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? 


  1. Why don’t you apply for my district’s Superintendent vacancy? We could certainly use a common sense approach to ed reform. Thanks for keeping the focus on content.

    Comment by Bellinghamster — October 18, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  2. It has to be the right curriculum, though. At my school, the leadership is drunk on the TC Kool-Aid. That isn’t going to help.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — October 18, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Ah, but Miss Eyre, TC is not a curriculum. At least at my school this maxim was reinforced repeatedly by staff developers: “Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop is not a curriculum. It’s a philosophy.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 18, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by rpondiscio: Sure curriculum is the most impactful ed reform strategy, but it’s soooo much more fun to bash teachers!

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — October 18, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  5. Good post.

    Also, you should know that Debra Viadero at Inside School Research posted on Whitehurst’s letter on Friday afternoon.

    Plus I mentioned it today before reading this.

    Comment by Corey — October 18, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  6. I suspect that part of what makes some “reformers” more focused on choice is the fact that curriculum reform so often seems to be blocked or co-opted or turned into something else by the time it reaches the classroom. It’s been decades since Project Follow Through found such striking superiority for Direct Instruction, for example, but entrenched interests have been quite successful in badmouthing that program and keeping it from being implemented very widely (just as Core Knowledge gets badmouthed as elitist or “drill and kill” or other such nonsense).

    So education choice is a good fallback, isn’t it? I.e., if the entrenched bureaucracies insist on using bad curriculum out of ideological reasons or ignorance or just the inability to implement something correctly, then at least make it easier for some of us to opt into a different school.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 18, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  7. For another example, good luck getting Saxon math adopted if your district is full of teachers who agree with one math blogger that Saxon math is a conservative plot to institute “Prussian military precision and strictures, in keeping with the anti-progressive educational restructuring of the early 20th century in this country.”

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 18, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  8. Stuart, School choice feels great but it really won’t do much to help improve our schools. Frankly, within the public school system we already have choice: get up and move to any neighborhood of your choice with “good” schools.

    Even if curricular reform were the top agenda item for school reform, we have NO tradition nor idea about how to: generate quality curricula, implement within a school, evalutate whether that curricula was supposed to do what it was intended to do nor communicate those findings to the broader teaching community. All elements that are essential for promoting better programs and better student learning.

    Your example of Saxon is great. It is a decent program (but unfortunately not even close to Singapore which truly enables kids to excel in math) that was completely developed outside the mainstream publishing community. It’s reputation for kill and drill does not endear it to many schools. Without credible, solid evidence to show that it dramatically improves student learning why would any adoption committee ever try it out? This lack of enthusiasm for Saxon occurs even in those schools that are not overly influenced by progressive notions.

    No real reform ever will initially endear itself to schools as it requires teachers to change what they are doing. And most teachers already feel so overwhelmed with the day-to-day burdens that they do not have the time, energy or support from state/district officials to venture into new territory, to change their ideas about student learning or to try new teaching techniques. But for change to happen; this is necessary.

    And as Robert nicely points out: the wonks care little about actual classroom instruction; possibly because they don’t understand it and it seems boring compared to “accountability”.

    From the wonks point of view it is much easier just to blame teachers than it is to develop the network and infrastructure necessary for curricular reform.

    Choice would be lovely. But I would be more impressed with reforms that actually improved the quality of student learning.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 18, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  9. I mentioned Saxon only because it’s one of the two math programs that Whitehurst’s column characterized as having been proven in a strong experiment to be superior. So the “credible solid evidence” is there, I think, but I get the feeling that it wouldn’t matter to the people who think that wanting kids to do better at math is a sign of some kind of sinister conservative conspiracy.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 18, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  10. Stuart, Ah, but the real term is credible. To you and I perhaps, this study would seem rather conclusive. To many, especially in the progressive camp, this is not a credible study due to… (fill in the blank) Excuses and exceptions abound.

    Perhaps modern medicine is a good analogy on how studies become credible. Prior to the establishment of the FDA, doctors had all sorts of anecdotal treatments. Sometimes they worked. Most of the time they didn’t. Patients had no way of really knowing. By setting up an agency that demanded proof of both safety and efficacy prior to allowing it for sale in the US, our therapies in the last century have made enormous progress. Trust in our medical care is exceptionally high because we all believe that the therapies that we receive from the doctors are the best possible available; or they would not have been approved by the FDA.

