4. Moving Beyond Test-driven and Textbook-driven Curricula: Five Questions to Facilitate School Change (1/2) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

Chapter 4
Moving Beyond Test-driven and Textbook-driven
Curricula: Five Questions to Facilitate School
Jean Ann Hunt, Caroline Knight, and Robert Ackland
Three veteran teachers who are now teacher educators present a series of questions that
can be used when a school faculty (or a teacher education faculty) deliberates about
how to meet the needs of children. The questions are supported by current research
that indicates the need for teachers to become decision-makers rather than technicians.
Very few American schools have escaped the pressure of governmental mandates
to raise test scores. Some schools have adopted drastic measures to avert the conse-
quences of low scores. They have cut back on other subject areas by focusing primar-
ily on reading and math (Dillon, 2006). Their professional conversations most often
center on “scientic methods” and rarely on the purposes and benets of learning in
children’s lives. It is even rarer to share those purposes with children. An indefensible
consequence of this silence is limiting children’s experience with what it means to
be a reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, or historian. Many children develop dis-
torted views of learning. “Stuart,” a third grader sitting out in the hall one day reading
a book is a perfect example. When one of us paused to ask him what he was reading,
he looked up and said, “Oh I’m not reading.” Stuart then happily gave the title of the
book along with a very animated description of the plot. When asked why he said he
was not reading he explained, “Well, you see this isn’t reading. Reading is when we ll
out those worksheets and do vocabulary words and stuff like that. This is just a book I
like.” Stuart is one of many children who have been victimized by test- and textbook-
driven curricula.
As three teachers who each have at least 20 years of experience in pre-K through
college classrooms, we shudder to think of the legacy that the current mania for testing
will leave behind. What has happened to the self-image of those children who have
cried through standardized tests with no adult allowed to comfort them? How strong
will the motivation to learn be of all the children who have suffered through 90-minute
blocks of developmentally inappropriate reading instruction? What has happened to
the critical thinking skills of children who have not had time to explore science and
social studies because those subjects are not “on the test”?
We know that in recent years many schools adopted new packaged programs, as
publishers raced to supply teachers with “scientically based” series. Teachers all over
the country were required to give up previously successful practices and materials and
44 Best Practices for Education Professionals
were expected to embrace new programs that promised to meet the stepped-up de-
mands for higher test scores in all subjects. We agree with Nichols and Berliner (2008,
p. 15) that “a high-stakes testing climate sends a message that the primary purpose of
learning is to score well on the tests,” and we believe that many teachers would like to
avoid the pitfalls associated with an over-emphasis on scores.
We also know that many teachers have been deeply disappointed as they were
forced to ignore sound research and their professional expertise and instincts in order
to hand their students over to regimented, ineffective routines with packaged “teacher-
proof” materials (Nagel, 2009). Now, with the implosion of programs such as Reading
First (NCEE, 2009; Walker, 2009), teachers have an opportunity to reclaim teacher-
designed best practices and curricula, and to celebrate the unique talents and interests
that each child brings to the classroom. We do not dismiss the need for skill instruc-
tion, but we concur with Kohn (2008, p. 58) who writes that “learning to ‘break the
code’ should be part of a rich literacy curriculum that has kids reading real stories, not
facing endless worksheets and contrived fragments of text harnessed to the skill of the
As we envision a new future for education that moves beyond cookie-cutter cur-
ricula, we offer the following ve questions as a framework to facilitate the efforts of
a teacher education faculty or a school faculty to implement best practices and to meet
the needs of all students.
Though schools in the United States have much in common, they also differ in many
ways. Your community, students, and faculty have unique characteristics and chal-
lenges, and must decide together how best to move forward. A good place to start is
for faculty, staff, administrators, and students to discuss the vision for learning in your
school. You can begin with conversations about what you value in teaching and learn-
ing and move on to describing yourselves as learners. You can discuss how you inter-
act with books and other forms of print, writing, art, scientific knowledge, and current
events. Often these dialogues become an exchange of best loved authors, of favorite
websites, and of your own struggles with learning, or your dreams of becoming better
teachers. As you talk about your own experiences, and listen to others’ stories, a more
inclusive vision for how you want your students to experience learning can emerge.
