Protecting Good Teaching in an Era of Bad Programs, Part 1

Protecting Good Teaching in an Era of Bad Programs, Part 1

By Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative, Christopher Lehman

In a head spinning rush, state after state has recently defined a narrow set of “approved” literacy programs that mandate which curricula districts are and are not allowed to use. Unfortunately, within most of these programs, the body of research and practice behind the “Science of” and the “Art of” teaching reading—let’s face it, writing has nearly evaporated from most approved programs—has been largely buried beneath publisher nonsense. So much so, that even one of the journalists behind this current panic recently reported on these programs’ over-bloated lack of worth, quoth the maven: “a lot of time-wasting fluff” (Wexler, Literacy Experts Say Some EdReports Ratings Are Misleading).

That article reports what many educators are now experiencing. To garner approval from politicians with limited educational experience, publishers often shoved whatever they could into program pages to earn EdReports’ green bubbles of approval. I can only assume politicians were drawn to this evaluation metric because while teaching is complex, multi-layered, responsive to children, context, climate, and funding; green means more good than orange or red. Easy-peasey. 

However, that simplicity belies EdReports purported purpose, “increase the capacity of teachers, administrators, and leaders to seek, identify, and demand the highest-quality instructional materials.” Instead, the EdReports rating system, it is reported, was gameable by many large publishers: just add more of the things the rubric wants until the orange box turns green. To add insult to injury, it appears the rating system overvalued stuff while undervaluing actual usability. Thus, leaving us with state mandated programs like HMH’s Into Reading, which has all “greens” but is so terribly convoluted that it is hard to imagine anyone who mandated it has actually been around children.

Further, EdReports appears to have handed green approvals to a number of curricula that the NYU Metro Center at the Steinhardt School of Education has found to be “culturally destructive” (Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum). Specifically cited in the report are McGraw Hill’s Wonders (2023 edition), Savvas’s myView (2020 edition) and HMH’s Into Reading (2020 edition), which the MetroCenter finds: “all three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color.” Note: these are far from the only offenders. Bestselling author and educator, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul recently posted her observations about the problematic representation in Great Minds’ Wit and Wisdom: “many of these texts are inaccurate and offensive,” she writes. She goes on to further critique: “anyone else noticing the message to students about who knowledge holders are and what counts as knowledge?”

If how how all children, including how Black, Indigenous, and other student of color, who make up the majority of public school children in the U.S. (National Center of Education Statistics) will interact with a program’s content is not an essential part of how curricula are evaluated, then whom do these ratings benefit?

While these mandates will eventually fade away and morph into something else, like all things political in the world of education, many districts are currently stuck with limited decision-making, based on a shoddy metric, leading to problematic materials—the ramifications of this can last for years. While a district may eventually change programs, a child only has one shot at being a first grader or fourth grader. So, it is essential that even if you teach or lead in a climate of “must dos,” you tread carefully and thoughtfully so that the program does not overshadow sound practice. 

While a district may eventually change programs, a child only has one shot at being a first grader or fourth grader.

This is not to say that adopting shared curricula is inherently bad. As a point of comparison, I also work with districts who fully produce their own teacher-created curriculum and they, too, find large problems that require more professional time to solve than is often available. Everything from needing to search daily for resources, having unclear articulation across grades, and push-in specialists struggling to keep track of teaching from classroom to classroom. So, sometimes effective leaders work through a pilot process to adopt programs or materials in the short-term, in order to support system-level conversations and alignment. I support that when done thoughtfully. What states are approving, though, and how this is playing out in many districts, is simply ill-conceived.

Holding On To Good Teaching

First and foremost, in this election year, you should absolutely use your voice and vote in advocating for better policies and more informed decision makers at all levels. In the short term, however, we need to find ways to do the least harm and most good.

One place to begin is by clearly defining, as a school community, what we mean by using a program with “fidelity.” We need to disavow the idea that any curriculum is perfect or that it knows your students better than you do. Programs don’t teach. People do.

I have recently been talking with districts about the idea of “reasonable fidelity” and have used this graphic as a discussion point:

Graphic continuum of “Reasonable Fidelity,” described in the post.

One Extreme: Treating Programs like a Scientific Study

On one extreme of “fidelity”, well meaning educators, who want to do what they think is expected of them, are attempting to use programs as a script. They are trying to say every word, use every worksheet, and read from every text. They feel as if they are performing a scientific study, using every single part to see what happens.

This can be necessary, especially at first, as you are trying to get to know something new—what’s the useful and useless? In part, this is due to the anti-teacher political climate, where teachers and leaders are afraid to do something “wrong” in the eyes of the state. This is also due to the ways publishers have marketed their goods, with terms like “evidence-based,” “grounded in the Science of Reading,” and “comprehensive.” These terms are vague to interpret within the actual totality of the program: is this worksheet evidence based or just a writer’s quick invention? Is this text excerpt grounded in science or was it just cheap to publish? If I don’t extend this one day lesson another forty minutes, just to fit it all in, will it not be comprehensive or is this just a case of curriculum bloat? 

I assure you that even in the better-ish approved programs, no one has evidence-tested every single worksheet, slide, or page of the teacher’s guide. In the best case scenarios, teams of writers made their best efforts to write curricula according to a framework and philosophy. While in the worst cases… well, I honestly don’t know what anyone was thinking with some of those. 

Do not give programs more power than they deserve. It can be exhausting for teachers while also ineffective for students.

