What Really Matters Most?

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.




Comments on this Post

  1. The undercurrent of this piece is that curriculum is somehow a local issue – localized at the school level. This is a cruel hoax, a setup, a way to get curriculum on the agenda as a means of checking another box as to why privatization is the way to go. Most in-school staff members have absolutely no experience in developing curriculum that aligns to standards and certainly there is no time to train them how and no time to do the necessary specialized work that is called for. In fact, district personnel know less about this area of specialization, and college personnel no even less. Sharing templates from big names in the field including UBD, Jacobson, is another sham………a set up that sparks a huge industry with lots of profits and little gain in the schools. After all the last two decades with these two mega-corporations indicate that there is little to show for the “investments” that were paid by district and school entities – because this work has more t! !o do with the actual content than the process or templating. Central personnel love templating because they can show and tell it as if they know something.

    • Thanks for this interesting take on my post. Let me clarify that I am completely committed to our public schools; my goal is to help struggling schools improve—not to fan the flames of privatization. While there may be some schools “have absolutely no experience in developing curriculum that aligns to standards,” I am aware of many educators, schools, and districts that do effectively engage in curriculum development. At the same time, I’m aware of many educators, schools, and districts that have chosen to adopt or adapt commercially available products for some or all subjects. I think we can agree that across the 50 states, 15,000+ districts, and 98,000+ public schools, there are plenty of examples of just about everything. My post boils down to this: what matters most for student learning is what students are taught. Other things matter a great deal as well, but the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills students have the opportunity to master are crucial. Right now, some students have far more and better opportunities than others; the only way to even approach addressing such grossly inequitable disparities is to talk about them. I’m eager for everyone to start talking about curriculum, and I’m very glad you weighed in. Now, do you have some suggestions as to how to give all students equally coherent, knowledge- and skill-building curricula?

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