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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Roll-your-own curriculum is overrated

Letting teachers choose their own curriculum is a bad idea, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee, who taught middle-school science as an untrained 22-year-old in a Catholic school. She had tons of freedom, but no clue what she was doing.

. . . study after study has demonstrated that requiring teachers use a proven textbook or curriculum to guide their teaching is one of the surest ways to improve outcomes for students. . . . Brookings scholar Grover Whitehurst . . .  and his colleagues have shown that “the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than” other reforms, including improving the teacher workforce, expanding choice, expanding preschool, merit pay, class size reduction, and more.

Teachers shouldn’t be left to “build their own curriculum, on top of everything else we ask them to do to plan, prepare, and teach every day,” writes Porter-Magee.

She now runs six inner-city New York City Catholic schools, Partnership Schools, where teachers use research-backed curricula.

. . . teachers who drove the largest achievement gains in their classrooms embraced our adopted curriculum—and were thus able to focus their very real and creative energy and expertise on unlocking the potential of our curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students they serve every day.

Partnership students are showing strong gains in reading and math compared to New York City’s district-run and charter schools.

If a new curriculum doesn’t work, teachers are blamed for not teaching it “with fidelity,” writes Tom Rademacher, a teacher living in Minneapolis. “What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.”

. . . admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

He doesn’t “trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.”

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