What we don’t know can hurt us. For Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute, our “scandalous” lack of knowledge about the instructional materials teachers are using in the classroom may be doing us grave harm.
We seem to know more and more about things like standards, tests, the background of our teachers and who attends their classes. That’s good news. Yet we know little more now than we did 50 years ago about what teachers are actually teaching in those classes, Chingos and Whitehurst write.
That is an enormous blind spot, they claim, because schools and districts can get a lot of bang for their buck by choosing strong teaching materials—more bang for their buck, they maintain, than for a lot of other school reforms currently on the table.
For Chingos and Whitehurst, the success of common academic standards hinges on the quality of those materials, which help make standards real in the classroom. Poor materials can quickly dilute the power of standards, and they have little faith that many of the education publishers lining up to declare their products “aligned with Common Core State Standards” are doing more than checking off boxes, “making sure that everything listed in the standards can be found under the same name in the table of contents or index in the publisher’s materials.”
So what’s to be done? Chingos and Whitehurst believe there are some fairly ready fixes. States, the federal government, non-profits and foundations can join forces to collect data on the teaching materials now in use in schools across the country. They can start critical conversations about what is actually happening in classrooms.
That, of course, isn’t the end of the story. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff, yet very good studies of teaching materials are few and far between, in part because they are so expensive. Chingos and Whitehurst concede this point, but they see better data collection as a critical starting point. They more well-organized data we have, they suggest, the easier and cheaper it will be to tell the good from the bad.