Instructional Resources and Teacher Professionalism: The Changing Landscape of Curricular Material Providers in the Digital Age

by Emily M. Hodge, Susanna L. Benko & Serena J. Salloum - October 19, 2018

This commentary argues that new providers of curricular resources may be changing the marketplace of curriculum materials; however, different types of providers may imply distinct views of the role of teachers in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum materials have tended to come from a relatively small number of major textbook publishers (Rowan, 2002). However, several new organizations have begun taking a more prominent role in providing such materials to school districts, while others are creating the conditions for new forms of curriculum sharing between teachers. Each of these approaches may challenge the traditional dominance of textbook publishers over the marketplace of curriculum materials: At the same time, these new approaches represent contrasting philosophies about the role of the teacher and where expertise resides, inside or outside of the school. The first strategy, curriculum developed by new organizations, represents a more traditional, top-down approach to curriculum adoption, while the second, in which teachers share their materials, represents a more bottom-up approach to teacher-driven resource creation and selection. These also respectively imply a new professionalist (top-down) and a professionalist (bottom-up) view of teaching.

Traditional professions, at least in their idealized form, are often characterized by practitioners having a high degree of control over their work and professional associations with strong authority (Evetts, 2011). Professionalists, or those who argue for teaching as a profession, generally reflect the view that teachers should have expertise in their content areas and in pedagogical techniques, and that teachers are capable of creating and adapting curriculum materials as a core professional activity (Ingersoll & Merrill, 2011). In contrast, new professionalism is a term associated with changes in the workplace across multiple sectors, including education and healthcare, and is characterized by top-down management setting norms for workplace goals and procedures (Evetts, 2011; Hargreaves, 1994; Troman, 1996). As part of a larger shift towards a results-oriented workplace, a greater degree of standardization and consistency is often required to assess the extent to which results are achieved. New professionalism in education can also be interpreted as segmenting teachers’ roles, narrowing their domain of work. In this view, teachers are focused strictly on raising student achievement by enacting an expert-chosen curriculum marketed as standards-aligned. Therefore, some new professionalists argue that a teacher’s role is not as a curriculum creator, or even adapter, but instead that a teacher’s domain should be restricted to the realm of instruction, and that curriculum ought to be left to external experts with specialized knowledge of curriculum development (e.g., Gerson, 2017).  

This ethos may be exemplified by many recently founded organizations, which are devoted to providing curriculum materials and accompanying professional development (PD). To these organizations, curriculum generally means a year-long program, similar to a traditional textbook, but sometimes with an open-access license and in a digital format compatible with learning management systems. For example, Open Up Resources is a nonprofit organization that provides open access, coherent curriculum to districts. These materials can integrate with learning management systems or be printed as more traditional paper materials. Similarly, Great Minds provides curriculum with embedded PD focused on how to implement their curricula. Without directly observing the PD offered around the curricula, it is difficult to know the degree of flexibility that teachers are given in engaging with these materials.PD might serve as an educative tool, helping teachers understand the rationales embedded in aspects of the curriculum (Drake, Land, & Tyminski, 2014). It might also provide guidance on how teachers could create their own curricular materials using the same principles. On the other hand, the PD might adhere to a technical view of implementation, asking teachers to hew closely to teacher’s guides. When districts work with an organization that provides both curriculum and professional development, it could deepen teacher learning under some conditions. However, it could also deskill teachers if the curriculum does not serve as a model for teacher learning and if teachers are not allowed to make their own choices. 

In contrast to the organization-led approach to coherent curriculum adoption, there are other organizations, including professional organizations, that facilitate teachers sharing resources with each other. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Literacy Association co-sponsor the site, where literacy teachers create and share instructional materials vetted by other educators (International Literacy Association & National Council of Teachers of English, 2018). OER Commons, sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, is a well-known, searchable database of open educational resources (OER), or “materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose” (Hewlett, 2018). Teachers Pay Teachers is a for-profit site that allows teachers to sell resources they have created to each other. The vetting of quality on Teachers Pay Teachers comes from teachers themselves, via rating systems and number of purchases, and the organization clearly states that teachers themselves are the best authors of curriculum materials (Teachers Pay Teachers, n.d.).

When used on their own by individual teachers, these sites are not necessarily indicative of a district-led approach to curriculum creation that evokes a professionalist stance. However, some districts that have used a more bottom-up approach to teacher-created curriculum have spoken about the process of district-supported curriculum creation as enhancing teacher professionalism. In other words, through conversations around resource selection, teachers are encouraged to think more deeply about learning goals, standards, student needs, and the curricular materials that will best meet those aims. For example, a superintendent in Carlsbad, CA, whose district has moved to OER says that “OER is not ‘throwing away the textbook’ and letting teachers untether from the district curriculum; rather, it is giving teachers voice in the curriculum development process, and driving them to new ways of thinking about how they teach” (Ishmael, 2018).

The approaches profiled above illustrate new types of curriculum material providers. Each approach potentially disrupts the existing ecology of curriculum providers that has traditionally been dominated by textbook companies, but also implies a different vision of the role of the teacher in school improvement. Why do we argue that a new professionalist view of teachers as focused only on instruction is potentially problematic? In part, because the lines between curriculum and instruction are blurry. Curriculum is often thought of as the concrete materials (texts and tasks in English language arts, for example) students are asked to engage with in order to meet learning goals. Instruction, then, is often thought of as the sequential process teachers lead or facilitate to help students accomplish those goals. A hypothetical example illustrates the blurred lines between the two: imagine that a teacher observes students having difficulty with some aspect of a text (technically, curriculum), perhaps difficulty with vocabulary, structure, or complex ideas within the text. In response, the teacher might modify the curriculum by providing a supplemental text or a version presenting the information in another mode (perhaps a video or graphic novel) before returning to the original text. The teacher might also decide to substitute a different text and return (or not) to the original text later. The teacher might modify her instruction by having students complete more small group and partner work, thinking that students will have a better chance of understanding the text if they work together. Some of these decisions modify curriculum, some modify instruction, but none of them are necessarily “right,” “wrong,” or outside the bounds of the teacher’s discretion and expertise. Ideally, teachers would have, and be seen as having, the expertise and knowledge to make a decision with a clear rationale, guided by principles such as a strong belief in student capability and gradual release of responsibility.

To be clear, we do not view providing coherent and high-quality curriculum to teachers as necessarily problematic. To the extent that these curricula are constructed in a way that is adaptable, include a broad range of scaffolding options, and are responsive to students’ needs and local contexts, such curricula are likely superior to a static textbook and represent less work for teachers than making a coherent curriculum piecemeal from different resources. However, when curricula are implemented in ways that insist on fidelity in terms of both curriculum and instruction, this removes the autonomy and creativity in resource selection that is a key aspect of teacher professionalism. We recognize, however, that many districts that have been successful in cultivating the compensation structures and professional learning communities that allow for a more bottom-up approach to curriculum design are affluent districts. Such districts have fewer accountability pressures and more financial resources as well as, in many cases, experienced teachers with advanced degrees and curriculum design experience. Regardless, our aspiration is for teachers to be broadly seen as capable of making decisions about curriculum and instruction that are in line with standards; meet coherent, yearlong learning goals; and allow for professional discretion in meeting students’ needs and moving students up a ladder of complexity in reading, writing, and thinking.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 19, 2018 ID Number: 22539, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:56:13 PM

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