Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning

A new report from a group of the nation’s boldest state and district education leaders finds that improving curriculum is a powerful, but underutilized strategy for school improvement.

Curriculum has long been a third rail in U.S. education policy, dismissed by policymakers despite related, highly visible efforts to develop college- and career-ready standards, aligned assessments, and robust accountability systems. However, a group of leading states and districts – profiled in a new Chiefs for Change policy spotlight, Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning – have shown how smart strategies can be used to ensure that high-quality standards are matched with high-quality instructional materials, leading to strong student outcomes. The spotlight shows how new opportunities under ESSA, such as funding for evidence-based interventions and teacher leadership, can be used by states and districts to establish similar initiatives.

We know that the academic content students experience – the curriculum – matters. Most top-performing countries prescribe rigorous academic content that all students must learn, ensuring high-quality, content-rich instruction. Likewise, a nascent but powerful body of research shows that content-rich, standards-aligned curricula exert a strong influence on student achievement, and there is early evidence that switching to a high-quality curriculum may be a more cost-effective way to raise achievement than other interventions.

Despite this knowledge, only a few states and districts have explicitly addressed curricular reforms. Hiding in Plain Sight describes the work of extraordinary leaders in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. to create the conditions for aligned standards and curricula or to directly develop and scale high-quality, standards-aligned curricular materials, and the results of their efforts. Their experiences provide powerful lessons for their peers:

  • Use incentives, not mandates, to maintain local autonomy;
  • Emphasize evidence – and start small if a research basis hasn’t been developed;
  • Leverage teacher expertise and teacher leaders in the work;
  • Use the procurement process to expand use of the highest-quality curricula;
  • Create professional learning focused on curricular content; and
  • Messaging matters, and external partners and validators can help.

For more, see: http://chiefsforchange.org/policy-papers/

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