Such a common vision can help you model what it means to live as dynamic learners,
and guide collaborative decisions about instructional practices, materials, and assess-
Once your vision for learning is established, it can be used as a foundation for
conversations about goals and professional practice. You can ask each other, “What
do we want our students to be able to do? What role do we think learning will play
in their future lives? What attitudes toward learning do we want to nurture? What at-
titudes toward their own ability to learn do we want our students to have?” With these
common understandings rmly in place, you are then ready to evaluate the plethora of
Moving Beyond Test-driven and Textbook-driven Curricula 45
available resources, and to consider carefully if a particular program will advance your
school’s vision for learning.
Recently a fourth grade teacher shared with us that she loves the month of May, when
she finally gets to teach. “All the state tests are over and we’ve made it through the
reading series. Now the students and I can have some fun,” she explained. Sadly, the
role this teacher is expected to play throughout the majority of the school year is that
of a technician administering programs that have not been designed to meet the needs
of the individuals in her class, but rather to reach goals imposed from outside of the
As teachers we know we deepen our students’ learning when we are creative and
innovative, using our expertise to make decisions that match our instruction to our
students’ needs and interests. There is no substitute for an informed, caring profes-
sional at a child’s side. The most that a packaged program can hope to offer is a logical
sequence of suggested activities. This can certainly be a great help to the classroom
teacher, and can keep a structured sequence in place for a school or district, but teach-
ers must be allowed the exibility to depart from the plan and create more engaging
learning experiences whenever it serves the best interests of the children. While it can
be wonderful to have a manual that gives a multitude of teaching ideas and materials,
the decision of which to use must be made by a professional educator who has daily
contact with the students.
We suggest that you pay particular attention to your reading program. Honoring
the expertise of the classroom teacher in this area could correct some of today’s most
worrisome educational deciencies. Many current programs are requiring that large
blocks of time be devoted to isolated “reading” tasks at the expense of other crucial
subjects, notably social studies, science, and the arts (Gallagher, 2009, pp. 34–35;
Nichols & Berliner, 2008, p. 15). But effective teachers know that it is possible to
improve reading skills while studying science. They understand that children can learn
important comprehension strategies while using a social studies text. A compassionate
adult also knows when it is time to give a child a break from testing and lovingly work
on self-condence or motivation. We need to put decision-making back into the hands
of teachers who are in constant communication with the children, with families/guard-
ians, and with professional communities.
The ultimate goal of instruction is to produce independent learners. To determine if
your school fosters independence in the classroom and beyond, you could ask the
following questions. “How much time during the day do our children engage in inde-
pendent learning and reading?” Kasten and Wilfong, reviewing recent research on in-
dependent reading, remind us that it is “like the practice time athletes need to become
good at their sport, or the time musicians need to get good at their instrument” (2007,
p. 2). You could also ask: “Are the children systematically taught how to access books,
electronic information sources, and other materials in the classroom? Will the skills
46 Best Practices for Education Professionals
and strategies taught be useful to the students as they go off to learn on their own? Do
they know how to raise their own genuine questions and pursue the answers?”
There is a growing gap between the sources of information and entertainment we
all use outside of school, and the traditional textbook-driven curricula still used in
schools (see Cohen & Cowen, 2008; Coiro, 2003). Spending less money on packaged
programs can free up funds to access more current, relevant, and interactive books
and materials for our classrooms. Although content area textbooks have improved
since we were children, they are still notoriously dull and omit important voices and
perspectives (Bigelow, 2008; Loewen, 2007). Children’s literature of high quality and
access to engaging websites can go a long way toward lling in those gaps. The stu-
dents we are teaching today will be interacting and doing business with people from
all over the world. We need current materials and works of literature by and about the
multitude of people groups in the United States and around the world (Grant & Sleeter,
2009, pp. 178
-179; Landt, 2007).
to discover what you are interested in and how to nd the information you
are looking for are two of the most critical skills our students will need in the future.
