The Problem with Curriculum Maps

The term “map” conjures up images of open spaces and daring adventures. At a young age, children sketch out pirate maps in search of treasures that they can barely imagine. At an older age, the map is a chance to blaze a new trail and find a wild destination.

Unfortunately, curriculum maps often don’t work this way. Instead of inspiring new opportunities and allowing for multiple paths, the curriculum map is a rigid ride with a predetermined route that neither the driver nor the passengers get to choose. Often curriculum maps reduce the journey to a set of prescribed tasks and specific deadlines, ignoring the deeply human need for exploration.

According to this process, there is one way, one route and one destination for all students. In this system, the curriculum map isn’t a map so much as an itinerary of rigid timelines along with a standardized instruction manual on how teachers must do it. Students have no voice in where they are going, how fast they are moving and how they will reach their destination.

In my district, the curriculum map breaks down each “power standard” into a set of observable objectives. The district chooses the power standards based upon a testing blueprint spelling out the number of questions that will connect to specific standards. If the curriculum map spells out a specific route, the destination is higher test scores.

In addition to the curriculum map, we also have a pacing guide that tells us exactly how fast we are supposed to move through this predetermined track. The pacing guide ties each objective to specific days, with suggested readings and a weekly test that determines if a student is on track to score well on the quarterly benchmark tests. The result is a universal curriculum, so that a visitor observing the school can see the same standard being taught in every classroom across an entire campus. Phrases like “on track” and “on the same page” imply a metaphor of moving in lockstep with neither a choice nor a voice in the matter.

Students who stray from this map are considered troublemakers who simply lack the “grit” to get through the drudgery of a standardized curriculum. Teachers who stray are considered rebels. Often, these teachers go underground, working as subversive sages quietly getting away with doing the right thing.

This standardized approach begins with good intentions. Schools want to ensure that all students are reading proficiently at each grade level. The standardized tests offer efficient, objective data. A unified approach guarantees that even the worst teachers are sticking to the same approach. However, this system, designed to ensure that all students are learning proficiently, has the opposite effect on students. The singular route of standardization leads to lower skills and lower motivation. 

Better Options:

  • Allowing teachers at the site-based level to create larger thematic units that combine standards to create a map where students actually have some choice
  • Allowing students to have their own maps where they can access the standards they need to work on. Empower them choose the pace and the destination.  If students have already mastered a standard, let them move on instead of waiting for others
  • Giving teachers the standards for the quarter and allowing them to plan out units and lesson based upon the contextual needs of their classrooms



John Spencer

John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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