American policymakers haven’t usually viewed curriculum as a serious lever for change. This is unfortunate, since a growing body of research suggests that a high-quality curriculum, implemented with fidelity, can make a huge difference in student learning. In 2017, StandardsWork commissioned the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and its Center for Research and Reform in Education to undertake an extensive review of research on the curriculum effect, and what they found about a high-quality curriculum is compelling and persuasive.
A few examples from the research record include:
- High-quality textbooks. Numerous, recent studies suggest that switching from a low- to a high-quality textbook can boost student achievement more than other, more popular interventions such as expanding preschool programs, decreasing class sizes, or offering merit pay to teachers. It is also cost effective. One study by Harvard’s Thomas Kane found that the effect upon student test scores of a high-quality math textbook as opposed to an average-quality textbook amounted to an extra eight months of learning for an average middle-schooler.
- Content-rich curricula. Instructional materials that intentionally build knowledge content rather than merely reinforce skills exercise an outsized, positive effect upon student success. For instance, a 2013 quasi-experimental study from Mathematica conducted in five high-poverty EL Education schools (formerly Expeditionary Learning) in Washington, D.C., and New York City, found positive academic effects in both reading and math. The gains increased with every additional year of using the program. Or, a series of quasi-experimental studies of Core Knowledge Language Arts in high-poverty schools found a positive effect upon student achievement and student engagement. (EL Education and Core Knowledge are both highly standards-aligned and content-rich curricula.)
We don’t have to look far for evidence that policymakers are taking the research about high-quality curricula seriously. Under John White’s leadership, Louisiana’s Department of Education worked with teachers to elevate and incentivize the use of high-quality materials. Prominent organizations such as Chiefs for Change support districts and states in seismic shifts around curriculum. Reports on high-quality materials issued by think tanks and educational journals abound, as do case studies of teacher- and district-led adoptions. The movement has sparked new non-profits which exist to help districts and states not only identify high-quality instructional materials, but also implement their effective use.
Furthermore, curriculum matters especially for economically disadvantaged students, as Dr. Sonja Santelises, superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools, wrote recently in the Washington Post. And compared to other possible reforms, the curriculum lever is politically neutral in an otherwise divided political arena—an added bonus.
A high-quality curriculum is evidence-based, equity-focused, educator-friendly, and cost-effective. It is also fundamental to a democratic education. As Fordham Institute’s director David Steiner puts it, “What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education; it is American education.”