professional judgement, education, and experience.

    Ideally, this is the way it would work in education, a field which has an equal moral imperative tied to outcomes. Teachers have a moral obligation to teach well. Ideally, teachers would be the one who implements a protocol like the one that doctors use, and hopefully they should have the same level of education and professional judgement to do it. Sadly this is not the case. Ed schools, which I see to be the root of the problem in education, deliberately tell their students that methods like whole language and NCTM math, which have been DISPROVEN by research, are best practices. They are taught that grading according to academic achievement doesn’t take into account the whole child. Is it any wonder that we need basic reading and math tests before we promote students? Anyway, for more and better material on the ed school fiasco, visit Professor Plum in Joanne’s link bar.

    Now, back to the point, if teachers want to be treated like professionals, they have to start acting like them. They have to realize that their outcomes do matter, and that they’ll be judged by them. Their outcomes are lives and futures. Does the NEA realize what their resistance to measuring the outcomes of students does to the standing of the profession?

  17. Mike in Texas says:

    No, we actually don’t care why the failures occur.

    Why, the anti-teacher movements motto in one, clear and concise sentence. Force a curriculum down the teachers’ throats whose only redeeming quality is it makes lots of money for our rich friends who own McGraw-Hill and others, and then blame the teacher when said curriculum doesn’t work. Amazing.

  18. Andy Freeman says:

    Perhaps MiT will tell us why he thinks “we’re not willing to pay for bad results” is the same as “we’re willing to pay McGraw Hill for bad results”.

    Once again, he objects to “we don’t care why teachers fail”. This is curious. Does he voluntarily patronize other folks who do bad work? If not, why should we pay teachers who do?

    I’m willing to pay teachers who do succeed. But, if he wants to argue that teachers can’t succeed, why should we pay them?

    Note, my definition of success is demonstrable results in educating kids – they can do more things after than they’d have just “picked up”. Yup, not a thing about how teachers feel about the process.

    Perhaps MiT will tell us why we should pay teachers. Better yet, under what circumstances shouldn’t we pay them.

  19. You can’t give somebody a script and then evaluate him based on outcomes.

    It has to be one or the other.

    If this trend toward lock-step curricululm continues, we won’t need teachers at all. Teacher aides will be able to do the job.

    We’ll save a lot of money. Everybody will be on the same page. And all the trains will run on time.

  20. “You can’t give somebody a script and then evaluate him based on outcomes.

    It has to be one or the other.”

    Why? Musicians and actors get scripts (or music) and are evaluated on the outcomes. Doctors get medical protocols and are evaluated on the outcomes. Lawyers have to play by the rules of the law and get evaulated by the outcomes. Commercial pilots fly by the numbers and get evaluated on the outcomes. Why can’t this work with teachers?

    Note to everyone here, I’m not advocating strict scripts, but more the idea of protocols. See my last comment for a better outline of this.

  21. Mike in Texas says:

    Perhaps MiT will tell us why he thinks “we’re not willing to pay for bad results” is the same as “we’re willing to pay McGraw Hill for bad results”.

    Andy, you assume you’re paying for bad results all across the country. You aren’t 1) paying for all of it, and 2) getting bad results everywhere. Let McGraw-Hill and the Bush cronies come in and you’ll be doing both.

    I’m willing to pay teachers who do succeed. It seems to me the anti public school crowd, and I don’t know if you are in that group or not, are willing to punish ALL public school teachers for those who don’t succeed. This is what NCLB is really all about. Get rid of all public schools and teachers, and let education be run by giant corporations whose main concern is turning a profit. Do you remember a company down here in Texas call Enron? Or WorldCom? Or one of the private corporations who was cooking the books so bad they withdrew their stocks off the market so their stockholders would quit asking such pesky question? Edison Schools ring a bell?

  22. “‘I’m willing to pay teachers who do succeed.’ It seems to me the anti public school crowd, and I don’t know if you are in that group or not, are willing to punish ALL public school teachers for those who don’t succeed.”

    I’m of the opinion that the NEA and other teachers unions have as much, if not more, to do with this than the anti-public school crowd. We’ve tried to get merit pay for effective teachers, and who blocked the idea? THE NEA! They say that the only things teachers’ pay should be determined by are seniority and academic degrees. So we tried punative actions against bad teachers, and who blocked the idea? THE NEA! They insisted that all teachers deserve to keep their jobs, effective or not. So here we are, because of the NEA’s stonewalling, and reform effort is going to harm effective teachers in the effort to get rid of ineffective teachers. It’s a unskilled labor union mentality the NEA is going out with, not the mentality or an organization of professionals. The biggest thing the teaching community can do to boost its image in the public is to distance itself from the current NEA’s mentality on hiring and firing and rewards.

  23. With a highly scripted program like Open Court, everybody is on the same page because it’s easy to correct a teacher who isn’t. Employees of the publisher make surprise visits to the classroom. They’re known as the Open Court Police.

    For teachers who shouldn’t be teaching in the first place, Open Court works out well.

    For teachers who have talent, Open Court drives them from the profession.

    And, yes. NEA is a disgrace.

  24. Robert,

    I think we agree that very tight scripting is generally a bad thing, but I personally don’t think that makes protocols for teachers a bad thing. Even decent teachers thrive when presented with logical curricula that puts the right skills in the right order, along with what is generally the best ways to present them. Truly talented teachers, who know what to teach along with when and how to teach it, will not be bothered by a well-structured curriculum because it will align with what they’re doing anyway. The problem the schools have is that the ed schools have so obscured what the research says works and doesn’t that very few of their graduates come out knowing what to teach and how and when to teach it. This is where the demand for scripted programs like Open Court. People figure out that the teachers we put in classrooms can’t tell create an effective lesson plan, since they were taught how NOT to do that, and they figure the best band-aid is to ship in wholesale the lesson plans. Then they’re applied to entire schools and districts since administrators without consideration of which teachers would need such a thing. (And as you said Robert, some of them, mainly the ones fresh out of ed school, DO need it.)

    And to answer one of MiT’s points, it’s true that programs like Open Court and Direct Instruction don’t square with the dominant views of the education profession, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. One reason schools are turning to these programs is to try alternatives to the dominant views, since the dominant views have failed in their situation. Would it not make sense that an alternative would be, well… alternative?

  25. Adrian, very well put.