How did public education become so reliant upon programs?

In my travels across the nation supporting schools and districts, it has become apparent that teaching and learning has become “over-programatized.”

There is a “program” for practically everything. Programs, programs, and more programs. Unfortunately and to the detriment of student outcomes, these “programs” do not always allow teachers to teach. These “programs” do not always allow teachers to do that which is in the best interest of children. These “programs” are often built upon false premises about educators’ knowledge of content and pedagogy. These “programs” do not always provide teachers with the resources they need to get children to the proficiency finish line and beyond.

Here are my three epiphanies about the “over-programitization” of teaching and learning.

Epiphany #1: These “programs” do not always allow teachers to that which is in the best interest of children.

To relate this epiphany to you, allow me to take you into an elementary mathematics classroom that I visited in a Northeastern state. Please be advised that this illustration is not meant indict the teacher. I am a teacher. Rather, note that I am sharing what I observed in an attempt to call attention to a pervasive issue facing America’s teachers and school leaders.

So, gripped tightly in the teacher’s hands was a scripted mathematics curricular resource.  She read directly from the script the “teacher words” without inflection and expression. Next, she read the scripted prompt to induce a student response. Not a single student was able to respond to accurately respond to her question. They did not possess conceptual understanding of the mathematical concept under study and not a single student was conversant in the academic language of the concept under study.

Wait! What did the script “tell” the teacher to do when this happens?

She flipped the pages of the script in a frightened and flustered fashion only to discover that there was nothing in the “script” to address students’ lack of conceptual understanding. She panicked! And instead of serving the needs of children, she did what teachers do when they succumb to “over-programitization.” She read the next line in the script that she had been told repeatedly (by teacher leaders and administrators) to follow with fidelity. In fact, she verbalized the tension between the script and that which was in the best interest of students with these words to students, “Class, I can’t go off script, I have to follow the script.” So instead of doing that which was in the best interest of students, by taking advantage of an old-fashion teachable moment, the teacher was boxed in by compliance. This tension between fidelity to programs is impacting our teachers’ ability to fills gaps that so many children have that prevent them from meeting and exceeding developmental expectations. This issue cannot persist. Too much is at stake.

Epiphany #2: These programs are often built upon false premises about educators’ knowledge of content and pedagogy.

One simply cannot transfer that which one does not possess. Getting children to the proficiency finish line and beyond requires that teachers and school leaders posses deep understanding of content; that they possess a command of concepts and ideas embedded in the content standards; and hold tight to tried and true approaches to planning and delivering needs-based instruction and formative assessment.

In far too many districts, there is a debilitating phenomenon at work that is intertwined with a content and pedagogy imperative. Suspend disbelief for a moment and go with me on this one. Though we live and lead in the age of differentiation and individualized learning, there is a cog in the wheel of the same.

It’s simple, many educators have misunderstood differentiation and have consequently made a bad name for it. The lynchpin of differentiation and meeting the individual needs of students is expert level knowledge of the content and expert level ability to build a bridge to provide access to striving learners all while challenging and stretching proficient and advanced learners. A “program” alone cannot differentiate, only a teacher with deep knowledge of the content, equipped with a tool-kit of strategies for delivering the content to students who represent diverse learning preferences simultaneously can truly differentiate.

Programs that fail to consider the content knowledge and pedagogical prowess of its front-end users are programs built on sinking sand.  The conditions necessary to support intense, parallel pathways of learning for all ability levels must be built into curricular resources that procure and promote.

 Epiphany 3: These “programs” do not always provide teachers with the resources they need to get children to the proficiency finish line and beyond.

There is a litany of “programs” for this and for that available to schools and districts. Unfortunately, teachers are introduced to new programs each year through an assembly line approach to adult learning. That’s mistake number one.

We must give teachers, those who are closest to the work of teaching and learning, adequate time and space to consume new learning, to digest it, to question the program, to identify gaps in the program, and to consider their students’ response to the program given their sometimes complex and unique needs before requiring teachers to make use of it to serve children. As a former, school and district-level leader, my litmus test for the goodness of a “program” always included a tripartite analysis. We judiciously analyzed: (1) the alignment of the resources with grade level content standards; (2) its approach to building academic language (no matter the content area); and (3) the extent to which teachers on my team would have to search for resources to supplement the “program.” If teachers have to spend their time looking for resources to teach a program, why do we need the program?

In closing, there is nothing wrong with a “program,” as long as it is a “program of study.” What places a program in the top tier and qualifies it as a program of study? In its fabric the following is insisted upon by its architects:

  •  it allows for student-driven opportunities for teachers to do that which is in the best interest of children;
  •  it acknowledges and responds to the fact that all educator to not have the same content and pedagogy foundations or philosophies;
  • and  it insists upon respecting teachers’ limited time and capacity for searching for resources they need to challenge every child.

If your program, fails to meet each the three aforementioned criteria, it might be just another program.

For more about my ideas, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement –Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website:

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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