Curriculum: More Reform for Less Money

by Robert Pondiscio
October 15th, 2009

From Day One, among this blog’s raisons d’être has been to say to ed reformers of  every stripe “don’t forget curriculum.”  So it’s great to hear Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst say the same thing–and with cold, hard data to back it up.   In his latest Letter on Education, Whitehurst lays out an argument that should catch the eye of everyone who is focused on charter schools, teacher quality, early childhood ed and standards as the means of boosting student achievement.  He looks at the effect sizes of those reforms and reports curriculum effects have a much greater impact than all of them:

Further, in many cases they are a free good. That is, there are minimal differences between the costs of purchase and implementation of more vs. less effective curricula. In contrast, the other policy levers reviewed here range from very to extremely expensive and often carry with them significant political challenges, e.g., union opposition to merit pay for teachers. This is not to say that curriculum reforms should be pursued instead of efforts to create more choice and competition through charters, or to reconstitute the teacher workforce towards higher levels of effectiveness, or to establish high quality, intensive, and targeted preschool programs, all of which have evidence of effectiveness. It is to say that leaving curriculum reform off the table or giving it a very small place makes no sense. Let’s do what works for the kids, and let’s give particular attention to efficient and practical ways of doing so.

“We conclude that the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than for the Obama-favored policy levers,” writes Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences.  He recommends the Administration “integrate curriculum innovation and reform into its policy framework.”

The Department of Education, through the Institute of Education Sciences, should fund many more comparative effectiveness trials of curricula and other interventions, both through its National Center for Education Evaluation and through competitive grants to university-based researchers. The Obama administration has clearly recognized the importance of comparative effectiveness research in health care reform. It is no less important in education reform.”

Can I get an amen?


  1. Amen.

    I am so sick of hearing about diagnosing reading comprehension and math deficiencies so as to provide “interventions”. It doesn’t occur to anyone to PREVENT deficiencies by implementing a solid, proven curriculum. I heard from an insider recently that our superintendent is “all about” interventions. This idea is getting drummed into the heads of ed leaders around the country (including that of Arne Duncan). Thank you Robert for continuing to beat a different drum.

    Comment by Ben F — October 15, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  2. Robert,
    Amen. But also in the report were several notable reforms that have not had any effect including State Standards and Charter Schools.

    So why are we pursuing National Standards with such vigor when the State Standards have had no impact on student learning?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 15, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  3. I agree that Whitehurst offers some very interesting data, Robert. In answer to Erin’s question, curriculum could be much more effective when tied to robust standards. Many supporters of strong standards, such as the AFT, have been very frustrated by the general failure to create curriculum and other tools to help teachers translate standards into the classroom. As with so many reforms, standards-based reform in practice often stopped far short of its goals.

    Studies of Massachusetts’s and Minnesota’s success in international assessments have found (or perhaps speculated) that both states’ efforts to create accompanying tools for teachers–strong curricular materials–boosted their international standing. It would be interesting to get Whitehurst’s take on that.

    Comment by Claus — October 15, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  4. Claus,

    Robust standards (those that are self-consistent, clear, explicit, and enable students to learn well) do not exist anywhere in the 50 states. Standards are mostly vague, 50,000-foot level documents that are dominated by process skills and little content (Process skills are easy to agree on – content less so). There is a paucity of guidance to address the day-to-day reality within classrooms. And it is those day-to-day classroom interactions that enable students to learn well.

    What has been successful in many other top-performing countries is not “standards” but well-defined class syllabi: explict content ideas and topics that are to be covered; sequenced so that students progress from the simple to the more complex. Additionally, teachers are encouraged and supported in refining and reflecting on their techniques/approaches to interacting with students. Top-performing school systems know that they need to encourage their teachers to learn, stretch and teach well, so that their student can do the same. These may not be common thoughts within the US educational establishment, but they are the enduring qualities that are common throughout the top-performing nations.

    Standards have been and will continue to be useless in enabling improvements in student learning.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 16, 2009 @ 1:38 am

  5. Erin, you make your point very clearly (you must be a good teacher!) It sounds as if you’re saying that standards are very hard to translate into actual good teaching, whereas a detailed curriculum with syllabi, etc. is much easier to translate into good teaching. So why exert ourselves fighting for a golden set of standards when, in the end, they will not have much impact on what actually happens in classrooms? I’m convinced.

    Comment by Ben F — October 16, 2009 @ 9:42 am

  6. Standards are far too general, too global, to produce universal results. I can see it now. We’ll finally have national standards and fifty states will go in fifty different directions with their curricula and we’ll be right back to square one. It will be the same as it was with state tests and definitions for proficient.

