I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait. —Excerpt from All Quiet on the Western Front.
It’s Wednesday morning, first period, eighth grade English language arts. Ms. Jackson faces her twenty-five students in Urban Center USA. She has fourteen years of teaching experience. Three months earlier, her principal had announced that the curriculum she had been using—more or less—for the last eight years would be replaced by a “high-quality, standards-aligned, EdReports green-labeled” curriculum. Prior to the start of the semester, Ms. Jackson had received a day of professional learning on the new materials, followed up by an additional hour of “PD” a month ago. In those sessions, she had been admonished by the district’s curriculum director to dig in and be sure to stay on pace with the new curriculum.
She was determined to try. But her challenges were considerable: Seventh grade assessment results told her that on average, her students were more than two years below grade level in reading. Ms. Jackson was reassured to find that, based on its Lexile level (a measure of difficulty), All Quiet on the Western Front was at the very low end of difficulty for the grade. But it would still be uphill work.
Today was to be a “Reveal,” meaning that “Students [should] go deeper into the text, explore the author’s craft and word choices, analyze the text’s structure and its implicit meaning.” She stared at the paragraph before them: rapture and reading, desire and lead, memory and futurity, the mental universe, the lead inside, figuratively, symbolically, literally?
She would start with the figurative language. She looked at the curriculum guide again—very minimal help there for her challenge. An internet source from the Massachusetts Department of Education told Ms. Jackson the obvious: “Strategically plan instruction that incorporates previous standards into the lesson, for example: how to distinguish literal from figurative language.” Easy to say, but how to do it?
To add to her problems, today was observation day. Ms. Jackson’s principal was going to evaluate her teaching using the Charlotte Danielson framework. Ms. Jackson knew that her principal, a one-time math teacher, would plough through the list—“engaging students in learning,” “using questioning and discussion techniques,” “demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness.” There was nothing about actually teaching All Quiet on the Western Front. Neither would Ms. Jackson be given any credit in her evaluation for attempting to remediate her students’ lack of understanding of literary symbolism in the text in front of them.
What would be on the principal’s mind, however, were the results of a computerized Interim Assessment from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) that her eighth graders had recently taken. Ms. Jackson recalled that among the many, many skills on which her students struggled was “8.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.” Of course, the interim test had contained no reference to her curriculum material. Not one of her students would be tested on their understanding the “breath of desire” or the “dead lump of lead.” She had no idea if spending a class session on this specific language would or would not translate into her students’ successfully deciphering figurative language in some unrelated chunk of text used in the next curriculum-agnostic assessment—or the all-important summative assessment at the end of the term.
Ms. Jackson recalled the warning in the Common Core State Standards that “The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below…grade-level expectations.” She knew the usual trajectory for such students: Send them to RTI (Response to Intervention)—a label given to the effort in thousands of schools to support students with learning challenges. Many of Ms. Jackson’s students were already receiving “Tier 2” support—structured, assessed lessons on isolated vocabulary and skills such as “fluency stems” using “fluency strips.” Ms. Jackson knew that once subject to extensive RTI treatment, all attention to All Quiet on the Western Front would melt away, but maybe her students just needed to get back to the basic skills?
Ms. Jackson’s recalled her teacher preparation program and induction. Nothing she had been provided with had prepared her to translate a demanding text—this text in this curriculum—into teachable strategies that could be used to support her students’ as they struggled today. She was on her own, and had a choice to make.
Those “breaths of desire”—and the hope of deep, thoughtful engagement with great works of literature that inspired her district to adopt its “high-quality, standards-aligned, EdReports green-labeled” curriculum in the first place—would just have to wait.
When I and my New York State Education Department colleagues launched EngageNY in 2010, I could not have guessed that the materials would be used in some fashion by up to a third of math and a quarter of ELA teachers. EdReports, citing RAND data, indicates that “36 percent [of teachers] indicated they used EdReports “to identify, select, and implement instructional materials.” The Council for Chief State School Officers is several years into an eight-state project to support state education leaders in supporting their school districts’ transition to the use of High-Quality Instructional Materials.
But any celebration is utterly misplaced. Availability isn’t usage, and usage “in some fashion” isn’t going to move the needle on student outcomes. Ms. Jackson’s story is going on across the United States, and it is negating efforts to implement high caliber curriculum across the country.
Unfortunately, even as materials have improved, a significant challenge remains in ensuring districts are using the quality materials that are available. Our analysis shows that only a small fraction of students (22 percent in math and 15 percent in ELA) are exposed to aligned curriculum at least once a week.
Common sense suggests, and data confirms, that this isn’t going to achieve anything.
I predict that in the coming months, we will see more such findings to the effect that new high-quality curricula aren’t achieving much of anything for our less prepared students—and the critics are already vocal. My Johns Hopkins University colleague Bob Slavin holds nothing back: “Actual meaningful increases in achievement compared to a control group using the old curriculum? This hardly ever happens…. I am unaware of any curriculum, textbook, or set of standards that is proven to reduce gaps. Why should they?” Instead, he points to research on the positive effect of tutoring, which, as he points out, is curriculum agnostic.
