Teacher Content Knowledge Requirements

Robert Pondiscio:

Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

Note the italics, which are Weiner’s and Pimental’s, not mine. It underscores that regardless of how unremarkable this may sound to lay readers (“Wait. Teachers should be expert at teaching their curriculum? Aren’t they already!?”), what the duo are suggesting is something new, even revolutionary. Sadly, it is.

Practice What You Teach begins with a discussion of research demonstrating the frustrating state of teacher “PD,” which, like the sitcom Seinfeld, is a show about nothing. Next, they discuss curriculum materials, which “have a profound effect on what happens in classrooms and on how much students learn.” When average teachers use excellent materials, Weiner and Pimental note, “student learning results improve significantly.” The general disregard for curriculum as a means to improve teacher effectiveness and student outcomes is reflected in the observation that “many teachers do not have access to strong, standards-aligned curriculum; in fact, most teachers spend hours every week searching for materials that haven’t been vetted and aren’t connected to ongoing, professional learning activities in their schools.”

This is a state of affairs that would be a national scandal if an analogous situation existed in healthcare or any other critical public service (Help Wanted: Firemen. Bring your own hose). Many school districts have nothing that would meet a reasonable definition for a curriculum. Local “scope and sequence” documents are suggestions; the subjects they list may or may not be taught. When USC professor Morgan Polikoff wanted school-level data on what textbooks were in use in several states, he had to file hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out. The issue wasn’t secrecy. States and districts seem to think it’s just not worth keeping track of.

Wisconsin has adopted only one such requirement (Massachussetts far more, via MTEL).

Foundations of reading results