In a recent blog post I commented on my dismay at the result about teaching in the just-released annual Kappan poll on education. Most American think teachers are born not made; I disagreed. Today I want to comment on what to me was another troublesome finding: the public’s view (presumably held by many teachers) about a required curriculum, and the broader question – vital for all educators to ponder – as to how much freedom should exist, and where, in teaching.

The poll question: Should education policies require teachers to follow a prescribed curriculum so all students can learn the same content, or should education policies give teachers flexibility to teach in ways they think best?

First, a comment on the question itself: apples and oranges, alas. The question is not well framed. The survey conflates the “what” with the “how” of teaching. Content can be mandated while teaching can still vary: the question obscures this important distinction as framed (probably just to be sensible to laypersons). In fact, this distinction probably reflects the norm. I. e. in most districts and even many private schools there is a curriculum framework that obligates all who teach the courses/grades in question, while little is mandated in terms of specific teaching techniques or instructional activities; that is typically left up to teachers. The public’s response – 70% want teachers to have the flexibility – probably reflects a broadly-held view that practitioners (in any field) should be able to exercise judgment about what clients need.

Yet, this result (and the conflated version of the question) begs an important question about just what it means to be a professional. How much freedom to teach a certain way should a professional educator have?

I trust readers agree that professional freedom does not permit one to deviate from the content of the curriculum to ignore specified content goals. Teachers aren’t self-employed entrepreneurs to whom we “rent space in the educational mall” (as one exasperated high school principal once said to me.) There is an organization and it has a Mission; and students have a right to a valid and coherent education over time and across teachers and schools if they move. Indeed, the research is clear and common sense about the virtue of such a mandate. A “guaranteed and viable” curriculum in Marzano’s phrase (summing up all the meta-analysis over the years) is key if you want to ensure that the largest number of students achieve desired outcomes. The success of the Standards movement among rank and file teachers shows that we have come to accept this view.

However, not enough frank discussion has been had in schools about the other issue – the so-called right to teach as one sees fit. Though the 25-year-old rebel in me says “Of course!” and the 61-year-old in me has a negative visceral reaction to scripted teaching programs like Success For All, it is in fact a difficult position to maintain objectively. All learning goals imply that some pedagogies are appropriate and others are not – given the stated goals and given how people learn. You can’t only lecture if you aim to develop critical thinkers; you can’t merely march through textbook exercises in math if you seek to develop great problem solvers; you cannot just tell students what history means if you want them to develop the ability to analyze events and documents themselves. Alas, many teachers and (especially) college professors often rely on instructional methods that are completely incompatible with stated course and program goals. We also needlessly more many students by using ineffective and unvaried approaches. So, I think it is reasonable to ask: can’t we tighten this up professionally? Can’t we be more clear and less loosey-goosey about just what is and isn’t negotiable in instruction, given the stated goals and what they logically demand of the use of class time and the learners’ minds?

Furthermore, in few professions are novices allowed to free-lance. No doctor or electrician can blithely invent basic technique or simply decide not to use by-the-book solutions to diagnoses or problems. In fact, in medical education (as I have since learned from discussing these issues with medical school educators), no intern or resident has the authority to administer any intevention without the sign-off of superiors; and few doctors would deviate from prescribed responses to common ailments unless those prescribed approaches failed to work. Why should teaching be any different?

Why, for example, would we allow a 22-year-old teacher, fresh out of college, to decide on her own (working mostly in isolation, on top of it) what her students need all year as readers in terms of learning activities and assessment? Why wouldn’t we frame core high-quality math units in some detail and only give math teachers the authority to deviate from them if student results and indicators gained via supervision and walk-throughs suggest that they are effective as teachers? More generally, don’t many of us now subscribe to the view that there really is “best practice” to be learned and used when called for, as in the case of medicine? Then, why would we permit as the default action that you are free to ignore best practice and invent your own?

This doesn’t mean that there has to be a rigid inflexible script. Nor does it mean that we take good judgment away from practitioners. On the contrary, as medicine reveals, good judgment best enters when conventional diagnoses and prescriptions fail to work. The curriculum could thus map out in some detail a few excellent options, based on what wise practitioners know is optimal for causing the desired results. Perhaps more importantly, a professional curricular guide would specify in detail a troubleshooting guide: here are signs that things aren’t going optimally, and here are tries and true alternative solutions for addressing the situation. Jay McTighe and I have long argued that all curricula should have a major section on trouble-shooting as part of the document. (See Schooling by Design Chapter 3).

Alas, far too many college professors and many high school teachers hold the misguided notion that their “academic freedom” protects them from any mandates about how to teach. This is nonsense: they conflate intellectual freedom with pedagogical obligation. No teacher, not even a professor with tenure, has the right, for example, to design invalid and capricious exams for which students are not prepared. No professor or teacher has the right to use pedagogical approaches that are unethical or totally inappropriate for the goals of the course. But too few college and high school leaders want to go there. If we want to be a profession it’s time we went there.

Let’s finally have a proper debate, then, in staff and department meetings. Where should there be obligation and where should there be freedom in choice of pedagogy? How much variance should be built into curricula? Where is there a clear set of bona fide “best practices” that must be used and used well if one is to be called a professional educator? What should we do when teachers persist in doing things that are primarily comfortable for them instead of doing what best practice demands?

I am with Winston Churchill. Sometimes our best isn’t good enough: sometimes we have to do what is necessary. And I’m with John Dewey who famously said that education will have finally become a profession when teachers can be successfully sued for malpractice.  I’m with him, and I think that that day is closer than people realize.