Bob Slavin is an education research scientist: He looks at a single intervention, measures its impact, and reports. Marc Tucker, by contrast, is a systems thinker: He looks at the American education system, finds it deeply flawed, and argues that single interventions such as adopting a high-quality curriculum are likely to prove next to useless until enough of the entire system has been rendered coherent. In words that could have been explicitly addressed to high-quality curriculum interventions, Tucker writes:
The key levers of top performance in the countries with the best education systems don’t work in this country because they are not supported in this country by the other elements of policy that make them work in the top- performing countries.
It won’t surprise readers that the OECD finds that Singapore has some of the strongest curricula in the world. As the report makes clear, Singapore takes curriculum very seriously indeed: What you teach matters in Singapore. But that’s because teacher preparation, curriculum, and examinations, to mention but three key elements, work together so that strong curricular content can have the impact it should.
Our sobering tale of Ms. Jackson reveals that in the United States 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. In what school of education are teachers prepared to teach powerful and demanding works of literature to students who are two or three grade levels below the level required to make real sense of those texts? (I know of none, but would like to be mistaken.) Is there a high-quality ELA curriculum that includes materials for teachers whose students are below grade level? In how many districts are principal evaluation tools supplemented by curriculum-specific rubrics? Beyond the quizzes and curriculum-embedded assessments, how many standalone interim assessments actually measure students’ knowledge of what their curriculum asks them to read? How many summative assessments do the same? Where can we find RTI models that are integrated with specific curriculum?
One state—Louisiana—is in the early stages of providing positive answers to some of these questions. Taking advantage of ESSA’s Federal Pilot Assessment Authority, the state is developing a combined interim and summative assessment grounded in its widely used ELA “Guidebooks” curriculum. The state is starting—just starting—to focus on the implementation challenges of teaching this demanding, high-quality curriculum.
Elsewhere, not so much, or none at all. As TNTP’s recent report resoundingly reaffirms, “Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.” And that’s on average: “Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.”
Given these multiple, mutually reinforcing disincentives to teaching rigorous, grade-level materials profiled above, 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?
In the last decade, a few states, hundreds of school districts, and thousands of schools have taken seriously the responsibility to provide their students with challenging content that is worth learning, and thus worth teaching. But these pioneers are rowing upstream. Our policies must change to help, not hinder, them:
- Schools of education must prepare teachers for curriculum literacy—the know-how to remediate without abandoning challenging curricula materials.
- Publishers need, as a matter of urgency, to provide scaffolding to teachers who face the exacting challenges of teaching grade-level instructional material to students who are years behind.
- RTI materials, wherever practical, should lead students back to the core curriculum, not away from it.
- Districts can and should rapidly add curriculum-specific rubrics to their principals’ teacher evaluation tool.
- Districts should stop using non-aligned interim assessments, using the curriculum-embedded tests instead, or challenging test-makers to create aligned interims.
- We should all realize that one day of Professional Learning isn’t going to change years of teachers’ pedagogical practices. If a district adopts a new curriculum, it will take sustained professional learning, and principal buy-in and leadership, to effectuate fidelity of implementation.
What we teach, and how well we teach it, are the core of any and every school learning experience, no matter the method used. Unless we incentivize teachers to teach demanding material well, most especially to underprivileged students, we will lose this vital opportunity to close achievement gaps and raise learning outcomes. We cannot afford to prove the obvious to ourselves one more time: that implementing an essential aspect of learning is a wasted effort in an incoherent education system.
 EdReports is a non-profit organization that evaluates curricula for their alignment with national standards. Green is the color they give to a curriculum that has a high degree of alignment. https://www.edreports.org
 For example, the “Teacher’s Note” for Grade 8, Module 2, Lesson 32 suggests that “If students need a reminder about what constitutes figurative language, ask students to list types of figurative language and write their responses on the board.”
 “What is not covered by the standards.” http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/introduction/key-design-consideration/
 Tier 2 support is essentially a set of interventions for students who are not able to undertake grade level work despite some “supplemental instruction.” http://www.rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti
 Disclosure: The author is an advisor to this initiative.
 NWEA, Curriculum Associates, the National Center for Assessment, and my colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy are working with the Louisiana Department of Education to design and implement this assessment, currently at the middle school level.
 As Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote in Education Next in 2017, “A RAND study revised last April found that 98 percent of secondary school teachers and 99 percent of elementary school teachers draw upon ‘materials I developed and/or selected myself’ in teaching English language arts. And those materials are most often pulled from Google (96 percent) and Pinterest (74.5 percent). The results were similar for math.”
 In addition to NWEA’s work in Louisiana, Centerpoint recently announced that it was going to create interim assessments for Illustrative Math and EL (what used to be called Expeditionary Learning when it was first part of EngageNY).