Lately, I’ve seen a meme that keeps popping up on social media: “Telling a teacher to use a boxed curriculum is like forcing a chef to cook hamburger helper.”
I was tempted to like it at first; it seems catchy and does hint at an issue that teachers face regularly: maintaining autonomy and creativity, while using materials that are aligned to academic standards and include challenging activities and content for students. But the meme boils down (pun intended) to an important topic — aligned instruction and teachers’ access to high-quality materials — into an “either, or” situation. But, of course, it’s actually more complicated than that.
Indeed, the material we teachers use, and the way we deliver it inside classroom walls is critically important to our students learning, and the use of low-quality, uninspired materials is, well, a recipe for disaster.
The RAND Corporation recently published a report titled “Changes in What Teachers Know and Do in the Common Core Era.” Using responses from their annual American Teacher Panel survey, they looked at changes in teacher instruction and materials from 2015-17 to find out whether the materials teachers are using in the classroom are aligned to higher standards.
Some of the highlights may seem surprising, and include:
- Teachers are finding and using more standards aligned content-focused materials from online sources.
- Teacherspayteachers.com and Pinterest are the top two sites “drawn upon regularly” by teachers both math and ELA teachers for “instructional resources.”
- Teachers are not using many published textbooks aligned to the newer standards.
This made me reflect on the materials I use and I began to wonder just how many teachers really felt the need to seek out their own materials. All teachers receive curriculum, but how many of them actually find the materials that accompany it to be aligned, high-quality and useful?
Curious, I reached out to Educators for High Standards’ network of teachers. In addition to Pinterest and Teacherspayteachers.com, they shared that they regularly use resources from Student Achievement Partners on the AchievetheCore.org site, which I was glad to see because they have a huge library of aligned resources and plans. Teachers also mentioned other online resources, such as Newsela, PBS, NASA and Readworks.
The message was loud and clear: just like the teachers in the RAND study, our network of teachers rely more on external sources than their current textbooks and materials. Only 55.5 percent of our teachers think the materials they are provided definitely or somewhat include engaging materials and plans for students. And only 44 percent of them state that a majority of their lessons are developed with aligned resources from the district.
Teachers in our network are experiencing the same trends from the RAND report, and yet at the same time, they expressed how crucial aligned resources are in the instructional process:
Aligned curriculum ensures that there are no continuity gaps, that coherence occurs across grade levels…It also helps reduce the amount of time teachers need to spend researching and creating aligned resources.
One teacher shared that before her district purchased an aligned math series she and her colleagues “had to find our own, or create our own, math resources. This was a tremendous undertaking and required hours and hours of research.”
When teachers are given access to adequate training and aligned resources and curriculum, they are more supported and better equipped to deliver high-quality aligned instruction. They’re able to focus on measuring and reflecting on student performance and building relationships. But, unfortunately, it seems that all too often, teachers are spending time seeking out standards-aligned resources and materials, which is discouraging.
The RAND report shows us that teachers are looking for online resources, which means the materials being adopted in many districts may not be up to par. While RAND’s report indicates that these materials teachers are seeking out are more aligned than in past years, results of this search for materials can often be detrimental to how standards are being implemented and the instruction itself.
But I do have hope. Districts no longer have to buy “hamburger helper” curriculum. There are tools and resources they can use to purchase top-shelf “ingredients” for teachers to work with. Edreports.org is an example. This resource provides free reviews of instructional materials to districts, so they can ensure the textbooks and curriculum they are adopting are high-quality, aligned and what teachers are looking for.
Teachers will and should always bring their own ideas, creativity and lessons into their classrooms. But when districts are lacking the foundational aligned materials teachers need, we begin to look to other resources, which may or may not be truly aligned.
If we want high standards to be implemented faithfully and to ensure students are given the best opportunity to succeed, states and districts need to make sure teachers are given every support possible. Teachers deserve a “buffet” of high-quality materials to choose from so that we aren’t burdened with hunting and foraging for aligned materials on top of everything else we already do.
Only when districts and schools are truly focused on carefully reviewing and selecting high-quality, aligned materials will teachers be able to focus on the art of teaching.
Kari Patrick teaches high school English at STEAM Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. She also serves as Senior Advisor of Teacher Outreach for the Collaborative for Student Success. An original version of this post appeared with Education Post.
Photo by Lead Beyond, CC-Licensed.