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Curmudgucation: Curriculum as the Next Reformy Frontier

Just stay with me for a minute.

The right-tilted Hoover Institute has a publication out for the fortieth anniversary of A Nation At Risk, the Reagan-era hit job on public education, a collection of essays by various members of the reformster world. Some of these are not very enticing (Eric Hanushek on Fixing Schools Through Finance, or Cami Anderson on Lessons from Newark), but there's at least one that's worth a look. 

Robert Pondiscio's contribution is The Case For Curriculum (reprinted in slightly more readable form here), and it's a thoughtful look at his perennial point . And if it seems like I just wrote about this stuff, it's because I did, but it's a discussion worth continuing. 

Pondiscio opens with a sort of recap of ed reform so far, admitting that "the structural reform theory of change has underperformed" and that while they've logged some successes, "if the classic ed reform playbook of higher academic standards, high-stakes testing, and muscular accountability was going to bear fruit, drive watershed improvement in student outcomes, or appreciably narrow racial achievement gaps, we’d have clear evidence of it by now." 

Worse, as the education reform movement evolved from the do-gooder earnestness of its early days to a punitive technocratic regime, it overspent its moral capital and contributed to unmistakable reform fatigue. This led a significant number of public education stakeholders — parents, teachers, and taxpayers—to regard its policies and practices with skepticism, even cynicism, particularly as education spending continued to rise while student achievement stagnated and even declined.

The lingering effects of COVID-related disruptions have shifted much of the attention in US education away from long-running debates over testing and accountability to more urgent discussions about learning loss, student mental health issues, and declining school attendance. It seems unlikely that the bipartisan ed reform coalition whose agenda dominated America’s K–12 agenda in the first decades of the twenty-first century will be returning to prominence anytime soon, if ever. The appetite for reform has waned considerably. The movement is what advertising and marketing professionals call a tainted brand. Indeed, ed reform “is now considered to be a loaded term that is no longer spoken in polite company,” former Massachusetts secretary of education James Peyser recently observed, “without risking a heated argument or losing the friendship of former allies.”

Then he's on to the point he's made before. Given the number of human beings needed to fill teaching positions, the likelihood is that not all of them, maybe not even most of them, are going to be teaching superstars. And that, he argues, requires a different approach to ed reform.

If teacher capacity is unlikely to change, then what must change is the teacher’s job. If the education reform movement is to regain its momentum and moral authority, becoming not merely a disruptive force but an effective one, it must reinvent itself as a practice-based movement that is clear-eyed and candid about human capital and system capacity, committed not to transforming the teacher workforce but to making teaching doable by the existing workforce and those likely to enter the profession in the future.

Pondiscio knows this is a tall order, and he takes a few paragraphs to point out what teachers already know: Teach a few years, and you will live through several Hot New Ideas that will Fix Everything, and teach many years and you live through having old ideas covered with a fresh coat of paint and presented as the Hot New Idea. And as a bonus, these will be pitched to you, a working professional, by people who, as one teacher put it, "have never darkened the doors of our classroom."

Curriculum, he argues, is the lever to grab. He suggests that at least part of the long-puzzled mystery of why some teachers are more effective than other is curriculum. And he acknowledges the point that many teachers would make--

In theory, curating, customizing, or creating lessons from scratch allows teachers to tailor their instruction to meet the specific needs, interests, and abilities of their students. By designing their own curriculum, either in whole or in part, teachers can ostensibly adapt and differentiate class content, instructional methods, and assessments, resulting in a more personalized and engaging learning experience for students.

The next part of his argument is that this approach hasn't borne much evidential fruit, and he uses some research like the plate of baloney that is TNTP's Opportunity Myth to make the point that many teachers aren't self-building curriculum very well. We may disagree on the extent and quality of this issue, but it doesn't really matter, because it doesn't change the underlying idea. Regardless of the teacher, having good curriculum and instruction materials is better.

In my 39 years, there were times when we had a great textbook series with excellent materials, and times when we had terrible textbooks with lousy materials. The bad stuff threw more of the work onto me, which meant more of my time and effort was spent on building my own stuff. Likewise, later in my career, being faced with a particular teaching challenge would lead to "I have just the thing for this over in my filing cabinet" instead of "Okay, I can carve out a few hours tonight to find something for this." And I don't even want to talk about mentoring a new teacher who thought that googling a state standard and a topic was lesson planning.

So let's go ahead and stipulate that good, high-quality curriculum and instruction materials are better than bad ones, or none. 

Identifying high quality instructional materials is, of course, a huge huge huge challenge. EdReports, launched as "Consumer Reports for the Common Core," is often mentioned, but their process is still about whether or not the material is aligned with The Standards, which is meaningless because A) their no research base to tell us that the Standards are high quality and B) just because materials are aligned to the standards, that doesn't mean they're good teaching materials. One can absolutely teach the right materials badly and ineffectively. 

