It's the curriculum, stupid

Improving curriculum would provide more reform for less money than anything else pushed by reformers, writes Robert Pondiscio of Core Knowledge. He cites Russ Whitehurst’s research showing teacher quality, early childhood education, charter schools and standards don’t provide the brains for the bucks of better curriculum.

“We conclude that the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers,” writes Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences. He recommends the administration “integrate curriculum innovation and reform into its policy framework.”

The wonks went wild about Nicholas Kristof’s attack on teachers’ unions for protecting “inept and abusive teachers,” Pondiscio complains, while Whitehurst’s views got little notice.

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  1. Yes, because we all know that having just the right curriculum will solve all problems related to indifferent teachers, delayed learning, cold and leaky schools… etc.

    It’s NOT just the curriculum, and calling people who disagree “stupid” doesn’t change that fact.

  2. For the benefit of Mr. Downes, “It’s the Curriculum, Stupid” is a reference to James Carville’s memorable (and self-deprecating) phrase “It’s the Economy, Stupid” in the 1992 presidential campaign. It was his way of reminding himself and fellow Clinto staffers where the focus of the campaign belonged. The formulation, “It’s the (blank), stupid” has since become shorthand for stating the obvious.

    Those of us who traffic in cultural literacy tend to pay attention to such things.

  3. Stephen Downes: It’s NOT just the curriculum, and calling people who disagree “stupid” doesn’t change that fact.

    Jolly lucky then that no one has claimed that it was just the curriculum then, isn’t it?

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    Robert–your explanation was certainly helpful, but adding the suggestion that folks who didn’t get it are culturally illiterate wasn’t necessary.

  5. Oh my goodness….I quit.

  6. Curriculum may be the most effective reform, but ONLY if one can guarantee a reasonably successful and faithful implementation of it. And that’s not a guarantee any district leader can easily make. You will have teachers who refuse to teach the new curriculum because they disagree with its content or pedagogy, or because they don’t understand it, or because they don’t know how to teach it, or because they don’t want to do the work to learn something new. You will have teachers who do try to teach the new curriculum, but who lack the skills or content knowledge needed to tackle it on their own. You will have teachers who object to it if it’s overly scripted, and teachers who are confused by it if it is not scripted enough. You will have teachers who believe that writing their own curriculum is an essential and integral part of their job, and who are not willing to cede that task to anyone else. In short, it’s a major implementation challenge that requires strong leadership at the district level and a LOT of support and guidance at the school level. Without those things, too many teachers will simply close their doors, do what they’ve always done, and wait for This Year’s Bright Idea to go away.

  7. So the California Department of Education has created these web-pages that on the face seem to provide curriculum standards:

    But schools still have huge differences in achievement levels. Do the curriculum standards need improvement? How? Are other factors at work?

  8. The problem is that curriculum is political. Choose a phonics based curriulum or a whole language program? Choose a discovery math program ala Chicago Math or a traditional teacher directed program like Saxon? Curriculum choice is a minefield.

  9. Andrew Bell says:

    Andrew’s point is a good one. Teachers generally seem themselves as independent. And why shouldn’t they? We usually put them in a room by themselves with a bunch of kids with no other adults around to tell them what to do, make suggestions, help out, etc. They are kings and queens of their classroom. Many teachers often become quite possessive about _their_ students.

    Until schools become something else – collaborative environments where teachers work together to achieve a common goal with the _school’s_ students – all the issues that Andrew mentions will continue. Part of this is historical, but part of it is money. There aren’t extra staff to allow teachers time to coordinate their instruction, observe each other, get to know each others students or generally learn the curriculum. This extends to administrators, who often don’t have time to ensure that classroom teachers are using the curriculum that has been put in place.

  10. Steve Quist says:

    Like many problems, the problem of school performance has many dimensions. In particular each of these may be a limiting factor that depresses student achievement. Andrew and Robert both provide such candidates.

    The nature of these kind of problems (at least in engineering) is that it is often unclear which particular limiting factor is in play at any given time. Robert, I believe, is correct in identifying curriculum as the current problem. Unfortunately, as Andrew points out, even if the curriculum problem is solved, other factors quickly become the limiting ones in improving student achievement.

    There are plenty of other candidates for the next limiting factor as well. Parental involvement, neighborhood culture, political factors unique to each state or school district, and others all play a role.

    Furthermore, at each level of the problem – federal, state, city, district, school, classroom, student – the answer may be different.

    We can’t expect any single answer to school reform to do much. All we can do is try to identify the factors at play in any given environment and fix them as best we can.

  11. > Oh my goodness….I quit.

    Run out of pearls, hey Robert?

    Since there’s hardly anything startling in the observation that a good curriculum generates good results the better question would be why it’s an insight that seems to have been so widely ignored.

  12. tom linehan says:

    Russ Whitehurst did state in his article that there is some evidence that the best curricula can arguably be the most cost effective way to improve schools.

    But that is not all what his data and those of most good research in education indicate to me. The tell me that the best evidence is that the best schools get most things right. A better curriculum, better teachers, higher standards are all common to great schools especially those schools that beat the demographics. Ideas like incentive pay help. Getting rid of bad teachers and improving the teacher corps in general are important elements for improving education. Lowering class size in the earliest grades can help.

