Why curriculum matters for state leaders

Editor’s note: This commentary from Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, is the second of a four-part series that examines the importance of high-quality materials for state leaders, schools, and parents.

The case for a knowledge-rich curriculum is strong. How can state policymakers make its use the norm? What is even possible in states with firm traditions of local control and extensive choice programs, both of which contribute to variability in content and instruction?

Two (very different) states are role models: Massachusetts and Louisiana.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed a law that required strong curricular frameworks for K-12; established new, rigorous assessments; changed teacher certification to reflect deeper mastery of subject-matter; and specified that professional development focus on subject-matter expertise (see here, here, and here). Over the next two decades, the state became one of the highest-performing educational systems in the world.

More recently, under John White’s leadership, Louisiana made high-quality materials a signature priority (see here, here, and here). In the last few years, membership organizations Council of Chief State School Officers and Chiefs for Change have elevated this work and carried it to other states and districts. See, particularly, Chiefs for Change’s policy memo and the Center for American Progress’s report, on the process.

There are at least four concrete actions that innovative state leaders could take (or have already taken), from least to most extensive, to drive change.

Make the case based on evidence.

Two kinds of evidence matter here: evidence from research, and evidence from your state. The research on the benefits of choosing a knowledge-rich curriculum and empowering teachers to deliver it is robust, but making good on that research pushes against the grain and requires an explicit, and consistent, focus. It means translating the research into the currency of your context, whether that means adequate support for English Language Learners, fiscal responsibility and cost-effectiveness, teacher leadership initiatives, or strong culturally-relevant materials, and then creating a common conversation across stakeholders.

Research on your state can take several forms but is a variation on the theme, “Do you know what your teachers are using?” To answer this question, leaders can support system-wide surveys on teachers’ materials use (as one state we worked with undertook in 2019); offer targeted funds for districts to use for such purposes (as Massachusetts did – see here); and/or develop recommended lists of strong curriculum (see Tennessee as well as Louisiana).

A good survey, such as one based on the RAND Corporation’s national panel, will tell you not only what teachers are using, but why, and for what purposes. District- and state-level findings provide actionable data that let leaders identify exemplars as well as the most pressing needs.

Change procurement.

Most of us yawn when we hear “procurement.” But the protocols by which materials and professional development are selected make a huge difference. Once it had identified high-quality materials with the help of teacher experts, for instance, Louisiana made it easier for districts to purchase them.

State and district regulations on textbook selection vary, of course, but every state can create a policy environment that promotes better choices. As Chiefs for Change wrote last year, “States should provide the knowledge and expertise necessary to help districts and schools select high-quality options without sacrificing the flexibility and autonomy needed to cater to the uniquely local needs of their communities.”

This plays out even in terms of the ideal Request for Proposals (RFP). For guidance about RFPs that incentivize, and those that discourage, high-quality applicants, see here. States could curate model RFPs for district use.

Change teacher preparation.

A third mechanism to promote high-quality curricula is to embed what my colleague David Steiner calls “Curriculum Literacy,” or “the capacity to decide whether a given set of instructional materials is strong or weak,” into teacher prep programs. There are many barriers to doing so, not least that schools of education moved decidedly away from specific content knowledge and towards developmental psychology, more than a hundred years ago.

There thus remains a strong bias in the field against requiring specific knowledge. Nevertheless, preparing teacher candidates to discern the wheat from the chaff would directly benefit the children they end up teaching. For detailed guidance on what it would look like to move the needle, see here.

Design curriculum-specific assessments.

The highest-octane change that state leaders could make would be this: Integrate high-stakes assessments with particular curriculum content that students need to master. This is how summative assessments actually operate in many other countries, with content-specific exit exams in all major subjects, at the end of each grade or grade band. Such an arrangement places meaningful responsibility on students for their own learning (a good thing) and provides clear signals to teachers and parents alike about what instruction should look like.

For a glimpse at how Alberta, Canada, does it, see here. Alberta funds all different kinds of schools, from Catholic, Jewish, and secular, to Inuit and even home schooling, but holds them together through the content knowledge that all students learn and through assessments that ensure that they master it.

An analog in our country would work the other way around, from the curriculum materials that schools actually are using, to tests that reflect that content. One could imagine states having not one but rather several state assessments, each of which draw on high-quality materials being used in the field. Think of a state like Florida, where numerous districts, charter networks, and private schools have begun to use Eureka Math, Agile Minds, or Bridges (in Math) and Wit & Wisdom, Core Language Knowledge Arts, or Guidebooks (in English Language Arts). What if the state allowed schools to choose for-stakes tests that were derived from these curricula, as opposed to only offering one curriculum-agnostic, skills-based state assessment or, for tax-credit-supported private schools, nationally-normed but curriculum-agnostic ones?

A state-approved menu of curriculum-linked assessments would round out the virtuous circle of rich content for students, teachers, and parents. Students would know what was expected of them. Teachers could lean into classroom content without “test-prep breaks” of disaggregated skills. State tests would make more sense to parents, who could draw a straight line from the books their kids are reading. (Some high-quality materials even have parent resources for every unit.)

Even formative assessments could join in, with curriculum-specific tests that guide teachers more precisely, and quickly, instead of providing data that have nothing to do with the daily work of teaching and learning.

Lest one think that this is just pie-in-the-sky, it’s actually happening: Louisiana’s pilot assessment project, for which this institute serves as a partner to the work. This initiative, currently focused on middle school students in districts that opted in, assesses students on the most commonly used English Language Arts curriculum in the state (Guidebooks). The pilot tests the usual ELA skills, of course, but also asks students to think deeply about specific sources they’ve read in class, integrate new but related content thoughtfully, and synthesize ideas that arose across the year in an end-of-grade essay. One of the testing panels also draws on the state’s social studies content, thereby reducing overall testing time.

The Louisiana initiative reinforces the knowledge-build that we know works for teachers and kids, and it could be scaled up elsewhere. Any takers?

Read Ashley Berner’s previous post in this series here.

One Comment

  1. Pass. Instead, a better, Swiss initiative is harmonizing state standards, then curricula by teaching language; Singapore would be a natural choice to lead the English-speaking community, as it already does in its region through its international Primary School Leaving Exam, which assesses in a curriculum-specific manner pupil competencies in English, mathematics, science, and an additional language during their Sixth Year, the end of their elementary grade band. A useful addition is that of Quebec, which, like Alberta and other Canadian states, certifies its high secondary school studies through provincially-normed assessments in the four subjects already mentioned and in social humanities like civic history.