Opinion
Education Opinion

Finding the Right “Grain Size” for Standardization

By Justin Baeder — July 22, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teacher and writer/speaker/tech expert Bill Ferriter suggested in a blog post last Thursday that scripted curriculum is the equivalent of running shoes that do more harm than good, constraining healthy, natural functioning.

I don’t know anyone that particularly likes scripted curriculum (except people who are selling it), but I also think it’s useful to an extent; it’s merely a question of degrees. I agree with Ferriter that over-standardizing can take away something crucial, but there’s something to be said for having everyone on the same page—though not literally.

My district’s elementary math curriculum does have a fairly prescriptive pacing guide, and no one particularly likes following the pacing guide. However, if you don’t keep up with it, you won’t finish the curriculum, and your students won’t learn what they are supposed to learn in your grade. This means teachers have to constantly make choices about what to emphasize, what to gloss over, and what to stop and really concentrate on. This is the essence of professional judgment: Do what your students need. As a principal, I make a point of never discouraging this crucial aspect of working as a professional. At the same time, though, you have to stay more or less on pace.

Standardization is essentially the process of making decisions about what happens inside of classrooms, but from the outside, and applying those decisions everywhere. While this seems like it may conflict with professional judgment, I think it’s a question of grain size.

“Grain size” refers to the level of detail we’re talking about in a given discussion. When it comes to educational standardization, there’s widespread agreement on the boulders: Kids should be taught reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and a few other subjects in their K-12 years; they should be taught to get along with others; and they should generally be prepared for citizenship and college/career.

Everyone who works in education accepts the “boulder” standardization, and a good deal more. No one who is hired to be a math teacher expects to be allowed to spend all year on art projects, and no art teacher expects to get away with assigning silent reading all year. There are boundaries to the jobs we’re hired to do.

State (and now the Common Core) standards extended the reach of standardization further, into the specific objectives students are to master at each grade level. I realize this feels to many people like an encroachment on professional judgment, but it’s really the only way to ensure any kind of equity. What you learn should not be based entirely on something so arbitrary as who your teacher is. We want all students, not just the lucky ones who get the best teachers, to learn at high levels.

Imposed, scripted curriculum—the kind with bold text that tells you want to say out loud—strikes most of us as going too far, because it encroaches on not just the what but on the how of teaching. Teachers should know how to teach, so when you treat them like they don’t, it’s insulting.

The problem is that everyone has different areas of expertise and need, strength and weakness. Curriculum publishers cover all the bases by scripting as much as they can, so if you need the fine-grained detail—the specific words to speak aloud to your class—you have it. This is only problematic when we teach it as the way to teach, rather than a resource.

Lucy Calkins publishes some of the best writing curriculum in the world. It’s used by hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country. It honors their professionalism, encourages them to develop as teachers and as writers, and draws on every bit of their expert judgment and knowledge of their students. Teachers often pay their own way to her trainings, which always have waiting lists. Yet her curriculum is heavily scripted. If you want to know how to think about writing memoirs, how to introduce the genre to your class, and even how to craft a personal anecdote that can pique students’ interest, you’ll find an incredible level of fine-grained detail in Lucy’s books. You can use as much or as little of it as you want.

The wrong way to use this kind of curriculum is to force people to use a finer grain size than they need, and that’s what I think Bill is arguing against in his blog post:

There's no need to flex your intellectual muscles when you're being held accountable only for delivering predetermined lessons on predetermined days. Just like natural movements are impossible for feet strapped inside plaster casts, innovation is impossible for practitioners bound by rigid guidelines. As a result, skills that we once took for granted waste away and are forgotten.

Some guidelines should be rigid, at least at the larger grain sizes. It’s the job of educational leaders to provide the guidance and resources teachers need, but to stay out of the way when it comes to the how and the fine-grained detail. It’s the job of instructional coaches (and administrators who can be good coaches) to help teachers realize when they could benefit from the finer-grained guidance in their curriculum. And it’s the job of teachers to look at the whole spectrum, dust to boulders, and constantly seek out what will best help their students.

Standardization may run counter to some of our natural impulses, but it’s a good thing, coupled with adequate autonomy to exercise professional judgment.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)