A Novel Way to Improve Teacher Prep: Give Teachers Better Curriculum

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 15, 2017 3 min read
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Is a focus on curriculum the missing piece in the preparation of teachers?

That’s the argument made by in a new paper released by Education First, a global education consulting group. It’s part of a project, partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, bringing together teacher-preparation experts from Finland, Brazil, Australia, and the United States.

While the paper focuses on the preparation of U.S. teachers, it also draws on insights from the other countries. (The Gates Foundation also supports Education Week, which retains full editorial control.)

One of the paper’s main insights is that countries like Singapore and Finland tend to base all of their preparation around vetted, high-quality curriculum in a way that the United States and other countries, like Australia, do not.

In those countries, “curriculum explicitly connects teacher preparation to the classroom, and it helps new teachers to learn by providing them with concrete examples of how to teach content and assess student learning against student achievement standards,” the report notes. "... Beginning teachers are rarely expected to develop lessons from scratch, but by the time they enter a classroom, they are well versed in how to evaluate, adapt, and use curriculum materials because they have studied and worked with quality curricular materials throughout their education.”

But in the United States, it notes, teacher preparation tends to be curriculum-agnostic and more abstract.

To the uninitiated, it may seem like plain ol’ common sense to base teacher preparation around high-quality teaching materials. But the nature of the United States’ highly decentralized education system means that teacher-preparation programs prepare teachers who will go on to work in potentially dozens if not hundreds of different school districts.

As a result, they’ve tended to avoid teaching students with a specific curriculum, instead favoring general principles or teaching strategies. So budding teachers typically become familiar with specific curricula only when they’re in student teaching, typically the very last part of their preparation.

The report recommends that those who prepare teachers consider whether their states and districts offer curriculum guides that they can adopt for use in their teaching programs; how they can better help teachers select and recognize good materials from within the extremely diverse marketplace; and explore whether it’s possible to use high-quality sample materials themselves to underpin their training.

Special Report: Navigating New Curriculum Choices

There are a few reason why this argument merits some attention. For one thing, teaching programs have worked for years to improve their offerings, but one of the most pervasive pushes has focused on behaviors and routines—think the Relay Graduate School of Education model of preparation, for instance. (Some such programs are now considering how behaviors and routines fit within specific content areas and curricula.)

For another, as I’ve remarked before, there appears to be a newfound appreciation in the U.S. for curriculum given research showing that high quality curriculum can make a difference for student achievement.

And finally, a snarky aside: How, in all these years of people making entire careers of out promoting the “Finland miracle,” has no one mentioned the fact that the country’s teacher preparation systems don’t require teachers to sort through so much junk when they’re first getting into the classroom?

There are, of course, still challenges to taking this approach in the U.S., not the least of which is the curriculum marketplace in the U.S. is much more vast, and getting larger, and there is so much diversity in what states and districts use.

But there are some bright spots, the report’s authors say: Louisiana and New York both put a focus on curriculum when they were implementing the Common Core State Standards. Due to that, certain curricula in both states have become very popular among teachers, so there it might be possible for a teaching program to select some exemplars. Other states, like Massachusetts, have detailed curriculum guides, which might be a good place to start.

Learning First’s paper is one in a series on teacher prep.

Meanwhile, if you’re in teacher preparation yourself, do tell us about your thoughts on this really interesting argument. And if you’re yourself thinking about the place of good curriculum in teacher preparation, let me know—I’d like to follow up.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.