Let teachers focus on teaching

Nearly every teacher finds or develops her own teaching materials, according to a new RAND study. Elementary school teachers often turn to Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). Nearly half of teachers spend more than four hours a week on this.

“Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the abilities of mere mortals,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Do you want your child’s teacher to have the time to analyze student work and develop a keen eye for diagnosing mistakes and misunderstandings? Do you want her to give your child rich and meaningful feedback on assignments and homework? How about developing warm and productive relationships with your child and your family?

Teachers should focus on how to teach, rather than what to teach, Pondiscio argues. Give them high-quality instructional materials.

A 2012 Brookings study by Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos demonstrated that the “effect size” of choosing a better second-grade math curriculum was larger than replacing a fiftieth-percentile teacher with a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher. This is a powerful result, especially considering that it’s relatively easy to give all children a better curriculum but extremely difficult to dramatically increase the effectiveness of their teachers. It’s cost-neutral too: A Center for American Progress report by Ulrich Boser and Chingos showed virtually no difference in price between effective and ineffective curricula.

“We want our best teachers to play a significant role in instructional design so that more children and teachers can benefit from their expertise,” he concludes. However, “twelve-plus years of a well-designed and sequenced curriculum would lead to better outcomes for children than the occasional year with a great yet isolated teacher.”

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.