Over the past decade, education reform advocates on both the state and national level have demonstrated an almost single-minded focus on various “structural reforms”: setting standards, adopting assessments, establishing clear accountability for results, providing school leaders greater autonomy and flexibility, injecting greater competition and choice into school funding systems, etc. But, by focusing on structural reforms over getting classroom-level curriculum and instruction right, are reformers missing the boat?
Beverly Jobrack thinks so. In fact, she’s written a book— The Tyranny of theTextbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reform—that argues, essentially, that it’s curriculum, not structural reform, that has the greatest potential to drive student achievement.
Standards alone will do little to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented.
Jobrack has a point—as we’ve long said here at Fordham, standards alone will do little to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented (via, among other things, a thoughtfully designed curriculum). In fact, few state and national education reformers would disagree with Jobrack about the importance of curriculum and instruction in driving student achievement. So why do so few actually take up the fight for curriculum and instructional changes?
One big challenge is the belief of many reformers—including Jobrack herself—that curricular and instructional policy should not be set centrally. After all, if you have to drive change one school at a time, you lose all the leverage provided by state and federal policy. And this is where Jobrack’s argument and policy recommendations start to break down. While Jobrack does highlight the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of statewide textbook adoption policy, she doesn’t offer much in the way of practical policy advice beyond that. And much of the advice beyond the textbook issue seems misguided.
For instance, Jobrack outlines what seems like an overly complicated and lengthy selection process for schools looking to adopt curricula. And, once selected, she encourages schools to manage the faithful implementation of the selected curriculum—a policy prescription that seems sure to encourage a paint-by-numbers approach to instruction and implementation.
Of course, there’s no denying that a poorly implemented curriculum will have very little impact on student achievement. But it doesn’t follow that managing to implementation rather than to results will yield better results for students for two reasons. First, no selection process, no matter how well designed, will ever protect schools from making curricular mistakes. (Look at Joel Klein’s disastrous decision to mandate—and manage, too—the faithful implementation of “Everyday Math” and “Month-by-Month Phonics” in New York City schools nearly a decade ago.) Second, there is no such thing as a “teacher-proof” curriculum.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jobrack doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the importance of instruction. Effective curriculum implementation relies on effective instruction. And effective instruction relies on a teacher’s ability to adapt curriculum to the needs of his/her particular students. And so any discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.
In the end, Jobrack helps reinforce the feeling that when it comes to state and federal policy a focus first and foremost on structural reforms does make sense. But Jobrack’s larger point still stands: a movement concerned only with these issues of structural reform can’t claim to actually be driving student achievement gains, instead only creating the opportunity for school leaders and educations to do so when they get curriculum and instruction right within school walls.