Pondiscio quotes Marcy Stein, an education professor, saying that of course, even if teachers had the training to do instructional design, "they would likely not have the time to prepare instructional materials, field test those materials to determine if they are effective, and modify the materials before using them to teach students." Well, first, I've seen a lot of instructional materials in my life that you will never, ever convince me were ever field tested anywhere. But even if they were, I have no reason to assume they were field tested on a batch of students like the one I face. Teachers do their field testing and implementation in the field; this is a piece of instructional design that isn't always discussed, the instructional redesign you do based on instant in-the-moment reaction to what is happening in your room. 

But again, it doesn't matter whether we agree about this or not, because better instructional materials are a good thing.

Pondiscio makes sure to dispel one concern that these conversations always raise-- he is not advocating for a scripted teacher-proof program in a box:

Readers might be tempted to see in between the lines of the preceding quotation an argument for the elimination of teacher autonomy or even a case for “McSchool,” a basic education deliverable by teachers of minimal competence and cognition who must be spoon-fed a scripted curriculum. Having anticipated this argument, let me put it to rest. An idea that is common to teacher training and professional development is that there should be a “why” behind everything a teacher does in the classroom, from classroom management to instructional decisions. The same principle applies here: the point is not for school districts to adopt a curriculum and for teachers to deliver it robotically. Well-prepared teachers should acquire through their training and professional development a sophisticated understanding of their subject matter and pedagogy and have it operationalized for them in the form of a curriculum or program.

Pondiscio calls for efforts to improve school performance to focus on instructional reform. He offers four key insights to keep in mind while making the attempt. First, rather than trying to turn the teacher pool into a land of superhumans, teaching must be "doable by women and men of ordinary talents and sentience." Second, it's easier and cheaper to change curricula than change teachers. Third

The soul of effective teaching is studying student work, giving effective feedback, and developing relationships with students. Teacher time spent on curating and customizing lessons, however valuable, takes time away from these more impactful uses of teacher time.

Fourth, because education is a public thing, policymakers can work for accountability, but "improvements at scale will not be wrested from rewards and punishments, nor from other 'structural' reforms."

Okay, what can I add?

First, let's acknowledge that this is a useful shift from the old classic reformster idea that education will be saved by rooting out all the Bad Teachers (located by checking Big Standardized Test scores) and replacing them (how and from where was always a weakness in this theory).

Second, I'll acknowledge once again that all policies focused on high quality instructional materials and a solid batch of content will always and forever involve spirited debate about what that should include. And that debate will never end, because the world keeps changing and because it's a subject that requires debate. And that's okay and doesn't have to a be problem as long as we accept that intelligent people of good intent will differ and debate will happen and a single correct answer will never be found--and that's okay. Not even just okay, but a feature of how people interact with knowledge and the world.

Finally, I think Pondiscio's essay has a huge gap, because while high quality instructional materials may be a policy issue, they are first and foremost a marketplace issue. Maybe even several marketplace issues, major and minor.

For instance, Pondiscio touches on the challenge of professional development related to curricular and instructional materials. It's not enough to get that Great New Stuff-- the staff has to learn how to use it. But who frequently does the PD? Someone from the publisher's sales staff. Someone who has not been in a classroom for ages (if at all) and left for a sales job because they didn't even like the teaching all that much. "This is how to use this material with your students," means nothing coming from someone who has never actually used the materials with students of their own. 

The best people to do PD are teachers who are good at using the materials, which creates its own problem because they're busy doing the work. 

But that's a relatively minor problem. A major problem, maybe even the major problem, is that the curriculum and instructional material is flooded with crap. Flooded. There's terrible ed tech, completely with various bells and whistles. There are companies that are designed around making a pitch to administrators, not to teachers. Pondiscio is heartened by the rise of Science of Reading, but here's NEPC finding that the market is already awash in materials that have simply had "science of reading" slapped on them as a marketing move (just as publishers did with "aligned with Common Core").

It's not simply a matter of elevating high-quality instructional materials; the marketplace is drowning in junk. The good stuff has a thirteenth clown problem (If there are twelve clowns in the ring throwing pies and seltzer around, you can jump down there and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience you'll just be the thirteenth clown). 

Any attempt to get more good stuff into teachers' hands has to include some sort of filtration system, and I'm not sure where that comes from. The government? God no-- I don't want legislators trying to make curricular decisions. Teachers don't have the time. Wading through it all is a full time job, not something for someone to squeeze in on the side. Which means that it costs money, which always goes over well. Maybe that's where policy makers can help. 

In the meantime, I welcome any version of ed reform that decides that rather than fixing or replacing teachers, thinks it might want to try to help them do the work. We'll see if that version catches on.


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...