Strong Curricula: An Intervention that Works

It’s easy to get discouraged about America’s academic performance. Our 12th-graders’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the nation’s report card—have remained unchanged in math since 1992 and have actually dropped in reading. On international assessments, the results are perhaps even more sobering. Andreas Schleicher, who has been called “the world’s schoolmaster” for his work overseeing international testing of 15-year-olds for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, points to Singapore, where the most disadvantaged students test “pretty much as well as the average American,” as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Likewise, in Shanghai the PISA results of the 10 percent of students who are most disadvantaged are comparable to the 10 percent of the most privileged Americans.

What is to be done? Having observed, worked on, and researched multiple educational interventions over the last 25 years, David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a professor of education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, believes that we need to focus on what has been “hidden in plain sight”—namely the content, or curriculum, that we teach to our students. By curriculum, he means a course of study that is “rigorous” and “content-rich.” Most high-performing countries, he said, fund a diverse variety of schools but require all to provide “a shared sequence of knowledge-building materials, effectively delivered by educators who possess deep content knowledge and well-developed pedagogical know-how.” Not so here in the United States, where skills-based curricula remain the norm, and there is no consistency as to what is taught.

In fact, research in the United States demonstrates that a strong curriculum can make a significant difference for students in the poorest city neighborhoods and the wealthiest suburbs alike. In 1997, for instance, Chicago introduced the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program for honors classes at 13 struggling high schools in deprived neighborhoods. It was a challenging curriculum originally designed for high-school students whose parents were in the diplomatic corps. The Chicago students, on the other hand, were mostly from African-American or Latino families with little or no college education. Even so, students who completed the program were 40 percent more likely than a matched comparison group to attend a four-year college, 50 percent more likely to attend more selective colleges, and significantly more likely to continue in college for at least two years, according to a 2012 study by a University of Chicago research team.

The program “seemed to be taking academically weaker, less-advantaged students coming into high school,” the study concluded, “and producing graduates with academic achievement comparable to” their private or suburban public high-school counterparts. That shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The University of Chicago team cited research from the U.S. Department of Education back to 1999 finding that “the intensity and quality of one’s secondary school curriculum” is the single strongest influence on getting into college and earning a degree. Chicago has since expanded the IB program to 56 city schools, and it reports a 96.2 percent graduation rate for participating students.

According to Steiner, this high-quality curriculum is rare in American schools because educators have been trained to focus on skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking or finding the main idea, rather than to introduce students to actual domains of knowledge—without which such skills are of little use. These practices are an unfortunate consequence of pedagogical priorities and cultural conflicts that, taken together, result in our habitual avoidance of “a particular content that our children should learn.” Textbooks likewise sidestep controversy to head off critics from both the left and right. Many classrooms are thus bereft of the very texts and discussions that could inspire the next generation and instead leave low-income students, in particular, increasingly both bored and behind.

Given Americans’ deep resistance to focusing on the content of what we teach, is there any reason to think that educators will embrace the idea of curriculum reform now? When Massachusetts shifted to content-rich curricular frameworks in the 1990s, its students “skyrocketed to the top of the academic charts,” said Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Institute for Education Policy. “But other states didn’t take note and copy what became known as ‘the Massachusetts education miracle.’ There was a tendency to say, ‘Oh, that’s just Massachusetts,’ and to fall back on decades of educators being told it’s not about knowledge, it’s about learning how to learn.” But if that stubborn focus on skills has become a cultural fixture in education, said Berner, it’s one “that is being shaken up right now.”

The shakeup is partly a result of research studies showing the differential impact on learning of high-quality instructional materials. But it is also the consequence of policy action. Steiner, who had previously worked on the Massachusetts effort, served as New York’s commissioner of education beginning in 2009. When the state applied for (and later won) a $700-million “Race to the Top” federal education grant, he insisted on reserving $23 million to prepare a content-rich curriculum in English language arts and math. Textbook publishers fiercely objected to what eventually became the EngageNY curriculum, because it would be available for free as an “open educational resource” on the Internet. Others worried that teachers might perceive EngageNY as a limitation upon their classroom choices.

“We were very careful,” said Steiner. “We did not make it in any way compulsory. We were essentially in the field of dreams: We will build it and let’s see if anybody comes.” By 2016, the math curriculum alone was already being used by more than half of elementary school teachers nationwide, and the English language arts curriculum was also being used more than any other curriculum, according to a Rand Corporation report. By one estimate, elements of EngageNY have so far been downloaded over 100 million times. This high use, Steiner says, indicates teachers’ hunger for good material.

Louisiana has become one of the most promising converts to the high-quality curriculum idea, using the math content from EngageNY and increasingly involving the Institute for Education Policy in its instructional reform work. As a way to get buy-in from teachers, the state’s Department of Education chose 100 “teacher-leaders” to review a range of available curriculum materials. The department then negotiated statewide discounts with publishers to encourage school districts to pick material in the top-rated Tier 1.

“We don’t force anybody to do anything that they don’t want to do,” said Rebecca Kockler, Louisiana’s assistant superintendent of academic content. “We’ve just asked the question, ‘How can we be helpful?’” As a result, more than 85 percent of school districts now use Tier 1 materials, up from 25 percent five years ago. While Kockler is cautious about attributing academic improvements to better curricular materials, partly because it’s too soon to measure the results properly, she said students are improving on every metric. Unlike Massachusetts, Louisiana has ranked historically near the bottom in educational achievement; its improvements are thus attracting attention across the country. Steiner is now working with the Council for Chief State School Officers to present the supporting evidence for a stronger curriculum to education leaders in seven states.

In a separate effort, the Institute for Education Policy has begun to undertake “knowledge-mapping” of existing curriculum materials for state- and district-level partners. “We work through their reading lists and map out the knowledge students would accumulate if they engaged with every single text across their elementary and secondary education,” said Berner. “This exercise can create an ‘a-ha’ moment for our partners. They might have 25 pieces of reading on perseverance and nothing about China or India, which represent a quarter of the world’s population.”

The larger goal, however, is to bring new instructional designs, backed up by domestic and international research, to support and secure the depth and coherence of learning. “In the end,” Steiner notes, “What counts most is what we teach and how effectively students learn it. What we teach,” he adds, “isn’t some sidebar issue in American education: it is American education.”