Many Math Teachers Cobble Together Their Own Instructional Materials, A Survey Finds

The other problem is that teacher-made materials may sacrifice the thoughtful sequencing of topics planned by curriculum designers. When teachers create or take materials from various sources, it is hard to maintain a “coherent development” of ideas, Zahner explained. Curriculum designers may weave a review of previous concepts to reinforce them even as new ideas are introduced. Teacher-curated materials may be disjointed. Separate research has found that some of the most popular materials that teachers grab from internet sites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, are not high quality

The national survey was conducted in 2021 by researchers at San Diego State University, including Zahner, who also directs the university’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education, and the English Learners Success Forum, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of instructional materials for English learners. The researchers sought out the views of teachers who worked in school districts where more than 10% of the students were classified as English learners, which is the national average. More than 1,000 math teachers, from kindergarten through 12th grade, responded. On average, 30% of their students were English learners, but some teachers had zero English learners and others had all English learners in their classrooms.

Teachers were asked about the drawbacks of their assigned curriculum for English learners. Many said that their existing materials weren’t connected to their students’ languages and cultures. Others said that the explanations of how to tailor a lesson to an English learner were too general to be useful. Zahner says that teachers have a point and that they need more support in how to help English learners develop the language of mathematical reasoning and argumentation.

It was not clear from this survey whether the desire to accommodate English learners was the primary reason that teachers were putting together their own materials or whether they would have done so anyway. 

“There are a thousand reasons why this is happening,” said Zahner. One high school teacher in Louisiana who participated in the survey said his students needed a more advanced curriculum. Supervisors inside a school may not like the materials that officials in a central office have chosen. “Sometimes schools have the materials but they’re all hidden in a closet,” Zahner said.

In the midst of a national debate on how best to teach math, this survey is an important reminder of yet another reason why many students aren’t getting the instruction that they need. 

This story about math lessons was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters. 

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