This post originally appeared in the Education Insider blog on November 19, 2015

To Maine From the Main Line

When I was ten years old, my family took a trip to Maine. It was the first time I’d been on an extended car trip out of my home state of Pennsylvania, and my father gave me a critically important job: trip navigator. It was my responsibility to help plan the itinerary and the route from suburban Philadelphia to Acadia National Park. My most important tool? A set of brand new maps of the mid-Atlantic and New England states.

I studied those maps for days before the trip, plotting out the best route to our destination. My planning was slightly complicated by the fact that we had specific stops we wanted to make: a day in historic Boston, and a visit to my mom’s college roommate. By the time we left, I knew those maps very well, and when the inevitable glitches arose along the journey, I was able to sort things out and get us back on track.

There were other times I didn’t have as much success. After I learned to drive, I frequently began to rely on my standard route to specific destinations. And there were more than a few times I had to go miles out of my way because I only knew those familiar roads to and from my house.

Teaching has developed much like my driving history. We’ve begun to rely heavily on purchased, packaged programs that give teachers the turn-by-turn directions without giving them enough time getting to know the map. This is highlighted in a recent editorial in Oregon’s Baker City Herald (Solving 5J’s Math Problems). The local school district had mandated use of EngageNY, a math program provided for free by the state of New York, and now teachers and parents were questioning its effectiveness. The editorial opens with an unapologetically blunt assessment:

“The Baker School District has a problem with its math curriculum. What’s not clear is how big this problem is.”

Driving Blind

The editorial outlines three main problems:

  1. EngageNY may work well for some students but not others, but we have no idea how many or how well.
  2. The district implemented the program with little input from important stakeholders, resulting in a lack of flexibility for teachers who are expected to follow the math program verbatim.
  3. Flexibility needs limits, however. Teachers can’t be expected to juggle multiple programs every day to try and meet the needs of a diverse group of learners.

The newspaper calls for surveys of teachers and parents to find out more about whether EngageNY is working and to understand the problems more deeply. Without this information, the board and school district professionals are essentially driving blind, following the turn-by-turn directions in the program without having any way to know if they’re getting closer to their destination.

Road Closed One Mile Ahead

Before I recommend some possible paths forward to resolve these challenges, there are some additional problems we need to consider which weren’t directly addressed in the editorial.

Flexibility is more complex than it first appears. We tend to use the words “program” and “curriculum” interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. Let’s extend our travel metaphor further to better understand some of the components involved:

  • Curriculum is the map
  • Program is the vehicle and turn-by-turn directions
  • Standards define the destination
  • Instruction is the journey
  • Learning is the experience

A well-written curriculum gives teachers the whole map of the territory, while a program can give a recommended (or in the case of the Baker School District, mandatory) route through the territory.

The problem with rigid adherence to a program is when the unexpected takes place. On our trip to Maine, for example, we had a minor car accident in Boston that sidetracked us for a brief period of time. We might run into heavy traffic or a road closure. Weather can change the conditions or someone might need an unplanned rest stop. Wrong turns happen. If I’m following turn-by-turn directions and get off course, I may be completely out of luck. If I know the map, though, I can plot an alternative route that gets me back where I need to be.

Programs aren’t inherently bad, though. They provide consistency between schools and teachers, allow for a common language, and permit natural flow from one grade or school to the next because teachers know what to expect from the students they are receiving. Programs are also efficient in terms of time, teacher planning, and financial investment.

Surveys won’t tell the whole story. Surveys will reveal comfort more than effectiveness. Responses during early implementation will also be based on perceptions of self-competence rather than effectiveness. As Black and Gregersen pointed out in their book, Leading Strategic Change: Breaking Through the Brain Barrier, “Many prefer to be competent at the wrong thing than incompetent at the right thing.” Selecting a program and designing a curriculum can’t be a popularity contest. Surveys will also be filled out by those with the strongest feelings, skewing results. Feedback about EngageNY is likely to be conflated with overall opinions of Common Core, so those strong feelings will color perceptions.

Meaningful change takes time. Assessing the effectiveness of any new program should be ongoing, but you can’t make firm decisions about keeping or abandoning a path too soon. According to Michael Fullan (@michaelfullan1), a leading expert in systemic change in education, “Significant change in the form of implementing specific innovations can be expected to take a minimum of two or three years; bringing about institutional reforms can take five or ten years.”

Related to this, there is a very real and well-documented implementation dip that happens in any new endeavor. Those first two to three years will see a decline in performance, and to make long-range decisions based on those initial results means you will miss the opportunity to show eventual growth.

Are We There Yet?

I propose three considerations as the Baker School District–and any other school facing a similar problem–looks for a way forward.

Instruction matters more than program

The Baker School District should invest heavily in embedded professional development and coaching in excellent instructional practices. And while a good program such as IMP will give you a head start on good instruction, emphasizing instruction will give teachers confidence to be more flexible when given the opportunity. This also means districts should emphasize fidelity to outcomes and goals rather than a program. Instead of checking whether teachers are using the right book or teaching the right page on the pacing guide, ask for evidence of learning that shows students are getting to the right destination.

Beware the implementation dip

It’s absolutely critical for a district to commit at the start of an initiative to persevere through it for the long haul. Educate stakeholders about the difference between what is comfortable, convenient or familiar and what is truly effective. Prepare everyone for the dip by setting reasonable short-term goals in addition to long-range ones, understanding that there is a predictable process of change. Use multiple ways of gauging effectiveness beyond annual test scores and surveys.

Empower teachers to make choices about the journey

Give teachers both the vehicle (a well-designed program), and the map (a thorough curriculum) and empower them to make choices about the best way to get to the destination. Some teachers may choose to stick with the program. Others will find their own route. For those who want to take the road less traveled, provide a formal pathway for teachers to communicate their plans to leadership so that the district can maintain the common goal, common language, and ensure there is appropriate support for the teacher and students.

Where’s Our Next Trip?

If you’re in a community that’s wrestling with these issues, here are a few questions for your own reflection and which may help you start this conversation with your leaders:

  1. What are your priorities and goals for student learning?
  2. How would you balance the need for consistency and fiscal responsibility with the desire for flexibility and professional discretion?
  3. When a teacher chooses to go “off route”, what are the important ways that your school and system can support that teacher to ensure students are learning? How should that be communicated to parents and the community?
  4. What other questions or concerns are raised from your unique perspective that we need to consider in implementing a new curriculum?

Educating hundreds or thousands of individual children in a school or district is a highly complex task, requiring a great deal of effort, energy, resources, and time. With adequate planning, thought, and teamwork, we can make it the trip of a lifetime.

photo credit: Should I ? via photopin (license)