Great Curriculum Is Important. But It’s Not Enough.

I recently visited Start, Louisiana, a small town in the rural, northeast corner of our state, not far from the Mississippi Delta. What drew me to Start was not the chance to visit the birthplace of country star Tim McGraw, but the chance to spend some time at the local elementary school, which had earned an “A” rating from the state for the annual growth its students show in their academic skills.

What I saw was a school that trains and supports teachers every day on how to teach specific, highly regarded reading, math, and science curricula. At Start Elementary, professional development for teachers focuses on the actual content that students learn. Undergraduate students aspiring to be teachers learn to teach the curricula under the tutelage of seasoned veterans. Experienced teachers receive feedback from outside observers as to their own implementation of the curricula.

This all would not be so remarkable were it not so rare.

For all of the acrimony in our country about learning standards and standardized tests that measure students’ skills, there’s been precious little discussion about curriculum — the stuff kids actually read and do all day. Old-school textbooks remain prevalent in America’s schools, thinly covering history, science, mathematics, and literature. School boards often purchase the same brands they have for generations, paying scant attention to how the content engages and challenges students.

In an effort to change this, our state convenes panels of expert teachers to rate the quality of published curricula — a kind of Yelp for curriculum — and offers incentives that make it easy for districts to select the strongest, research-backed choices. To their great credit, many school systems in our state have done as Start Elementary did, adopting curricula that challenge students to read, think, and communicate.

However, a study of middle school mathematics curricula released by respected researchers at Harvard University last week found no discernible effect on student skills across a wide variety of well known brands. Contrasting with years of evidence pointing to the value of a good curriculum, the researchers report that they “do not see evidence of differences in achievement growth for schools using different elementary math textbooks and curricula.” Curriculum on its own, even a good one, is not a game changer.

Which brings me to the second remarkable thing I saw at Start. This was not a school that had simply chosen to use challenging curricula; this was a school that had made those curricula the basis for how it trained teachers to teach. Undergraduate trainees’ first moments as teachers were spent learning to use the curricula. Non-profit training organizations were there to help. Specialists in reading and math coached teachers not just on the basis of general expertise in those subjects, but also on the basis of deeply knowing how to teach specific curricula. This was a school that understood that a good curriculum is essential but not sufficient; it has to be part of a focused effort to train and support teachers in order for it to have its intended effect.

That all may sound commonsensical — in what other profession would job training not involve learning to use the actual tools of the trade? Doctors, welders, software developers, architects, and most other professionals learn their crafts by practicing with actual tools of the trade. But that’s not how preparation for teaching usually works. Most colleges of education and other teacher preparation organizations don’t focus their efforts on teaching aspiring educators to teach specific lessons or specific books. Equally strange, “in-service” professional development vendors that teachers encounter over the course of their careers are most often agnostic to curriculum, teaching general skills rather than use of a particular tool.

So it should be no wonder that a study indicates that curricula on their own do not transform educational outcomes; absent a system of teacher preparation and support organized around a curriculum, schools have lots of tools and only partially prepared users.

We’re working to change this in Louisiana as well. Our state requires a full-year residency for aspiring teachers enrolled in colleges of education. Residents spend their final years as undergraduates in districts in which they’re likely to be hired, co-teaching alongside certified mentor educators, learning curricula they’re likely to teach later as full-time professionals. Our state also evaluates organizations that provide professional development services for teachers throughout their careers, rating them on their expertise in using specific curricula. Louisiana is even developing a new standardized reading test that measures students’ knowledge of specific books taught in a specific curriculum, so that teachers can focus on teaching the contents of a singular, high-quality curriculum.

These strategies for supporting teachers who are learning to use a specific curriculum are showing promise. In a 2016 study, RAND researchers found “large and intriguing differences” between Louisiana teachers and teachers elsewhere in terms of important concepts such as selecting challenging books for students to read and building students’ conceptual understanding of math problems. Louisiana was also the only state RAND observed that had made explicit connections between specific curricula and the organizations providing professional development in public schools.

However, these initial indicators not withstanding, evidence in our state indicates that half of Louisiana teachers still struggle to use the curriculum as it was intended to be used. Many skip the the most challenging questions the curriculum asks of students. Others struggle to evaluate writing tasks, conversations, and classroom projects with the rigor and ambition the curriculum requires.

A study noting no effect of any particular curriculum is humbling news. But it should not be surprising. As with any craft, learning to teach takes tools and takes time. But American teacher preparation programs, professional development organizations, school systems themselves, and state education agencies have been oddly reticent to make long-term commitments to helping teachers master specific curricula. Until that changes, we’re likely to see more studies showing minimal effects of curricula. And little Start Elementary will remain an impressive anomaly.

John White is the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education and Chair of the Board of Directors of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs.

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