Why Curriculum Matters

Writing for redefinED, Ashley Berner recently released a four-part series on the power of high-quality curriculum. Excerpts from the first article are below, and links to all four posts appear at the bottom of the page:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that high-performing school systems around the world require students to master serious academic content. Studies in our country show the same. 

A knowledge-rich curriculum isn’t just about learning facts. It is about engagement with meaningful information about the world and the questions that human life inevitably raises: geography, history, forms of government, war; foreign languages; how human beings wrestle through perennial questions of meaning and purpose and the good life; how they translate these questions into artistic form; what happens when biological ecosystems interact; how viruses mutate and how we create cures; and so on.

Note that we are not talking about mere skills. We’re talking about an intentional, subject-specific, knowledge build of the kind that leaders as different as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch have championed (repeatedly, in Hirsch’s case), that Dan Willingham’s empirical work validates, and that characterizes what all students in some countries and elite prep school students in ours, are routinely taught.

Schools and school systems that impart such knowledge make headway against socioeconomic learning gaps, because they give low-income students the background knowledge that better-resourced peers acquire in their homes. Moving to a higher-quality curriculum is also cost-effective; schools have to purchase or design curricula, so they might as well expend resources on strong as opposed to weak materials.

A content-rich curriculum also helps equip young citizens with information about liberal democracy – how it functions, why it matters, and how the American story looks from different perspectives. Natalie Wexler’s beautifully-drawn recent book, “The Knowledge Gap,” sums up the growing body of research and provides clear examples of what knowledge-building can look like in actual classrooms.

The good news is that educational leaders in the United States are increasingly aware of the powerful effects of a strong curriculum and of what it takes to sustain its impact. 

Read more to find out what research shows about content-rich curricula, and what policymakers, school leaders, and parents can do about it.  

Why Curriculum Matters: Research and Policy 

Why Curriculum Matters for State Leaders 

Why Curriculum Matters for Private Schools

Why Curriculum Matters for Parents and Guardians