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The “Case for Curriculum” Is about Reducing Teachers’ Workload

Education Gadfly

April 11, 2024

Last weekend, I gave a talk at the U.S. ResearchEd conference in Greenwich, Connecticut, on “The Case for Curriculum,” based on a paper I wrote for Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, which was published this week at The 74. But truth in advertising forced me to come clean with my audience: The case for curriculum is in equal measure the case for making the classroom job doable by the teachers we have—not, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, the teachers we wish we had or hope to have someday.

It’s a simple fact that we’ve seemed determined to ignore for decades: We need nearly four million women and men to staff America’s classrooms. A number that large means teachers will be, by definition, people of average abilities. In no field of human endeavor from the performing arts and athletics to science and business do we look at the most gifted practitioners as proof points. Yet this is the mindset we apply, at least tacitly, to teachers. What the most talented and driven can accomplish with children is what we expect from all teachers. We expect them to both design and deliver lessons at an expert level when doing either is a challenge, while also “differentiating instruction” in classes with wildly divergent student skill levels. Increasingly we expect them to master the arcana of the “science of reading” and to play a quasi-therapeutic role under the banner of “social emotional learning”—if not also practitioners of mental health.

We have fresh data that speak to the impossibility of these demands. The vast majority of teachers surveyed in a new Pew Center report say there’s not enough time in the workday to accomplish all that’s expected of them. Eighty-four percent say they “don’t have enough time during their regular work hours to do tasks like grading, lesson planning, paperwork, and answering emails.”

Teachers cite a broad range of thing that bleed away their time, according to Pew, from noninstructional work such as hallway monitoring or lunch duty (24 percent); helping students outside class time (22 percent); and being asked to cover other teachers’ classes (16 percent). But the biggest one by far, cited by 81 percent of teachers as a “major reason” they can’t get all their work done (and a minor reason by nearly all the rest), is that they “just have too much work.” To be sure, many other issues compound teacher stress these days, including students distracted by cell phones, chronic absenteeism, behavior problems, and verbal abuse from students. But if you’re one of those who thinks teaching is easy because of summers off and school days that end in mid-afternoon, the Pew survey is a sobering read. The bottom line is that it’s time to take a clear-eyed look at the ever-spiraling demand we place upon teachers and talk seriously about taking things off their plate and making the job doable by the workforce we have.

To my mind, the most obvious target is curriculum. We know from various RAND surveys that nearly all teachers draw upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” to teach English language arts, for example. Those materials don’t create themselves. An MDR study shows that teachers spend seven hours per week searching for instructional resources and another five hours  creating their own classroom materials. That’s twelve hours not spent reviewing student work, giving feedback, building relationships with students and parents, and many other potentially higher value activities that a classroom teacher is literally the only person positioned to perform. Curriculum materials can be created or selected by someone else.

If the effort it takes to find and create materials could be shown to enhance student outcomes, it would be time well spent. But Fordham’s own report, The Supplemental Curriculum Bazaar, showed “a major mismatch between what content experts think educators should (and shouldn’t) use in classrooms and what teachers, hungry for instructional resources, are choosing to download.”

On Twitter, Mike Petrilli took warm notice of my Hoover report, which is flattering, but noted “it’s too glum” to say curriculum reform is one approach to raising student achievement that hasn’t been tried. He cited the launch of the EngageNY website and “a huge uptick in adoption of [high-quality instructional materials,] especially in math.” Joanne Weiss also chided me for not citing the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network, which has worked since 2017 to get HQIM in the hands of teachers in more than a dozen states and ensure professional development grounded in their use.

These are fair criticisms from respected colleagues. The turn, however, will come when we see more crucial time devoted to diagnosis, intervention, and feedback; evidence—in what people do, not what they say—that curriculum is central to teaching; and a shift in the culture of teaching away from teacher-as-lesson-designer-and-deliverer. When Tom Kane of Harvard looked at math textbook adoptions in six states over three years, he found “little evidence of differences in average math achievement growth in schools using different elementary math curricula.” But he also found few teachers using official curricula exclusively and, more tellingly, only “modest” amounts of teacher professional development on the adopted textbooks and curriculum. This suggests either a naïve “magic bullet” faith in curriculum as a difference maker—just get it in teachers’ hands and they’ll do the rest!—or evidence of its second-class status: If curriculum was central to school improvement plans, implementing it well would be a primary focus of teacher training and professional development, not an afterthought.

It is unlikely and not even desirable that teachers will cease their efforts to customize lessons and even occasionally prepare them from scratch. But hard evidence of a shift in practice will look like teachers spending fewer hours creating or curating curricular materials and more hours wielding them. Until that evidence emerges, the “case for curriculum” still needs to be made as a means of making education coherent, raising student achievement—and making teachers’ jobs a little closer to manageable.