What we teach matters

Jacqueline Magee looks at the rise of curriculum as a force in school reform.

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“There is a story to tell, and it’s about curriculum – perhaps the last, best, yet almost entirely un-pulled education-reform lever.”  – Education commentator Robert Pondiscio, Louisiana Threads the Needle on Ed Reform

Across the world, few education policy makers have seen curriculum as a powerful lever for reforming schools. Dismissed as a tool for teachers and a battleground for ideologues, curriculum has been overlooked as a core pillar of school improvement strategy. That is all beginning to change.

The research is increasingly clear that quality curriculum matters to student achievement.  What’s more, there is emerging evidence to suggest that quality curriculum has a larger impact on student achievement than many common school improvement interventions - and at a lower cost.

These findings should have profound implications for education policy, but they should not be surprising. After all, “curriculum” is what we teach, and what we teach surely matters to student learning. As leading curriculum researcher Dr David Steiner of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore puts it: “What we teach isn’t some side bar issue in American education; it is American education”. 

To discuss the role of curriculum in teaching and policy we have to agree on what it is, yet the term is notoriously contested. After conversations with Australian and American policymakers and school and district leaders, we find it useful to distinguish between achievement standards and curriculum materials in the following way:

  • Achievement standards are expressions of the goals of student learning, typically at the state or federal level. Achievement standards outline what we expect students to know and be able to do at different stages of schooling, usually expressed in year levels.
  • Curriculum materials are the means to achieve the goals expressed in the achievement standards. They include lesson plans and activities, scope and sequence documents, textbooks, computer programs and associated pedagogical guidance for teachers.

When Australians talk about “curriculum” they tend to be referring to achievement standards, while Americans tend to mean curriculum materials.

Much recent research on the impact of curriculum on student learning has emerged from the US since the development of the Common Core State Standards. This research focuses on the impact of “content-rich, standards-aligned” curriculum materials, especially textbooks. For example, a recent study found that textbook choice had a substantial impact on student outcomes. One of the report's authors suggested that curriculum choice could do more to lift student outcomes than could a teacher with three years or more in the classroom, as opposed to a novice.

Several US states and districts have begun to develop systems to identify and make available high-quality curriculum materials, and to encourage teachers to use them. The Louisiana State Department of Education has developed a rating system to distinguish the highest-quality materials from lower quality ones.

Since Louisiana is a local-control state with very little direct influence over the resourcing decisions of its school districts, the Louisiana Department of Education devised a “pull strategy” to increase take-up of quality curriculum materials. By drawing on the expertise of teachers at every stage of the curriculum review process, the Department has supported the take-up of the highest-rated materials. Further, the Department only grants state contracts to the publishers of these materials, so districts can purchase them at a lower price than other, less rigorous curriculum materials.

The approach seems to have paid off: a recent analysis found that teachers in Louisiana are more likely than those in other states to use standards-aligned curriculum materials. Louisiana teachers also demonstrate a better understanding of the state achievement standards, and “report undertaking more instructional activities that align with their standards”. Though we can’t draw a causal link, Louisiana’s focus on curriculum and aligned changes in instruction has been credited with playing a part in recent, significant improvements in student outcomes.

The experience of some American states and districts reinforces some of Learning First’s research findings in high-performing systems such as Finland, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and British Columbia. In these places, high-quality curriculum is always part of the story.

For example, the Finns see their national core curriculum as a tool for ensuring that students from all social backgrounds benefit from the same high-quality education. The curriculum articulates the overarching goals of the education system and identifies the objectives of instruction and key content, providing the framework for the selection and design of curriculum materials at the school level. System leaders help to narrow the gap between the national core curriculum and what is enacted in classrooms by ensuring teachers have access to aligned, high-quality curriculum materials.

Given the well-publicized autonomy of Finnish schools and teachers, it is perhaps surprising that Finland has a culture of textbook use in lesson planning. While the market for publishing curriculum materials in Finland is open, in practice there are just a few key trusted publishers. They sit on the national curriculum steering group and hire experienced teachers to write the textbooks and associated “teacher manuals” that explain key concepts and pedagogical advice. Teachers are not required to follow textbooks but many – particularly new ones – value these materials and use them regularly.

Yes, what we teach matters. But what does this mean for educators and policymakers? How do we test the rigor of achievement standards and ensure that teachers have access to high-quality, standards-aligned materials – including (though not limited to) the oft-derided textbook? How do we narrow the gap between the documented curriculum, such as the achievement standards that sit on department of education websites, and what is actually taught in classrooms? How can policymakers meaningfully engage with teachers, make the most of their instructional expertise, and get their buy-in across systems? What can Australia and the US learn from other systems? And what does all this mean for interrelated policy levers, especially initial teacher education and ongoing teacher professional learning, that influence what and how we teach?

These are important questions, and their answers will have profound implications for education policy in Australia and internationally. We will examine some of these questions in more detail in upcoming Learning First papers and blogs.

Jacqueline Magee is Senior Associate at Learning First.