Those of us who read Fordham’s Flypaper blog spend a lot of time thinking about how to boost student achievement, and we all have ideas about the best ways to improve America’s schools. But the state and district education leaders who are members of Chiefs for Change believe there’s a lever that deserves greater attention: curriculum. After all, if we want to help children learn, we should pay careful attention to what we put in front of them. We may think we know, but that’s not always true. 

A case in point is Baltimore City Public Schools. Shortly after joining the district, CEO Sonja Santelises wanted to find out what students were studying, the depth of their knowledge, and whether the content provided, as she says, “mirrors and windows.” In other words, could students see themselves in the content? And did it give them opportunities to discover new things while relating those lessons to their own interactions with the world?

To help answer those questions, Dr. Santelises partnered with several experts, including David Steiner and Ashley Berner at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. They conducted a district-wide curriculum audit that looked at what students would learn if they faithfully read all the texts assigned to them. Some of the findings were deeply concerning. For example, the texts contained very little information about certain important periods in history and various critical concepts in science.

Those gaps affect some students more than others. Children from affluent families are often able to acquire knowledge outside the classroom, but children from low-income families, children of color, and children whose first language is not English may not have as many of those opportunities. Seeing a rich curriculum as a way to equalize exposure to knowledge, Dr. Santelises and her team are now navigating procurement processes as they overhaul the curriculum in particular subjects. Like all members of Chiefs for Change, she recognizes that curriculum matters. It matters to kids, and it matters to teachers.

As we reported in an August 2017 brief, “A relatively nascent but powerful body of research suggests that content-rich, standards aligned, and high-quality curricula exert a powerful influence on student achievement. There is also early evidence that switching to high-quality curriculum may be a more cost-effective way to raise student achievement than several other school-level interventions.” Further research is needed, but the existing studies give us reason to be optimistic about the role that curriculum can play in improving student performance. Yet despite the promising findings, far too many schools don’t use excellent curricula. Teachers are often left to make do with mediocre books, or they’re up until all hours on Pinterest looking for lessons, which may or may not build students’ knowledge.

Our Chiefs recently issued a statement explaining that “the morass of rules and regulations governing educational materials does not support students and teachers—it helps textbook giants boost profits.” The statement lays out an extensive list of problems: lengthy procurement cycles, antiquated RFP requirements, pointlessly restrictive categorical funding, and needlessly long textbook review processes. They can all amount to a lot of junk, like outdated or poorly written textbooks that aren’t tied to the standards, handouts with math problems that aren’t on grade level, and random bubble tests that don’t even assess what students are supposed to know.  

Members of Chiefs for Change are working to get rid of these substandard materials. Our board chair, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White, is a pioneer in this area. He worked with legislators to revise the state’s textbook law and do away with long adoption and procurement cycles. Under the state’s new process, Louisiana’s teacher leaders help to identify great resources, and all teachers receive professional development related to the curriculum. With no top-down mandates, districts are now incentivized to use top-tier materials, and can buy them under the state’s bulk contracts. In addition to the progress in Louisiana and Baltimore, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, New Mexico Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski, and Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero, all members of Chiefs for Change, are pursuing efforts to promote the use of high-quality curriculum in their states.

As our Chiefs redouble their own efforts, they’re asking others to do the same. They’re calling on textbook companies to produce standards-aligned, culturally relevant curricula that meet the highest bar for coherence and rigor; teacher preparation programs to provide training with research-based curricula; and policymakers to repeal harmful and outdated textbook laws and regulations.

Switching to an excellent curriculum won’t solve all the problems in our education system, but it’s an important step. We can’t expect students to meet the standards when we don’t teach them the right material. And we can’t expect teachers to teach the right material when we don’t give them the proper resources and the support to use them well.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Leila Walsh is chief external affairs officer at Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of some of the nation’s boldest, most innovative state and district education Chiefs.