    The point is that effects are cumulative. The message to me is that the more practices that have a positive effect that a school embraces, the better the outcomes.

  13. Just so, Tom. I’ve been in enough schools both good and bad. Good schools get nearly everything right. Bad schools get nearly everything wrong. Bad schools tend to chase one quick fix after another; good schools are inherently suspicious of the Next Big Thing and pursue change incrementally. It’s an inelegant analogy, but schools that are successful with low income students especially seem to take the approach you see in treating AIDS patients. They’re not curing it, but managing the condition with a cocktail of rememdies, which applied in combination yield results.

    Whitehurst’s study was eye-opening to me because it points out that the most effective rememdy — curriculum — is not part of the ed reform discussion. It’s not saying the other elements–standards, charters, merit pay, etc.–should be dropped. Merely that curriculum yields more benefit and at a much, much lower cost. To further my analogy, it’s as if we’re building the hospitals, training the doctors, investing in medical technology, but suggesting medicine doesn’t matter.

    After decades of failure and hundreds of billions spent, I would hope we’re ready to hear the “curriculum matters” argument and put it at the forefront of ed reform efforts.

  14. Margo/Mom says:

    It seems to me that there are many issues that keep the focus off of curriculum. Certainly one is the level of local control in a particular state. Regardless of the particular legislative requirements that place greater responsibility at either the state or local level (and in the US we have the full spectrum), we tend to believe in local autonomy. We are suspicious of choices made by folks who operate at a distance.

    But piled on top of this, is a huge amount of confusion with regard to what constitutes a curriculum. My own local district hired a group of consultants to perform a curriculum audit some years back. The startling conclusion was that the district did not have a curriculum. Despite a selection of texts, and some course names that could be identified as the same from school to school, the variation in content was wide. With the advent of state academic content standards, we tend to think that we have curriculum corralled. We do not. Some districts have sliced the content standards into “pacing guides,” with the assumption that teachers will then cull the available curricular supports (meaning text books)and find ways to disseminate the learning. Some purchase curricula–particularly for early reading or mathematics. Every “curriculum” or textbook salesperson will swear that their curriculum aligns to the standards of the state. What this means is that every possible jot and tiddle from every one of fifty states is in there somewhere. Some large districts may even write their own “curriculum.” Other districts may simple “adopt” the state standards as their “curriculum.”

    Dr. William Schmidt studied math content actual taught across two states in comparison to the content standards of the states. He found a wide variation in what was being taught, across each state, but within districts as well. His big research concern has been the progression of content within schools. If the curriculum is left up to individual teachers–in spite of content standards–the risk of poorly coordinated coverage of content is great. This is particularly important in mathematics where concepts build on top of one another.

    Approaches such as backward design, with specified tasks, strategies and measures of accomplishment across a well-mapped set of curricular objectives, are very appealing–particularly in terms of rallying teachers to work together and utilizing the best abilities of classroom teachers. I don’t know many districts that have access to the kind of teacher planning and collaboration time to be able to pull this off. In addition, we know the the skills and abilities of our teaching force tend to be maldistributed across student income levels and this could easily become an excercise in reinforcing achievement gaps.

    But it returns to my mind the number of exploratory studies that I have looked at that find teacher collaboration to be one commonality across schools that have shown improved achievement over time. Robert is right, it takes a careful approach that includes a broad range of strategies. Curriculum must be built at the same time that school culture is nurtured and discipline looked after and community relationships built. For the most part, when I have seen research with the kind of effect size that makes us sit up and pay attention, it has been from looking at models that group indicators together.

  15. The collaboration issue is an important one, but it’s often raised as a good in itself–you should collaborate because it’s good to collaborate–which makes it easy to evade, among teachers who don’t buy in. To me, the reason a collaborative environment is so important is that recognizes the fact that a school is s system–which is something many teachers also try to evade. You can close the door and do whatever you think is right–but what do your choices about what to teach and how to teach it affect the teachers who will inherit your students next year–or the teachers teaching other subjects to your students this year? We snarl about the bad teaching that our kids had the year before (how dare they pass these kids along to me, not knowing what they need to know), but we don’t think about our responsibility to the future.

    No one every spoke to me this way when I was in the classroom. They should have.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Curriculum is political. Some years ago, National Review was strongly in the corner of phonics and Saxon math.
    Their view was that it worked, which was supposed to be the goal.
    I’ve yet to hear of a whole language advocate who even bothered to address the issue of effectiveness, rather than gassing on about concepts and structure.
    At that time you lined up pro-phonics and structured math (like Saxon) if you were conservative and in favor of whole language and fuzzy math if you were liberal.
    Which worked wasn’t on the top of the to-do list.
    If you remember that alphabetical languages, as opposed to pictographic languages like Chinese, were designed to reproduce sounds adults already heard and could recognize because they used the words ever day, it becomes clearer.
    You learn phonics so you can reproduce the sound and recognize it as one you have already heard and know.
    I recall a volunteer literacy teacher burbling on about how she was teaching Enclish whole word recognition to some Vietnamese refugees. I wondered if she were a sadist.


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