    While standards may be a good place to start they will never be comprehensive enough and clearly defined enough to create the results we’re looking for in all of our schools. Things will have to be very clearly spelled out in curricula and syllabi for a national PLAN to be effective. How long is it going to be before that is realized?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 16, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  7. What has been successful in many other top-performing countries is not “standards” but well-defined class syllabi: explict content ideas and topics that are to be covered; sequenced so that students progress from the simple to the more complex.

    But the U.S. is much more committed to local control than many other country, which has pros and cons.

    I realistically, making the jump to national or even state “curricula” is a long ways off. But maybe an intermediate step would be to develop course curricula in the way that seems to be happening in math. I think it would be a lot easier to get agreement on the curricula for a high school American Literature course, than it would be to get everyone to agree that 9th graders should study “American Literature” rather than “World Literature.”

    Comment by Rachel — October 16, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  8. Important discussion on an important report. My comments on it can be found on yesterday’s “Flatline! Call a Code Blue” Blog

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — October 16, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  9. Ben, Thanks.

    Exactly. It is amazing how many ways the standards can be (mis)interpreted.

    It is not necessary to develop “one” fed/state curricular sequence. What might work better in our country is a more flexible system of defined courses, more similar to what is done with AP. States and/or school districts could choose to offer certain sequences of courses.

    This approach could be less contentious than trying to define uniform one-size-fits-all standards, as it would allow a resonable degree of flexibility for local needs, student abilities and interest levels.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 16, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

  10. 1. Whitehurst describes charter effect sizes of .06 to .09 standard deviations in the NYC study, and says the Boston study found similar effects.

    But Tom Kane, in his Boston study, found middle school math effects of .54 standard deviations.

    Remember, Robert, when you asked Eduwonkette about the Kane study? She called the effect size “Simply huge.”

    Her concern was that the study only included some of the Boston charters. And the new NYC study handles it: Hoxby covered 93% of charters.

    Comment by GGW — October 17, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  11. I don’t understand why everyone here is getting themselves so twisted up in knots about the role of standards. Standards define what you want students to know and be able to do. Curriculum defines how you get students to the standards. It is like the difference between strategy and tactics. There is no point to one without the other, neither is more important or sufficient. No country or state has successful curriculum without standards.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — October 19, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  12. Tom, It is not possible to effectively define strategy without a thorough understanding of tatics. Just saying “teach all children to read fluently by the end of 1st grade”, is silly unless you have tatics to obtain that goal.

    Standards can be a useful tool in aligning curricula but it is not an effective tool for changing curricula. Standards are not change agents.

    The US had relatively successful curricula before the advent of standards; there was a time the US school system was the best in the world.

    The top-performing countries do not use standards the way that we hope to use them (to enable children to learn more). Top-performing countries realize that it is improvements in classroom instruction that need time, energy and money. Standards are used mostly as an internal document to help align the development of quality curricula, assessments that directly relate to the curricula and allowing teachers to develop better teaching practice.

    So if standards (alone) are rather useless, why are we wasting so much time trying to develop them? And where is the concomitant work on developing curricula?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 19, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  13. I have always supported good solid curriculum. I have agree whole heartedly that IF NYC were to use good curriculum they would NOT have this over-infatuation with “testing”, there would be NO need as the students would score well and that would be the end of the story. Instead, what has happened is that – “Whole Language Remake” by Lucy Caulkins called “Teacher’s College Model” has taken hold of our schools and we have serious problems. New teachers are only trained in this poor reading program and the kids are suffering. Here in Bushwick I use Sing, Spell, Read & Write, an EXCELLENT curriculum, I pull out the slowest kids and guess what, they are learning, because the curriculum is top notch and works. There ARE great research based curricula out there, that work, are cheaper, more efficient and we CAN get the job done without all this charter school elitism ( these charter schools look nice on paper but lets face it they are costly and can NEVER be for the masses… just too much money!!!). Instead it’s high-time Obama and is crew, as well as Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein put there focus on what works and works well in EVERY classroom, including the slowest kids. Our kids DON’T come to school with lots of foundation, we can’t afford to assume the parents are going to be able to help because they went through the same system, we can however provide our parents with hope, as we use research-based curricula that works!!! Visit youtube and type in Sing, spell, Read & Write… You’ll see what I mean!
    Let’s hope these the decision makers pay attention to this study.

    Comment by Christine D'Amico — October 23, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  14. Charter schools are a means to an end, not an end! And the end is better education for children. I have been involved with charter schools in California since the passage of the law in 1992. I am Executive Directors of two high performing Core Knowledge based charter schools – Rocklin Academy and Rocklin Academy Meyers Street. Superintendents continue to bitterly oppose our schools and our Core Knowledge educational program. It is only because of the charter law that we had the opportunity to use what Russ Whitehurst says are better improvement leavers – a rich curriculum. I suggest the emphasis on charter schools IS NOT misplaced, but I strongly support charter schools being coupled with a high quality curriculum. It is my belief that a review of the charter schools that have embraced quality and coherent curricula will show the type of educational impact Whitehurst is advocating.

