Policy & Reform

Curriculum Needs Greater Emphasis in Education Reform

In education reform a lot of attention has been paid to learning standards and accountability systems and far less to the curriculum used in teaching. Yet it's the curriculum that may turn out to make the bigger impact. That's the proposition offered in a new report from Chiefs for Change, which has called for "curriculum reform."

Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit network of state and district education "chiefs" who want to learn from each other as they develop policies and practices for improving education in their domains.

Referring to curriculum as the "third rail in American education policy," the report, "Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning," suggested that rather than avoiding the topic, states and districts should give it much more attention as a "powerful and underused driver of school improvement."

Several studies cited by the report have found that "curriculum choices matter greatly." Also, as the authors noted, "a comprehensive, content rich curriculum was the salient feature in nine of the world's highest-performing school systems as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)."

Yet, even as schools are spending "millions of dollars" refreshing curriculum as part of their transition to new learning standards, instructional materials get very little attention by researchers compared to other education drivers. "Many common instructional materials billed as 'standards-aligned' simply don't live up to that promise," the report asserted. "Independent analyses often reveal significant gaps between what various curricula actually cover and what college- and career-ready standards demand. Whether they originate from nonprofits, academic researchers, think tanks, private companies or state education agencies, the aggregate conclusion of such analyses is that many widely used curricula fall far short."

The report offered guidance culled from states and districts that have put strategies in place for making sure "high-quality standards are matched with high-quality instructional materials, leading to strong student outcomes."

Among the lessons learned:

Don't mandate curriculum decisions. Use incentives that respect "teacher autonomy and local control over instruction." As an example, New York used a portion of its Race to the Top funding to develop statewide curriculum tools and models aligned to the standards and professional development resources for all teachers and principals. Those resources were eventually folded into EngageNY, an online center for open educational resources. Rather than requiring EngageNY usage among educators, the state made sure the site includes only high-quality instructional materials, leverages the cost-savings of OER and relies on the "power of suggestion" to promote use of the resources.

Use teacher expertise in curriculum decision-making. Louisiana has developed a "cohort of nearly 5000 teacher leaders" who receive newsletters and invitations to monthly webinars and quarterly meetings to stay up on curriculum and tools. Those leaders serve as advisors and liaisons between the state and individual schools, helping to generate buy-in on curriculum changes and showing their support for the value of new instructional resources.

"Curriculum may not be a silver bullet, but providing educators with rigorous, aligned instructional materials is a critically important, evidence-based reform that is hiding in plain sight," concluded the authors.

The report is available on the Chiefs for Change website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.