Expecting teachers to go it alone hurts school improvement. It’s time to reframe the debate

curriculum-teachersThe myth that good teachers have the Midas touch and therefore don’t need curriculum programs has been around for decades. This myth paints teachers as curricular experts who are best positioned to create instructional plans tailored to particular students. It also reflects the prevalence of low-quality and uninspired textbook series that have dominated the market throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Some packages simply did not have much to offer, while others talked down to teachers, as the oft-used phrase “teacher-proof curriculum” suggests.

The perception that good teachers reject textbooks and design their own curriculum has been a persistent belief of educators over the years. Researchers have long noted unease about using teacher’s guides among many teachers, regardless of whether the curriculum in question was a traditional textbook from the 1980s1, 2 or a more innovative program reflecting the vision outlined in the widely adopted National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards of the 1990s.3, 4

Under the current era of the Common Core State Standards, this myth is playing out in some districts and schools in a different way. Teachers are encouraged to use the new standards as their guide for what to teach and are expected to gather and develop instructional resources to determine how. Curriculum resources of any kind are viewed as unnecessary, redundant to what teachers already do or should be doing.

This myth has great appeal. It is embraced and retold because it treats teachers’ expertise with great reverence. This is its wisdom: teachers are critical curriculum designers and are well positioned to tailor instructional designs to the needs of their particular students. When measured against curriculum materials, teachers win every time. Curriculum programs might be taken up as an impermanent solution during periods of transition, or for inexperienced teachers, but moving away from relying on them is generally viewed as the ultimate goal.

When taken to its logical conclusion, though, the fallacy of this myth quickly emerges: curriculum materials and teachers do not do the same type of work. In short, this myth is based on and promotes an image of teachers as solo performers and of curriculum programs as props or scripts. Although these perceptions appear to honor teachers, they actually work against teaching and school improvement.

Revising this myth requires a careful look at the distinct contributions that well-designed[i] curriculum programs and skilled teachers offer to the enactment of instruction. Doing so can lead to a reframing of the teacher-curriculum relationship as a collaborative or participatory one.5 Through making sense of and planning with curriculum guides, teachers immerse themselves in a partnership with the authors—a partnership to which both members contribute in mutual and complementary ways.

In their work, curriculum authors draw on a “big picture” map of the curriculum and an understanding of how concepts and skills develop over time and in relation to one another. This map is informed by knowledge of content and research on learning. The curriculum development process typically involves rounds of field testing in real classrooms; developers are able to incorporate insights from these trials in their revisions, including knowledge of how students are likely to respond to given tasks.

Teachers, on the other hand, bring to this partnership indispensable knowledge of their particular context and students, their prior knowledge and experiences, and their own learning needs. By drawing on their own experience, expertise, and pedagogical skills, along with local resources when planning with curriculum materials, teachers make adaptations to suit their students’ needs and, when enacting the curriculum, they steer interactions with students through important content.

Rewriting the myth: Good teachers partner with curriculum resources

Recasting this myth involves actively reframing good teaching as partnering with curriculum authors. School leaders can initiate this reframing by encouraging teachers to use curriculum guides as tools and resources in planning instruction and as anchors when enacting lessons. Teachers’ expertise must be seen as essential to curriculum use rather than in conflict with it. Moreover, deliberative, purposeful use of curriculum materials can be recognized as a form of expertise to be fostered.

Strategies for school leaders

  1. Create opportunities for teachers to explore, deliberate about, and work with curriculum resources in collaboration with colleagues. Specific lessons, representations, or instructional approaches in curriculum guides can provide a basis for productive inquiry in a professional learning community.
  2. Consider selecting curriculum materials that are thoughtfully designed and respectful of teachers’ expertise. Curriculum programs vary in the extent to which they engage with teachers as professionals. Materials that are transparent about design rationales and intended learning pathways support reasoned deliberation and customization more than guides that simply prescribe teacher actions.

Excerpt from “Rewriting Myths about Curriculum Materials and Teaching to New Standards” (Chapter 5) by Janine Remillard and Joshua Taton from “Challenging Standards: Navigating Conflict and Building Capacity in the Era of the Common Core” (Rowman & Littlefield). It is reprinted with permission from the authors.


1. Ball, D. L., & Feiman-Nemser, S. (1988). Using textbooks and teachers’ guides: A dilemma for beginning teachers and teacher educators. Curriculum Inquiry, 18(4), 401–423.

2. Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

3. Lloyd, G. M. (1999). Two teachers’ conceptions of a reform-oriented curriculum: Implications for mathematics teacher development. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 2(3), 227–252.

4. Remillard, J. T., & Bryans, M. B. (2004). Teachers’ orientations toward mathematics curriculum materials: Implications for teacher learning. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 35(5), 352–388.

5. Remillard, J. T. (2005). Examining key concepts in research on teachers’ use of mathematics curricula. Review of Educational Research, 75(2), 211-246.

[i] Not all curriculum programs are designed with equal care or expertise. Well-designed materials are based on research findings and undergo rounds of field testing and revision. They assume teachers will make adaptive decisions and provide support for teachers to do so. For guidance on curriculum materials aligned with the Common Core Standards, leaders are encouraged to consult documents on the CCSS website that contains criteria for developing CCSS-based programs.