Having spent the last week thinking a lot about teacher preparation, I’d like to share a few more thoughts on teaching, teacher preparation, and student achievement. In the last two posts, we’ve seen that far too many teacher preparation programs eschew preparation and that, instead, there’s an emphasis on social-justice activism, which often results in academic programs that try to build character while ignoring the social-justice lessons embedded in many great works of literature.
So the typical new teacher is minimally prepared, yet feels responsible for ameliorating the ills of society. On top of that, few administrators, leaders, or reformers offer any meaningful support.
We really are waiting for Superman (and using the dedicated, non-superhero teachers as scapegoats).
Most who care about education seem to agree that, while many of our schools are doing great things, many are not. Yet we skirt around the one lever for improvement that has shown the greatest potential: curriculum.
In a policy paper last year, two Brookings scholars, Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, argued that we ought to be paying far more attention to curriculum:
Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.
There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. But whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.
Administrators are prevented from making better choices of instructional materials by the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the materials currently in use. For example, the vast majority of elementary school mathematics curricula examined by the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse either have no studies of their effectiveness or have no studies that meet reasonable standards of evidence.
The two problems noted—ignoring curriculum and not having adequate studies of curriculum—go together. Since curriculum is not a policy priority, it is very hard to win grant money to study curriculum. The Core Knowledge Foundation, for example, has some evidence of the student achievement increasing with high-quality implementation of the Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts—but we are not satisfied with the amount of research we currently have. (Calling all researchers, doctoral students, and grant makers: We would welcome additional studies!) Core Knowledge materials are based on an extremely strong research foundation from cognitive science showing that reading comprehension, critical thinking, and other important abilities rely heavily on having relevant knowledge stored in memory. Still, we would love to have an even stronger set of classroom-based studies comparing Core Knowledge with other programs.
Let’s briefly imagine a new educational universe in which we did put time and money into studying curricula and could say with confidence that programs A, B, and C are more effective than programs X, Y, and Z. Then we could take a crucial step toward excellence and equity: We could build educational systems around effective programs.
School districts could select a specific program (or more than one, assuming they did not overlap or interfere with each other) and have more intensive, targeted professional development. Students that changed schools (at least within the district) would not fall so far behind academically because their academic program would not change dramatically with each school change.
Best of all, teacher preparation programs could offer minors in the most-effective curricula. So, an aspiring elementary-grades teacher could, for example, major in elementary education and minor in Core Knowledge Language Arts. An aspiring 8th grade science teacher could major in secondary science and minor in the Core Knowledge Sequence with a specialization in how the Sequence enables teachers to make cross-curricular connections.
Contrast this with typical preparation, in which, as University of Michigan education professor David Cohen puts it, aspiring teachers learn to teach nothing in particular:
Absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects.
If teacher preparation were largely devoted to the content teachers will be teaching, then there would be time to address not only content knowledge, but pedagogical content knowledge. Pedagogical content knowledge is about knowing the most effective methods for teaching the particular content students must master. It is a relatively young concept, but it appears powerful. So far, what seems most important is being able to predict and correct students’ misconceptions.
A recent study of middle schools science teachers provides a good example:
The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, targeted middle school physical science. The researchers enlisted 181 teachers to administer a multiple-choice test of student knowledge of science concepts. Twelve of the 20 items were designed to have a “particularly wrong answer corresponding to a commonly held misconception,” explained Philip Sadler, the lead author and a senior lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian center.
The “unusual” part of the study, he said, was that teachers also took the test, and were asked to identify both the correct answer and the one students were most often likely to incorrectly select. Although the teachers overall did “quite well” at selecting the correct answer, the results were more mixed in predicting students’ incorrect response.
“Teacher knowledge was predictive of higher student gains. No surprise there,” Sadler explained in an email. “However, for more difficult concepts where many students had a misconception, only teachers who knew the science and the common misconceptions have large student gains.” What’s key, he said, is knowing “what was going on in their students’ heads.”
Over time, many teachers do see patterns in students’ questions and errors, and eventually figure out which misconceptions are common and how to prevent or correct prevent them. If the whole educational field would take curriculum more seriously, studies could be done to rapidly accumulate such knowledge.
Ultimately, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap, which has its roots in an opportunity-to-learn gap. For students and teachers, we could close the opportunity gap by figuring out which curricula are most effective, conducting ongoing studies to increase effectiveness, and making the best curricula the foundation for teacher preparation.
We don’t have to wait for Superman. We can make teaching a profession that “regular” teachers (i.e., many of our country’s most dedicated, caring people) can succeed in. The nation’s teachers don’t deserve blame; they deserve support. Let’s start with developing better curricula and training.