Effective Instruction and High Quality Curriculum Matter, A Lot
I never aspired to become a teacher, and no one had ever suggested I consider it. But there I was, at the age of 23, entering teaching through a post-baccalaureate teacher education program at the University of New Orleans. My mom had recommended it to me. My first teaching post: special education teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, my father’s alma mater. I was young. I was energetic. I was idealistic. I was naive. But most important, I was in no way well-prepared to serve my students.
I believed then and I continue to believe that my teacher preparation program was a high quality program. Its job was to take men and women with no experience whatsoever in education and with no prior education training, and prepare them in two months to step into classrooms and teach some of New Orleans’ most under-served children. And then through the course of that school year, it was to provide coursework and on-the-job support for the new teachers. Our professors were fantastic, and I believe I grew tremendously over that year. But my students deserved so much more than I could give them.
Simply put, New Orleans’ most under-served students, students who were typically several grade levels behind in reading and mathematics and in some cases could not read at all, deserved to have an experienced, well-qualified, effective classroom teacher, equipped with materials and resources to meet their learning needs. Instead, they got me. I was young, caring and energetic. But I had no curriculum or materials, and I was ill-equipped in every way to meet my students’ learning needs. And even more unfortunate, having me for a teacher was not their worst case scenario. Because if I had not taken the job, their teacher would have been a substitute; likely with no training or support for instruction.
I wish I could say that the educational misfortune of my first year students is unique; that such experiences are limited to one or only a handful of school districts, or that such educational malpractice no longer happens today, but that would not be true. During my time in North Carolina and Kentucky, I saw my first year students’ educational misfortunes replayed over and over again. Students who needed the absolute best our public education system has to offer, too often getting leftovers. Too seldom did adults make decisions or allocate resources that put our most vulnerable students first. Too often, economically disadvantaged children, children of color, children with disabilities, and children already two and three years behind being served by teachers who were well-meaning and caring, but under-resourced and woefully ill-equipped to meet their students’ learning needs.
In Kentucky, where I served as Commissioner of Education, the challenge of ensuring that traditionally under-served students have access to high quality curriculum and instruction is compounded. Like many other states, children in Kentucky who desperately need our most experienced and most effective teachers often instead have less experienced and less equipped teachers. But additionally, because school-based decision making councils (not school districts or the state) have statutory authority over curriculum, the disparities between the quality of curriculum from school to school can be incredible. In some cases, sadly, schools had no curriculum. In some cases, new or inexperienced teachers walked into classrooms without curriculum or resources and had no idea what they were going to teach. In such cases, teachers often turn to Google, Pinterest, or sites like Teachers Pay Teachers; none of which are suitable or acceptable alternatives to a standards-aligned curriculum.
My daughter is a public school student, but she will never experience public education like what my first year students experienced. Both of her parents are not only college-educated professionals, but teachers. So home probably feels a lot like school to her. She walks into her classroom with a tremendous advantage over students who don’t get much educational support at home. But then in addition to what she’s getting at home, she has well-trained, experienced, effective teachers who teach a standards-aligned curriculum. The inequities built into our system of public education make my daughter’s public school experience completely different from the public school experience of many less-advantaged students. My daughter, an upper middle class kid, with advantages that many other kids don’t have, goes to public school and gets a higher quality education than many of her less-advantaged counterparts across the country who need a great education the most. In America, the quality of public education is too often dependent on what public is being served. Not only is that not fair; it’s wrong.
The most important school-level factor in influencing students’ learning is having an effective teacher. And when that teacher is equipped with a high quality, standards-aligned curriculum and supporting materials, she can make magic happen in classrooms. She can’t erase the effects of poverty. She can’t completely make up for disparities in students’ out-of-school experiences. But she can steadily close learning gaps; one lesson, and one instructional day at a time. I know this to be the case because it is documented in the research literature on effective schools, and I have seen it in public school districts and public schools in Kentucky, in North Carolina, in Louisiana, and across the county. It can be done. Yes, it takes resources. But just as important, it takes courage and will on the part of leaders, teachers, families, and communities.