Should the Textbook Determine the Essential Skills We Teach?
We received a question from a district with three high schools that was struggling to agree on the approach to take in answering the first critical question of a PLC: “What do we want our students to learn?” Some English teachers felt the answer to the question should focus on specific knowledge and skills students were to acquire. Other teachers argued that the curriculum should be determined by the newly-purchased textbooks. Teachers in these departments also disagreed over the literature students should be expected to read and when they should read it. This issue often occurs when teachers are called upon to create a guaranteed curriculum that ensures all students will have access to the same essential standards regardless of the individual teacher to whom they have been assigned. Here is how I responded.
Teachers at all three high schools should study the common core standards in English Language Arts. This represents the best current thinking in terms of what students should know and be able to do in terms of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The Common Core should guide your decisions at all three schools. Focus on knowledge and skills, not books. Your textbook should be a tool for teaching the knowledge and skills. It should facilitate the delivery of the curriculum, but it should not determine the curriculum.
English departments often get hung up on specific books: "I want to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and she wants to teach 1984. How do we resolve this conflict?" If you go back to the standards, not one of them says, "Students should be able to identify the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird." They say things like: "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." and "Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience." Teachers could accomplish these objectives regardless of which novel their students read, and the assessment of the skills should not be dependent upon the novel
So, English teachers in my high school agreed that a few specific literary works were to be read at a particular grade level and then gave individual teachers considerable leeway regarding other works they would have their students read. Their common assessments, however, were focused on the skills that students were to learn, not the content of the novel. This meant that the assessment typically called upon students to read and respond to a new passage that had nothing to do with a particular novel. If you go to the National Assessment of Educational Progress website you can find passages and multiple choice questions, short constructed responses, and extended constructed responses that are used to assess student knowledge and skills. You can administer those assessments and/or use them as a model for creating your own.
In short, the people who contend your textbooks should determine the curriculum are wrong. Those who are arguing about what books to read are wrong. Shift your focus to the knowledge and skills your students must acquire and determine how you will assess whether or not they are acquiring the skills. Then, most importantly, use the results to get better at teaching the skills and intervening for students who struggle.