Released just ahead of the holidays, you might have missed Fordham’s recent report, The Supplemental-Curriculum Bazaar: Is What's Online Any Good? It sought to answer a simple question: Are materials that teachers find and download off the Internet high quality? (Spoiler Alert: No.)
Concern for the caliber of the curriculum, lessons, and materials teachers put in front of students is surely welcome. Yet the very existence of a vast “supplemental curriculum bazaar” should give us pause, no less than would a “supplemental pharmaceutical bazaar” heavily used by doctors, or a “supplemental surgical instrument bazaar.” Skilled practitioners in any profession who must scour the Internet for the basic tools of their trade should concern us at least as much as quality of what they unearth.
In education, such scouring is so widespread as to constitute a full-fledged curricular crisis. A recent study from the RAND Corporation found that nearly every U.S. teacher—99 percent of elementary teachers; 96 percent in secondary school—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. Among elementary teachers, 94 percent reported using Google to find lessons; 87 percent search Pinterest. The numbers are virtually the same for math.
How did we get to the point where this is standard practice? It’s common for teachers to be told in professional development or by staff administrators and coaches that they are “the best person to know what their students need.” There is a surface plausibility to this bromidic advice if (but only if) we conceive of the goal of education as the development of a suite of content-neutral skills. If the teacher’s job is not to impart a body of knowledge but to develop students’ critical thinking and problem solving abilities, or to teach how to “find the main idea” in a reading passage, then the skill is the curriculum. The subject matter can be left to teacher discretion. It’s negotiable, even irrelevant. Content is a mere delivery mechanism, just a ploy to keep students’ attention while they practice and master a “skill.” Teachers know best what to put in front of them for this purpose because they know what topics interest their students.
Hello, Teachers Pay Teachers!
But cognitive skills are not content neutral; they are “domain specific.” Background knowledge of a topic is the most significant driver of reading comprehension. Neither is it possible to train students to be all-purpose critical thinkers or problem solvers. These modes of thinking are intertwined with content knowledge. This the first and greatest cost of a widespread default to the supplemental materials bazaar: When teachers are encouraged to view every lesson as a one-off, either explicitly or tacitly, curricular coherence is lost. This is how kids end up studying the environment multiple times and the Bill of Rights never: Coherence matters and must be attended to.
An excellent education is not just what gets taught today. It’s the cumulative effect of a coherent, cumulative, thoughtfully sequenced, and knowledge-rich curriculum that broadens and deepens over time, within and across grades. If you look at an impressionist painting from an inch away, you see only colored dots; step back and they blend into a complete picture. The effect is only possible because it’s the work of a single artist. If dozens of painters applied randomly colored dots to a canvas, none aware of what others were doing, no “big picture” can emerge. The same is true of education. If you want broadly competent readers and thinkers, they must be broadly educated. There are no shortcuts.
There has been an emerging enthusiasm for the “Science of Reading” of late and renewed appreciation for content-rich curriculum. Both of these related developments, properly understood, imply the existence of thoughtful and effectively sequenced student experiences that grow broader and deeper over time. This vision is fundamentally incompatible with an approach that treats curriculum as fungible or disconnected, a series of audibles called at the line of scrimmage.
A common complaint among teachers is that they have no choice but to supplement their curriculum (when they have one at all) because their school-provided materials don’t meet their pedagogical needs. But if the materials they choose to supplement with are mediocre and not aligned to standards, as the Fordham report suggests, that doesn’t bolster confidence that teachers are always good judges of curriculum quality in the first place. But it’s an oversimplification to make this assumption.
In a recent blog post, David Steiner, Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, put his finger on the problem, noting that even as American education has access to high-quality curriculum and seems increasingly willing to adopt it, the good stuff mostly stays on the shelf, due to a complex set of competing impulses and priorities—from wildly disparate skill levels in the same classroom to teacher evaluations that valorize “student engagement” over content mastery. “In the United States,” Steiner writes, “we have built a system that not only fails to support the sustained use of demanding curriculum—but actively produces powerful disincentives to its use.”
In the final analysis, the existence of a vast supplemental materials bazaar and our clear dependence upon it sends several troubling signals about our general indifference to curriculum’s central role in learning, lack of attention to coherence and concern for what gets taught, obvious disconnects between what publishers provide and what teachers need, and conflicting demands on teachers’ time and attention that actively conspire against patient, thoughtful attention to knowledge-building over time and across grades. It’s education’s Gordian Knot. It’s hard to know even where to begin to unravel it.