Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the sixth. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.
The faithful implementation of a comprehensive, high-quality curriculum is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a high-performing elementary school. High-quality instructional materials shape what students learn, how they engage with content, and how teachers manage their instructional time. Such curricula effectively sequence material for optimal benefit, and the best also incorporate evidence-based practices based on how children learn. A school that has not carefully implemented a high-quality curriculum will struggle to help students address unfinished learning and make sense of the tumultuous events of the last few years.
- Select and implement comprehensive curriculum materials that thoughtfully sequence content and instruction in the four core content areas: English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science. (Subject-specific recommendations are featured in the Reading, Writing, Mathematics, and Science and Social Studies sections.)
- Base curriculum decisions on college- and career-ready standards and evidence-based instructional practices. Reviews from EdReports are helpful; only green-rated curriculum should be considered.
- Ensure leadership in curriculum implementation is deliberate, intensive, and responsive to teacher feedback.
- Ground professional development in the specific content of the curriculum and ensure it explains the research foundation for the curriculum’s framework and orientation. (See more about professional learning here.)
- Focus on “priority instructional content,” as identified by Student Achievement Partners, at least during the 2021–22 school year.
- Schedule weekly meetings for grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) to study the curriculum, examine samples of student work and other data, observe teacher practice, and plan upcoming lessons.
Adopting and implementing a new high-quality, knowledge-based core curriculum is challenging at any time; it will be all the more so in the wake of the pandemic. But for schools, districts, or charter networks currently without one, it will be well worth the effort, as it allows educators to make the best use of instructional time to help students build essential knowledge and skills. In addition, using the same high-quality curriculum across an entire school—or, preferably, an entire district or charter network—can identify and ultimately help prevent gaps in students’ knowledge and enable teachers to reliably know what information students already possess as they move from grade to grade.
Schools need to both select and implement new curricula wisely. Decision-makers at schools and districts can investigate possible curricula at EdReports.org and select among green-rated programs. They also should consider the science of learning in making those decisions.
Evidence shows that changing to a high-quality curriculum can have a strong positive effect on student learning. State-based studies looking at Florida, Indiana, and California have affirmed that the “curriculum effect” is real and particularly large for disadvantaged students. However, David Steiner of Johns Hopkins University raises important questions about what might contribute to a curriculum’s impact on student learning in a policy brief for StandardsWork. For example, many different types of materials are described as “curriculum” and the selection and implementation of curricula vary widely, so the exact drivers have not yet been precisely defined.
In addition, recent evidence indicates that curriculum alone is not enough. The quality of implementation has a major impact on instruction and learning. One study spanning 6,000 schools and six states did not find positive effects from implementing high-quality instructional materials, perhaps because of the absence of high-quality instructional supports. Other studies have found that more than half of the possible impact of shifting to a stronger curriculum is lost if the transition does not include development supports to shift teacher practice in a way that specifically supports the new materials. And of course, high-quality instructional materials must be used rather than left on the shelf if they are to have a positive impact.
Curriculum should serve as a bedrock of professional learning for teachers, and the lens through which continuous improvement in practice is both inspired and measured. Using well-designed, high-quality curricula can free teachers’ time and energy to practice and refine their instruction, since they are no longer urged or expected to essentially design their own. Few teachers have the time or the training to do that well.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C. National Academy Press.
Cabell, S.Q., and Hwang, H. (2020). Building Content Knowledge to Boost Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1).
Chingos, M. and Whitehurst, G.R. (2012). “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
- Curriculum selection has large and statistically significant effects on student outcomes, rivaling teacher effectiveness interventions.
Bhatt, R., and Koedel, C. (2013). Is curriculum quality uniform?: Evidence from Florida. Economics of Education Review, 34, 107-121.
- Textbook choice has statistically significant effects on test scores, this evaluation of curricular effectiveness in elementary mathematics finds.
Jackson, C. and Makarin, A. (2017). “Can Online Off-The-Shelf Lessons Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence from A Field Experiment.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper No. 22398.
- Evidence suggests investments in curriculum components are highly scalable and effects are greatest with weakest teachers, who are disproportionately present in high-needs classrooms.
Koedel, C. and Polikoff, M. (2017). “Big Bang for Just a Few Bucks: The Impact of Math Textbooks in California.” Brookings Institution.
- Finds that non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials, with effect sizes on par with what one could expect from a hypothetical policy that substantially increases the quality of the teaching workforce. “Choosing a more effective textbook is a seemingly straightforward policy option for raising student achievement.”
Polikoff, M. with Dean, J. (2020). “The Supplemental-Curriculum Bazaar: Is What's Online Any Good?” Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Steiner, D. (2017). “Curriculum Research: What We Know and Where We Need to Go.” StandardsWork, Inc.
- Research indicates that curriculum is a critical factor in student academic success, particularly in the upper grades, and that that comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is a common feature of academically high-performing countries.
Taylor, J. A., Getty, S. R., Kowalski, S. M., Wilson, C. D., Carlson, J., and Van Scotter, P. (2015). An Efficacy Trial of Research-Based Curriculum Materials With Curriculum-Based Professional Development. American Educational Research Journal, 52(5), 984-1017.
- A preponderance of evidence links expertise in content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge to successful outcomes for students. Highly effective professional learning positions teachers to further their expertise in all three.
Whitehurst, G. (2009). “Don’t Forget Curriculum.” Brookings Institution.
- Looks at the effect sizes of a variety of policy levers and interventions (e.g. charter schools, merit pay, preschool programs) compared to curriculum and claims that “anyone interested in ‘doing what works for the kids’ should pay attention...Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”