High-quality curriculum is among the most cost-effective tools available to school districts to boost student achievement. Investing in it sounds like a no-brainer, but as a new study from the Center for American Progress demonstrates, school districts still struggle to do so. Authors Lisette Partelow and Sarah Shapiro discovered that only a handful of the nation’s thirty largest school districts are using high quality materials in most of their classrooms.

Partelow and Shapiro scoured the websites of each of these thirty school districts, which collectively enroll more than six million students, to determine which math and English language arts (ELA) curriculums they use at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. They emailed each district to verify and round out the information, ending with twenty-six full profiles. To evaluate the quality of each curriculum, the researchers used two respected rating systems: EdReports and Louisiana’s annotated reviews of curricular resources. EdReports evaluates a curriculum by its usability and its alignment to college-ready standards, while the Louisiana Department of Education reviews materials for their alignment to the Louisiana Student Standards. Each has its own three-level grading system—Green, Yellow, and Red for EdReports, and Tiers I–III for Louisiana. There is significant overlap in their methodologies, although Louisiana’s rating system is somewhat more selective because it has a handful of automatic-fail provisions. The combined results show the somewhat-concerning state of curriculum selection in some of our largest school districts.

The authors find that only four of these twenty-six districts are using high-quality curriculum in nearly every subject. Even then, only two—Wake County Public School System in North Carolina and Duval County Public Schools in Florida—manage to avoid using any low-rated materials. That means the other twenty-four districts are using at least one math or ELA curriculum with a low rating. In fact, eleven districts are not using any highly-rated curriculums. Looking at the results in aggregate shows that only about one-third of all the materials included in this study earn a Green ranking from EdReports, and less than 20 percent achieve Louisiana’s Tier I status.

Adopting high quality curriculum is clearly difficult. Partelow and Shapiro highlight some implementation best practices in four large districts. Take the Wake County Public School System, which includes Raleigh, NC. After a 50 percent textbook budget cut, the district discovered—unsurprisingly—that teachers were under-resourced and creating their own materials. District leaders identified a handful of highly-rated curriculum options and worked with teachers and the community to make a final selection. They chose all online open educational resources (OERs). Thanks to these free and easily-accessible curriculums, the remaining budget cushion could be diverted into professional development for teachers, and parents can more easily see and understand what their children are learning.

The authors identify a few limitations in their research. Aside from a widespread lack of details about each curriculum, like the edition used or the year of publication (ratings can vary from version to version), the rating systems examine curriculums on standards-alignment, not on outcomes. As Partelow and Shapiro point out, very little research exists yet on how these high-quality materials affect student achievement. More importantly, there is no guarantee teachers are actively using the selected curriculums. According to a report from the Brookings Institution earlier this year, teachers often say they see district-mandated materials as just “one resource among many.” Without a picture of day-to-day learning inside classrooms throughout a district, evaluating the quality of the required curriculum will only take us so far in understanding the expectations to which students are held.

Partelow and Shapiro end their report with a series of recommendations for better implementation of high-quality curriculums. Among them is developing clear frameworks for curriculum selection instead of relying on “the most intriguing sales pitch.” They also emphasize transparency throughout the process, especially with parents. And districts should be more open to online options, as OERs continue to increase in quantity and quality. Underlying all these recommendations is the need for more data, especially about outcomes. Hopefully this “preliminary dip” is just one of the first in an ongoing exploration of how to improve curriculums across the country.

SOURCE: Lisette Partelow and Sarah Shapiro, “Curriculum Reform in the Nation’s Largest School Districts.” Center for American Progress (August 2018).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.