Should We Adhere to Our District’s Prescribed Curriculum or Engage in the Team Learning Process?

We recently received the following message from a principal:

I’m trying to understand the relationship between essential outcomes and a math program. My interpretation is that the math program would support the students’ learning of the essential outcomes that our staff derived from our state’s standards.

My elementary school is the only elementary school of our eight in the district that has worked at implementing the tenets of a PLC. Someone at our central office is pushing the use of a program and its pacing guide as the district’s curriculum. I’m concerned because my staff worked hard last year at clarifying 5 essential outcomes and developing common formative assessments. Either I misled my staff or I’m going to have to inform and influence my central office person to see the issue differently.

This principal’s dilemma is not unique. In this age of accountability and high-stakes testing, we have noticed an increasing number of teachers and principals experience a growing tension as they work together to build professional learning communities within districts and states which have adopted prescribed curriculum programs and textbooks that must be "implemented with fidelity."

We contend any program or textbook should be 1) aligned with state and national standards and 2) considered a resource to support teacher dialogue and decisions rather than a mandate that eliminates the need for collaborative professional dialogue regarding the learning most essential to students.

Schools and districts benefit when each teacher (not just a committee or textbook publisher) participates in a collaborative process to clarify the essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions students must acquire. Ultimately, it is not the intended curriculum (the curriculum designated in a math program, textbook, or district curriculum guide) that will have the most powerful impact on student learning. For too long, districts have pretended that if they just purchase the right program and merely distribute it to individual teachers, each teacher will interpret it in a uniform way, assign equal priority to each standard, pace the curriculum consistently, assess student learning in a common way, etc. We have a century of evidence that this is not true. We cannot "teacher-proof" a curriculum.

Ultimately, it is the implemented curriculum, or what actually gets taught when the door gets closed, that has the far greater impact on achievement. Teachers who have worked with colleagues to become students of district resources and state standards, discussed with teachers at the next grade level what skills are most critical to students entering that grade, clarified the essential learnings, established common pacing, developed common formative assessments, and most important, committed to one another that they will honor the decisions made by the team are far more likely to provide students with the guaranteed and viable curriculum Dr. Robert Marzano has found impacts student learning so powerfully.

We would hope all teachers--through their collaborative study--will find value in and honor the district’s programs and textbooks as terrific resources. We also hope district central office staffs will honor the hard work and professionalism of teachers in every school and allow the programs and textbooks to be utilized as resources, not as lockstep curricula that remove teachers from curricular and instructional decisions.

Finally, results should drive the process for making this decision. If teams can demonstrate that their approach leads to higher levels of student achievement, the district should learn from those teams. If the results indicate student achievement is not improving, then teams should be willing to take a hard look at their curriculum, instruction, assessments, and adult learning needs

Wishing You and Your Students a Great Year of Learning.



During the past several years I have been working with teachers creating common pacing guides and common assessments developed using those pacing guides. When provided with proper resources such as state content standards, state curriculum frameworks, blueprints, released assessment items and given a protocol, teachers make very informed and insightful decisions regarding pacing and teacher generated assessments.

I have never encountered anything that has deepened teachers’ understanding of what content standards are actually asking students to demonstrate as the work of pacing and building high quality common assessments. I have worked with multiple districts at one time and the participants have been able to arrive at a common pacing guide and common assessments even though they were using different textbooks.

It has been my experience that having teachers engage in this process doesn’t reduce fidelity to instructional materials but quite the opposite. When teachers have developed common assessments to standards before instruction, they by default hold themselves accountable to student learning to the intended curriculum. Team collaborative analysis of data from common assessments will provide evidence of student learning to the intended curriculum.

My hope is that administration at both the central office and site level will embrace the “Genius of the And” as opposed to the “Tyranny of the Or” regarding the dilemma of fidelity to program vs. teacher developed common pacing and assessments.

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We have just begun using the PLC model this year instead of just common planning time. To me it seems that the teachers need to be shown what exactly we want them to do.
What is the best way for an administrator to model the effectiveness and correct use of a Professional Learning Community format?

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Douglas Reeves

There is no contradiction, in my view, between a commitment to implementation and a commitment to the reflective process essential to professional learning communities. Certainly high levels of implementation are important, as the research in Reframing Teacher Leadership (ASCD, 2008) suggests. Schools with high degrees (90% or greater) of effective strategies typically have much better student achievement than when schools only make a claim to those strategies, but only 10% or fewer of the teachers actually implement them. I do not interpret Rebecca DuFour’s thoughtful response as diminishing the need for implementation and fidelity. In fact, the essential element of PLC’s is “public practice private practice.”

Becky’s response is a clarion call for accountability for student achievement and to fellow professionals. There is no defense from saying, “Hey – I’m on the right page of the pacing chart and I’m doing exactly what the central office said, so it’s not MY fault if the kids are failing.” Rather, in a PLC, going through the motions is not enough – we are accountable for student learning and we must confront the fact that there is a HUGE difference between the “guaranteed and viable curriculum” and “I covered it.”

I think any central office has a vested interest in, as Becky suggests, the establishment of a standards-based curriculum and insuring consistency and equity among schools. Without it, students are the mercy of widely variable expectations and personal curriculum choices. In my article on “Leading Literacy” (Educational Leadership, 2008) I reported the results when I asked the leaders of more than 130 schools – all confident that they had a “consistent and non-negotiable literacy program” to simply write, anonymously, the responses to questions such as, “What is good literacy instruction?” “How much time do you spend on it” “Define a few key terms, such as ‘guided reading’ and ‘independent reading.’” As you can imagine, I received about 130 different answers. So in this particular series of postings, I think there is a presumption that the answer to question “What is good math instruction?” has been settled with clarity. That is an assumption I would ask any central office, building administration, and teaching team to check carefully.

Thanks to the others for very thoughtful contributions to the discussion.

Douglas Reeves

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So much to say, so little time. First, I agree that any program should be based on research and standards. I also agree that a program is a resource or tool for teachers and it should not take the place of the curriculum. But, there is value in implementing a good program with fidelity. With that said, not all teachers and leaders are created equal. A good program levels the playing field for our schools and students. It gives equal access to all students as they prepare for the next level. It is for that reason that I think that, if a district has chosen a good program, the schools and teachers need to make their best effort in implementing the program. As we look at student achievement, I think is important to give any program time to work. Right now math is moving fast. It is a good thing that mathematics now gets equal billing with literacy, but there are many conflicting reports and philosophies in math. There are so many factors to consider when looking at student achievement. Many of the spiral programs require some time before making any tough decisions about what is working at what is not working with a program. Fidelity requires time and attention. I personally always look for the middle ground in any conflicting situation. In my school we try very hard to implement the district approved program, supplement with what students need and what teachers know works best, and look at outcomes and essential knowledge. I really do think you can implement a good program effectively and still be a PLC.

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karen walker

I am concerned about your answer to the site administrator regarding implementing the district adopted curriculum. Our district has been implementing PLCs for 4 years and each site is at a different place in the implementation. We utilized the criteria from Doug Reeves in determining Essential Standards with groups of teachers from throughout the district. We have deconstructed these Essential Standards into Learning Targets. Our teachers write common assessments and use their agreed upon pacing. However, I personally contacted Doug Reeves regarding his research on implementing a curriculum with fidelity. As a district we have read his work and believe that we must implement the adopted with fidelity. I am concerned that a few teachers will use your answer to the site administrator to say that they can close their door and implement what they or their team thinks is important without implementing anything with fidelity. Please comment.

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