I can vividly remember my first few days as a new school administrator. I remember getting in a routine of greeting students as they exited buses and cars and entered the building. I remember the strange feeling when that first bell rang to start school, and I didn’t have a classroom full of students to teach. I remember peeking in classrooms and feeling the satisfaction of seeing students listening to their teachers and working diligently on the tasks assigned to them. What I don’t remember is ever considering that the work students were doing might be misaligned with their grade level.
Over the past few years, I have visited many schools in both my previous role as the director of instructional support at a professional development and curricular support organization and my current position as the chief academic officer of Jackson-Madison County public schools in Tennessee. When approaching these school visits with alignment to grade-level standards as the primary consideration, I have observed that the most common assumption school leaders make is one that doesn’t even occur to many as a topic that merits consideration. It’s an assumption so deeply ingrained in the day-to-day functions of school life that it can be hard to step back far enough to get a clear picture: that teachers have received enough training and resources to craft a full school year’s worth of aligned curriculum for their students.
The prevalence of misaligned materials is not the fault of teachers."
What’s the problem with that assumption, you ask? Unfortunately, most teachers aren’t provided training in curriculum design during their teacher education programs. At least not to the level required to be able to design comprehensive curricula in multiple subjects that coherently articulate concepts, knowledge, and skills from one grade level to the next.
Recent research by TNTP indicates that students spend a shocking amount of time on assignments that do not address grade-level standards. I have seen similar evidence with my own eyes in classrooms. In one district I visited, I saw the same piece of literature being read in a 4th grade class and an 11th grade class.
The prevalence of misaligned materials is not the fault of teachers. They simply aren’t provided the type of training in curriculum design needed to prevent these missteps.
Why does a blind spot this big exist in the field of education? My guess is that it’s because we’ve never known any other way. However, the curricula-review organization EdReports.org provides plenty of reputable information on strong materials.
Most of us who attended traditional teacher education programs were required to prepare quite a few lessons to teach for the purposes of evaluation, but never an entire year’s worth that makes connections from the previous grade and leads to the next. If we were lucky, the schools in which we were placed had an aligned curriculum to guide our efforts. However, most of us were on our own. We stayed up night after night planning lesson after lesson to the best of our abilities.
If teachers are working independently in silos, they can hardly achieve the type of vertical coherence across grades needed to develop mathematical concepts, for example. The same is most likely true for the knowledge building required to bridge reading comprehension gaps.
Another unfortunate aspect of this fractured lesson planning is the lack of efficiency it places on already overworked educators. If a district with 100 3rd grade math teachers doesn’t provide an aligned curriculum, then 100 teachers are left to fend for themselves. There will be 100 3rd grade math teachers planning 100 different variations of 3rd grade math for students in the same schools and in the same district.
What happens if a student moves from one school to the next? What if teachers use different vocabulary to describe math concepts? Just imagine the opportunities for collaboration that could occur if those 100 teachers were working from the same playbook. When you consider this at scale, across districts and states, it is no longer a surprise that our national achievement rates are relatively stagnant.
Raising achievement should at least begin with making sure our students are being taught content that represents the expectations of their grade. Take a look in classrooms at your school. If teachers are being asked to pull everything together on their own, there is likely significant room for improvement when it comes to having greater alignment to your state’s academic standards.
Could teachers plan a demanding, aligned, and coherent curriculum? They certainly can with enough time, training, and resources. However, is it the best use of time for teachers to develop what they are going to teach, or should they spend more time tailoring an already planned and aligned curriculum to their individual students?
One option forces teachers to spend the lion’s share of their time on creating content; the other releases them to think about content in the context of their individual students. I believe that district leadership should provide teachers with strong resources and allow them to utilize their skills and abilities to focus on teaching students, not creating curriculum.
Curriculum adoption isn’t the answer to all of the challenges in education. However, it is a vital part of an equation that can’t be solved without it. One of my colleagues uses an interesting analogy about houses to explain the importance of curriculum in creating an aligned system: You wouldn’t construct a house on an insecure foundation, nor should we try to build our education system without stopping to make sure the footings of aligned content are in place.
Once teachers have a sound curriculum, they can move on to the more challenging components of building their capacity as educators. But it all starts with an honest assessment of the ground on which we are currently standing.
A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as School Leaders: Avoid This Move