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How Districts Can Balance Consistency with Teacher Autonomy in Curriculum: The Cookbook Method

Teachers need autonomy. They need space to use their expertise to make lessons that are appropriate for their specific students each academic year.

But a district also needs a systematic guaranteed and viable curriculum; we cannot simply leave it up to luck whether a some students get quality learning experiences and others do not.

The question then becomes: how do we manage this need for both autonomy and consistent quality?

The answer is by using a guaranteed and viable curriculum that provides teachers with basic, quality plans and ideas for implementing lessons, while still giving them the space to tweak those lessons and try out new things as appropriate (Marzano, 2003). In other words, we need to think of a district curriculum not as a script that is handed to teachers for them to read aloud word-for-word to students, but as a recipe book of tried and true recipes, along with ideas and suggestions for how to alter recipes as needed.

Think about it like this. Remember in the days before internet recipe blogs, when we used actual cookbooks? The year I went to college, my mom gave me the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Why that one? Because she knew that it was easy enough that I, a novice cook, could figure it out, that the recipes would come out delicious, and because it had helpful guides like what to do if you didn’t have any eggs for a recipe that needed them (substitute applesauce!).

A district curriculum should be like the Betty Crocker Cookbook. It should be full of engaging lessons, easy for all teachers trained in the subject to implement, with recommendations for how to make changes based on student needs. It should also allow for teachers to add some of their own “flavor.” (Like saying that the walnuts in the brownies are optional, or suggesting adding mint if you’re so inclined.)

What is a guaranteed curriculum?

Marzano (2003) defines a guaranteed curriculum as one that is implemented with all students. In other words, students are guaranteed to participate in the lessons, activities, and assessments suggested by the curriculum. If we think of the curriculum like the Betty Crocker Cookbook, then we can take the idea of “guaranteed” even further: these lessons (recipes) are guaranteed to promote student learning and achievement with the intended learning outcomes. Just like you know you’re going to get darn good brownies from Betty Crocker, you know that any lesson from the curriculum that a teacher implements with fidelity is going to get the job done. Any assessment in the curriculum is going to allow teachers to make valid inferences about students’ understanding of the intended learning outcomes.

In other words, a guaranteed curriculum promises high-quality experiences to all students and teachers.

What is a viable curriculum?

A viable curriculum, according to Marzano (2003), in one that can actually be taught in the amount of time that teachers have and that teachers have the resources they need to implement the curriculum successfully. Just like a cookbook wouldn’t expect that you could cook a 12-pound turkey from scratch in 30 minutes, neither would a curriculum include a project that takes 10 days in a 5-day long unit. The beautiful thing about the Betty Crocker Cookbook, too, is that it uses ingredients that can easily be found in almost any grocery store, and that many households will probably have on hand. Similarly, a district curriculum should not require teachers to purchase supplies or print off reams of paper. There is no point in including lessons for VR goggles in the curriculum if teachers do not have access to VR googles, no matter how cool the lesson would be.

The Role of Professional Development

Once we have a strong guaranteed and viable curriculum, the next step is working closely with teachers on how to individualize the curriculum for their own students. While some teachers are like gourmet chefs and already know what to substitute and what steps can be skipped versus which are crucial, other teachers may need more specific directions (e.g., vinegar can sometimes be substituted for lemons; you can skip the science worksheet but not the science lab).

In Summary

One of the best ways to support teachers and students is through a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Such a curriculum can save leaves from having to invent and test each lesson (or recipe) and ensure that valuable learning experiences are happening in each classroom.


Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as: an elementary school teacher; an instructional coach; a Director of Innovation and Professional Learning; and a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Her legal first name is Kathleen but she only answers to it when her mother is upset with her. She can be reached at

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