Teachers’ jobs are changing in real time. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to that challenge by requiring new modes of teaching and learning, both in the classroom and remotely. 

But a new paper, The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, released by the Carnegie Corporation of New York argues that innovations in professional development are not keeping pace with evolving expectations for teachers, the instructional materials they are using, and the rigorous content standards teachers are responsible for helping students meet.

“In today’s classroom, teachers facilitate while students do most of the talking. Learning is relevant and joyful, rooted in exploration and debate. Classes are unpredictable and challenging,” wrote authors Stephanie Hirsh and Jim Short. However, “This is not how most teachers learned when they were in school. It is not how most teacher preparation programs develop adults to lead a classroom. And it looks nothing like the seminars that dominate teachers’ professional development experiences.” 

The Elements lifts up innovative ideas on teaching and learning to influence how our nation approaches K-12 education. The paper identifies and describes the components of effective curriculum-based professional learning, including how these elements are being used to positively impact schools across the country. And it challenges school and system leaders, curriculum developers, and all specialists in professional learning to apply them.

Materials Matter. Implementation Matters.

The body of research and data on the impact of high-quality instructional materials is clear: curriculum choices matter. But how teachers use curriculum matters even more.

“We’re seeing that with [new] materials, you can’t grasp everything at once, and it’s a slow process to build expertise. But that’s what it means to be an educator: You have to continually grow based on student needs, new research, and changing society. Good professional learning supports this growth and ultimately empowers teachers to be at their best to serve kids.”

- Amber Clemmons, Baltimore City Public Schools, Literacy Academic Content Liaison

Read more about Baltimore’s path-breaking ELA adoption >

“The curriculum teachers use matters greatly to student learning. Several studies comparing student performance based on the textbooks their teachers use have found major differences in achievement,” wrote Hirsh and Short. “Using better instructional materials boosts student outcomes just as much as having a better teacher at the front of the room.” 

At EdReports, we were founded on the premise that instructional materials make a difference for kids. What is chosen matters. Research shows that students learn primarily through their interactions with teachers and content, and that aligned instructional materials affect classroom practice and the instruction students receive. 

However, materials are only as good as the professional learning provided to implement them. A 2019 report by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard found that teachers in their study received anywhere from one to three days of training total before the implementation of new instructional materials. Practices like this lead to brand new aligned materials sitting unused in closets across the country. 

Quality Training on Materials Unleashes Teacher Creativity

A long held belief by many teachers is that core comprehensive materials are too prescriptive and limit teacher creativity. This could not be farther from the truth. According to The Elements, more than half of U.S. teachers craft curriculum for their students, either by borrowing from multiple sources or creating their own materials. Nearly one in three say their principals encourage them to plan lessons from scratch. Some 19 percent say they customize curriculum for their classrooms. 

“[T]eachers do not have unlimited time and resources, and we should not expect 3.7 million people to develop their own ways of doing things.”

“Such hard work and creativity are laudable, but teachers do not have unlimited time and resources, and we should not expect 3.7 million people to develop their own ways of doing things,” wrote Hirch and Short. “There is a longstanding myth that creative lesson planning is the mark of a great teacher. A more consistent, equitable, and commonsense approach would be to relieve teachers of curriculum development responsibilities and let them focus their energy where it matters most for student outcomes—on classroom instruction.”

The Elements posits that: Curriculum-based professional learning invites teachers to participate in the same sort of rich, inquiry-based learning that new academic standards require. Such learning places the focus squarely on curriculum. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs. That stands in contrast to traditional teacher training, which typically relays a static mass of information that teachers selectively apply to existing practice.”

“The positive effects for students are amplified when strong curriculum is paired with strong professional learning: not only are students working with more rigorous instructional materials, but they also have a more skillful teacher to guide them.”

- Stephanie Hirsh and Jim Short

EdReports has long said that quality instructional materials are not a silver bullet, and selecting great materials is not enough. True impact in the classroom only comes when we support teachers to know why these materials are quality and how to use them effectively.  As schools and districts continue to make shifts in the instructional materials they use, and amid ongoing challenges, teachers deserve the highest quality professional learning to support curriculum implementation.

Download The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning or explore specific sections of the paper below:

How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students? 
How can we ensure that teachers experience the same kind of inquiry-based learning we expect them to provide for their students?