The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teacher: A one-size-fits-all approach to instruction is stifling our classrooms


Lily Howard Scott is an educator who first worked with children as a teaching artist, visiting schools in Brooklyn and using playwriting and creative drama to help kids access curricula in unconventional ways. She decided that she wanted to continue  creative, child-driven work in the context of her own classroom, so she earned her masters degree in literacy and childhood education from Bank Street College of Education.

Scott has taught first through fifth grade in New York and California, and currently teaches third grade at PS 321 in Brooklyn. Lily says she believes that the most meaningful learning occurs when teachers design or adapt curricula to meet the needs, strengths, and interests of their students. The current trend of standardized learning, she said, harms students and teachers alike. In this post, she elaborates on this idea, exploring how schools can attract — and retain — great teachers. The answer, she says, “is so intuitive as to seem absurd.” Yet it has eluded many school “reformers.”

By Lily Howard Scott

Everyone has an opinion about what’s wrong with American education. Classrooms are overcrowded. Funding is misallocated. Segregation persists. Politicians, principals, and academics have rancorous debates over how to best fix our schools. On at least one issue, however, everyone agrees: Students deserve great teachers. But how can we attract — let alone retain — them?

One solution to recruiting better teachers, often mentioned but rarely implemented, is to pay them more. That would certainly help. But even with a higher salary, those who would make excellent teachers will never enter the profession — or remain in it — unless schools offer them something else: the freedom to put their judgment and talents to use to help students as best they can. This is so intuitive as to seem absurd.

But, as I’ve experienced as an elementary-school teacher, this freedom is increasingly at risk. The current trend toward standardized learning — scripted curricula and prescribed classroom-management routines — is shackling educators around the country and discouraging talented individuals from joining the field.

In an effort to minimize gaps in teacher quality, some education reformers are pushing a routinized, one-size-fits-all approach to instruction and classroom culture. While this course of action may be preferable to leaving incompetent teachers to their own devices, it’s a disaster in the making for students and for the teaching profession. For students, it means the loss of creative, flexible differentiation — instruction tailored to each child’s social, emotional, and academic needs. For the profession, it means the alienation of talented teachers. Asked to ignore their instincts and faced with an increasingly systematized, deadening job, many of the most effective public- and charter-school educators will desert the field for more rewarding opportunities.

This push for a scripted approach to teaching is most prevalent in schools that are nervous about teacher effectiveness or under great pressure to achieve on high-stakes tests. A more standardized approach, some school leaders think, may lead to better standardized results.

In a number of ostensibly achievement-oriented schools — primarily, but not exclusively, “no-excuses” charter schools — it has become fashionable to train new teachers to manage their classrooms using identical language and procedures. Teachers might be instructed to respond to student misbehavior in the same way (by publicly moving a pin with the child’s name on it from a “good” color to a “less good” color), to tell all students to pay attention in the same way (hands folded on laps in the “sharp” position, eyes “tracking” the teacher), and to express enthusiasm in the same way (though a menu of pre-written cheers).

None of these are necessarily bad ideas. A few students may benefit from the individualized, private support of a color-coded behavior plan. But another student — who, let’s say, thrives on positive reinforcement — may become hysterical when his pin is moved from “good” green to “less good” yellow in front of all of his peers (I’ve seen it happen). Scripted classroom cheers can certainly help spice up lessons, but teachers also need to be able to cultivate joyful classroom cultures in authentic, spontaneous ways — perhaps by moving a poetry lesson to a nearby park on a beautiful day, or by making time for children to teach classmates about subjects they’re passionate about.

And while it’s true that some students listen best while sitting perfectly still, others are actually their most focused while bouncing on a cushion or standing. Insisting that all children sit in the exact same manner only sets the stage for unnecessary reminders that exhaust both the teacher and her students.

I remember redirecting an especially bright first-grader, who, enthralled by a read-aloud, had unclasped his hands and leaned forward. When I reminded him to sit in “sharp” — the school-wide norm — he whispered, “But I’m listening.” He looked hurt and confused: Why didn’t I trust him? What was I afraid of? He seemed to sense that the “sharp” expectation was not only ridiculous, but insulting. He was right. As a first-year teacher with a pit in my stomach, I was at a loss for words. Let down by my silence, the student buried his head in his hands.

Academically, the allure of standardization is especially seductive. If teachers on the same grade level deliver the exact same lesson at the exact same time, quality control seems a bit less daunting. I once overheard a school representative brag that two first-grade classrooms shared lesson plans and would remain, minute-to-minute, at precisely the same point in those lessons. As you can imagine, the educators at this school didn’t wield much agency, and turnover rates were sky-high. I know of another school where an administrator berated a teacher for reading to students from a picture book that wasn’t prescribed by the standardized literacy curriculum. She found a new job quickly. (We now work together at PS 321, a public school in Brooklyn that values teacher autonomy and flexibility).

