McDougald & Weisskirk: Want All Students to Learn? Make Sure Their Teachers Get Great Content for Their Classrooms

Amid buzzier debates about hot-button issues like school vouchers and discipline, one very important piece of the reform puzzle continues to go largely overlooked. While all agree that every student deserves great teachers, education reformers sometimes fail to stress that every student also deserves great content. What’s taught in the classroom is key.

Teachers know this. Ask seventh-grade teacher Natalie McCutcheon, who told us that “without aligned materials, I’d be wasting time … spinning my wheels. I would not be teaching my students the standards that they need. I would be teaching them something, but not the right standards or the right content. At the end, I would be doing them a disservice.”

Teachers want to provide their students with the best education possible. That’s why they spend up to 12 hours per week searching for or creating materials to ensure that their students get the best content, why they’ve built large communities on Pinterest and through outlets like Teachers Pay Teachers, and why outdated and unaligned textbooks now live under coffee cups and in supply closets.

Now, the research community is providing evidence to underscore the importance of strong curricular resources. Giving teachers high-quality tools and transparent information empowers them to make the best choices for their students — while giving them back precious time they currently spend piecing together resources.

One recent survey conducted by Tom Kane at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research concluded that if all schools adopted more effective textbooks, student achievement effects could exceed “the improvement the typical teacher experiences in their first three years on the job, as they are learning to teach.” A 2016 study conducted by C. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University found that providing middle school math teachers with inquiry-based lesson plans and online support had the same effect on student learning as moving from an average-performing teacher to one at the 80th percentile. And in another recent study from the Brookings Institution evaluating the effect of textbook choices on student achievement, Cory Koedel and Morgan Polikoff concluded that “non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials.”

These studies show that teachers — and their students — deserve and need the highest-quality materials.

For many districts, this means re-examining their programs and reprioritizing the adoption of materials. Investing in quality content has a lasting effect on the district’s instructional initiatives. It impacts the quality and effectiveness of professional development, the allocation of scarce resources, the way teacher teams spend their planning time, and how parents interact with their children’s homework. Taking a close look at what materials are in use — not just what was officially adopted — is a powerful lens into how well districts are setting up schools and teachers for success.

Do the core instructional programs align to standards and support teachers in making the content come alive in the classroom? Are teachers spending their planning time and weekends searching for lessons to fill gaps in existing programs? Are all students guaranteed access to rigorous content that will support them in becoming college and career ready? Freeing up teachers’ schedules by providing high-quality curriculum allows them to allocate time toward activities with far higher value, including reflecting on student work, developing relationships with families, and collaborating with colleagues to ensure students’ needs are being met.

No district willfully makes poor curricular choices, but the reality is that wading through the crowded marketplace of for-profit, nonprofit, and open education resources to find the best match is unrealistic for districts already strapped for time. For most districts, it is not feasible to deeply study the hundreds of titles available. One successful model we’ve seen is to identify priorities such as alignment and differentiation supports, use third-party reviews to winnow the field based on those priorities, and then study this smaller subset of programs in depth through professional learning communities or pilot programs. Adoption committees that engage in this practice gain nuanced insight into options and can strongly recommend those that will meet the needs of their students.

That’s why organizations such as our own review instructional materials to provide much-needed information on the content and quality of available options. At EdReports.org, expert educators from across the country produce free, online reviews of year-long, comprehensive English language arts (ELA) and math materials. These educators spend hundreds of hours gathering evidence and rating materials for alignment to standards, quality of tasks and student assignments, and ease of use in the classroom. At the Fordham Institute, we have conducted reviews of a popular ELA curriculum used in part by a quarter of all ELA teachers nationally and online ELA learning tools intended to supplement curricula. We found that many reflect the instructional shifts called for by Common Core and offer innovative student assessment and data reporting capabilities.

District leaders and teachers have limited time and multiple challenges to tackle in supporting their students to be college and career ready. Scanning the entire curriculum market should not be one of them. The collective work of organizations like EdReports.org and the Fordham Institute is one step toward ensuring that the field has information about high-quality instructional resources. Research tells us what a difference having strong instructional materials can make and how empowering educators with a strong content base is critical to driving student learning. It’s time we all commit to the fact that all students and all teachers deserve access to high-quality content.

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