Analysis

Ruszkowski: In Our 21st Century World, It’s Time to Invest in 21st Century Teaching Materials — & Train Educators to Use Them

By Christopher Ruszkowski | January 6, 2020

When I started teaching 17 years ago, the world was a different place moving at a different pace. People still rented their movies at Blockbuster Video, phones weren’t quite as smart, and we called for a yellow taxi if we needed a lift. Everything was a little slower — including the sharing of content, ideas and data.

Our schools were different places as well: There was only a nebulous connection between K-12 standards and college readiness, there was very little information on how much students were learning, and teachers were left to cobble together their own blend of curriculum and assessments. If you were looking for evidence-based best or promising practices, you might wait years until the next journal or study arrived.

In many areas, we’ve modernized and improved the student experience. I had the privilege of serving as New Mexico’s secretary of education for former governor Susana Martinez. Under her leadership, we moved to more rigorous learning standards and assessments; meaningful, data-informed evaluation for teachers; transparent school accountability systems; expanded use of student data in classrooms; more connectivity between high school and career pathways; and greater opportunities to personalize learning for our kids.

All these innovations were necessary, and when we increased expectations across the education system, students, families and educators rose to the challenge: 10,000 more students performing at grade level in math and 15,000 more performing at grade level in reading. Graduation rates up 10 percentage points. Double the number of students taking advanced placement and dual credit coursework; quintuple the number of children enrolled in pre-K.

Improved teaching practices were at the heart of New Mexico’s success — consistent with the reams of research that illustrate the importance of the teaching craft and its impact on student learning. Teacher quality is still of first importance.

As we look ahead, the quality and relevance of the content that schools and teachers put in front of their students is equally important. Students must prepare for a global economy that looks very different than it did when most curriculum laws were passed. And while there is overwhelming evidence that high-quality, relevant curricula can help teachers do their best work in the classroom, and that teaching practice and student learning can improve when teachers use a textbook rated in the top quartile, many teachers still don’t have access to the most promising materials.

Historically, it was difficult to identify and implement high-quality instructional materials because of antiquated laws; an adherence to unwritten mores about “local control”; an industry that was slow to modernize; procurement cycles of roughly five years; and the lack of a centralized repository of rigorous, standards-aligned and culturally and linguistically responsive materials vetted by experts and teacher-leaders. Laws, regulations, state and local practices, and philanthropic impetus have now begun to evolve. Over the past five years, leaders in legislatures and state agencies, organizations like EdReports and thoughtful advocacy have been chipping away at old habits. Today, there is little rationale for having substandard instructional materials in our schools when so many resources are not only high-quality, not only customizable, but also free of charge.

Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of bold, diverse education leaders with student-focused agendas, issued a statement this year outlining steps that policymakers, curriculum companies and leaders in higher education can take to advance the field. I twice testified in front of the New Mexico Legislature to recommend a significant, responsible increase in funds earmarked for instructional materials. These funds had always been utilized by districts and charter schools for textbooks. When I shared that in a few short years paper textbooks may be obsolete, some lawmakers were surprised at the pace of innovation. The world is changing, I noted, and the old textbooks are no longer good enough. Districts and schools need more flexible funding within these old appropriations. In short, funding that was previously reserved for textbooks may now be best spent on accompanying technology, printing needs and high-quality professional learning around the curricula itself. This assumes, of course, that standards-aligned, evidence-based, rigorous, relevant, high-quality materials have been selected at the state, district or school level — whether it’s books, software, web-based open educational resources or another delivery mechanism that is beyond our current laws and imagination.

In New Mexico, we also strongly believed that teacher-leaders from all 89 districts must help shape the next phase of the work. We trained teacher-leaders to play a central role in reviewing and selecting instructional resources. This teacher-driven approach can make a difference in communities across the country — especially when we stay the course on accountability for student learning. If we do, then greater autonomy, innovation and evidence-based practices will follow. If we don’t, we’ll have innovation for innovation’s sake — and we won’t know what works and what doesn’t.

In our laws and in our practices, it’s time to embrace the possibilities of the 21st century. We may be a little nostalgic about home video stores, phone booths and our old math textbooks, but we now have the tools and knowledge that will better prepare our students. We must modernize our instructional materials for their sake.

Christopher Ruszkowski is a member of Chiefs for Change and former New Mexico secretary of education.

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