Sunday, June 24, 2007

standardizing the curriculum in the Bellevue district

In Bellevue, teaching is becoming a committee affair.
Since he arrived in Bellevue 11 years ago, [Bellevue Superintendent Mike] Riley slowly has shifted control away from individual teachers to committees, mostly made up of teachers. Those committees determine what all eighth-grade English teachers or all high-school biology teachers will teach and why. Teachers then write lessons for all their colleagues to use, or they adapt them from district textbooks. Adjustments are made as problems arise.

Teachers can take detours of a day or two to re-teach if they need to, but not much more, without committee approval.

Riley calls Bellevue's efforts "coordinated" or "coherent" curriculum. Critics deride it as "scripted."
The article, in true journalistic fashion, outlines the pros and cons and gives voice to teachers who both hate and love the new curriculum. The core disagreement is how much flexibility the new process allows--critics say it makes robots out of teachers, while proponents praise the amount of guesswork it takes out of the system.

In a way, it reminds me of curricular change my colleagues and I enacted at Capital High School over the past year. Crucial differences, though, made our process not only acceptable to all the teachers involved, but invigorating.

First, although we standardized some elements of instruction, we also purposefully respected teacher autonomy. We set up a book list and outlined lesson plans for specific activities like literature circles, but left it up to individuals to implement the curriculum in the way that worked best for them. We met frequently to discuss what was working and what wasn't, but at no time did we all follow the same daily plan.

Second, not only did we respect teacher autonomy, but we respected student autonomy, too, including three sessions of literature circles where students, with input from parents and teachers, chose their own books and read them together with small groups.

Third, and most important, our impetus to change came from the bottom up. We saw that certain students weren't being reached by a one-book-fits-all structure, and so we worked for months to revamp our curriculum. No principal, superintendent, or government flack breathed down our necks. Instead, we worked as professionals, and the result was impressive: student engagement, teacher confidence, and even district recognition.

Standardization, to a degree, has its benefits. The trick is finding the right degree--and teachers have to lead the way.

(Oh, and to Mike Riley, who thinks this country needs a national curriculum: what, are you crazy?)


TeacherRefPoet said...

When I taught sixth grade in Louisiana, my introduction to the curriculum stated very, very clearly that there was to be no differentiation. If I taught every page of the damn basal, every student would progress one year in one year. It really angered me.

In the basal, they actually told me what to say. Verbatim, in bold face. ("You have already seen some examples of descriptive writing. What are some examples you have seen?...[Pause, take all acceptable answers.]...Good! We will now take a look at another way to be descriptive. It is called metaphor.")

One colleague said: "It's great! You don't have to think at all!"

Ick. Me in Bellevue? No thanks. I don't mind being told what to teach--that's to be expected. How and when? That I have an issue with.

DrPezz said...

Open the can. Pour the lesson. It can be a dangerous line to walk.

I'm all for differentiation and vertical (and horizontal) alignment but worry about how those at the top could interfere with this process. Sounds as though your experience was good, however.

My district only wishes to see everything culminate with the WASL. Yuck!