Practice what you teach

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Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

Note the italics, which are Weiner’s and Pimental’s, not mine. It underscores that regardless of how unremarkable this may sound to lay readers (“Wait. Teachers should be expert at teaching their curriculum? Aren’t they already!?”), what the duo are suggesting is something new, even revolutionary. Sadly, it is.

Practice What You Teach begins with a discussion of research demonstrating the frustrating state of teacher “PD,” which, like the sitcom Seinfeld, is a show about nothing. Next, they discuss curriculum materials, which “have a profound effect on what happens in classrooms and on how much students learn.” When average teachers use excellent materials, Weiner and Pimental note, “student learning results improve significantly.” The general disregard for curriculum as a means to improve teacher effectiveness and student outcomes is reflected in the observation that “many teachers do not have access to strong, standards-aligned curriculum; in fact, most teachers spend hours every week searching for materials that haven’t been vetted and aren’t connected to ongoing, professional learning activities in their schools.”

This is a state of affairs that would be a national scandal if an analogous situation existed in healthcare or any other critical public service (Help Wanted: Firemen. Bring your own hose). Many school districts have nothing that would meet a reasonable definition for a curriculum. Local “scope and sequence” documents are suggestions; the subjects they list may or may not be taught. When USC professor Morgan Polikoff wanted school-level data on what textbooks were in use in several states, he had to file hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out. The issue wasn’t secrecy. States and districts seem to think it’s just not worth keeping track of.

For schools, districts, and CMOs ready to jump aboard the instructional materials bandwagon (c’mon up, there’s plenty of room), Weiner and Pimental offer case studies from Louisiana, the District of Columbia, and a teacher-led initiative in West Virginia documenting how thoughtfully vetted instructional materials can form the foundation of professional learning at the state, district, or local level. In each case, the authors note the goal is not merely “orientation” to new curriculum materials but “a vision of fully integrating chosen curriculum into ongoing, job-embedded professional learning.” Having personally spent some time in Louisiana recently studying the curriculum-based reforms engineered under state superintendent John White gives me confidence that Weiner and Pimental have done an equally fine job reporting on the Washington, D.C., and West Virginia case studies. Ultimately a theme emerges: “Professional learning cannot live up to its potential unless it’s rooted in the content teachers teach in their classrooms,” Weiner and Pimental conclude. “Similarly, the resulting professional learning won’t be excellent unless the underlying instructional materials are excellent.”

A reader’s initial reaction to all this might be, “well, this all sounds obvious. Why isn’t this already happening?” There are myriad reasons why we have failed to put curriculum at the heart of not just teacher training and PD, but professional practice at large, as well as research and reform efforts, which Practice What You Teach, for all its strengths, mostly elides. We have a long tradition of local control in this country, which tends to make curriculum a third rail. Witness the Sturm und Drang over Common Core, which isn’t a curriculum at all, but merely curriculum standards. We also tend to valorize teacher autonomy to a fault. In a recent paper on Louisiana’s curriculum reforms, Ashley Berner of Johns Hopkins described how schools of education “turned from academic subject mastery to developmental psychology as the foundational resource for teacher preparation” a century ago. This relegated curriculum to a thing not just beneath the notice of teachers, but beneath their dignity. We are encouraged to “teach the child, not the lesson” and other empty platitudes: Education is not the filling of a pail, it’s the lighting of a fire. Students won’t care what you know until they know that you care. Ad infinitum.

The standards movement has been a mixed blessing, too. Many educators will rise to the challenge of higher standards, choosing instructional materials that raise rigor. In less expert hands, the language of standards merely reinforces the content-agnostic, skills-driven vision of schooling drummed into teachers in ed school. “Determine central ideas or themes of a text?” Which text? Which books and works of literature should we use? Doesn’t it matter?

What part of “teach the child, not the lesson” do you not understand?

All of this is a long way of saying that while the emerging appreciation of curriculum as a critical lever for improving practice and outcomes is long overdue and gratefully welcome, there remain significant hurdles to be cleared before the sensible recommendations offered by Weiner and Pimental become standard practice. It will require nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the role of the teacher—not as an instructional designer, but expert instructional deliverer. In theory, this should not be controversial. It does not diminish our appreciation of the actor’s talent that he performs Hamlet but didn’t write it. No one expects their doctor to repair to the lab every night to prepare pharmaceutical compounds on the theory that she alone knows what her patients need. The master carpenter begins his day in the lumber yard, not in the forest.

We flatter teachers’ professionalism by telling them they alone can best determine what will engage and enlighten the children before them, but the price of that flattery is that we make their jobs impossible to do effectively, forcing them to spend fruitless hours on Google and Pinterest hoping to find materials that a well-run and coherent system would provide to them—along with training on how to implement it effectively. Add Weiner and Pimental to the small but bracing chorus of voices aiming to rescue teachers from this impossible situation—and students from its well-intended but deleterious effects. 

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.