Why curriculum matters: research and policy

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 first of a four-part series that examines the importance of high-quality materials for state leaders, schools, and parents.

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that high-performing school systems around the world require students to master serious academic content (see here, here, here, here, and here).

Studies in our country show the same. The famous “Catholic School Effect” – the phenomenon in which American Catholic high schools in the late 20th century effectively closed the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students – occurred in large part because they used an intellectually robust curriculum (see here and here).

Or, when Chicago Public Schools put the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in 13 of its extremely low-performing high schools in 1997, students who went through all four years were 40 percent more likely to attend college than their peers.


The rigorous four-year program enabled students to develop a “strong academic identity.” And interviews with the program’s graduates indicate that they acquired the academic background and skills to perform with confidence once they entered college.

A knowledge-rich curriculum isn’t just about learning facts. It is about engagement with meaningful information about the world and the questions that human life inevitably raises: geography, history, forms of government, war; foreign languages; how human beings wrestle through perennial questions of meaning and purpose and the good life; how they translate these questions into artistic form; what happens when biological ecosystems interact; how viruses mutate and how we create cures; and so on.

Note that we are not talking about mere skills. We’re talking about an intentional, subject-specific, knowledge build of the kind that leaders as different as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch have championed (repeatedly, in Hirsch’s case), that Dan Willingham’s empirical work validates, and that characterizes what all students in some countries and elite prep school students in ours, are routinely taught.

Schools and school systems that impart such knowledge make headway against socioeconomic learning gaps, because they give low-income students the background knowledge that better-resourced peers acquire in their homes. Moving to a higher-quality curriculum is also cost-effective; schools have to purchase or design curricula, so they might as well expend resources on strong as opposed to weak materials.

A content-rich curriculum also helps equip young citizens with information about liberal democracy – how it functions, why it matters, and how the American story looks from different perspectives (see here and here). Natalie Wexler’s beautifully-drawn recent book, “The Knowledge Gap,” sums up the growing body of research and provides clear examples of what knowledge-building can look like in actual classrooms.

The good news is that educational leaders in the United States are increasingly aware of the powerful effects of a strong curriculum and of what it takes to sustain its impact. For example, under John White’s leadership and with a team of teachers, the state of Louisiana began to promote the effective use of high-quality materials (see here and here).

Prominent organizations such as Chiefs for Change and the CCSSO are supporting the shift to high-quality curricula among their members (see here and here). EdReports has become a gatekeeper for curricular quality, and organizations such as Student Achievement Partners, TNTP, and Achievement Network are on the front lines to support the move to more challenging materials.

And school systems are taking them up on the offer: the list of charter networks, districts, and (some!) private schools that emphasize high-quality curriculum is growing by the day. To name a few, take a look at IDEA Public Charter Schools, Great Hearts Academies, and Success Academy Charter Schools; Baltimore City Public Schools, Cumberland County Schools (NC), and Duval County Public Schools; the Partnership Schools (New York City); and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.

If things are moving in the right direction, why devote more time to the subject?

Because many schools simply haven’t caught up. National studies of America’s classrooms find that most of them under-challenge students, particularly underprivileged students. The RAND Corporation’s national survey on instruction found that the vast majority of teachers cobble together their own lessons from a variety of sources, including from Pinterest, Google, and TeachersPayTeachers.

When our Institute reviews ELA and Social Studies curricula through our Knowledge Map process, we see high- and low-quality sources juxtaposed, and little effort to draw primary and secondary sources together into a coherent whole. A systematic approach to building mastery of any given topic – something my own children experienced in Oxford, England, at a Catholic school that followed the UK’s national curriculum – is, sadly, quite rare.

This is not just a malady of “public schools” or progressive education; many private schools have lost the plot along with their district cousins. I worry that some private schools all too readily accept public funds without a commensurate commitment to the in-depth knowledge-building that enables social mobility and democratic citizenship. I fear that commissioners of education leave tools on the table that could support quality across all schools, whether district, charter, or private.

And while parents clearly want more educational options, they also wish the available options were better academically.

The “curriculum effect” has implications for state leaders, schools, and parents. What can policymakers do to elevate educational excellence in a heterogeneous culture? How can private schools – particularly faith-based schools that rest upon religious worldviews – thread the needle between distinctiveness and common cause? What specific questions should parents ask schools about their instructional materials?

In coming weeks, this column will contrast the curricular status quo with a vision of what is possible for the next generation of American students. Please stay tuned.

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