When I immigrated to the United States as a child, I had many expectations about my new life and school in America. As a high-achieving student in Trinidad, I imagined being able to continue my studies at schools filled with endless activities and resources.
Instead, I was faced with a completely different reality. The disparities at my new school in New Jersey really hit home when I transitioned from a gifted and talented program to general education. Classes were double the size. I went from having teachers and instructional materials that challenged and expected the best of me to teachers who were overwhelmed with the lack of support and curriculum that couldn’t prepare me to make it out of elementary school, much less advance to college or a career.
This experience was a turning point for me. At the age of 12 (yes I was a 12 year old with a career plan!), I decided I was going to become a teacher and teach in the neighborhoods and communities where I was a student. I wanted to show up for kids like myself who have great potential and big dreams and uplift them with the best education I could.
Facing Challenges as a New Teacher
As a proud New Jersey educator, I know what it takes to persevere in a school district even when you don’t have all the resources necessary to succeed. Throughout my career, I faced challenges with accessing high-quality materials and supports. These challenges were not isolated to a single district but were common in multiple schools where I taught.
One of my first real experiences with a lack of quality curriculum came just two weeks into my first year teaching in Jersey City. My co-teacher, who was an experienced veteran, quit. I was now tasked with teaching twice the number of students.
As I began diving into the materials, I remember being concerned that we could work through the whole textbook and still miss key concepts. What was worse, the materials had many errors and focused predominantly on procedural skills and fluency, without much emphasis on conceptual understanding and application.
I could see that having poor materials negatively impacted our students’ confidence in math. Many students would attempt their homework and quickly become discouraged because the “correct answers” in the text were repeatedly wrong.
I reached out to my colleagues for support and realized that most of them were supplementing their class materials from many different sources. No one was using a single comprehensive program because we didn’t have access to that.
I decided that one way I could make a real difference was to take up the charge of advocating for high-quality instructional materials for our school.
Working Together To Make a Change
After a year of collaborating with other teachers and doing my own research, I approached my principal and vice principal about the poor quality of our math materials. Through our conversations, the idea for a curriculum review came together.
The purpose of the review was to find out exactly what was in use in our classrooms and how our materials met the demands of the standards. The whole process took about seven weeks. We went through each textbook, and if we saw a good problem that had a strong example of a standard—a mathematical practice, an aspect of rigor, or a lesson that showed strong coherence—we would flag it.
In the second stage of the process, we took all the pieces of materials we had marked as quality and put them together by standards. These became our materials for the rest of the year.
Right away, we noticed a difference in our students as we began to offer coherent, higher quality materials across the school building. Students were asking more questions. They were curious and eager to tackle math problems and discuss answers with their teachers and their peers.
Still, I would never recommend to any school or teachers to piecemeal a curriculum together. It was hours of work that we committed to because of our specific circumstance. Instead, we should have had access to a comprehensive, standards-aligned program.
Now, more than ever, we should not be asking teachers to spend 7–12 hours of their week searching for or creating their own materials. This is time they need to focus on the individual needs of their students to help each one learn and grow. So while teachers are tough and can persevere through a lot, it’s the responsibility of school leaders to make sure they’re supported with quality, vetted resources necessary to succeed.
Leveling the Playing Field with High-Quality Materials
Having access to high-quality instructional materials and curriculum-based professional learning are two powerful ways to create momentum towards equity in your school district. They can help to:
- Close opportunity gaps. A 2018 study found that when students who started the year off behind grade level were given “more grade-appropriate assignments, stronger instruction, deeper engagement, and higher expectations, the gap between these students and their higher achieving peers began to narrow substantially.”
- Support teachers to use standards-aligned programs well. When teachers are given materials that provide them with grade-level content, quality assessments, and options to provide additional supports for students who need different entry points into learning, it makes a difference in their classroom practice and the instruction students receive.
- Help teachers and schools to engage families and caregivers in meaningful ways to support student learning. As a teacher, I saw how quality materials encouraged parents to be more involved in what students were doing in class. They could follow along, ask probing questions, and be a part of what was happening at school. It was also a way that I could have conversations with caregivers about where my students were excelling and where they might need extra support.
To be clear, high-quality instructional materials alone cannot solve every challenge teachers face. But overlooking its critical role in the classroom will be detrimental to our students. Strong curricula paired with quality professional learning can help level the playing field for students and teachers not only in my home state of New Jersey, but also around the country.