Lost at Sea

Without a Curriculum, Navigating Instruction Can Be Tough—Especially for New Teachers

"You want me to teach this stuff, but I don't have the stuff to teach." With this statement, Gail* captured the challenge many new teachers face as they enter schools today. She understood that the academic curriculum is the core of her work and responsibility as a teacher. She recognized the increased focus on academic performance and accountability that is prevalent in an era of standards-based reform. She acknowledged the expectation that she prepare her fourth-grade students for the state's standards-based assessment. Yet, Gail looked at the spare curriculum and lack of instructional materials presented to her as a first-year teacher and wondered just what it was that she was supposed to be teaching.

As large numbers of U.S. public school teachers retire and enrollments rise during the next decade, over two million new teachers will enter the profession. They begin their careers during an era of standards-based reform and high-stakes assessments.

For new teachers, learning to teach well is difficult work. Managing a classroom, deciding what skills and knowledge to cover, designing lessons and implementing them effectively, accurately assessing students' understanding, and adjusting to students' needs are complex tasks; and new teachers need support to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to carry them out. The curriculum and its associated materials are potential sources of this support and they play important roles in teacher development.

While the term "curriculum" conjures a host of meanings, we define it here as what and how teachers are expected to teach. A complete curriculum specifies content, skills, or topics for teachers to cover; suggests a timeline; and incorporates a particular approach or offers instructional materials. If well developed, it can also help give new teachers insight into how students make sense of key concepts, the potential misunderstandings students may have along the way to comprehension, and the instructional strategies that are particularly effective for teaching a given concept or skill.

Through interviews with 50 first- and second-year teachers in Massachusetts, we sought to better understand how new teachers experience the curriculum and assessments they encounter. What curricular expectations and materials do they find in their schools? In what ways do they feel supported by the curriculum and materials they encounter, and in what ways do they feel constrained? And, how do state-mandated assessments affect their experiences?

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 required the state department of education to develop a series of curriculum framework documents that describe state standards for seven subject areas. In addition, the legislation created the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a high-stakes standardized test first administered in 1998 to fourth-, eighth-, and tenth-grade students.

We expected that new teachers in this context might feel constrained and frustrated by the rigidity of the curricula they encountered. Instead, we found that despite Massachusetts' detailed system of standards and accountability measures, most new teachers we interviewed received little or no guidance about what to teach or how to teach it. The curriculum frameworks from the state department of education described academic standards students should achieve; but, unlike a curriculum, they did not include details about specific content, sequence, instructional materials, or pedagogical methods. Yet new teachers reported that many districts and schools relied on these frameworks as the curriculum, rather than as the basis for developing a curriculum. Left to their own devices, they struggled day-to-day to prepare content and materials instead of developing a coherent plan to address long-term objectives. Rather than lamenting a lack of freedom or expressing a need to assert their autonomy, they longed for greater specification of their curriculum—both what to teach and how to teach it.

Amy, who taught second grade at an urban elementary school, said she started her first school year with "no set curriculum" for social studies:

No one has ever told me anything I am supposed to cover. They kind of just said, "Here are the books." And the books—I didn't know where they were. I had to ask for them.... No one has ever told me anything that I had to cover. No one has actually given me the [local district] curriculum. I actually had it, luckily, from a previous class in college. But no one ever told me, "You need to teach that."

So how did Amy decide what to teach in social studies? She said, "I kind of made it up on my own." At least one-fifth of the new teachers in our sample described receiving no operational curriculum at all, meaning they were left on their own to decide both what to teach and how to teach it. Theresa, who taught at a suburban school, explained that "no one really knows what the curriculum is" for seventh-grade math, which leaves it "pretty much up to the teacher." One teacher described his charter school curriculum as "frustratingly open" and asked, "How are you supposed to come up with curriculum while you teach?"

Over half of our respondents encountered a curriculum that specified topics or skills to be taught but provided no materials or guidance about how to address them. Some of the new teachers we interviewed appreciated the flexibility of this arrangement, such as an elementary-school teacher who noted that there was "enough room to do it in different ways." Most, however, thought there was insufficient guidance. For example, a suburban middle-school teacher said that this topical curriculum was not something she could "follow week-to-week or day-to-day." Gwen, who taught fourth grade at an urban elementary school, described feeling "lost at sea without any map or anything, without an astronomer to figure out where you were going." She worked hard to create units and worksheets for math topics that were not included in the materials provided: "I'm not bitter about that, that's part of my job. But having no resources at all for that, it's very difficult. And then, imagine having to do that for every subject."

