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Research Shows New Teachers Lack Curriculum for State Standards

A new study of Massachusetts teachers from researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education showed that even in a state with a highly developed system of standards and accountability, new teachers were not provided with the curricula they needed to teach to standards. In their article, "Lost at Sea: New Teachers' Experiences with Curriculum and Assessment," which appears in the current issue of Teachers College Record, researchers from HGSE's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers reported that few of the 50 first- and second-year teachers who participated in the study began teaching with a clear, detailed curriculum in hand and even fewer received curricula that aligned with state standards.

"Many of the teachers--who worked at all grade levels in both public and charter schools, in urban and suburban settings--did their best to cobble together lessons on their own, while also managing the intense demands of the first years of teaching," says Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson, director of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. "The absence of a coherent curriculum has implications for student achievement and teacher retention. Students may learn less than they otherwise might while many new teachers who could have succeeded with more support may leave teaching prematurely because of the overwhelming nature of the work and the pain of failing in the classroom."

Nineteen of the 50 new teachers — or 38 percent — had the added pressure of teaching subjects and grade levels where the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the state's high-stakes test, was administered. Over two-thirds of the teachers said that the state assessment affected their instruction, even when students in their grades were not tested. "The frameworks and high-stakes test introduced pressure without support and a mandate without materials," says David Kauffman, first author on the study.


  • One-fifth (10) of the new teachers in the sample described receiving no operational curriculum at all. This most commonly occurred with secondary teachers and with elementary teachers in social studies and science.
  • Over half (27) of the respondents encountered a curriculum that specified topics or skills to be taught, but provided no materials or guidance about how to address them.
  • Only 13 teachers in the sample described having a highly specified curriculum for one or more subjects or classes. Only two said that they had this level of specification for most subjects or classes they taught.
  • At many schools, the curriculum frameworks, local standards, or MCAS testing objectives served as a surrogate for curriculum. The curriculum frameworks described academic standards students should achieve, but unlike a curriculum, did not include details about specific content, sequence, instructional materials, or pedagogical methods.
  • When new teachers did have materials such as textbooks to accompany the curriculum frameworks, they often said that the two were not aligned; the books and other materials did not cover the same content as the state's frameworks.
  • Nearly all of the teachers in the sample appreciated what curricular guidance they had or wished for more. Even those who were teaching subjects in which they had strong content knowledge, academic majors, or professional experience reported a need for guidance about how to convey concepts to students.
  • New teachers in schools where novices and veterans collaborated to develop curriculum reported greater comfort and clarity.


According to researchers at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, the curriculum void needs to be addressed on the state policy level as well as in terms of curriculum research and development and collaboration around curriculum at the school site. The researchers make the following suggestions:

  • If state policy establishes standards, it must also address the unique curriculum needs of new teachers. If state policy establishes standards, it must also address the unique curriculum needs of new teachers.

    If state legislators and officials accept the premise of standards-based reform, they must take seriously their responsibility to support its implementation in districts and schools, where the development of curriculum and instructional materials, both with and for teachers, and ongoing high-quality professional development are essential. The point is not to script the classes of new teachers, but rather to provide them with a basic set of instructional structures, strategies, and materials so that they can refine their own teaching style and respond effectively to the varied needs of their students.

  • Research and development is needed to identify effective curriculum that supports new teachers.

    Curriculum materials with detailed information that supports teachers in making instructional decisions may help teachers themselves learn about content, pedagogy, and student learning. Additional research is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of existing materials, to better understand the conditions that make the materials effective, and to develop additional materials in various academic subject areas.

  • School leaders should support and encourage collaboration around curriculum.

    School-based collaboration between experienced and new teachers around curriculum development would orient new teachers to their curriculum and help them figure out what to teach and how to teach it.


The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is a multi-year research project addressing critical questions about the future of our nation's teaching force by studying how best to attract, support, and retain quality teachers in U.S. public schools.

Earlier this year, the Project's principal investigator Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson, and researchers Sarah Birkeland, Susan M. Kardos, David Kauffman, Edward Liu, and Heather G. Peske released a study showing that 43 percent of new teachers do not anticipate staying in the classroom as full-time teachers for their entire careers. The findings, part of a study of first- and second-year teachers in New Jersey, also show that 46 percent of the state's new teachers are mid-career entrants to the field, suggesting that mid-career entrants are becoming teachers in roughly the same numbers as first-career entrants.

The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers is funded by the Spencer Foundation.

For More Information

For more information, contact Susan Moore Johnson at 617-495-4677, David Kauffman at 617-496-4812, or Margaret R. Haas at 617-496-1884 or More information about the ongoing research of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers is available at the NGT website.


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