Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Don’t Give Up on Curriculum Reform Just Yet

What the research does (and doesn’t) say about curriculum
By Thomas J. Kane & David M. Steiner — April 01, 2019 6 min read
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Our country is currently witnessing a gradual transition to stronger instructional materials (defined here as both curriculum and textbooks). By “stronger,” we mean not only standards-aligned, but also considerably more academically rigorous, affording teachers the chance to dig deeply into mathematical concepts and to read texts that build rich content knowledge.

We did not always see eye to eye on the importance of such materials. One of us (David M. Steiner) has long been committed to the improvement of curriculum materials, while the other (Thomas J. Kane) has been studying individual differences in teaching, seeing teacher evaluation as a means to improving instruction. We, and many others, used to see curricula and managing individual differences in teaching as two alternative paths forward. Today, we both recognize that the benefits of strong curricula and better instruction come only from treating them as two sides of a single strategy: enabling the effective teaching of high-quality materials.

However, a report released earlier this month (and co-authored by one of us—Tom), “Learning by the Book,” found that the adoption of more-rigorous curricula in elementary math has not yet produced the sizeable improvements in student outcomes for which many hoped (and which prior research predicted). Yet, we both agree that now is not the time to give up on curriculum reform and move on, as has happened so often in U.S. education in the past. Rather, we urge states, districts, and the philanthropic community to understand the magnitude of the transformation that new curricula require and to identify the package of support teachers and principals need to reorient their daily work.

See also: “Textbooks Alone Don’t Boost Test Scores, Study Says

The need for more-rigorous curricula is especially urgent for low-income children. As a report last year from TNTP notes, “Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.” Still more concerning is the striking disparity between classrooms of wealthy and of low-income students: “Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.”

What do any of us do when given a complicated device with only cursory instructions? We dabble with it."

Many of the districts and schools surveyed for “Learning by the Book” approached the new curricula as they have curriculum adoptions in the past: They simply swapped out the materials teachers use but left instruction unchanged. Many teachers are using the new curricula in cursory ways. Although 93 percent of the 1,195 teachers surveyed reported using the textbook for some purpose in more than half their classes, only 25 percent used it “nearly all the time” for essential activities such as in-class examples, in-class exercises, homework problems, and assessments, and just 7 percent use their curriculum exclusively. Moreover, teachers using the more rigorous curricula (as many as 40 percent in the case of Eureka Math, one of the curricula studied in the report) report watering down the curriculum when they believe it is too demanding for their students.

The fault lies neither with the new curricula, nor with teachers. What do any of us do when given a complicated device with only cursory instructions? We dabble with it, but soon resort to more familiar tools and habits of use. Think of all the settings on your smartphone with mysterious functions that you never use.

With the new curricula, we have handed teachers a tool much more complicated than any smartphone, one that holds great promise but requires complex behavior changes. And we have largely left them to figure it out on their own. The average teacher received only 1.1 days of professional development devoted to their curriculum during the 2016-17 school year and 3.4 days when including prior years, “Learning by the Book” found.

We offer a call to action on two fronts. First, education policymakers can no longer simply exhort schools and districts to implement curricula more thoroughly. We need to provide clearer guidance on an effective transition to more-rigorous curricula. States, districts, and the national philanthropies who have been supporting the better materials should test different packages of supports—with different combinations of professional development for teachers, training for principals on what to look for during classroom observations, classroom coaching, videotaped practice sessions with teachers—and identify the suite of supports necessary to generate closer adherence to the curricula and to boost student achievement.

Although they only received 1.1 days of curriculum-related training, the teachers surveyed for “Learning by the Book” reported a total of 5.7 total days of professional development, on average, in a year. Obviously, it would be costly to provide the same amount of training as in Singapore—a top-performing system—where teachers typically receive more than twice as many hours of professional development a year than in the United States. Nevertheless, we should test the effect of devoting a much larger share of U.S. schools’ current professional-development time to curricula.

Second, states must collect the data required for evaluating curricula on an ongoing basis. Although the recent report found no significant differences in achievement gains for schools using different math textbooks, discerning the true differences may simply require larger sample sizes. States could use their longitudinal data systems to compare students’ average annual achievement gains in schools that use different curricula. Unfortunately, few state education agencies even know which curricula are being used by their own districts or schools, yet could readily add textbook information to the reams of data they already collect.

One reason why schools don’t know how to effectively use the more challenging curricula is that commercial publishers have not created a full suite of resources (such as videos and coaching tools) that teachers might need to succeed. Inevitably, such supports cost money, and it is in no one’s interest to develop or buy them until there’s evidence of efficacy. However, if their reputations were dependent upon the achievement gains of schools using their products, publishers would have a stronger incentive to package their products with additional, instructionally effective supports.

Contrary to our (perhaps naïve) hopes, we have learned that curriculum materials alone are not enough. But the worst thing we could do now would be to conclude that teaching rigorous, demanding academic content to all our students can’t work. By systematically identifying the package of supports that teachers need to make full use of stronger materials—and by attaching student achievement gains to textbooks so that publishers have an incentive to provide the supports teachers need—we can make progress. To close the book on curricula now would be equivalent to closing the book on learning. Curriculum is the foundation for what students and teachers do together every day.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Don’t Close the Book on Curriculum Reform

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