Ironically, literacy instruction — one of the most complex, creative elements of an elementary-school teacher’s job, for children learn to read in many different ways — has become one of the most inflexible elements of many classrooms. Some schools insist that all educators teach children to read using a one-size-fits-all phonics-based approach. While that approach works well for certain kids (such as those with dyslexia or some English language learners), many children learn to read by recognizing whole words, or chunks of words, rather than isolating each sound.

Any teacher who asks a gifted second grade reader to repeat “a-apple-/a/” daily for nine months — when all that child wants to do is get back to reading “Harry Potter” — is setting the stage for a boredom-induced spitball attack. Just as with classroom-management practices, certain literacy practices work best for certain kids—not all kids. Educators need to be trained and trusted to differentiate reading instruction accordingly.

In schools that are particularly nervous about the Common Core state exams, some teachers are given curriculum workbooks to “teach the standards” to students. The developers of the Common Core knew better than that. They emphasized that the standards aren’t curricula that “dictate how teachers should teach,” but rather a set of academic goals that teachers can reach however they like.

For instance, the first-grade literacy standard RL.1.2: Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson can be taught in many ways within a single classroom. An experienced first-grade teacher might ask a handful of kinesthetic learners to act out the story, a group of visual learners to create a cartoon, and a few auditory learners to pair off and discuss the key ideas with one another. Other children might suggest an entirely new way to explore the story’s key plot elements and theme. These students will leave first grade not only with a strong grasp of the literacy standard, but with the mature understanding that the same knowledge can be accessed in multiple ways.

Moreover, this teacher’s flexible, child-centered approach allows all of her students to feel significant. The children know that their teacher is paying attention to them and that their individual strengths and needs matter to her. Rather than feeling like cogs in a classroom machine — a machine that will chug along in a predictable, steady rhythm regardless of who sits at each desk — these first graders know that their presence shifts the tone of classroom and affects how the year unfolds. Teacher agency begets student agency, and the exhilaration of feeling like a change-maker within one’s own classroom enables children to feel invested in, and excited by, their lives at school.

How can public schools recruit — and retain — more master teachers like the one I described above? For starters, it would help if we didn’t ask talented individuals to teach from pre-packaged curricula that may not effectively support all students. The condescension inherent in the notion that a workbook is superior to an educator’s judgment hits at the root of the problem: how can we trust teachers if we don’t respect what they do?

The concept that teaching is something we can reduce to scripts and playbooks is indicative of our cultural disrespect for the field as a whole. The reality is that teaching is a deeply difficult profession that requires immense preparation. We’d never send a medical student to perform heart surgery with only a few weeks of training, yet we send brand new teachers fresh from college into high-needs classrooms with only a summer of preparation under their belts. Some of these teachers shine, but many feel overwhelmed.

Perhaps some school leaders feel that they have to provide new employees with pre-set classroom-management procedures or one-size-fits-all reading curricula because the teachers simply aren’t ready to differentiate learning, much less manage a class of boisterous students in an individualized, culturally responsive manner. Without a standardized behavior-management system, a new teacher’s classroom might erupt into chaos.

Lack of teacher training and classroom standardization go hand-in-hand. If we started training teachers like doctors, as the Bank Street College of Education leaders Shael Polakow-Suransky, Josh Thomases, and Karen DeMoss advocate we do, administrators might feel more comfortable empowering those new to the field with the autonomy necessary to do their jobs well. A combination of formal training and apprenticeships with master educators would give new teachers the skills and confidence to think for themselves and to respond to their students in varied ways. As the authors suggest, school districts could consider reallocating funding in order to transform teacher preparation.

A veteran teacher recently reminded me that we bring all of ourselves to this wonderfully human, complex job. Leaning into our individuality allows us to follow our instincts, which in turn enable us to connect authentically with students and tailor learning to their needs.

The beloved teacher and psychologist Haim Ginott famously wrote, “I have come to the terrifying realization that I am the decisive element in my classroom.” It’s a daunting but empowering notion: our choices in the classroom matter. Rather than “teacher-proofing” these choices through standardized curricula and language, let’s properly train — and then trust — teachers to think on their feet and to seize upon opportunities to help students feel understood, valued, and challenged.

Of course new teachers will need to be coached and supported, but they won’t need to be given scripts. They’ll be able to jump right into the complicated work of helping children become engaged individuals who believe that they can make a difference in their classrooms and beyond.