The Other Extreme: Going Rogue

Going rogue in your own classroom can sometimes have its benefits—like refusing to use culturally damaging texts—but it is important to recognize that children move through a system and that system needs to best support their entire journey. So as a practice, shutting your door and surviving may only bring short term relief.

There can also be consequences for going too far from a state mandate. I recall a social media conversation with noted author and Co-Founder of DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom, Lorena Germán, who offered the sage wisdom that two things are true at the same time: we should organize to fight and resist oppressive curriculum while also respecting that not everyone can do that resisting overtly—people also need to survive and stay employed. 

Completely dismissing a state mandate may not be practical or possible for everyone. It also can keep you out of important conversations with colleagues and leaders.

One Practical Option: Using Bits and Pieces

Another approach is using a program as just one of many materials you draw from. This can often be a smart way to handle the major holes found in most of the mandated programs. 

For instance, I am very worried about the millions of students who are currently getting very, very limited writing instruction. In many programs, writing looks mostly like responses to the lesson’s text or parroting back content “knowledge” into graphic organizers. Now in some, like the American Reading Company’s Core, students do more process writing than in a lot of other programs. However, even then, the time is still often truncated to only a week or two in a unit, with very little pre-writing and rehearsal prior to drafting. Supplementing nearly all of the currently “approved” programs with actual writing instruction would be deeply important, because teaching writing is, ahem, explicitly evidence-based.

Some states have offered waivers for bits and pieces. Such as the ability to substitute a different foundational skills program if the mandated core curriculum doesn’t offer a good one—or in some cases doesn’t offer one at all. 

Reread that.

Why did states mandate programs under the headline of the “Science of Reading” focus on foundational skills, while many of the programs they mandated do not adequately address those skills? It’s a mind-bending paradox.

For example, how a frequent state-approved program Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom does not have a sufficient foundational skills component, despite being approved for that very purpose. Yes, they say this themselves: “The Best Materials for Literacy Development Success May Not Always Come in One Box.“ Then why did we buy this box!? Though, dear consumer, you can purchase their supplemental Geodes foundational skills program to fill their own gap. Cha-ching!

So whether by state waiver or your own instructional expertise, using one program in conjunction with other materials is a sound option. That, of course, comes with a big disclaimer: “if you are allowed.”

A Key Mindset for this Moment: Reasonable Fidelity

Whether you are using all of a mandated program or combining it with others, an essential step is to clearly define as a learning community what we collectively want and mean by “fidelity.” It can help you and your colleagues get back on more solid footing and feel more empowered to make decisions.

Before curricula and materials, fidelity should first and foremost be to our students. What are their strengths, needs, goals, and interests? How can we make good choices with what we are mandated to use so that our students remain firmly at the center of decision making? When programs are sound and adaptable, this is more easy to do. When they are bad, this takes more effort.

“Reasonable fidelity,” as I describe it, is then determining together what our guiding values and guardrails are so we can make choices within that structure. This means that you need to have clear conversations and agreements around what is followed, what is optional, and what can be put aside with whatever program you are using.

Questions such as:

  • What are scope and sequence “must dos” and what are optional?
    • Every unit or if not which are optional? 
    • Every week of the unit or, if not, how and when do we decide? 
    • Every lesson in a week or, if not, which are optional and why? 
    • Every component of a lesson, every day? If that is not practical, what expectations?
    • Every word (and side box, graphic, etc.) in a lesson? If that is not practical, how do we decide?
    • Every worksheet/organizer?
    • Every text?
    • And, also crucially, what expectations and guardrails can we share about supplementing outside of the program? As in, can I hope online for any graphic organizer I want or do we have shared values around the needs and uses of those?

These answers are best arrived at by first reaching agreements about your shared instructional values. 

What has been lost on many journalists and politicians, is that thoughtful educators and leaders are continually learning, expanding their practice, and want to add methods to their toolkits for supporting all students. Learning how to better support students with dyslexia is just as meaningful to the educators I work with as finding ways to be more affirming of LGBTQ+ students through our curricular choices, and adding more culturally inclusive texts, and improving how we assess writing, and getting better at conferring, and so on. Educators are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. We come to school, each day, with a wealth of knowledge and curiosity. 

So start, first, with a conversation around our shared instructional values and then look at how you can make choices with a program to live up to your already high expectations and how the program may be able to support your areas of professional growth.

  • What shared values drive our instruction? 
  • What areas do we want and need to study more?
  • How does the format of our units fit with these values?
  • How does the structure of our literacy time fit with these values?
  • What does teaching look like that uplifts this vision?
  • What does learning look like that uplifts this vision?

What has been lost on many journalists and politicians, is that thoughtful educators and leaders are continually learning…

This work is not necessarily easy. I often recommend to districts to be brave in these conversations. Put on the table the strengths and the challenges necessary to talk openly and make commitments. This work also takes continual learning and the answers will change over time as that learning path unfolds. For instance, you may put a greater emphasis on decodable text use now, as it is a hot topic; but later more naturally weave them into differentiated decision-making as your team becomes more confident. All said, you already have the expertise to get moving.

Ultimately, how a student develops and grows will never be equated with any publisher. It will always come down to what the district, school, and classroom achieved with and for that child.

In future posts in this series we will look more closely at some ways educators and leaders can make thoughtful decisions about good teaching, in conjunction with—or sometimes in spite of—programs.