Curriculum the Missing Ingredient in School Reform, Book Says

By Erik W. Robelen — January 10, 2012 5 min read
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Higher standards. Better assessments. Accountability. Merit pay for teachers. Charter schools. These are among the familiar strands of education reform that have dominated the national dialogue in recent years.

But a new book from a 25-year veteran of educational publishing argues that improving the curriculum—what actually gets taught in classrooms—is all too often left off the table. And the author, who provides an insider perspective on the world of developing and selecting curricular materials, contends that this neglect is a key obstacle to increased student learning.

“Notably, and disturbingly, with all the attention paid to educational reform, there has been little, if any, focus on curriculum as part of the problem,” writes Beverlee Jobrack, who retired in 2007 as editorial director for McGraw-Hill. “It has become clear to me that student achievement will at best remain static unless educational reform includes re-evaluating and improving how curriculum is developed, assessed, and selected.”

The book, Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms, seems especially timely, given the ongoing challenge we’ve chronicled here of bringing the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics to life in the classroom. Here’s the latest of many posts touching on the matter. I should also mention that, in her book, Jobrack cites the work of Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who also has argued for giving curriculum greater attention in school improvement. (Whitehurst, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, was the director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences in the Bush administration.)

Jobrack offers a behind-the-scenes look at how textbooks and other curricular materials are developed, written, adopted, and sold. The author, who prior to working in publishing spent several years teaching middle school and preschool, argues that the curriculum used in most classrooms is mediocre and typically fails to reflect best practices. The core problem, as she sees it, is a system that has failed to create the right conditions and incentives to ensure that high-quality curricula designed to optimize learning are developed and reach classrooms around the nation.

As she puts it, this system is “perpetuating mediocrity in instructional materials and in American education.”

Jobrack weaves a tale of:

• School and district committees for curriculum selection filled with teachers and others who lack the appropriate expertise, motivation, and time to make the best choices;

• State textbook adoptions focused on whether curricular materials meet state standards, line by line, with little or no attention to whether they actually are of high quality and represent a coherent and well-designed instructional approach; and

• A radically consolidated publishing industry, driven by sales and marketing teams, that has “resulted in a dearth of customer choice, a reluctance to innovate, and huge [curricular] programs that are barely distinguishable from one another.”

With regard to local selection practices, she says textbooks with attractive covers, lots of visual appeal, and “superfluous” features tend to win favor. And she writes of experienced teachers on selection committees who often favor materials that require little change for them in their classroom practices.

“A group of very experienced teachers selects the textbook that is most like what they are already doing so they don’t have to change their lesson plans or procedures,” she writes.

(Jobrack emphasizes, however that she is NOT bashing teachers. “For a host of reasons,” she writes, “I came to realize that hard-working teachers, who have the best interests of their students at heart, are rarely the most effective evaluators of curriculum effectiveness.”)

In her book, from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Jobrack outlines a variety of ideas to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction. One key idea is to transform the curriculum-selection process by schools and districts, as well as the state textbook-adoption process, to focus intensively on the quality of materials. In addition, she says schools and teachers should “implement that new curriculum with fidelity.” She cautions that this does not mean a scripted approach, but that teachers not simply skip around and cherry-pick the elements they like and dismiss those they prefer not to teach. She also emphasizes the widely agreed belief that the quality of teachers is absolutely critical. In a nutshell, as she writes, “Quality curriculum taught by quality teachers has the most potential to improve student achievement.”

Jobrack discusses the role, and limits, of standards at length in the book, including the common standards.

She is quick to note: “The standards are not the curriculum. The curriculum is what teachers do every day, introduce a concept, check for understanding, have students practice, and assess it.”

She cautions that the common standards may not amount to much without real and meaningful changes in the curriculum. And she worries such change may be tough to come by.

In an interview, Jobrack shared her view of how educational publishers are responding to the common standards.

“Here’s what’s happening right now in textbook land,” she said. “They’re not changing anything in the curriculum. They are simply relabeling. ... If there’s anything missing in a textbook series, the publishers will simply add a paragraph or add a lesson to address that particular standard. It’s not a revamping, and even if it was, there has to be very intentional implementation of a curriculum with understanding and fidelity, so that you reap the most benefits from it.”

Even as Jobrack doesn’t hold back in offering criticism for the educational publishing sector—at one point she describes it as a “monolithic industry that stifles innovation, squashes competition, drastically limits choice, and creates a risk-adverse development process—she believes the publishers will respond if the marketplace demands change.

“If customers start buying materials because they’re the most effective, and they don’t buy things when they’re not effective,” she writes, “that will very quickly make effectiveness the competitive issue, and publishers are very, very competitive.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.