Choosing a Curriculum: A Critical Act

An education system without an effective instructional core is like a car without a working engine: It can’t fulfill its function. No matter how much energy and money we spend working on systemic issues – school choice, funding, assessments, accountability, and the like – not one of these policies educates children. That is done only through curriculum and teachers: the material we teach and how effectively we teach it.

Education reformers have grasped the importance of one-half of this core: teacher quality. Indeed, one of the most contentious education reforms of the last decade was the effort, spearheaded in the federal Race to the Top initiative, to create accountability around teachers’ performance. More recently, federal initiatives and major foundations have begun to focus on the caliber of teacher preparation, with states such as Delaware and Louisiana taking the lead in evaluating the quality of schools of education. At the same time, we have seen the multiplication of clinical residency programs across the country, a strategy based on the medical model of training doctors.

While one can certainly debate the merits of the means, the goal of improving teacher quality has become a central facet of education policy. By contrast, attention to the academic content – what we teach – is only now beginning to emerge as a serious lever in education policy. For starters, with the exception of California and a few districts across the country, we have no clear idea what is being taught in America’s classrooms. This would strike other countries as ludicrous: As Common Core, Inc., discovered in 2009, while top-performing countries differ in many facets of education policy, they all share a commitment to high-quality curricular content. Second, we know that many of America’s teachers construct their own curricula as they go along, with some three-quarters reporting the use of self-developed materials (often drawn from multiple, web-based sources) on a weekly basis. The result is that the content a child studies in an American school is often based on what their teacher happens to believe is worth teaching, and how skilled she or he happens to be in constructing and sequencing that material across a semester.

Why does this matter? Perhaps, so the argument goes, rather than finding agreement on the academic content, states should merely lay out a set of college- and career-ready standards. Let’s just focus on skills such as “finding the main idea” or “citing evidence.” After all, knowledge itself changes, and who is to say which content is most worth studying anyway?

This line of reasoning is problematic, and always has been. First, not all “skills-based” curricula are created equal. As our recent study with Chiefs for Change sets out, curriculum matters – a lot. Shifting from a poor to an excellent curriculum can increase student learning by the annual equivalent of several months of additional learning, or, to put the same point differently, can move a student who is performing at the 50th percentile to the 70th. This level of impact is greater than replacing every first-year teacher in America with a veteran teacher.

Moreover, choosing to use a high-quality curriculum isn’t expensive: As researchers Morgan Polikoff and Cory Koedel put it, “Textbooks are relatively inexpensive and tend to be similarly priced. The implication is that the marginal cost of choosing a more effective textbook over a less effective alternative is essentially zero.” A study from the Center for American Progress also notes, “The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction.”

While shifting to a high-quality, skills-based curriculum is important – and as Robert Pondiscio recently detailed, Louisiana has taken the national lead in supporting its teachers to make such a change, with terrific early results – there is a further crucial step available, especially in the English Language Arts. By this I mean the shift to a content-rich, sequenced curriculum, such as Core Knowledge, Wit and Wisdom, or the recently released curriculum built by the Success Academy Charter Schools.

Why is content so important? Think about finding the main idea in the following sentence: “The silly mid-off missed John’s shot off a googly.” No amount of re-reading will help comprehension unless the reader already knows something about the subject matter – in this case, the game of cricket. Particularly in the higher grade levels, endless re-hashing of so-called comprehensive skills will not improve reading; as E.D. Hirsch has shown using international assessment results, it is the knowledge base that counts. The results of a skills-based ELA curriculum are clear: America’s reading performance at 12th grade has been completely unchanged since 1992. And when France abandoned its national, knowledge-rich curriculum, its performance plummeted, with the most underprivileged students impacted the most.

In America, the importance of curricular content is not only academic but also cultural. Especially in the larger cities, ours is a highly mobile population. Because the content of what we teach is so immensely varied, a child who moves schools within a district, let alone into a new district or a different state, will find no consistency and no structure to her learning. She may study the ancient Egyptians three times, while China not at all. She may learn the same math functions in totally different ways and at different times.

Sometimes the United States gets it right. Since the 1990s, the nation’s top-performing state has deepened its emphasis on academic content. As the Chiefs for Change paper details, Massachusetts began by outlining a comprehensive set of curricular frameworks that were aligned to new and demanding standards. It continued by expanding teachers’ knowledge of academic subject matter and created the nation’s most demanding content-based examinations for would-be teachers. More recently, it has stood up some 100 model-curriculum units across the disciplines including ELA, math, history, social science and STEM. The same drive toward better content in curriculum led me to include funding in New York state’s successful Race to the Top application, which led to EngageNY, a set of content-rich curriculum units available for universal, free download.

There is no justification for punting on curricula: There is too much evidence that quality matters, and the cost of choosing quality is too low to do otherwise. The content that teachers deliver in the classroom matters just as much as how effectively they deliver it. What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education; it is American education.

—David Steiner

David Steiner is executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. 

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