School curriculum: the best way to teach our new teachers

Our series on teacher education shows how university education faculties must move from theory to practice if they are to properly prepare new teachers for the classroom. The best way to connect preparation to practice is by teaching teachers how to analyse and implement school curriculum.

December 17, 2017 | Danielle Toon

In October Learning First held a final meeting of a global Community of Practice (CoP), involving teams of university and school system leaders from Australia, Brazil, Finland and the United States working on reforms to improve teache­r education. Our blog post last month described the first lessons from this meeting in Memphis, Tennessee: the need for teacher education providers, schools, states and districts to forge deep partnerships to address the entrenched gaps between schools and the institutions that prepare people to teach in them – gaps that leave many beginning teachers across OECD countries feeling ill-equipped for the classroom.

Our second big lesson from the teams’ pilot work, backed up by the research literature and our analysis of global best practice, is about the importance of school curriculum. Teacher preparation must understand and work with the detail of what teachers need to teach.

It will seem strange to those outside education that teacher preparation in Australia and the United States rarely trains teachers in the specifics of curriculum. Instead, university courses prioritise abstract theories and philosophies. Few teacher candidates are taught how to analyse, adapt, and use textbooks and other curriculum materials. This would be like medical training not teaching trainee doctors how to take a blood test, or legal training not teaching prospective lawyers how to apply particular legislation.

School curriculum is the specifics of ‘what’ a teacher teaches to kids. It is the content and concepts that teachers deliver every day in their classrooms. It is fundamentally linked to what students learn.

Curriculum is a complex and contentious topic in Australia and the US, where teachers have a high level of autonomy over materials used in their classroom, and where debates over what students should learn quickly turn political and ideological (this post explores the different definitions of curriculum in Australia and the US. Yet research shows that the quality of curriculum materials can have a big impact on student learning, and while the evidence is not yet conclusive, the importance of the role of curriculum in teacher learning is emerging. Blending teacher professional development with research-based curriculum materials can lift student achievement because this combination addresses what teachers and students do every day.

Learning First’s research on high-performing education systems shows that by the time Finnish and Japanese teachers enter a classroom, they are versed in how to evaluate, adapt, and use curriculum materials. They have studied quality materials during their training and have had many opportunities to use them in a classroom with feedback from expert mentors. OECD data show that compared to novice teachers in most other OECD countries, beginning teachers in Finland and Japan feel well prepared in the subject knowledge, pedagogy, and classroom practice required to teach in school.

Similarly, a study of 31 elementary teacher preparation programs in New York City found that beginning teachers who have had the opportunity to review local curriculum perform better in terms of student test score gains in mathematics and English Language Arts.

Why, then, do teacher preparation programs in Australia and the US not focus more on school curriculum? In some ways, it would be easier if we were in Japan and could just give teacher education students the national textbook they will use in whichever school they go to.  However, the array of curriculum materials used in Australian and American schools makes it harder to prepare new teachers to teach these materials.

Hard, but not impossible. Despite the challenges, teacher preparation should not leave novice teachers to figure out curriculum materials by themselves. Too often this leads to their sourcing random curriculum material, of highly variable quality, from Pinterest or Google. Preparation programs should teach novice teachers to be intelligent consumers of the materials available to them.

Our paper for the CoP, Using K-12 curriculum to improve teacher preparation, poses three questions for teacher preparation providers regarding their use of curriculum to improve beginning teacher learning:

  1. Is there detailed curriculum guidance – perhaps from the state department of education – that we can use to help teach our candidates how to interpret achievement standards and plan coherent sequences of instruction?
  2. How can we teach candidates to recognise and select high-quality curriculum materials, and are there tools to help with this?
  3. Can we implement high-quality curriculum materials as teaching tools in our courses? If so, how do we select and use these materials? What do we teach candidates about adapting and using them in classrooms?

At the meeting in Memphis, we workshopped these questions with a number of US teacher preparation providers and system leaders. We started not by fixating on the problems but by focussing on what is possible to teach candidates.

Professor David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education for New York State, talked about using tools, such as the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool, to instruct teacher candidates in how to analyse, recognise, and select high-quality materials from the avalanche of online and hard-copy resources available. He talked about how vetted open educational resources such as EngageNY make it easier for candidates, teachers, and teacher educators to access high-quality sample materials to implement in classrooms, then analyse the results.

Providers and system leaders from Tennessee talked about the state strategy and curriculum resourcesto improve the teaching of literacy. We heard how the Tennessee Department of Education incorporates providers into the initiative by offering teacher preparation faculty access to reading research, data and training opportunities. We spoke to district-provider partners from Shelby County Schools and the University of Memphis who are working together to use new state guidance for teaching literacy to improve coursework for candidates.

We also heard from representatives from the Louisiana and Massachusetts departments of education. We discussed Massachusetts’ focus on curriculum, and how it is starting to encourage providers to have their candidates evaluate, adapt, and implement curriculum materials during early training in classrooms.

We discussed Louisiana’s extensive curriculum guidance and textbook review tools, and how the state is working with providers to incorporate these materials into preparation courses. In a first step, the department has defined a list of competencies for initial teacher certification that is heavily based on the subject-specific knowledge and pedagogies required to teach Louisiana’s curriculum.

Finally, providers from Florida and Texas discussed how they might incorporate school curriculum, along with processes to examine student data and reform coursework, into partnership meetings with districts.

These examples, and others described in our paper, reveal how providers, schools, and education systems can work together to use school curriculum to better connect teacher preparation and practice.

Providers or schools can no longer say that the structural barriers to collaboration are too great. More opportunities are emerging every year, ready for enterprising and committed educators to take them.

Danielle Toon is former Manager at Learning First.