What we teach matters

How quality curriculum improves student outcomes

November 15, 2018

Today Learning First publishes the first three in a series of papers on an important and developing field of school education research and policy: how strong curriculum combined with teacher and school leader development can be the driver of powerful school and system improvement.

Our first paper, What we teach matters, shows that policymakers have largely overlooked curriculum as a lever for education reform – and how that is beginning to change. Two papers in this series present case studies of systems in North America – Louisiana and British Columbia – that have undertaken substantial reform in curriculum. The final two reports – High-quality curriculum and system improvement, and The problem with finding the main idea – highlight the impact of curriculum on both student achievement and equity, and demonstrate how quality curriculum can be connected to school improvement strategy.

What we teach matters has been written in collaboration with Prof. David Steiner, Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, one of the world’s leading thinkers on the role of curriculum in school education reform. As Dr Steiner says, “What we teach isn’t some side bar issue in American education: it is American education.” The same is true in Australia and around the world. Yet for too long, millions of students have been taught with low-quality materials or with materials that time-poor teachers have cobbled together from various sources, reducing their capacity to exercise the many skills on which good teaching depends. But a number of systems in the US and Australia are beginning to put curriculum at the heart of their school improvement efforts – and it seems to be paying off.

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 cumulative impact on student achievement than many common school improvement interventions – and at a lower cost.

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 content-rich, standards aligned curriculum materials, especially textbooks.

Several US states and districts, such as Louisiana, have begun to develop systems to identify and make available high-quality curriculum materials – and the approach seems to have paid off. The experience of these 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.

What does this mean for educators and policymakers? How do we ensure that schools have the support they need to select or develop high-quality curriculum aligned with rigorous standards for student learning? How do we narrow the gap between the achievement standards that sit on department of education websites, and what is actually taught in classrooms? How can policymakers meaningfully engage with teachers, support and make the most of their instructional expertise, and encourage uptake of quality curriculum? What is there to learn from how other systems have designed and implemented standards and curriculum, and what are the implications for related policy levers, especially initial teacher education, ongoing teacher professional learning, and student assessments? Finally – and critically – how do we define high-quality curriculum in the first place?

The answers to these questions have profound implications for education policy in Australia, the United States, and around the world. This series of reports draws on international research to inform the conversation.