A local elementary school teacher recently showed me the new manual she has been asked to use to teach reading to her students. I flipped it open and found a column of words, followed by these instructions:

These are hard words from your
textbook stories.

Word 1 is heron. Everybody, what word? (Signal.) Heron.
(Repeat this procedure for every word
in the column.)

Let's read the words again.

Word 1. Everybody, what word? (Signal.)
(Repeat this procedure for every word
in the column.)

(Repeat the column until firm.)

I closed the manual, but could not bring myself to look up. I'd heard about this type of "scripted curricula," in which the exact words a teacher must speak are set in bold, but didn't know it had wiggled its way into Santa Fe's schools—or into the classroom of this teacher, a master veteran with over 20 years of inspired teaching under her belt.

In theory, scripted curricula can seem like a good idea. It's lovely to imagine every 9-year-old child in the city learning the word "heron" in the exact same way on the same date. Standardizing instruction with "scripts" that any adult can read means parents no longer have to fret about finding a "good teacher," districts don't have to worry about attracting highly-qualified professionals, and universities don't have to work on improving their teacher education programs.

The scripts can even be painted as a vehicle towards social equity, a way to ensure that poor children will not be shortchanged by incompetent teachers. Indeed, charter schools in poor communities across the country are proving that hustling children through "scripted days" can produce impressive gains on test scores.

But at what cost?

When we allow textbook publishers to script the daily experience of children and teachers in schools, we lose opportunities to teach children about autonomy—how to direct their own learning. As a high school English teacher, I often let the class decide the books we'd read together. Works out better than you might guess: When a class of poor readers thought they'd avoid working hard by choosing the slimmest book I offered—Dostoevsky's super-complex Notes From Underground—they actually ended up loving it. ("Yo," said one of my students about the insane narrator, "this vato's like real.")

Scripted curricula also rob classrooms of two other elements key to learning: spontaneity and surprise. Good teachers plan their lessons, yes, but they also leave room to follow their students' interests and value their previous knowledge. When I read Catcher in the Rye with a class a couple years back, I had planned to teach them the word "lagoon." But when I stopped the reading and asked who knew what a "lagoon" was, everyone raised their hands because they all spoke Spanish at home, and knew the word "lago"—Spanish for "lake." To have them define a word they already knew, and then test them on it, would not only have been bad pedagogy, but plain foolish.

The world is changing, and like all professionals, teachers must explore innovative ways to engage children in reading, as with all academic fields. They need support and time to compare practices with peers, to reflect on their successes and failures, and to research the latest science about how children learn. They also need real autonomy to choose what they teach, when they teach it, and how.

But they don't need scripts. The manual I held in my hands that day was not only a disrespect to the art of literature, but an insult to teacher and children, who deserve so much more.

Of course, teachers are nothing if not resilient. When I finally did raise my eyes to look up at the teacher before me, she shrugged, then pointed her chin towards a bookshelf in the corner, packed full of dog-eared paperbacks.

"That's where they go when the script is over," she said. Then she glanced at her classroom door—shut tight—smiled, and winked.  

Seth Biderman is manager of the Academy for the Love of Learning's Institute for Teachers, committed to revitalizing the lives and practices of teachers. Join the Academy at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, November 7th, for a benefit concert for the Institute of Teachers with musician, author and philanthropist Peter Buffett. More info: aloveoflearning.org.