Some of our respondents described not being sure how to organize their materials and create a lesson plan. According to Peggy, who taught second grade in a suburban district:

They gave me stuff, but sometimes when you get all this material, especially a lot of written stuff and books and things, it can be overwhelming because you're looking at it all and thinking, "Where do I start? What do I begin with?" There's no handbook.

Without some assistance or guidance to organize the materials, having too much may be as disorienting as having too little.

In response to having little or no curriculum, our respondents said they spent an inordinate amount of time and money developing their own content and materials from scratch. This occurred amidst expectations that they would learn to maintain discipline, facilitate class discussions, communicate with parents, grade papers, and negotiate the complicated red tape of school.

Only a few of the new teachers we interviewed described having a highly specified curriculum for one or more subjects or classes. These curricula provided detailed lessons that one teacher described as "pretty much scripted." Amanda, an urban elementary teacher, described her first grade math program as being

...pretty straightforward. There's a little bit of prep involved. But you open a book, it will tell you, you know, "Pour this much rice into these two containers and ask the children to describe what they see."

Such step-by-step directions allowed these teachers to feel some degree of confidence, even when teaching a lesson for the first time.

Although much of the literature suggests teachers value their autonomy and do not want to be told what to do, nearly all of these new teachers appreciated what curricular guidance they had, but wished for more. They wanted to use and adapt lessons and materials that had proven successful for teachers before them. These new teachers were not looking for easy solutions, but they suggested that they were not yet well qualified to design curriculum from scratch. In calling for greater specification, these new teachers stopped well short of asking that their every move be dictated. As a suburban middle-school teacher stated, "I don't think I would want, necessarily, everything handed to me. But at the same time, having nothing handed to you makes it so much more work." These new teachers thought that a more highly specified curriculum would have reduced the frantic and last-minute nature of lesson planning.

They also worried that their haphazard approaches shortchanged students. Mary, a mid-career entrant to teaching, expressed this dual concern for herself and for her students. She taught at a school that emphasized innovative ways of teaching and discouraged teachers from using textbooks and commercially-prepared materials. While she understood this approach, she found it unworkable for her and unfair to the students:

You are ... dealing with young people that you don't want to make that many mistakes on. It's not fair to them to sort of be trying all kinds of new things on them to see what works.

Mary said that deciding what and how to teach should not be left entirely to a new teacher.

The new teachers, however, reserved the right to adapt the prepared curriculum and materials to their own unique styles and to the specific needs of their students. Although the new teachers generally acknowledged their limited expertise as classroom teachers, they asserted their authority over what their students needed; they believed that nobody knew their students better than they did.

Without more specific curricula or adequate guidance and resources to translate the curriculum frameworks into curricula, state standards and accountability only served to frustrate new teachers. When Gail said, "You want me to teach this stuff, but I don't have the stuff to teach," she was anticipating her fourth-grade students taking the MCAS in the spring. The frameworks and high-stakes test introduced pressure without proven pedagogy and a mandate without materials.

These new teachers were often overwhelmed by the responsibility and demands of designing curriculum and planning daily lessons. They entered the classroom expecting to find a curriculum with which they would struggle. Instead, they struggled to develop a curriculum. Whatever confidence they may have had when they entered teaching was undermined daily as they realized that they did not really know what they were supposed to teach, that they had no instructional guides, that they lacked ready access to resources that might enhance their own subject knowledge, and that their private knapsack of instructional strategies was virtually empty. In response, these eager and anxious novices searched the Internet, eavesdropped on conversations to discover what other teachers did, photocopied frantically, spent hours preparing handouts, scoured library shelves for relevant background reading, and spent their own money on materials that would help them get by for a day or a week.

If state legislators and officials accept the premise of standards-based reform, then they must take seriously their responsibility to support its implementation in districts and schools. It is there that new teachers learn what and how to teach and decide whether or not to stay in the teaching profession. To support these new teachers, the development of curriculum and instructional materials, both with and for teachers, and ongoing high-quality professional development are essential.

Susan Moore Johnson is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the principal investigator for the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. David Kauffman, Susan M. Kardos, Edward Liu, and Heather G. Peske are research assistants with the Project. This article has been excerpted with permission from "Lost at Sea: New Teachers' Experiences with Curriculum and Assessment," Teachers College Record, Vol. 104(2), pp. 273-300, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK. This research was funded by the Spencer Foundation, which bears no responsibility for the findings or views expressed here.

*To protect teaches' privacy, pseudonyms are used throughout this article. (back to article)

American Educator, Summer 2002