Teachers Are Frustrated by Schools’ Scattershot Approach to Instruction

By Sarah Schwartz — June 06, 2023 3 min read
Conceptual illustration. Unraveling tangled tangle.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teachers often lament that none of the priorities in their school or district seem to fit together.

The professional development they receive isn’t relevant to the content that they have to teach. The assessments they give students periodically and at the end of the year don’t always line up to the curriculum that they use.

This incoherence isn’t just frustrating for teachers, say researchers at the RAND Corporation. It’s a problem for student achievement.

In a webinar today, RAND researchers discussed recent reports analyzing the extent to which all the different parts of instruction, from standards to curriculum to how teachers are evaluated, “convey a clear and consistent vision and direction for educators and students.”

Since the beginning of the standards-based reform movement in the 1990s, advocates and researchers have called for this kind of coherence—making the argument that all pieces of the instructional puzzle need to fit together in order to improve student outcomes. But it’s notoriously difficult for school districts to achieve this goal.

Architects of the standards movement have said in recent years that they should have paid more attention to the textbooks, instructional materials, and teaching methods that schools use. And they’ve argued that states should now start signaling which are high quality and encouraging districts to use them.

Here’s what RAND has learned from its surveys of teachers over the past few years on their perceptions of instructional coherence within their schools.

Teachers take cues from curriculum over PD

In general, teachers said that they receive most of their guidance about instruction from the curriculum they use and the opportunities that they have to collaborate with their colleagues. Professional development, teacher evaluations, and year-end assessments provided less actionable information and feedback, said Elaine Lin Wang, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

There are still huge holes, though. Most teachers said they weren’t getting guidance from any source in supporting traditionally underserved students, including students of color, English learners, and special education students.

In interviews the researchers conducted, one teacher said that English learners are “never the main focus.”

“It’s always an afterthought in every PD that I’ve ever gone to,” the teacher said.

Coherent systems feel more professionally fulfilling, respondents said

In the research interviews, teachers said that they valued knowing what goals they’re supposed to meet, and what roadmap they’re going to use to get there, said Wang.

“System coherence increases their confidence with their work, and it helps them to feel successful,” she said.

By contrast, incoherent systems made teachers feel overwhelmed and discouraged. It prompted some teachers to “check out” and ignore conflicting messages from different sources about what their instructional priorities should be, Wang said. (For more on these findings, see this report.)

States can support more unified systems

When the researchers broke down teacher responses, they found small variations by demographics, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND. For example, teachers in schools where more students were from low-income backgrounds were somewhat more likely to say that their instructional systems were less coherent.

But the larger variations occurred in connection with school priorities, Kaufman said. Teachers who said they had strong instructional leadership, and that school administrators had clear goals, were more likely to also report coherence.

Wang also referenced research that RAND conducted last year, on the effect that states can have on school and district instructional systems. That work focused on the High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network, a group of states organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Teachers in states that were part of this network were more likely than other teachers to report that their district had adopted high-quality resources.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum In Their Own Words Why I Kept Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird When Others Wouldn't
A recently retired English teacher explains why she continued to teach the classic novel after it was challenged in her district.
6 min read
Retired teacher Ann Freemon is pictured in Everett, Wash., on November 24, 2023.
Retired teacher Ann Freemon is pictured in Everett, Wash., on November 24, 2023.
Chona Kasinger for Education Week
Curriculum More States Require Schools to Teach Cursive Writing. Why?
Technological advances notwithstanding, advocates give a long list of reasons for teaching students cursive.
5 min read
Photo of child practicing cursive writing.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Curriculum Computer Science Courses Are on the Rise—But Girls Are Still Half as Likely to Take It
Schools expanded the availability of foundational computer science classes, but stubborn gaps in access to those courses persist.
4 min read
Photograph of diverse group of primary school students using laptops in a bright classroom.
Curriculum Many States Are Limiting How Schools Can Teach About Race. Most Voters Disagree
A majority of polled voters want students to learn about the history of racism and slavery in the United States and its legacy today.
4 min read
The "statue" of Michelle Obama, played by Kaylee Gray, talks to students during Black History Month's wax museum at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2020. Instead of the usual assembly, Chestnut Grove students played the roles of famous black and white people who contributed to the civil rights movement and black people who have made significant contributions to history.
The "statue" of Michelle Obama, played by Kaylee Gray, talks to students during Black History Month's wax museum at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2020.
Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily via AP