We are enjoying the early stages of a surprising and encouraging curriculum moment in education marked by robust attention and interest in scientifically-sound reading instruction. Among veteran advocates for knowledge-rich curriculum, it feels like a long overdue and welcome change in the weather.
Here’s how it could end: A few years from now, maybe by 2025, imagine yet another doleful round of NAEP scores showing that kids still aren’t making significant progress. The bottom that dropped out of NAEP in 2019, with our poorest performing children falling further behind, still hasn’t recovered. Now imagine these depressing results follow a few years of fascination and flirtation with high-quality curricula—schools, districts, even entire states, converted to the cause of curriculum and content, turning to EdReports to select curricula that are aligned with standards, knowledge-rich, and of sufficient rigor to challenge students. As analysts digest another round of depressing test scores, a consensus forms about curriculum-based reform, and quickly calcifies: We tried it. It didn’t work.
Two weeks ago in this space, David Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy looked at our emerging love affair with high-quality curricula and materials (a renaissance he helped spark as the architect of EngageNY) and concluded that “any celebration is utterly misplaced.” No one should expect to see a surge in student outcomes because “we have built a system that not only fails to support the sustained use of demanding curriculum—but actively produces powerful disincentives to its use,” he wrote. The list of those disincentives is long: state assessments unaligned to content; teacher evaluation systems that valorize “student engagement” conspiring against challenging material; and intervention schemes for struggling students that privilege content-agnostic basic skills and pull kids away from core curricula—a thorny and vexing problem that was the subject of this year’s Fordham Wonkathon, winners of which are heralded in this week’s issue of the Education Gadfly Weekly.
At Saturday’s ResearchEd conference in Philadelphia, the keynote was delivered by Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, who struck a similar theme with a stirring bit of straight talk on what she describes as “educational redlining.” Students in majority-white classrooms are more likely to get engaging, high-quality lessons and grade-appropriate work, she noted. Citing studies on low-quality student assignments from both TNTP and the Education Trust, she put the matter in sharp relief, quoting one student preparing for the same AP exam as students in other schools. The more fortunate students were reading The Odyssey, while in her school the assigned text was The Hunger Games. “There’s nothing wrong with The Hunger Games. I love The Hunger Games. I read it when I was twelve,” the girl said. “It really struck me as unfair.”
Dr. Santelises is a compelling figure who spends her days at the intersection of knowledge-rich curricula, research-based practice, urban education, and low test scores. Few district superintendents are more well-versed or more committed to knowledge-rich curricula. And she knows it’s exactly what the 85,000 kids whose education she is responsible for need, and what they’ve mostly been denied due to “educational redlining.” She’s also exceptionally clear-eyed, and her experience should sober those of us who have long championed curriculum as a reform lever and who might be tempted to think we’re winning the argument.
“I want to be honest,” she cautioned. “I’ve never said it’s just about curriculum. What I’ve said is that if you don’t have a strong curriculum, you’re not even starting in the right place.” But ultimately it’s teachers who bear the responsibility of figuring out how to deliver it. They will determine, Santelises warned “whether this content-rich curriculum, this shift back to science-based reading instruction, is actually going to take hold.” When teachers are ill-prepared themselves to teach challenging material, or when students are denied the opportunity to grapple with complex texts and given simplistic or overly-scaffolded work with low cognitive demands, gaps will only persist and widen. “If we don’t figure this part out,” Santelises said, “all of the research in the world is not going to move what happens every day with kids.” She’s exactly right.
Speaking afterward, Santelises went even further, describing the adoption of a knowledge-rich curriculum as “the first half of Chapter One.” This is the part that curriculum advocates, and frankly most single-issue advocates in education, miss. Every structure, impulse, imperative, and habit in a large school system works at cross-purposes. Teacher training rarely valorizes it on the front end, once on the job the pressures of testing and accountability functionally demands bad practice by expecting visible results now. As Steiner observed, “Is it any surprise that over 95 percent of America’s teachers use multiple, self-curated internet materials mixed together in an utterly eclectic and incoherent fashion with their district’s curriculum?” And no, the answer is not “scaffolding,” the most common “solution” suggested to teachers whose students are far below grade level. Santelises drew hearty laughs during her ResearchEd talk when she quipped that school administrators “sprinkle [scaffolding] like its pepper on a Caesar salad. ‘You just need to scaffold!’ You can get to the standards, just scaffold!’” Such facile and simplistic answers “are actually going to undermine the absolute right intent of having a more rigorous curriculum,” she explained. Right again.
It’s certainly bracing that American education seems poised to rediscover the centrality of what teachers teach and what students learn. But curriculum advocates (and I count myself as one) should not underestimate the enormity of the challenge or the long odds of success. Mostly they—we—must not allow ourselves the luxury of thinking or allowing others to believe that the battle is won at adoption.
Schools are complex institutions with competing priorities almost hard-wired to metabolize and neutralize any “fix.” Curriculum does not exist in isolation. The road to results is long and steep. Having leaders like Santelises at the helm of a major American school district is important. Buying time for thoughtful reforms to take root is even more important.
If I may offer some unsolicited advice to my fellow disciples in the cause of research-based teaching and knowledge-rich curricula: widen your lens, embrace complexity, forget top-down initiatives, counsel patience, brace yourself for years of struggle, identify your allies doing the actual work, and prepare to protect their flank. In sum, abandon single-issue curriculum advocacy, which is naïve, unrealistic, and self-defeating. It paves the way for more of the wild, fad-prone gyrations that we see over and over in this field.
Curriculum is not the missing piece of the puzzle, it’s the foundation for the rest of what schools do. It’s great to see a new seriousness emerge about instructional materials and the work we ask children to do. But we are not nearing the end of the story. As Santelises observed it’s the first half of Chapter One.