Bad Teachers or Bad Curriculum?

In my first and second years of teaching in New York City, I took education courses along with many others in the Teaching Fellows Program, an alternative certification program that brings college graduates and professionals into high-need schools. Sometimes, during class, we would go around the room and compare situations. One day the professor asked us what sort of curriculum our schools had for our subject. English as a Second Language. One teacher after another responded, “no curriculum…. no curriculum… T.C. (the Teachers College Readers and Writers Workshops)… no curriculum… no curriculum.” One teacher had found an enormous curriculum guide in the storage room; apparently it had been abandoned.

What sense does it make to measure one teacher in school A against another in school B, when one school may have a curriculum and the other not? When policymakers talk about “ineffective” teachers, have they considered what the students are actually supposed to learn?

I think back on my experience as a student. I attended eight schools, public and private, in the United States and abroad, before entering college at age 17. It is no coincidence that my best teachers were in schools with strong curricula. My worst teachers (as I perceived them) were in junior high school, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. They read from the textbook in monotones. The textbook itself had little to offer, and they added nothing to it. I didn’t feel that I was learning anything; when I brought this up with the guidance counselor, he told me that junior high was a time for socializing and that I shouldn’t worry about learning things right now.

The following year, and for three more years after that, I lived away from home in order to attend a private day school in Boston. There I studied Latin, Greek, French, English, math, history, physics, and music; sang in choruses; contributed to the literary magazine; and thrived in general. My teachers were committed to their subjects and to us; they could light up a passage in a book with a subtle question. Some were rather dry (though not lacking in wit or wisdom), and I adored them as well. Why? You could afford to be dry when there was substance and beauty in the subject. My Latin teacher taught crisply, methodically, with quiet delight; she didn’t need to entertain us, as the subject carried its own stones, its own fire.

Curriculum is no panacea. Even with the best curriculum, there are teachers who teach it well and those who do not; there are those who understand it deeply and those who do not. Not all ways of teaching reach all students. Knowledge, discernment, integrity, wit—these gifts strengthen with practice, and even the practiced and gifted teacher has lessons now and then that flop. Even so, you’re much better off if you’re teaching Tennyson’s “Ulysses” than if you don’t know what you’re going to teach. If nothing else, the students will hear, “The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: / The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices.” Their lives will be the better for those lines.

By a curriculum I do not mean a script that all teachers must follow. My high school offered courses devised by individual teachers. Students took required English courses through grade 9 (and one semester of Expository Writing in grade 11); otherwise, in grades 10–12, they chose from an array of seminars, on topics ranging from satire to Southern literature to Shakespeare. Each course had an enticing syllabus; it was in high school that I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge; Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and much more. The English department ensured that the courses would challenge students similarly, but each course had a teacher’s special mark. At the same time, after taking five or six of these courses, students ended up with a common foundation in literature and writing. There was a core curriculum, though it played out in varied ways.

In the current push to rate teachers by students’ test scores, we hear little about curriculum. Policymakers make two erroneous assumptions: first, that the tests reflect what should be taught, and second, that schools have a curriculum that reflects this. The reality is a far cry from such assumptions. Standardized tests focus on generic skills; they do not assess students’ knowledge or understanding of literature. The reading passages on the tests tend to be bland; the questions, banal (“Based on the reading passage, what action is Marco most likely to take next?”) Teachers who teach to such a test may end up with higher-scoring students than the teacher who teaches Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” But the students in the latter class will end up with more goods for their minds and lives, especially if “Ulysses” is part of a larger curriculum.

It is problematic enough, even under the best of circumstances, to rate teachers by students’ test scores. But when this is done without consideration of curriculum, it casts off even the semblance of sense. Results mean nothing until you establish what you are teaching. We do not need a national curriculum; that is too constricting and would involve too many compromises. But if policymakers disregard the actual stuff of learning, peddlers of junk learning will set up shop in schools, promising “results,” and will not leave willingly. Wake up, chancellors and secretaries of education. If you want good teachers, have schools that teach good things.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after its initial posting.

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