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Ky. To Showcase Performance-Linked Curricula

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Buying an off-the-shelf curriculum has traditionally meant crossing your fingers and hoping it would actually help students learn. But those days may be over.

In what they believe is an unprecedented feat, Kentucky education officials have compiled a list of nationally available curricula and instructional programs for which there is empirical proof of higher student achievement.

Kentucky's work is all the more noteworthy because educators nationwide have remarkably little evidence that the materials and methods they use to teach core academic subjects to K-12 students are verifiably effective. Out of about 500 curriculum providers that the Kentucky education department surveyed this summer and fall, only 64 could produce hard evidence of efficacy.

The aim was to collect information that would help create "a savvy Kentucky customer," said Jo O'Brien, the education department manager in charge of the project.

For More Information

Information about the programs showcased is available from the Kentucky Department of Education, KDE Bookstore, 500 Mero St., 19th Floor, Frankfort, KY 40601; (502) 564-3421; or by e-mail at

The state's effort also can help educators nationwide, said Ruth Mitchell, a principal partner at the Education Trust in Washington, a nonprofit group that promotes high academic standards.

"It's meeting exactly the need that is around right now, which is to move beyond standards and to implement them in the classroom in the form of curricula and assignments," Ms. Mitchell said. "If we don't have something in the classroom that kids actually do that is different, then we're getting nowhere."

The Kentucky team found successful programs for teaching science, mathematics, English/language arts, and social studies across all grade levels. It did not find any for teaching music, art, and literature.

The exemplary programs include the nationally renowned as well as the lesser-known: Integrated Mathematics, published by McDougal Littell in Boston; Ohio State University's Reading Recovery; Johns Hopkins University's Success for All/Roots and Wings; the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project; and the University of Hawaii's Developmental Approaches in Science, Health and Technology or DASH.

Showcasing What Works

The research team also discovered that the effective programs had common features. Programs that focused the most on student results were also more fully developed and coordinated in the areas of instructional methodology, assessment, on-site technical assistance, and quality control than other programs.

Jo O'Brien

To share this curricular gold mine, Kentucky was scheduled to host an exposition this week to showcase, but not endorse, about 50 of the successful programs. About 1,200 Kentucky educators and representatives from several other states were expected.

John H. Hale, the principal of Rockcastle County Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ky., said he was looking forward to information he could use. "If we're going to invest the funds that we have, which are always limited, we want to make good investments of our time and training," he said.

"Certainly, there were times we thought we were buying a good product," he said. "But it wasn't an effective product. The problem was we didn't have statistics to look at."

Jim Abrams, a curriculum specialist with the Vermont Institute for Science, Math, and Technology, said he wanted to find out more about the kinds of assessments the programs used to show effects on student achievement. "You have to be very, very careful when you measure gains," he said, that "you used an instrument appropriate to the goals of your program." The independent, nonprofit group is subsidized by the National Science Foundation and works with Vermont teachers.

Clamoring for Help

In recent years, Kentucky has earned a cutting-edge reputation by setting high standards for students, designing a rigorous state assessment, and holding educators accountable through rewards and sanctions. It has also toughened graduation requirements.

Pressed to show continuing gains in student achievement, educators there have been clamoring for programs that can help them deliver, Ms. O'Brien said.

In July, five education department employees began what Ms. O'Brien called "the hunt." Over four months, the team got in touch with all 50 state departments of education as well as universities, federal educational laboratories, the subject-area teachers' organizations, publishers, and others to try to find effective curricula and instructional programs.

The researchers wanted to know which programs could show student progress of at least 7 percent a year over two to three years, compared with those students who had not been in the same program. Officials wanted to set a high bar by demanding a larger gain than the 2 percent to 5 percent improvement expected of schools in Kentucky each year, but they did not quibble about which assessment the programs used to gauge the progress.

But, Ms. O'Brien said, "90 percent of all that we called did not have any performance results," let alone ones that showed gains that could be reproduced.

What's more, she said, virtually all of the program providers had never been asked by education consumers whether they could prove their worth. When probed for evidence, users cited personal preferences, and providers relayed sales figures or a state's purchase of the curriculum. "Performance never came up," Ms. O'Brien said.

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