The Crayola Curriculum

Published June 1, 2003

After touring hundreds of early-grade classrooms during the designated reading period a few years ago, education writer Mike Schmoker generally found students sitting in small, unsupervised groups, supposedly involved in learning activities. But they weren’t reading.

“Students were not reading, they weren’t writing about what they had read, they weren’t learning the alphabet or its corresponding sounds; they weren’t learning words or sentences or how to read short texts,” he wrote in Education Week.

“They were coloring,” Schmoker continued. “Coloring on a scale unimaginable to us before these classroom tours. The crayons were ever-present. Sometimes, students were cutting or building things out of paper (which they had colored) or just talking quietly while sitting at ‘activity centers’ that were presumably for the purpose of promoting reading and writing skills.”

Schmoker’s observations are echoed by Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, who toured thousands of classrooms in disadvantaged schools. She confessed she and her colleagues were “stunned” that “kids are given more coloring assignments than mathematics and writing assignments.”

The “Crayola Curriculum,” as Schmoker dubbed it, is taking over in high schools, too, according to college English teacher Donna Harrington-Lueker. Last year, she was startled to see a teacher workshop that promoted the teaching of writing by using early grade picture books with high school students. After checking with teachers, browsing professional journals, and looking at online teacher postings, she found high school writing assignments were “long on fun but remarkably short on writing.

“For example, someone who teaches an honors class for high school freshmen posts a short-story project that allows students 13 options, only a handful of which involve actual writing,” she wrote in USA Today. “Among the choices students are offered: create a map to illustrate the story’s setting, make a game to show the story’s theme, put together a collage from magazine photographs, or assemble a scrapbook or photograph album for the character.”

While these projects are fun for students and easy for teachers to grade, notes Harrington-Lueker, “kids are often showing up at college unable to write.”

For more information …

The April 2003 report published by the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution,” is available online at

The November 2002 report published by The Concord Review, “History Research Paper Study,” is available online at

The ACT Inc. news release of April 8, 2003, regarding the survey of high school teachers and college instructors, is available online at

Information about Public Agenda’s surveys is available at

The October 24, 2001 article by Mike Schmoker, “The ‘Crayola Curriculum,'” was published in Education Week and is available online at

The September 16, 2002 op-ed by Donna Harrington-Lueker, “‘Crayola Curriculum’ Takes Over,” was published in USA Today and is available online at