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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

Special Topic / Scripted Curriculum: Scourge or Salvation?

Good teaching can embrace both scripted curriculums and teacher autonomy.

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As both an education policy researcher and a veteran classroom teacher, I often find myself in meetings in which teacher autonomy is either dismissed as an undeserved freedom for teachers or celebrated as the hallmark of true professionalism. I hear the same polarization on the issue of scripted curricular programs. They are either promoted as the salvation of "a nation at risk" or disparaged as a scourge blighting the souls of teachers and students from coast to coast. Rarely have I heard the same speaker champion the virtues of both teacher discretion in instructional methodology and well-researched—and yes, sometimes scripted—curricular programs.
On my 30-year journey from thoughtful novice to master teacher, however, I have come to understand that neither the teacher-autonomy nor the precision-scripting fan club has a monopoly on absolute truth—each has a legitimate role to play in educating students. A scripted curriculum might prove helpful for a teacher in the apprenticeship years, but its script may well hold less sway once that educator has grown into a master teacher.

A "Look-Say" Poster Child Tries Phonics

In the mid-1970s, I became a K–12 teacher. Early in my career, I was hired to teach 1st grade. Two weeks before the start of the school year, my principal ushered me to my classroom, which was stripped bare but for desks and chairs. He told me I should use two reading programs: either Distar Reading or an approach centered on the basal reader Ginn 360, which included daily lessons tied to the basal's stories. The principal told me that Distar should be used for children who needed more structure and the basal for children who could probably learn with less. As a condition of accepting the job, I had to attend a two-day training session on Distar. Eager to teach, I readily agreed.
The training program was somewhat inscrutable to me. At the time, Distar, now called Reading Mastery, was a scripted program that relied on phonics for teaching beginning readers. I had never learned phonics as a child, and my master's program never taught me how to use phonics for teaching reading. The Distar program taught a method of blending the sounds made by letters and letter combinations so that they actually sounded like words rather than a succession of staccato phonemes. I practiced on my husband each night at our dinner table, using the prescribed hand and word signals as well as the approved pronunciations for the individual sounds. We made quite a sight.
My class of 26 contained mostly students new to the school. Parents in the know had made sure their children were not placed in my 1st grade class because I was an unknown quantity. About one-fourth of my students spoke English as a second language, with varying degrees of accomplishment. No teacher aides, reading teachers, special educators, or English as a second language teachers were available to help a classroom teacher in those days: My students and I were on our own.
I dutifully placed my students in either the basal reading program or Distar. Using these programs was nothing short of a revelation for me, an avid reader who knew virtually nothing of how words were formed by combinations of letters. I had been one of those instant 1st grade readers with a powerful visual memory. I could have been the poster child for the "look-say" method popular in the 1950s. Along with my students, I learned the rules of the English language, such as how the letters e or i can make a c or a g make their soft sounds, as in the words cityandgentle.
My students thrived. With the help of teaching colleagues, I devised daily writing lessons that built on what the children were learning in the reading programs. We created what I called the "four box paper," on which students created four original sentences and illustrations using words they had learned in their reading group, so that each day each learner had four writing assignments tailored to that student's instructional level. The assignments were tied to the skills, principles, or ideas taught in the different groups.
These papers were jumping-off points for my new writers' efforts. They evolved in complexity and rigor throughout the year as the students' reading abilities blossomed. Students just mastering the basics of literacy might write four words that began withqu; I might give more advanced students a two-word combination like "is + not" with the assignment to create a contraction and then use that contraction in questions and answers.
By the end of the year, all 26 of my students tested "on level" or better on the Stanford Achievement Test for reading; 12 of my students topped out at reading on the 6th grade level. I could hardly believe that all of us, newcomers to this complicated endeavor of teaching and learning to read, had done so well. The truth is that I owed this success to the reading programs the school mandated.
Throughout my three decades in the classroom, education trends came and went. Basal reading programs were booted out, as were choreographed programs like Distar and direct instruction. Whole language became the rage, and learning to read through literature and poetry became de rigueur.
Throughout the waves of education fashion, I cultivated my understanding of teaching and learning through rich experiences with many learners and a cohort of bright, committed colleagues. My fellow teachers and I hashed out problems and devised ways of reaching students for whom pat answers rarely worked.
Over the years, I adapted my use of Distar. I used as few as 20 of the program's 160 lessons to guide 1st graders who needed to work solely on blending sounds. With my weakest students, however, I used every lesson in the Distar program, supplementing it with books at their reading level. This helped them develop the skills to become successful readers and gave them enough confidence to attempt to read signs, books, poems, and magazines. I rarely provided Distar lessons to students who came into 1st grade as beginning readers; they jumped right into reading literature. Every year, I found that the vast majority of my students learned to read and write, meeting and exceeding district and state benchmarks.
I drew on both my growing knowledge of how children learn and the best elements of the curricular approaches mandated throughout the years. If my school's administration discarded a program or method, I kept using the effective aspects of that program or approach. Thus, as I neared 30 years in the classroom, I continued to use the sound and blending techniques of Distar but also incorporated the daily use of poetry and minilessons in writing I gleaned from the whole-language era.
In the mathematics arena, I discovered one key aspect of the Everyday Mathematics program—its method for teaching how to tell time—to be effective. I made this element of Everyday Math and techniques and materials from other packaged programs part of my personalized teacher tool kit.

Beyond a Doctrinaire Stance

When I hear commentators and policy analysts bemoan the mandated use of scripted curriculums—particularly by beginning teachers—I think what I would have missed had I not been obliged to learn the Distar techniques. Ultimately, I determined which students needed those techniques and for how long. But I relied on the research done by others who developed the programs to know the optimal sequence in which I should introduce the sounds and the ideal number of times I should repeat activities to engender the highest possible learning and retention.
I earned professional autonomy over time by demonstrating that I would use it to my students' advantage. By the end of my long career in the classroom, I could diagnose my students' learning styles and teach each student in the most appropriate way. Although I drew on scripted programs for some, I would not think of using them for others. And because my students routinely learned to read, write, and perform math with great success, principals with whom I worked gave me the decision-making freedom I needed.
Any stance that characterizes scripted curriculums and teacher professionalism as mutually exclusive strikes me as doctrinaire. Successful teaching and learning is a complicated, thrilling endeavor in which there is no one right path to success. This dynamic adventure deserves better than being held hostage to ideology.

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