From the No Child Left Behind law to the common core, the goal of raising academic standards has driven education policy for the past few decades. But now some of the architects of that movement are saying that it didn’t go far enough—and that states need to measure success in some very different ways.
Standards lay out what students should know and be able to do in each grade, in each subject. Perhaps the most well-known set of these expectations are the Common Core State Standards, created by a consortium of states and released in 2010. At one point, the standards were adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
While standards give teachers an end goal, they don’t provide a roadmap for how to get there. Choices about curriculum and instructional strategies are up to individual schools and teachers.
That means that even under the same state standards, district-level—and even classroom-level—decisions about materials and methods can lead to big variances in the quality of instruction that children receive. Now, some voices say states should be paying more attention to this piece of the puzzle.
In a webinar Monday hosted by FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank, education leaders who helped shape the standards movement over the past three decades argued that states should be doing more “quality control” when it comes to instructional materials—signaling which are high-quality and incentivizing and supporting districts to use them.
“Coherence is the next piece of the agenda,” said Laura Slover, the chief executive of the nonprofit CenterPoint Education Solutions and the former CEO of PARCC, one of two federally funded consortia that created standards-aligned assessments.
The standards movement presented a destination: the skills students should have. It introduced assessments for measuring whether they got there, and accountability measures for schools that didn’t get their students all the way down the path, said Chester Finn, the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
But it didn’t focus on what teachers were doing during that journey—it didn’t help develop states’ capacity to improve instruction, said Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at CenterPoint Education Solutions and the former president of Achieve, a nonprofit that promotes college- and career-ready standards.
“In some sense, it’s striking that we left this off the table in any way from the outset,” Cohen said.
States prioritizing ‘coherence’
That’s partly because the standards movement bumped up against two major curriculum roadblocks: Federal law has long prohibited the U.S. Department of Education from setting or promoting curriculum, and the long tradition of local control has left states reluctant to assert more authority over school districts’ choices.
The rise of standards-based instruction over the past 30 years coincided with a prepandemic increase in measures of student achievement—specifically, in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. At the same time, though, gaps between the highest performing and lowest performing students have continued to widen.
Curriculum may be one factor why, the panelists said.
Research has shown that students are routinely given assignments that don’t meet grade level standards, and that students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities are more likely to experience this than their peers.
It’s clear that standards alone are insufficient, Slover said.
In the early days of the Common Core, some states embarked on efforts to close this implementation gap. New York developed EngageNY, a resource library of aligned materials that teachers could download. Within its first few years, the content had been downloaded more than 20 million times by educators in other states around the country.
Even so, teachers in the state didn’t always have the training they needed to implement these materials well, said John B. King, the former New York state education commissioner and a former education secretary under President Barack Obama. “That capacity gap, even with high-quality materials, made it very hard to have execution,” King said.
Panelists highlighted examples of states that have bolstered support for curriculum implementation in the years since. One is Louisiana, which provides lists of vetted and ranked materials and aligned professional development for curricula in the highest “tier.” States in a new network convened by the Council of Chief State School Officers have done similar work.
Research from the RAND Corporation suggests that the strategies states in the network have used are working, and that schools are responding to state incentives.
“Where districts are implementing high-quality curricula with coherence and intentionality around the core, they’re having an impact. But that degree of coherence is the exception, and it’s not the norm,” said Slover.
Even so, a district adopting a new curriculum program doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers will use it—or that they’ll use it as intended. Surveys have shown that teachers often use district-provided materials for only a small portion of their instructional time. They report that many standards-aligned programs fall short in other ways—that they don’t provide tools for differentiation, aren’t engaging enough, or lack culturally responsive features.
That’s why it’s important for teachers to get professional learning—and for curriculum companies to design better products that meet teachers’ needs in diverse classrooms, said Lauren Weisskirk, the chief strategy officer at the nonprofit curriculum-review organization EdReports.
“It’s not enough to throw a curriculum at a school and hope it’s used well … We really need to make sure that people understand why these are so important,” she said.