BY LISA HANSEL | When asked what matters most to me, I quickly answer: my family and friends. That’s appropriate, but if I were being accurate, I’d have to start with oxygen. That’s not what anyone wants to hear—but it is true.
I see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. In casual discussions and even serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, approp riate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Now, I’m not going to say these things are unimportant; just like my family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? I think there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.
My hunch is that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy wonks.
For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That’s so obvious that it’s assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what’s essential to a great school. Now, don’t get me wrong: the curriculum doesn’t make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes me live. Both are merely the necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a bad school with a great curriculum, it is no more possible to find a good school with a bad curriculum than a human being who can live without oxygen. When educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.
Many policy wonks, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don’t even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, I could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world I can’t. In the 100%-proficient-or-else era, what sane educator would encourage policymakers to mess with their oxygen? Unfortunately, omitting questions about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. Why is this?
It’s been almost five years since Russ Whitehurst wrote “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” noting that “policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.” Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: “Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”
This is why I am still trying to mess with the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.
Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matt Chingos published “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” This time, there was a cool graphic tightly focused on curriculum vs. teacher quality, the clear leader in appropriate-but-inaccurate discussions of what matters most:
Since curriculum matters, let’s start acting like it matters:
- Researchers: do more longitudinal, well-designed studies that compare curricula.
- Policy wonks: don’t mandate a curriculum, but support efforts—from the school level to the research university level—to constantly improve curricula.
- Assessment developers: stop pretending like assessments are curriculum neutral. Each test question contains specific content and favors students who happened to be taught that content. So long as assessments are intentionally designed to have the content of the questions be unpredictable, the only way to prepare for them is to systematically and efficiently build broad knowledge.
- Teacher-quality hawks: realize that sometimes good people are forced to use bad programs and practices. The surest path to better teaching is better curriculum. If a curriculum with strong evidence of effectiveness is not working in a particular classroom, that’s cause for investigation (but not for jumping to conclusions).
- Educators: within schools, work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.
- Parents: get a copy of your school’s curriculum and ask how you can supplement it at home.
- Librarians: get copies of the curricula of the schools in your area and pull together supportive and supplemental resources.
- Everyone: stop taking our oxygen for granted.
Everyone can and should be an oxygen hawk.
Lisa Hansel is the communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. She writes regularly for the Core Knowledge blog: blog.coreknowledge.org.