Despite the burgeoning interest in “high-quality instructional materials” (HQIM) and energetic efforts in recent years to incentivize their use, “evidence is mixed on how much teachers actually use the materials that districts or schools adopt,” note the authors of a new research report from the RAND Corporation. “Teachers actively make decisions about what materials to use and how to use and adapt them. Their decisions reflect a multitude of beliefs and experiences, including teachers’ perceptions of what constitute quality instructional materials,” they write.
There’s no real mystery or surprise here. That “multitude of beliefs” is woven deeply into teacher training and professional practice. “In general, teachers in our study did not regard themselves as implementers of curricula, but as curators, modifiers, or creators of instructional materials,” notes the RAND report. The most common reasons teachers supplement or modify their materials are because they perceive the need to make them more engaging or they view its challenge level as inappropriate for their students.
The study is based on 2020 survey data culled from 1,748 middle and high school teachers and interviews with sixty-one of them. Among them “more than half confirmed that they curated and used a variety of materials for their day-to-day teaching.” When asked to describe the source of those materials, they reported “either using a search engine or visiting their go-to websites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest, and College Board (for Advanced Placement materials).”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Customization is the hallmark of the skilled craftsman. Carpenters “modify” the lumber they purchase with saws, planes, and sandpaper. But when teachers modify their curricula, it’s generally to lower—not raise—the level of challenge and rigor. The carpenter hired to build a four-bedroom Cape Cod house doesn’t decide his customer isn’t ready for that much house and so builds a bungalow instead. But it’s unremarkable for teachers to assume—or to be told—that they are better judges of what students need than curriculum designers.
The RAND report gets at this politely, if obliquely: “Teachers may even use or create different materials altogether if they perceive that the district- or school-provided materials are lacking in characteristics that they believe will engage students and lead to learning. However, supplementing or modifying materials affects teachers’ time usage and could result in discrepant learning opportunities for students,” the authors note.
The second half of that observation—“discrepant learning opportunities”—has been poured over at length in recent years. A 2018 TNTP report titled “The Opportunity Myth,” based on student work samples, demonstrated that students met the requirements of their classroom assignments 71 percent of the time—however, the work assigned to them reflected grade-level academic standards only 17 percent of the time. Predictably, those discrepancies were even more in evidence in classrooms with a majority of students of color. In 40 percent of such classrooms, students never received even a single grade-level assignment, compared to only 12 percent of majority White classrooms where that was the case. The kindly and well-intended advice to teachers to “meet the children where they are” has tended to keep them where they are, reinforcing and even compounding inequities.
But the other half of the observation—the impact on teachers’ time usage—is less well-examined and could be having an even greater and more deleterious effect. The one fixed and immutable variable in a teacher’s day is time. Every hour spent creating, modifying, or “curating” instructional material is an hour not spent studying student work, giving feedback, advancing the teacher’s own mastery of his or her subject, building and enhancing relationships with students and parents, or any number of tasks and activities that surely advance or enhance learning more than assembling the basic curricular tools of her trade. There will always be a place for smart and sensible modifications, but I have observed elsewhere that, if our carpenter was encouraged to act like a teacher, he might start his days not in the lumber yard but in the forest. With a chainsaw.
The RAND team surfaces another critical nuance, too dimly appreciated by those who have pushed “standards-based reform” as a means of raising student achievement. Standards “alignment” is a feature of HQIM, but a limited one. It’s possible to have curriculum, particularly in ELA, that is “aligned” and still crap, with texts that are dull, uninspired, or consisting chiefly of what David Steiner of Johns Hopkins has derided as “bleeding chunks” of literature. “State, district, and school selection of curricula based on standards alignment has only taken us so far. Adopting standards-aligned materials has not necessarily resulted in teachers’ regular use of such materials,” the report concludes. “A narrow focus on standards alignment means that policymakers are at risk of overlooking other dimensions of instructional materials that teachers perceive to be essential and that influence them to use materials.”
That’s right but maybe only half of the story. The culture of teaching makes a virtue of all that creating, curating, and modifying, which takes time away from higher value uses of teacher time. No one judges great artists as less-than because they merely perform plays and music written by others. Perhaps it’s time to cultivate a similar appreciation of teaching, and for teachers to focus on the art of lesson delivery, and not on lesson design.
SOURCE: Elaine Lin Wang et al., “Teachers’ Perceptions of What Makes Instructional Materials Engaging, Appropriately Challenging, and Usable: A Survey and Interview Study,” RAND Corporation (2021).