Rethinking The Resistance Against Boxed Curriculum

We’ve been spinning our wheels. According to the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP) data, Tennessee continues to make consistent gains in mathematics, while achievement in early literacy continues to be a great challenge. In fourth-grade literacy, Tennessee students ranked 41st in the nation in 2011, climbed to 31st in 2013, and then in 2015, slipped backward to 36th.  Something is missing.

Tennessee has made dramatic gains in education in the past decade, with a huge part of the success being credited to the implementation of more rigorous academic standards. But the standards alone are just part of the puzzle, with an equal piece of the puzzle being found through instructional materials. And not just any instructional materials, but materials and textbooks of quality. Although the increased demand of the standards has been a step in the right direction, the teachers who are responsible for implementing these standards have been left to search for and create their own curriculum with supporting materials.

According to this report, when selecting instructional materials, visual appeal (cuteness) and lack of grammatical errors top the list of items that matter most to teachers. The report continues by stating that when teachers are vetting materials, they begin with no rubric or criteria, and use their own judgement. The majority of these teachers stated they have had no guidance from their districts or schools in judging quality materials, as high teacher autonomy allows them to rely on their professional judgement. The result has been misalignment and shallow instruction because teachers have been presented with the challenge of creating a curriculum from scratch with limited training and support.

Chingos and Whitehurst suggest that “Choice of instructional materials can have an impact as large as, or larger than, the impact of teacher quality. The analogous supporting tools for teachers are instructional materials.” High-quality materials increase teacher knowledge and skill while increasing the level and complexity of the content students are asked to learn. But how can teachers be sure selected materials are aligned? Educators can lean on third party reviews such as, an independent nonprofit that publishes educator reviews of K-12 instructional materials for quality. Rubrics and program comparisons provide educators with valuable information to select quality materials.

Currently, teachers are spending countless hours sourcing or creating materials. According to the 2017 Tennessee Educator Survey, teachers are spending on average 4.5 hours per week creating and sourcing materials. This does not even account for teacher planning time in addition to gathering materials! McDougald & Weisskirk assert that “Freeing up teachers’ schedules by providing high-quality curriculum allows them to allocate time toward activities with far higher value.”

Students are also given the benefit “of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.” Gosse and Hansel assert that when educators take the content of curriculum for granted “they lose the opportunity to collaborate.” The article goes on to say, “While it is possible to find a struggling school with a great curriculum, finding a good school with a weak curriculum is about as likely as finding a human being who can live without oxygen.”

Boxed curricula and textbooks have recently become frowned upon by many teachers. But a return to instructional materials of quality, created by experts, is a necessity. Teachers know their students, they know where they are, and they know how to deliver instruction. When teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials, they are able to best do what they have been called to do – teach children. High-quality materials level the playing field for all students and teachers by giving every child an opportunity for success and every teacher the opportunity to provide them with that.

The promise of the latest standards will only be seen with high-quality, aligned materials. A report from Leading Innovation For Tennessee (LIFT) Education showed that when observing English language arts lessons in Tennessee, up to 79 percent of lessons were not aligned to standards. When the observed districts were provided with high-quality materials and support, observations found that 86 percent of observed lessons had become fully aligned, as strong instructional materials drove the teaching and learning of all lessons. We agree with Cory Epler in that “We have a responsibility to ensure that all students have equitable access to the education necessary to achieve their full potential. A key aspect of this is that all students receive strong standards-aligned instruction.”


This SCORE Sheet post was co-authored by Tom Loud and Katie McGhee

Tom Loud is a first-grade teacher at Middlesettlements Elementary in Blount County, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech and has been in the classroom for eleven years. Tom is a 2017-2018 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow.

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Katie McGhee

Katie McGhee is in her tenth year teaching at Rock Springs Elementary School in Sullivan County, Tennessee. She earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education from East Tennessee State University and her master's degree in educational leadership from Union College. She is a 2017-2018 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow.

The SCORE Sheet is the online conversation on public education reform in Tennessee and is hosted by SCORE. The blog mirrors SCORE’s collaborative nature and features contributors from Tennessee and across the country including students, parents, teachers, policymakers, community groups, and members of SCORE’s team. Regardless of perspective, contributors share a common goal: that every child graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Posts on The SCORE Sheet are the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions and positions of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).