The Silence of the Wonks

by Robert Pondiscio
October 18th, 2009

Hey, did you hear the one about how curriculum effects are the most impactful ed reform lever? 

Nah, didn’t think so.  No one did.  If you really want to set tongues wagging in the ed policy world, then do like Nicholas Kristof and write how children are “cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools” and blame teachers unions.  Then sit back and watch the fur fly as edubloggers trade attaboysbrickbats, and snappy comebacks like Ben’s Adler’s at Newsweek’s Gaggle blog:

Ah yes, if I were a kid in East St. Louis I’d much rather be homeless but have teachers with merit pay than housing subsidies. I remember when I went to Cambodia—Kristof’s favorite country—and all those kids with missing limbs were begging by the side of the road for an end to teacher tenure.

See?  Bashing teachers is fun, easy and never fails to liven things up.  Try it!

On the other hand, if you want to bore people to tears and guarantee that you get zero bloggerly love, do like Russ Whitehurst and point out that curriculum effects dwarf teacher quality (as well as charter schools, early childhood ed and academic standards) as a reform lever, and suggest maybe we should be looking at what kids are actually doing in class.  (Cue sound of crickets chirping). 

At Public School Insights (the only other edublog that has mentioned Whitehurst’s work so far) Claus Von Zastrow zeroes in on the money quote in the report that explains the silence of the wonks:

[P]olicy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice…may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing….The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers.”

It could takes years — lifetimes, even — before we have a “great teacher” (by whatever definition you favor) in every classroom.  But a strong curriculum might mitigate some of the worst effects of subpar teaching, it would have little cost and you can put it in place today.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Oh, sorry.  Must have nodded off.  Curriculum?  It’s not nearly as much fun as bashing teachers and teachers unions, but thankfully everyone agrees that we need to put the interests of children ahead of the interests of adults.  Right?  We do agree, don’t we?