With hundreds of cable television channels in almost every household, and magazines,
newsletters, and websites geared to every conceivable lifestyle and political persua-
sion, should not we be teaching children how to make informed choices? Consider
whether your students are ever asked to decide in which text the information they are
looking for might be found. Are they asked to synthesize ideas from diverse sources?
Do your programs nurture political literacy by teaching children to distinguish be-
tween fact and opinion, to recognize loaded words, and to uncover author bias? Do the
children learn that they can pursue their most engaging interests and nd answers to
their most important questions by active inquiry in a wide variety of sources? (Vogler
& Virtue, 2007; Wade, 2002).
There are important pedagogical reasons to include a greater variety of books and
instructional materials. Packaged programs may supply the materials and instructions
for particular activities, but activities are short-lived, and often not connected to fur-
ther learning. They frequently require isolated skills rather than strategic thinking and
“mindful engagement” (Pearson, Cervetti, & Tilson, 2008). True inquiry demands ac-
cess to a greater variety of information and tools for genuine learning experiences.
There is a signicant difference, for example, between following the steps of a science
activity, and pursing authentic scientic inquiry. In the same way, freely experiment-
ing with math manipulative allows students to consider mathematical concepts; mere-
ly following the instructions in a math book produces a more limited result (Roche,
2010). In a study conducted in over 400 United State school districts it was found that
“the average fth grader received ve times as much instruction in basic skills as in-
struction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in rst and third
grades” (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, Morrison, & NICHD, 2007, p. 1795). What is wrong
with this picture?
Do we want graduates who have only demonstrated that they can successfully use
school materials by following instructions? Would not we prefer graduates who have
already been using authentic tools, strategies, and materials? We need global citizens
who know that learning is more than fullling school requirements—it is an empower-
ing lifelong pursuit.
Most test- and textbook-driven curricula call upon teachers to rank and sort students,
dividing them into “high, medium, and low” groups, or “above-level, on-level and
below-level” groups. Although learning is a developmental process, it is not necessar-
ily a linear one. Grouping children according to one measure with little opportunity to
move beyond their initial placement does not recognize the dynamic nature of learn-
ing (Shelton, Altwerger, & Jordan, 2009, p. 137). Static groups may not build on the
strengths of each student nor may they address the challenges that each learner faces.
Furthermore, when grouping does not change, children begin to identify themselves as
“strong” or “weak” learners—“smart” or “stupid” people. The consequences of such
labeling seep into all aspects of classroom life, eroding community, and compromising
Are your students’ school days currently fragmented by excessive movement to
and from special groups? Are you asking them to interact with too many adults during
the day, with disjointed curricula? Do your students with special needs feel included in
the classroom community, or are they constantly being interrupted and singled out by
transitions to other settings? In what ways could you differentiate classroom instruc-
tion and create a positive, inclusive learning community for all students?
In order to meet the needs of all your learners, keeping track of the progress they are
making in essential. Checking for accuracy is important, but effective assessment must
also allow time for rigorous conversation. There must be a systematic way to record
what you learn about each student, giving attention to when the student is responding
with factual information, making inferences, or using critical thinking skills. Effec-
tive assessment takes time, but is a necessary component of strong curricula (Shelton,
Altwerger, & Jordan, 2009, p. 138).
Your faculty can generate a list of the skills and behaviors you look for in each
student at each grade. Then ask which assessment tools will help you know what each
child is ready to learn. If you are already using a particular assessment, take a look at
what information your assessment claims to give you. Then look at the tool itself and
determine whether or not it thoroughly measures what it says it does. Good assessment
does not merely rank and sort children; it informs instruction.
A program can supply assessment tools which may add valuable information to
the dynamic prole of a student, but a packaged program will never be as thorough or
as insightful as an excellent teacher. Daily, on-the-ground, informal assessments and
observations are critical to instructional decisions. After all, who could know your
students better than the professionals who work with them every day? (Wilhelm, 2007,
p. 50).
Moving Beyond Test-driven and Textbook-driven Curricula 47