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Topics / Professional Learning for Educators

The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning

A new report by Carnegie Corporation of New York calls for transforming teaching and student learning by anchoring professional learning in high-quality curriculum materials

The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning is a challenge paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores how professional learning anchored in high-quality curriculum materials allows teachers to experience the instruction their students will receive and change their instructional practices, leading to better student outcomes.


How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students? 
The Challenge
The Elements and the Essentials
What Is Curriculum-Based Professional Learning?
The Importance of Teacher Learning
How can we ensure that teachers experience the same kind of inquiry-based learning we expect them to provide for their students?
A Call to Action 
Recommendations for Teachers
Recommendations for Professional Learning Providers and Coaches
Recommendations for System and School Leaders


Download The Elements chart or watch an animation to learn more.

Teachers’ jobs are changing in real time. Over the past decade, new academic standards have dramatically shifted our expectations for student learning. It’s no longer enough to raise a hand and give the right answer. Instead, we want students to wrestle with complex problems, collaborate with one another, and investigate and apply information in creative ways.

This is not how most teachers learned when they were in school. It is not how most teacher preparation programs develop adults to lead a classroom. And it looks nothing like the seminars that dominate teachers’ professional development experiences. Most often, the emphasis is on creative lesson planning and keeping students engaged. Such models of professional development contribute to better teaching by keeping the focus on the adult in the room.

That focus needs to change. Most teachers have never experienced the sort of inquiry-based learning we expect them to provide for their students. How can teachers, professional learning providers and coaches, and system and school leaders help with this transition and keep pace with new goals for academic success?   

The implications are clear. Curriculum matters, but how teachers use curriculum matters even more.

The Challenge

School board members, parents, education stakeholders, and all educators have a vested interest in the success of all students. And one thing they have witnessed firsthand is clearly supported by research: curriculum has a direct impact on student engagement and learning. The instructional materials that teachers use with their students can dramatically accelerate or hamper learning.

Perhaps less obvious, yet even more important, is that the way in which teachers use curriculum matters too. This presents a unique opportunity to enhance the efforts of hard-working teachers: provide them with strong, high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum and make sure they know how to take advantage of everything it has to offer. The question is, how?

The Elements and the Essentials

We have identified a core set of actions, approaches, and enabling conditions that effective schools and systems have put in place to reinforce and amplify the power of high-quality curriculum and skillful teaching. We call these the Elements of Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, or simply the Elements.

The Elements offers “copious sense and practical wisdom on ways that we might make good teaching more consistently and effectively doable, writes Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Read more →


The Elements encompass actions big and small, from purposefully selecting a strong curriculum to planning efficient teacher meetings wholly focused on instruction. In this paper, we define each of the 10 Elements and show how school and district leaders, curriculum developers, and organizations that support teacher development can apply them in their roles and communities. We also identify foundational conditions that system leaders must establish to ensure that curriculum-based professional learning can thrive. We call these the Essentials.

Taken together, the Elements and the Essentials offer a foundation for practitioners looking to undertake this work. They also serve as a call to action. This powerful approach to curriculum reform and professional learning knits together two influential aspects of a child’s education: teachers’ skillfulness and the quality of the instructional materials they use. By reshaping current practices with the Elements and the Essentials as a guide, we can help teachers develop the skills, knowledge, and understanding they need to set all students up for success.

What Is Curriculum-Based Professional Learning?

Curriculum-based professional learning invites teachers to participate in the same sort of rich, inquiry-based learning that new academic standards require. Such learning places the focus squarely on curriculum. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs. This stands in contrast to traditional teacher training, which typically relays a static mass of information that teachers selectively apply to existing practice.

Instead of a one-time workshop, facilitators guide a series of focused, small-group sessions that are structured like a typical day’s lesson, allowing teachers to experience the instruction that their students will receive. Working together, teachers rehearse lessons and address common concerns. They deepen their subject knowledge and fine-tune their instructional approaches, growing fluent in the curriculum’s rigorous content and sequence of learning. Over time, both inside and outside their classrooms, teachers see firsthand how their day-to-day choices can enrich or cut short inquiry-based learning. These experiences help reshape their beliefs and assumptions about what their students can achieve.

