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Without The Right Curriculum, Educators Are In For A Post-Pandemic Slog

By: Jim Cowen, The Hill  

Nationwide — The stress of teaching has never been greater, with the impact of distance learning and the educational deficit created during the COVID-19 pandemic leaving their marks on both the students and the people we entrust with their young minds. 

A Rand survey earlier this year reported the troubling trend that one in four teachers were considering exiting the profession, up from one in six teachers prior to the pandemic. 

A new stressor added to the mix is the urgent need to bring all children back up to grade level learning after recently released test scores from across the nation highlight how far many have fallen behind. From Massachusetts to Missouri, Ohio to Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas Michigan, New Jersey and elsewhere, many states now reporting test scores from the 2020 school year show declines, some of them precipitous. 

“I will tell you, we’ve got a lot of work to do and this one data point does not tell the whole story,” Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s education commissioner, said of the state’s test results. 

For some states, one aspect of that untold story is a dearth of good instructional materials for teachers, which means that making up for lost ground and bringing students back up to grade level will take much longer, if at all. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70 percent of educators complained that they didn’t have regular access to high-quality instructional materials, and many spent as much as 12 hours each week searching for materials or creating their own, time that could have been spent teaching. That’s a lost opportunity when reports have shown that improving the quality of curriculum is 40 times more cost-effective than class-size reduction at increasing student achievement. 

Several reasons are behind the lack of effective teaching materials. Teacher preparation institutions have been flagged for fomenting the misconception “that ‘authentic’ teaching occurs only when teachers create their own lessons … placing them in a barely tenable position, where they are forced to cobble together curricula for each class of each day, day after day, with inadequate expertise or support to do so well,” according to the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education.  

But another, more immediately curable cause is the lack of access to available and proven materials. It seems such an obvious precondition for student and teacher success, especially now when there is real appreciation for and optimism in a return to in-person teaching. But without quality instructional materials, our teachers are being set up for a post-pandemic slog that will increase stressors, push even more teachers out the door and poorly serve our children. 

While local districts ultimately manage curriculum adoptions, states can make it easier. What educators need now at the front end of the school year is easy access to materials aligned to individual state standards with a proven track record of success in improving learning. What all states need are examples pointing the way.  

At least three states are laying the foundation for student success with a strong emphasis on getting high-quality instructional programs into the hands of teachers as the pandemic recedes into the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to getting students back on grade level. 

Mississippi has established a clearinghouse of high-quality instructional materials and a pilot program to empower local educators in selecting quality curriculum. Nebraska offers its own version of a clearinghouse, which provides information on the selection of quality resources plus a map displaying a district-level look at which materials are in use across the state. And New Mexico has a detailed state website and implementation guide for high-quality materials along with educator reviews of adopted materials. 

These states couldn’t be more diverse in their politics and cultures, and yet they are united and in lockstep on that most American of principles: that children, wherever they live in the country, deserve an excellent public education. Armed with proven teaching materials, educators are a step closer to that goal. 

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit focused on promoting the use of high-quality instructional materials to improve student learning. 

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