Spoiler Alert: If you’re looking for an objective review of this new paper from Chiefs for Change, you’re not going to get it from me. The idea advanced here—that content-rich, standards-aligned, and high-quality curricula may be the last, best, and truest arrow left in education reform’s quiver—is one that I’ve argued for years, and which E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has championed since shortly after the earth cooled. So what’s newsworthy here may be less what’s being said and more who’s saying it. Chiefs for Change is an organization comprised of district and state-level education leaders who collectively oversee schools systems attended by over 5 million kids in more than 10,000 schools. If some critical mass of those schools pursue the strategies recommend here, ensuring that “high-quality standards are matched with high-quality materials in a way that respects local control and supports strong student outcomes,” then a tipping point is near at hand.

Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, Churchill is said to have quipped, after exhausting all other options. That may explain curriculum’s emergence as a serious reform lever. But it is no accident that curriculum has been largely an afterthought in efforts to improve student outcomes. Our indifference is structural, baked into the K–12 pie. “Curriculum has often been considered a third rail in American education policy,” notes the report. Barriers to its serious consideration include “deep-rooted political controversy over how to teach subjects like social studies and science, and American norms that favor teacher autonomy and local control.” The paper does not elide these problems. Rather it explains how smart and skillful states and districts who see the value of quality curriculum have figured out how to pick their way through these minefields.

There’s a piece in the current issue of Education Next, which I authored, on the curriculum-based reforms undertaken in Louisiana under state superintendent John White and his talented deputy Rebecca Kockler. Many of the Chief’s “leadership lessons” are ripped straight that state’s playbook: “Use incentives, not mandates, to maintain local autonomy,” “leverage teacher expertise and teacher leaders in the work,” and “use the procurement process to expand use of the highest-quality curriculum,” for example. The report also helpfully restates the evidentiary case for curriculum, which while limited is tantalizing and persuasive. “Research suggests that, in the aggregate and for specific instructional programs, changing from ‘business-as-usual’ to a high-quality curriculum can boost student achievement,” the report notes. Perhaps most importantly, curriculum is also a largely cost-neutral reform. Bad textbooks and materials cost the same as good ones. What’s needed are curiosity sufficient to the task of separating good from bad, and policies that encourage more of the former and less of the latter. The emergence of independent curriculum reviewers like EdReports.org is a start, but these efforts “have largely revealed the relative lack of high-quality, [standards] aligned materials on the market. And even when information about quality and alignment is available, many state and district leaders lack the legal authority or the political will to incentivize the use of best-in-class curricula,” the paper reports. Just so.

State and district leaders now have this excellent roadmap to guide them in girding their loins to the fight for quality curriculum in their schools, which, in the end, shouldn’t be much of a fight at all. As the paper notes, the U.S. remains an outlier among high-performing countries, most of which have long prescribed a high-quality, content-rich curriculum. “Now, a group of states and districts are catching on and exerting leadership to develop strategies that make high-quality curricula and instruction much more likely in their classrooms.” Kudos to Chiefs for Change for adding its voice to the growing chorus of those urging more states and districts to follow their lead.

SOURCE: “Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning,” Chiefs for Change (August 2017).

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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