In an essay in The Washington Post last summer, Sonja Santelises, the courageous chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools, described a problem commonly overlooked in school districts like hers: a “disjointed” curriculum that’s not simply lacking in rigor, but fails even to “connect [students’] experiences to other people’s histories and the larger world.” More than 80 percent of her district’s pupils are black, but according to Santelises, the world they saw through the lens of their school curriculum was impossibly skewed, even depressingly so. Baltimore’s children were “taught about tragedies of African American history such as slavery and Jim Crow but learned nothing about the Great Migration and very little about the Harlem Renaissance,” she wrote.

Santelises wasn’t indulging in platitudes and generalizations. She had hard data on her desk that showed how the district’s “patchy curriculum” was “exacerbating knowledge gaps for our low-income students.” Baltimore was one of the first school districts to put its English language arts curriculum up for analysis by a team led by David Steiner and Ashley Berner at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. In the past year, they have quietly performed a similar analysis for one entire state, another urban school district, and several smaller ones in Massachusetts. They lifted the veil on their “knowledge mapping” tool this week in a webinar with Chiefs for Change, which co-sponsored the work. It offers an intriguing mechanism for education leaders to see the degree to which their English language arts curriculum, as a whole and over time, builds critical background knowledge and aligns with their local vision and priorities.

It’s been a pleasant surprise to see curriculum come into its own in the last few years as a potentially powerful lever for improving student outcomes. But the tools we have to evaluate it are focused primarily on whether a published or “OER” curriculum is “aligned” with standards. Unlike math or science content standards, English language arts standards typically describe skills and processes—the kinds of things students should be able to do when they read a text. Skills like “compare and contrast” and “find the main idea,” when viewed exclusively through the lens of standards, might appear content-neutral, but in reality they’re closer to content-dependent. Common Core famously (and in retrospect, impotently) valorized “build[ing] a foundation of knowledge” in social studies, science, and other disciplines. But it’s beyond the scope of standards to dictate curriculum content. That’s a state or district’s job and a heavy lift.

If a curriculum routinely requires students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences” it will likely satisfy the conditions for “alignment.” But this tacitly encourages a view of ELA that elevates skill over content, eliding entirely the role of prior knowledge in comprehension. “America’s reading gaps are not caused by skills shortages but by knowledge vacuums,” Steiner noted just last month in this space. “When we provide even very weak readers with a story about a topic they know, finding the main idea is a snap. By contrast, give strong readers a passage about something they know nothing about, and they can stare at it forever with little chance of finding that same idea.”

“Alignment” also tells us nothing about literary merit, quality, or lasting value. You can explore themes of fratricide and revenge by studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Disney’s The Lion King. In no way are they “equal.” A three-star restaurant and Taco Bell may both get “A” ratings from the board of health if they’re aligned (as they must be) to safe food handling standards, but they are not otherwise comparable. The same is true of various ELA curricula. Each can be aligned to standards, but the one that attends to coherent and cumulative building of knowledge is clearly superior and preferable. You can spot the difference between a fast food joint and a high-end restaurant at a glance; it’s not as immediately obvious with curricula.

Critically, the Hopkins’s knowledge mapping tool is not an off-the-shelf exercise that suggests, “We know what quality curriculum is and here’s why yours doesn’t cut it.” It starts with a robust framework of key domains—“U.S. History before 1865”—and then topics—“dystopian literature”—that any knowledge-rich ELA curriculum should address. It then asks systems leaders, “What else do you want your curriculum to accomplish?”

Then via painstaking analysis, it reveals how well the ELA curriculum hits the mark or misses it, surfacing gaps that are invisible at the classroom or even school level. Neither is this a mere exercise in list-making and box-checking. The mapping tool considers the social and emotional dimensions of works of literature in addition to the knowledge “domains” students are exposed to in both fiction and non-fiction works. What arrives on district decision-makers’ desks is (among other things) a “heat map” representing the frequency and level of exposure to domains of knowledge. As Berner describes it, the effect might be, “Wow, we're doing a good job of reinforcing social and emotional learning, but we're not touching on Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.”

The work is being done in partnership with Chiefs for Change. That’s potentially powerful because the mapping tool gains strength and insight the more broadly it’s used. If a significant number of districts (or states) represented by the Chiefs put their ELA curricula up for review using the Hopkins tool, it will be possible to make more and better generalizations about curricula across the U.S., prying open the classroom “black box” that researchers and policymakers often lament.

The tool does have some inevitable shortcomings. It cannot account for the entirety of curricular inputs; it’s looking merely at ELA, for now (Steiner and Berner hope to build out social studies and science knowledge mapping capabilities eventually). But the approach is promising and bears watching closely. It’s a potential “last mile” solution that enables states, districts, or CMOs to evaluate curricula with greater nuance and sophistication than ever before.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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