Are high-quality teachers the key to improving student learning? Or is curriculum more important? Early in the last decade, reformers, persuaded by research that “teachers are the most important factor in a student’s school experience,” pushed for teacher evaluation, performance pay, and other teacher-focused reforms. As these reforms have fallen out of favor, however, a growing contingent of education leaders argue that curriculum, rather than teacher quality, should be the focus of improvement efforts.
It shouldn’t be either-or. In our new paper, Ashley LiBetti and I argue that the real key to improving children’s learning may lie not in curriculum or teacher quality alone, but in how schools or early childhood programs integrate curriculum with supports for quality teaching to deliver high-quality learning experiences for children.
Earlier this week, as a part of the new report package, we released our study of five Head Start programs that produce significant learning gains for children they serve. We identified cross-cutting themes and common practices across the five programs that contribute to their impressive results. What we found underscores the importance of both teachers and curriculum for success.
All of these programs place a high priority on quality teaching. They hire teachers with more training than Head Start requires, pay them more than the typical preschool program, and support them with coaching and professional development. At the same time, they also pay careful attention to curriculum by adopting evidence-based curricula, adapting it to their needs and communities, supporting teachers to implement it with fidelity, and regularly testing and or piloting new curricula or enhancements in an effort to further boost children’s learning and results. And they constantly use data — including ongoing formative assessments of children’s learning — to improve teaching practices and differentiate learning for individual children. These practices related to curricula, assessment, and teacher quality and support offer models that other early childhood programs can learn from.
The real “secret sauce,” however, isn’t in these programs’ approaches to teaching or curricula on their own, but the way they carefully and intentionally integrate these components. We call this careful integration of curriculum, expectations for what quality teaching looks like, and support for teachers an “integrated instructional model” — and it’s the key to these programs’ success.
This intentional, integrated approach isn’t as sexy as “silver bullet” solutions. It requires skilled, thoughtful leadership willing to constantly reassess and refine practice, and a lot of work from teachers, the coaches who support them, and program leaders. That makes it much harder to replicate or scale than curriculum or teacher credential requirements. But it’s crucial to improving learning results, particularly for the most at-risk students.
Rather than continuing to debate whether teacher quality or curriculum matters more for improving educational results, education leaders should take a page from these exemplary Head Start programs and focus on how to help more schools develop and implement integrated models of curriculum, assessment, and supports for quality instruction.