This vision of professional learning uses curriculum as both a lever and a guide, helping link teachers’ actions and ideas to new standards in a concrete, focused way. Done right, it can close the gap between the experiences we provide for teachers and those we want them to provide for students. Given the challenges teachers and students are currently experiencing as they adapt to remote instructional platforms, such learning is especially crucial to their success.

Six Fundamental Shifts 

Traditional teacher professional development often takes the form of a lecture-heavy workshop disconnected from the day-to-day lessons that teachers lead. By contrast, curriculum-based professional learning is active, ongoing, and focused on improving the rigor and impact of teachers’ lessons. It calls for six major shifts.

The Importance of Teacher Learning

Teachers, unions, schools, and districts all seem to agree on the importance of teacher learning. The United States spends an estimated $18 billion on professional development programs every year, and teachers spend more than a week’s worth of time participating in them. From training seminars to coaching and small-group study, professional development entails a major investment of money and time.

Research shows:

  • Traditional professional development does not achieve substantial positive impacts on teacher performance or student outcomes.
  • A broad gap exists between the short-term, isolated experiences that typify professional development and the ongoing, content-focused, job-embedded professional learning that can help teachers and their students excel.
  • Even when learning is focused on a particular content area, it tends to be short-lived, with most teachers participating in less than 16 hours of activities — on the order of a seminar or two in a year.
  • Just 7 percent of the nation’s elementary school reading teachers use at least one standards-aligned instructional tool in classroom instruction.
  • More than half of U.S. teachers craft curriculum for their students, either by borrowing from multiple sources or creating their own materials.
  • Using better instructional materials boosts student outcomes just as much as having a better teacher at the front of the room.
  • When teachers participated in curriculum-based professional learning, their students’ test scores improved by 9 percent of a standard deviation — about the same effect caused by replacing an average teacher with a top performer or reducing class size by 15 percent.

A Call to Action

A strong evidence base shows that high-quality instructional materials accelerate student learning and that their impact grows even larger when teachers participate in curriculum-based professional learning. Yet in too many cases, instruction is poorly aligned to the research on learning, and a wide gap remains between traditional teacher professional development and what is needed to teach high-quality instructional materials. These differences are most stark in classrooms serving students of color, who have far less access to rigorous curriculum and inquiry-based instruction than their peers.

High-quality instructional materials and curriculum-based professional learning can help us continue to drive improvements in teaching and learning that reach all students. We can capitalize on the investments that states and systems have already made in adopting new standards by better connecting teachers with curriculum developers and professional learning providers. In providing these supports, we can give teachers what they so clearly want and what research and evidence from the field indicate they — and their students — need.

These won’t be quick fixes. Rigorous, inquiry-based teaching and learning require teachers to make fundamental shifts in habits, skills, knowledge, and beliefs. They also require substantial changes in instructional culture and priorities.

To help achieve this foundational transformation in professional learning, download the report’s recommendations for teachers, professional learning providers and coaches, and system and school leaders

Help us meet the challenges of the moment and continue to improve teaching and learning by spreading the word on Twitter

Recommendations for Teachers

Great teaching with a high-quality curriculum is key to student learning. Download the report’s recommendations for teachers who need to experience the instruction their students will receive and transform their instructional practices.


Recommendations for Professional Learning Providers and Coaches

Curriculum-based professional learning is a team effort. Download the report’s recommendations for professional learning providers and coaches who are pivotal to connecting high-quality curriculum materials with teachers and students. 


Recommendations for System and School Leaders

Leadership is essential to transformative learning for educators and students. Download the report’s recommendations for system and school leaders who must provide the foundational conditions for teachers and students to succeed together.



Download the full Elements report.