This article explores how a school district in Decatur discards the traditional notions of “curriculum” and goes for the student-centered, small-groups, guided instruction approach. Like most such articles and efforts that purport to do away with traditional approaches, the first thing to get attacked is the use of textbooks:

“Your curriculum is based on the learning standards and how you teach, the strategies you use,” Mahoney said. “A textbook is just a resource.”

This is one of those maxims that starts in ed school and persists beyond. It has been repeated often enough over the years that it has now taken on a life of its own and accepted by the education establishment as the absolute truth. And the general unquestioned consensus is that something that’s so organized, sequential, and linear, and contains problems that students have to practice is not something to plan a course around. (Extended discussions of this topic usually end with another maxim: “Research shows” that this is true.)

Which might explain why the textbook industry, faced with the maxim that textbooks are just resources, produce math books with sparse explanations, a sequence of topics that makes little sense, a dearth of word problems of any consequence–or explanations of how to solve them–and problems that do not scaffold or provide much in the way of practice and learning. Key pieces of information that are not discussed in the body of the lesson are hidden in discovery type problems at the end of the problem set, ostensibly for the brighter students to conform to the current fad and practice of individualized and differentiated instruction.

Well, don’t tell anyone but in my eighth grade algebra class, I managed to secure multiple copies of Dolciani’s “Modern Algebra: Structure and Method” published in the 60’s that served many students well over the years despite claims about research on textbooks and traditionally taught math, and what such research shows. And that’s what I use instead of the textbook I’m supposed to use–part of the”Big Ideas” series of math textbooks by Larson and Boswell. The students told me they like the Dolciani books much better and even like the problems. One parent also told me this, having voiced the same concern about the “Big Ideas” textbook that I described above.

But the watchword in classrooms across the country continues to be “individualized” and “differentiated” instruction. This last term appears to be falling out of favor to be replaced by “guided instruction”:

“The idea behind guided math is small groups,” said Teri Cutler, math coordinator for the district. “Research is showing that teaching a whole group, 20 to 30 kids at the same time, is no longer as effective.” Classrooms will have stations, just like they do in guided reading, and students will work independently or in pairs at those stations while the teacher meets with a small group of children who are at similar levels. Every 15 minutes or so, kids switch to a different station. Every student gets independent time on learning activities and time with the teacher for specific instruction.

“The good thing about guided math is, the teacher can group them by ability,” Cutler said. “Some are really struggling and can have that time with only those students at their level. Some are ready to move on to the next level, and can have the chance to excel and move on as well. It’s so much better for students that they can have that time in a small group with the teacher.”

Again, another idea that sounds great. But I’ve been in classrooms where the students work in stations. I was an assistant to teachers in such classrooms and tried to work with the students in each of the groups. There is only so much time that one can spend with a student and frequently I was in the position of having to repeatedly explain to students what they were supposed to do, and provide explicit instruction for those students who weren’t able to discover what they were expected to discover. The idea that students move at their own pace and learn what needs to be learned in such a set-up is a seductive one.

But like most efforts, they are based on the assumption that traditional methods simply do not work–practice is “drill and kill” and mind-numbing, and textbooks are only resources. What isn’t done–in practice and in articles such as these–is to find out what the successful students are doing that’s different than the strugglers. Successful students often get help at home, or outside via tutors, using methods held in disdain by the education establishment. And in fact, parents *are* exhorted to help their students at home, to learn things like math facts and other essentials for which no time is built in to the classroom. Classrooms are the province of the “fun stuff”: the discovery activities that students used to do at home.

Those who don’t have access to such help are at the mercy of ineffective practices that are touted as “the answer”. And of course, if a student doesn’t succeed, there’s all sorts of excuses: The teacher isn’t teaching it right, or the student just isn’t trying, or the parents aren’t teaching their kids the math facts and other essentials at home. That last one is a popular one; along with “there’s no cure for the ravages of poverty.”