TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

In the eye of the beholder: What happens when teachers think the curriculum is too tough for students?

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More than five years ago, TNTP's The Opportunity Myth shattered assumptions that teachers were assigning grade-level appropriate work and that students' high grades meant they were performing adequately. A new survey suggests that perhaps not much has changed when it comes to what teachers think their students can do.

A new RAND report, based on the 2023 American Instructional Resources Survey and authored by Sy Doan and Anna Shapiro, explores how K–12 math and English language arts (ELA) teachers perceive the instructional materials they use. The survey is especially interested in teachers' views of the curriculum materials that their state or district requires or recommends they use. As it turns out, teachers' perceptions of the level of difficulty of the curriculum affect their use of the curriculum with their students.

Notably, many more teachers report using standards-aligned curriculum materials than in past years, but that still only adds up to about half of math teachers and a third of ELA teachers. The survey credits the uptick in use of standards-aligned materials to state policy changes (for more on states' current policies related to reading curricula, see NCTQ's recent State of the States: Five Policy Actions to Strengthen Implementation of the Science of Reading). But even when teachers are supposed to use high-quality materials, they often do not—and this survey delves into why.

The problem at the core of their findings is that three in 10 teachers think the curriculum they are required or recommended to use is too challenging for their students. This rate increases for teachers with less experience, those working in high-poverty schools, and those teaching more students of color. Further, teachers are more likely to find their instructional materials too challenging if the materials are new to them or if the teachers themselves are new to the classroom (in their first five years).

This finding is problematic because, especially in math, if teachers think the instructional materials are too challenging for their students, they spend less time using them—and then students may be taught skills or knowledge that is below their grade level, disjointed, or even misaligned with research-based approaches to instruction. (It's worth noting that this finding did not hold for ELA, but that may be because less than half of teachers surveyed reported using their required or recommended ELA materials for at least 75% of class time—meaning they're using other materials for quite a lot of the time).

So what's to be done? Teachers reported two factors that change their perception of how challenging the materials are, which would likely increase their use of them. The first is how long they've been using the materials (so avoid changing required materials frequently, states and districts!). The second is professional learning opportunities focused on the materials: If they felt their professional learning helped them use the curriculum materials to meet student needs, they were less likely to think the materials are too challenging.

States and districts need to invest in professional learning aligned to the curriculum to give teachers confidence that they can skillfully use the curriculum and that their students can rise to meet its challenges.