This op-ed was originally published by the The 74 Million.
Students learn primarily through their interactions with teachers, whose instructional decisions and behaviors are deeply influenced by the instructional materials they use. Yet, across the country, approximately 70 percent of teachers do not use or have access to high-quality standards-aligned curriculum that can truly help to accelerate learning for all students.
Earlier this year, the National Center for Teacher Residencies and EdReports announced a new partnership to tackle this disparity head-on and fill an unmet need in the field of teacher preparation. The goal of the project is to provide new teachers undergoing a period of supervision in the classroom with support to become savvy consumers and users of high-quality instructional materials, too rare in teacher preparation programs across the country.
Numerous studies have found that materials matter for students and teachers. One showed that improving the quality of curriculum is 40 times more cost-effective than class-size reduction at increasing student achievement. But the move toward adopting better curricular materials continues to face challenges, among them understanding what high-quality, standards-aligned programs are available and how to prepare teachers to use them well.
Despite its critical importance, curriculum literacy — the awareness of what rigorous, grade-level content looks like and the ability to implement it effectively in the classroom — is rarely emphasized in teacher education programs. A joint report released by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Learning First notes that U.S. teacher preparation programs are “agnostic about curriculum” and tend to instill the misconception “that ‘authentic’ teaching occurs only when teachers create their own lessons … placing them in a barely tenable position, where they are forced to cobble together curricula for each class of each day, day after day, with inadequate expertise or support to do so well.”
As a result, teachers spend more than 12 hours per week searching for and creating instructional resources, which can lead to inconsistent quality. Unfortunately, inconsistent quality impacts students of color and those from low-income backgrounds the most.
The combination of limited student access to high-quality materials and limited teacher access to curriculum literacy perpetuates opportunity gaps. This inequity hits high-needs schools hardest, where students are further held back by the twin barriers of underfunding and low expectations.
COVID-19 has magnified these inequities of access and outcomes. Teaching and learning have changed and become more challenging in the pandemic, and particularly for students of color, the need for standards-aligned, grade-level content has never been greater. Sadly, the disruptions of distance learning and schedule changes have led to reduced usage of high-quality instructional materials, and even their abandonment, in some cases.
NCTR and EdReports’ new partnership seeks to elevate the critical role of quality content in the classroom by piloting a program to infuse curriculum literacy into teacher preparation. NCTR has spent over a decade developing a training model for new teachers based originally on the clinical residency approach used in medicine. Meanwhile, as one of the foremost reviewers of instructional materials, EdReports brings expertise in identifying high-quality curricula and helping educators to select them.
In this pilot program, we’re working with three teacher residency programs around the country — Alternative Pathways to Education Certification Program (South Carolina), Kern High Teacher Residency (California) and William Carey University School of Education (Mississippi) — to train their students in the use of high-quality instructional materials via a series of workshops. The workshops will support new teachers in four key aspects of curriculum literacy:
- How to assess the quality and alignment of materials covering subject-specific criteria, such as whether texts used in English language arts are on grade level and appropriately challenging, or math problems are sufficiently rigorous.
- How to prepare for lessons using well-aligned materials, including assessing where and how to incorporate targeted supports for students who need them, such as breaking up lessons into manageable chunks.
- How to leverage materials that are not fully aligned, for example, by judiciously adding elements from of a high-quality curriculum to fill gaps in rigor or lesson structure.
- How to advocate for better-aligned materials, including building trust with key decisionmakers and identifying resources that can best help to make the case.
We’re particularly excited to develop new educators’ curriculum literacy in the dynamic, applied context of the teacher residency model. Residency participants and mentor teachers are in real classrooms working with specific curricula, figuring out how best to teach those materials to the students in front of them.
This is curriculum literacy in action: when teachers analyze and adapt curriculum to meet student needs and build targeted supports to address unfinished learning while still ensuring that all students master grade-level content. The residency model provides fertile ground for new teachers to grow these skills through immersive, sustained practice.
A further benefit of the residency model comes from its focus on teachers entering high-needs schools. Over 90 percent of NCTR’s residency teachers work in Title I schools. One of our top project priorities is to promote high-quality instructional materials as a lever for equity, and the residency context facilitates that.
Once we’ve completed our first round of workshops in the 2020-21 school year, we’ll evaluate the impact of the training on participants’ classroom practice and identify what worked and what didn’t to inform future workshop development.
Through this cycle of implementation and improvement, we hope to see both immediate and long-term gains. In the short term, by enhancing the teaching practice of program participants who are working in classrooms right now; in the long term, by capturing approaches that have the greatest impact, which could then be extended beyond the residency model. NCTR and EdReports will publish a white paper later this spring sharing what was accomplished and making recommendations for next steps.
This is a truly exciting journey for our two organizations to begin together, and we look forward to learning, adjusting our approaches and celebrating breakthroughs as the work continues. We aim to inspire the next generation of educators to see curriculum as not a burden, a constraint or an optional extra, but as an indispensable tool to be implemented with skill and integrity in order to maximize student achievement.
Eric Hirsch is executive director of EdReports. Tabitha Grossman is chief external relations officer for the National Center for Teacher Residencies.