Good teachers create little oases for themselves, while others who are less well prepared adopt approaches that are ineffective or even sometimes harmful. Some seek knowledge that is not readily available to them; others batten down the hatches and eventually become impermeable to better ideas. Schools are vulnerable to vendors selling educational snake oils when educators and school boards lack sufficient shared knowledge of learning, curriculum, instruction, and research to make sound decisions about programs and materials. Students experience an instructional hodge-podge caused by the failure of the system to provide the knowledge and tools needed by the educators who serve them.
Strictly enforced pacing guides, like other mandates that overly prescribe teaching, have been introduced by curriculum warriors on both sides of the battles, because they want to be sure that their assumptions about learning are strictly enforced in classrooms by teachers who, presumably, won’t be able to make reasonable decisions in their use of materials….While standards outline general expectations, the demands of effective teaching mean that curriculum guidance should be constructed so that teachers can use well-informed judgment as to when and how they introduce particular ideas and skills. Curriculum materials should offer enough space for teachers to meet specific needs of the very diverse learners who populate real classrooms. The demands of effective teaching also mean that curriculum should be based on a well-grounded sense of learning progressions that helps teachers understand the developmental process, so they can move students along from wherever they start.
The United States not only has the highest poverty rates for children among industrialized nations (see Figure 2.1), but it also provides fewer social supports for their well-being and fewer resources for them at school. In 2007, 23% of U.S. children were living in poverty, more than twice the rate of most European nations, and a higher rate than was true in the early 1970s, when poverty rates for children had been reduced to 15% as a result of the War on Poverty.
Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman notes: “Compared to 50 years ago, a greater fraction of American children is being born into disadvantaged families where investments in children are smaller than in advantaged families.” These lower investments in early education and health care negatively affect later school success and adult outcomes; yet, he argues, there is convincing evidence that if interventions occur early enough, they can improve children’s health, welfare, and learning significantly.
Sahlberg identifies a set of reforms, popular in many countries, that Finland has not adopted, including standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.
Nations that have steeply improved their students’ achievement, such as Finland, Korea, Singapore, and others, attribute much of their success to their focused investments in teacher preparation and development. Creating an infrastructure that can routinely recruit and prepare teachers effectively and can support successful teaching at scale is the arena in which the United States has lagged the most. Although there are some great teachers in every community, and some strong professional preparation and development programs sprinkled across the country, the landscape of supports for quality teaching looks like Swiss cheese. In some states, the holes are smaller, and in others they are gaping, but in no case is there a fully developed system of instructional support even remotely comparable to that in high-achieving nations. And of course, as we have seen, the system is weakest in communities where students’ needs are greatest.
As a country, we can and must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by depriving large segments of its population of learning. The path to our mutual well-being is built on educational opportunity. Central to our collective future is the recognition that our capacity to survive and thrive ultimately depends on ensuring to all of our people what should be an unquestioned entitlement—a rich and inalienable right to learn.