    David Patterson
    Executive Director
    Rocklin Academy

    Comment by David Patterson — October 23, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  15. David, Could you have replicated your program within a mainstream public school?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 23, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  16. Erin,

    Core Knowledge schools are traditional public, charter and private schools – so the short answer is a big YES.

    Comment by David Patterson — October 23, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  17. David,
    Great to hear the endorsement for CK. I concur. My question is rather, what curricular and teaching elements (in addition to the sequence) do you do? And are there any parts of your program that would have difficulty in being replicated within mainstream public schools?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 23, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

  18. I have often heard Bloomberg tout his charter school initiative as a means to an end, after all he argues, “competition is good.” HOWEVER, level the playing field, set two public schools against each other with excellent curriculum and then you can tell me that there is competition. The charter schools have all the advantages one could ask for, two teachers in each classroom with 18 kids per class, longer days, this would NEVER be cost-effective in the public school system and I dare say the teachers know very well, that what works in Charter Schools cannot work for public schools because of the lack of resources. So to David Patterson in California who is using the Charter School as a model, I just wonder, how all that great instruction, (which I’m sure is great) can practically be transferred into schools without resources. I’m not saying that what he’s doing is not valid, I just think it’s not practical and I’m all for practicality. For example, this ridiculous “cover your black boards and have the kids sit in groups” model from Lucy Caulkins Teachers College Model is in every classroom in New York City. Little ones who can’t see the small board are forced to turn their heads and look, they are overly stimulated by their peers and they are cramped into a classroom because that model may work with 18 kids but with 28 kids it is much more practical to set them in rows and have them learn using the chalk board so everyone can see. In addition that seating arrangement is nice for Bloomberg’s Corporate Board Meetings but if you were to go to a lecture of any sort as an adult, I dare say, you’d want to be facing front and looking directly at the lecturer. This is just one example of some poor teaching methods being used to slow down a classroom which probably come from the Charter School Model. Therefore what I’m saying is what works for the slowest and toughest to teach ought to be highlighted. I’m sure charter schools have their place but good curriculum is just more practical and easier to implement.

    Comment by Christine D'Amico — October 24, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  19. The charter schools have all the advantages one could ask for, two teachers in each classroom with 18 kids per class,

    Are you talking about one or two specific charter schools here? Charter schools are usually dealing with less funds than other public schools (most states don’t give charter schools funds to get a building, which means they have to scrape together loan payments from operational funds that are supposed to be paying teacher salaries). So I’m not sure that it’s possible for charter schools in general to be halving the teacher-student ratio compared to better-funded public schools (and if they are halving the ratio, then that would prove that they spend their limited funds far more efficiently!).

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 24, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  20. In NYC the charter schools are paying teachers 25% more than public schools, their student to teacher ratio IS 1 to 9 or 2 teachers in 18, they have lots of resources and money – Charter Schools are NOT the same as Public School, The Charter School Model here in NYC is really nice for the kids that get into them but for the kids that are excluded it’s simply not fair and not nice.

    Comment by Christine D'Amico — October 25, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  21. What’s your evidence for those assertions?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 25, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

  22. Let me try to address a number of questions and assumptions at one time.

    Charter schools in CA get less money those traditional public schools. So if we have a lower student/teacher ratio it is because we put money there instead of elsewhere – like a big district office or lots of aides. (Our parents do plenty so we can put the $$$ in the classroom.) Our teachers are paid competitively compared to other local schools, and they certainly work harder, as do our students and our parents – everyone. We set the bar high on purpose, and then we work very hard to make sure everyone reaches it, and beyond.

    As to anything that makes what we do not possible in a “traditional” public school, my answer is no. We have Core Knowledge, supplemented by a character education program called Core virtues. We are significantly changing the way teachers work through the implementation of a PLC – we really are doing it – warts, bumps and all – and are beginning to see and feel its power. A traditional school can do anything we do – if they want to. We are not fundamentally different that non-charter public Core Knowledge schools.
    Christine D’Amico talks about a level playing field. CA charters are significantly disadvantaged compared to traditional public schools in CA. However the things we do have – flexibility, freedom from thousands of frankly stupid laws, and the ability to adopted a mission and high standards – and being accountable for results (student learning) – are all things we believe all schools should have. So when you talk about a level playing field – please talk about “freeing” traditional school and not “dumbing down” charter schools.

    Comment by David Patterson — October 27, 2009 @ 3:15 am

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