It’s not just the teachers, stupid

Good instructional materials are as important for student learning as good teachers, yet there’s a “scandalous lack of information” about what schools are using and what’s most effective, concludes a new report from Brookings’ Brown Center,  Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core.

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

Choosing better instructional materials “should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick,” compared to improving teacher quality, write Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos. They urge states, the federal government, nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund research on effectiveness. That would start by collecting data on what instructional materials schools are using.


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  1. I know I’ve never heard anything good about Everyday Math – except from university and district level people who design, sell, and purchase it. Instead, the reviews of Singapore Math are much higher, but districts have too much invested in EM.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t know if I agree with the report’s conclusion (at least as you’ve put it here). And frankly, I think that, to the extent that the schools themselves are the source of our educational woes (something I tend to think is not really the case, at least not the way most people seem to think it is), that it is just the teachers.

    And don’t call me stupid. 🙂

    It seems to me that if you had good teachers, you wouldn’t need good instructional materials. Not in the sense that you’d have them integrated as part of the school separate from the teachers, anyway.

    A good teacher is, among other things, someone who knows their field well enough to put together their own program for it.

    The best elementary math teacher I ever knew just handwrote out his own 40-page textbook and copied it. He stuck it into some cardstock folder covers.

    The best high school history class I ever took had no textbook. We used a set of atlases, and photocopied primary sources to supplement lectures. He used some visuals (handouts, transparencies, a filmstrip or two) that he had picked up over the years when he thought visuals were absolutely necessary.

    Now, I’m not saying that every teacher needs to design everything from scratch, but I do think teachers should be capable of making judgments about what would be good to use and what might not, and be able to cobble together their own programs, piecemeal if they have to.

    I recently wrote a comment over at Rachel Levy’s blog to the effect that the reasons we don’t use this model of teacher as the basis for our educational system are twofold: we lack a sufficient number of subject-matter experts, and we lack trust in our teachers. (I’m not maintaining that these two reasons aren’t causally intertwined.)

    But absent sufficient teachers, and absent trust, we’ll continue the futile search for the perfect software to run on our interchangeable teacher platforms.

    It doesn’t exist. And our search for it makes our teachers worse.

    • Ponderosa says:

      I make my own materials, but I know I could make much BETTER materials if I had more time. It is not rational to expect three million teachers to concoct their own high-quality materials from scratch. There ought to be excellent off-the-shelf materials available to all of us. The free market ain’t working in this regard. I want the state of California to convene a council of wise men and women to make awesome materials that will be available for free. Good use of public money.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        When you have a council creating anything you get crap. To many cooks spoil the broth. And, that’s why modern textbooks are terrible – they’re created by committee.

      • You forget that bad curriculum materials can hurt good teachers as much as good materials can help bad teachers. I can supplement to try and correct the horrible math program the administration has required me to use, but I still have to try and be on the correct page on the correct day whenever they walk in. I would imagine I spend more effort trying to work around the holes in this program than it would take to just design my own,.

        If I had complete control, I’d imagine my scores would go up, and the sequencing would be much more appropriate to my students. Unfortunately, I don’t have the power to implement this.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      to supplement lectures

      So this “best high school history course” had a sage on the stage? Obviously, this couldn’t really have been a good course.

    • “A good teacher is, among other things, someone who knows their field well enough to put together their own program for it.”

      In other words, the original point still stands. Instructional materials are VERY important. A great textbook can help a teacher (both the amazing ones, and the struggling ones) in so many ways…

  3. I have never homeschooled, but have the impression that there are a number of strong curricula (CK, classical, Singapore or Saxon math etc) that are used very successfully by many homeschool parents who are not necessarily teachers. It seems as if such curricula provide sufficient structure and support even to these novice “teachers”. I know the private CK schools where I have lived have all had many more applicants than spaces, because of the strength of their academic reputation. It would seem that such curricula could function equally well in public schools, even with inexperienced and/or weaker teachers who would potentially benefit from a solid curriculum package.

    There are also many excellent supplementary curriculum materials; the kitchen table math website (link at left) is a very good place to look for specialized materials (grammar, composition, etc. as well as math) and I am familiar with Sister Wendy’s history of art series. It shouldn’t be necessary for teachers to design their own curriculum, although the good ones will always supplement freely.

    • Sean Mays says:

      momof4: The unspoken assumption in your thinking is that selecting “the best” curriculum is the goal, that politics and business and social issues don’t distort the search for strong curriculum. “The best”? I do not think this word means what you think it means (I. Montoya).

      • Yes, I do realize that those issues represent a huge stumbling block. The goal is too often the surface appearance of equal achievement (despite the fact that humans have widely differing talents and motivations) and rigorous curricula with emphasis on mastery before advancement doesn’t achieve that. Let no child get ahead.

    • Ponderosa says:

      Yes, the Core Knowledge materials may come close to my ideal of high quality “off-the-shelf” curriculum. I’ve perused some of them but never tried teaching with them, so I’m not 100% sure they fit the bill.

      @Stacy: the Manhattan Project and Apollo mission were the sorts of brainy collaborative efforts I had in mind. Ideally some uber-erudite Jacques Barzun-types paired with veteran classroom teachers who can suggest ways to shape the content in ways that will be intelligible to kids.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Wrote to a textbook manufacturer of Spanish ed texts. He’d mislaid a mountain rainge and moved another to cover for it, misnaming the latter.
    No reply.