Cooking Up Curricula: Not Always Best From Scratch

Perhaps it's fair to expect that the best and most experienced gourmet chefs will write their own cookbooks and never use a prepared mix for any part of their recipes. But that particular preference for creative uniqueness has its limits. In New York City, there seems to be a prevailing notion that all teachers must develop curricula from scratch. That's neither practical nor wise.

When teachers join together, spend the time, and do the hard work of creating novel curricula and assessments, the results can be extraordinarily good. We've seen it - and participated in it. Professional learning communities can generate beautifully crafted solutions to their own schools' and students' needs, while honoring the rigor represented by new Common Core standards. But unfortunately, many urban schools face challenges that cause this organic curriculum development strategy to fail. The failure causes many new teachers unnecessary stress, and even worse, harms students.

We have found that a well-designed, rigorous curriculum developed externally but adopted and adapted by teachers to meet their students' needs best serves some urban schools. How does a principal decide whether to buy or to build? And now that we are moving to Common Core standards requiring every teacher to fundamentally redesign their instructional plans -- what should a principal do? Should teachers develop or upgrade units from scratch?

Here are some specific questions to ponder:

  • Does your school have many new teachers who are still struggling with instructional basics?
  • Is there a lot of teacher turnover?
  • Do new teachers lack access to curriculum guides developed by prior teachers, and strike out on their own because they must?
  • Are the expectations implicit in the lessons developed by teachers who have gone solo insufficiently rigorous?
  • Do teachers need strong examples of Common Core in practice?
  • Are teachers asking you for a common curriculum?

When the answer to most of these questions is yes, adopt and adapt. And make sure teachers are included every step along the way.

Once the decision has been made to adopt and adapt, creative modification is not only warranted, but vital. An outside curriculum can be the cause of some of the most uninspired teaching imaginable. Have you ever seen teachers going through the motions of scripted curricula without injecting their own personalities, spin and excitement? That's not the kind of bland diet we want to feed our children.

What to do? We have found that when you combine strong, quality common curricula, common student tasks and assessments and, most importantly, professional learning communities – something powerful happens. First of all, research done in urban schools shows students learn more.

Second, we have found that teachers experience an increase in their sense of satisfaction and efficacy. How? It doesn't always happen overnight, but it often happens the first time teachers in a common planning session realize they really understand one another's challenges with a lesson. Or they understand exactly what another teacher was trying to do in her classroom and know how to make the lesson work better. The community and support they provide each other lifts everyone's practice.

Lesson planning, like inventing new recipes, is immensely challenging and rewarding. For some teachers, it's one of the main reasons they love teaching. By no means am I advocating a retreat from that kind of engagement and inventiveness, and rote following of menus. But I am saying that a rich professional learning community can be the very best setting for effective cooking, and make the common - curriculum, that is - no less than extraordinary.

Most chefs don't cook alone. Let's encourage teamwork and the inspired use of collective wisdom and inspiration.