Set lesson plans stir controversy
Critics warn a lack of flexibility for teachers hurts rather than helps student achievement, which is meant to be the goal of the system.
Seattle Times education reporter
Minutes before her eighth-grade class shows up, teacher Elizabeth Walker clicks on a Web site to show the writing lesson she will start that day. She's supposed to go over three ways to persuade: logos (facts), ethos (ethics) and pathos (feelings). She'll use the novel "Animal Farm" to help illustrate such techniques.
Walker isn't allowed to decide whether her students at Bellevue's Odle Middle School will read a different novel instead. Or that she'll teach poetry now and persuasive writing later.
In the name of student achievement, more teachers must follow stricter rules about what — and sometimes how — they teach. In some places, they stay almost literally on the same page.
Locally, the Bellevue School District appears to manage its lessons the most. In some subjects it has a long list of required lessons, one for nearly every day.
Other districts, to varying degrees, are standardizing instruction as well. In Seattle, for example, Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno hopes that a U.S. government or calculus class at Ballard High eventually will use the same syllabus as one at Franklin or Roosevelt or Sealth.
The goal is to provide students with the same academic experiences, regardless of their teacher or school.
Some warn, however, that too much standardization hurts students if teachers can't slow down, speed up or change course when students need it.
A managed curriculum, by itself, doesn't raise student achievement, says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.
Many Bellevue teachers think their district has gone too far, leaving them without the flexibility they need to teach well, says Stephen Miller, president of the district's teachers union. This year, he says, he knows of at least 10 who resigned in part because of the issue.
But Bellevue Superintendent Mike Riley asserts that the lack of a consistent curriculum is "at the heart of what's wrong with education in America."
Not only should Bellevue have a common curriculum, he says, but there should be a national curriculum as well.
For too long, Riley says, teachers have been independent agents who decide much of what and how they teach. As a result, instruction is uneven. Middle-school teachers often find that students from one elementary school lack skills that those from another have. Students who switch schools often lose ground.
Since he arrived in Bellevue 11 years ago, 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."
Pat Wasley, dean of the UW College of Education and a fan of Bellevue's approach, uses the term "managed."
"A managed curriculum does not mean that a teacher has to approach the material just like every other teacher. It just means she has to work with the same material," she says.
Whatever it's called, it worries many in Bellevue.
Most Bellevue teachers have no problem with common goals and objectives for each class, Miller says, and even a few required lessons. Just not as many, or as detailed, as they're seeing.
"It would be a tragic error ... to tell teachers that on Day 80 of the school year, there is only one way to teach 'Huckleberry Finn,' the circumference of a circle, or to play an instrument," he says. "My members are telling me this is not in the best interests of student learning."
Dave Sherbrooke, a history and government teacher at Bellevue High, says there is no one right way to teach a lesson, he says, and no one lesson plan that works for all teachers. A veteran, he says, usually can pull off much more than a rookie. A lesson plan designed for both, he says, limits what experienced teachers can do and easily could throw a brand-new teacher into deep water.
He'd prefer a buffet approach, in which teachers are encouraged to share lesson plans with each other. "If we see something that works better, we'll steal it immediately," he said.
In some subjects, teachers say they're expected to cover too much too fast, with no way to make adjustments for months, or even until the following school year.
Michele Gaynor, an eighth-grade math teacher at Chinook Middle School, says she hurried through the curriculum all year.
The district cut back some lessons near the end, but she said that didn't keep some students from being more stressed than they needed to be, fearful they wouldn't pass the class and, as a result, be held back a year.
Others say the lessons don't yet help teachers meet the needs of students with varying learning styles, or those learning English.
Miller, the teachers-union president, says he would teach immigration differently at Bellevue High, where few families are recent arrivals to this country, than he would at Sammamish High, where many of them are.
In a recent union survey, only 20 percent of the teachers who responded said they thought required lessons for almost every day are in the best interest of student learning.
Law fuels trend
But that's the direction many districts are headed. Los Angeles and New York are among those that use common lessons in at least some subjects.
So are schools in Portland, where Superintendent Vicki Phillips is spending her last days before moving to Seattle to become head of education giving at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act is fueling the trend, says Bradley Portin, associate professor of education at the UW, because it holds districts responsible for student test scores. As a result, he says, districts "want to have a closer hand on what's being taught."
So do states. In Washington, for example, education leaders soon will list a handful of math textbooks that they will recommend all the state's 296 school districts use.
Locally, districts such as Edmonds and Highline require that schools use more of the same materials than they did a few years ago.
When Santorno, Seattle's chief academic officer, arrived last year, she said teachers and principals told her they wanted more support. She told them that she can't provide that unless most of them are using the same books and materials. She expects some tension because teachers won't have as much freedom as they once did. She's not, however, thinking about requiring all teachers to teach the same lesson.
"I have taught in that system, and it's not fun," she says, adding, "It makes you want to sneak around and take care of the faster learners and the slower learners."
New system lauded
Walker, the English teacher at Odle, is one of the teachers who likes Bellevue's new system.
"The goal is not to make us robot teachers, but to give us direction," she says.
She now has more time to refine lessons rather than create them, she says, and to think more about how to reach each student. She's learned new ways to teach books like "Tom Sawyer," one of her favorites.
She finds there is enough flexibility to adjust lessons for different groups of students. If she couldn't, she says she'd have a problem with the curriculum, too.
Bellevue administrators acknowledge that teacher freedom will be more limited. But that cost, they say, is worth the benefits.
The district now can share great lessons among all teachers, says Administrator Dion Yahoudy, and ensure a minimum level of quality in all classrooms. Too often, she says, some students end up feeling inadequate simply because they're expected to understand something their last teacher didn't cover.
Assistant Superintendent Jan Zuber says teachers' misgivings often fade when they start using the curriculum, which is still in the works for many subjects. Many, she said, find it satisfying to have the kind of in-depth discussions that are only possible when they're all teaching the same thing.
Open to change
Riley emphasizes that Bellevue's curriculum is still a work in progress. Each year, and sometimes in the middle, the committees will add lessons, change others, develop alternatives designed for different groups of students. That's already happened in some classes and subjects.
"There's a whole lot of stuff we haven't figured out," he says.
Riley agrees teachers need the flexibility to make sure students understand what's taught and not feel that, even if students don't get it, they must keep to the schedule and turn the page.
But there's no argument, he notes, that it's good to have districtwide goals and expectations for what's taught.
Now, he says, "it's just a question of degree."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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