    This example does not mean that we necessarily need an equivalent federal agency, but it does mean that there has to be a network/process by which curricula is developed, tested, evaluated and disseminated in a credible manner to the broader educational community; something completely lacking in our schools today. (If you ever looked at ERIC, it is appalling at how many studies there are and yet so few that were designed to measure efficacy.) As part of any development/evaluation process, schools need to know what works and they, in turn, need to be able to justify what curricula they use.

    Schools do respond to change. They all responded quite predictably to NCLB. The problem with that law was not that schools didn’t respond, but the ideas behind the law were quite mistaken. Schools can change but what we ask them to change to should hopefully enable their students to learn better.

    If the wonks, politicians, well-meaning ed reformers promoted reforms centered on what happens in the classroom; curricula, teaching and assessments and moved away from the all too easy: Set-high-standards-and-the-teachers-will-magically-reach-them reforms that will ultimately fail to improve our schools, it would be possible to enable quality curricula within our schools. But without the necessary focus on curricula, why would anyone (school, district, state) ever develop, adopt or use those materials/teaching techniques necessary to enable our children to learn well?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 18, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  11. First off–Thanks for the kind plug, Robert. As soon as Whitehurst’s email promoting his new study arrived in my inbox, I knew I had to drop everything and read it.

    I have to agree with Erin: The paucity of good research in education makes many decisions about curriculum and other matters a shot in the dark. And a few blogger/conspiracy theorists equating Saxon math to totalitarian mind control doesn’t amount to a conspiracy against sound curriculum.

    The fact of the matter is that standards-based reform stopped well short of curriculum–and most educators certainly did not receive the supports they needed to ensure that standards had the best possible impact in the classroom. The AFT made this argument very effectively in American Educator last year–and in fact they’ve been making the same argument for years before that.

    Comment by Claus — October 18, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  12. Yes, a good curriculum can do wonders. But it needs to be implemented thoughtfully. Teachers need to take time with the material–pondering it, considering it from different angles, doing research on some of the subtle points of interest. PDs should be about the subject matter–in-depth discussions, advanced seminars, mock lessons. And there should be no pedagogical nonsense.

    It is a great thing but not a fix. It can be implemented well or poorly. I am not sure a school is better off just for having a curriculum, if it does not take time with the curriculum. Perhaps it makes a little difference, insofar as it gives the school something to work with. But the school must be willing to work with it, delve into it, take time with it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 19, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  13. And a few blogger/conspiracy theorists equating Saxon math to totalitarian mind control doesn’t amount to a conspiracy against sound curriculum.

    Well, if you’ve followed the “math wars” at all, it’s not just a few bloggers who have strong reactions against anything that can be characterized as “drill and kill.”

    Comment by Stuart Buck — October 19, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  14. Diana,
    Our schools do not operate in a manner that allows for thoughtful implementation.

    And while it is necessary for teachers to reflect on the curricula and their practice, it is nigh impossible to be both reflective and practical simultaneously.

    We don’t expect doctors to look up every scientific paper on the therapies that they prescribe daily as they are spending more time on practice than on reflection. Doctors do rely quite heavily on summary opinions and FDA approval, because they know that they can trust those opinions and the agency to rigorously evaluate new therapies. Teachers have nothing comparable.

    There is substantial, strong evidence that curricula can make a large difference in both closing the achievement gap and raising the achievement levels of top students as well. But operationally, our schools are not set up to allow teachers to incorporate new ideas into practice.

    It is not the implementation that is the difficulty but trust.

    Teachers rarely trust anything that anyone/district officials/publishers brings in from the outside. With good reason. Most of the current curricular programs that have been foisted on teachers has been horrific. And teachers are blamed if they somehow don’t make the misguided, poorly-developed curricula work.

    So what would it take for teachers to trust that the curricula that they are trying out is worth its salt?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 19, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  15. Very well put, Erin. As a practical matter, teachers are implementers. Decisions on curriculum tend to be made several pay grades above the classroom level, and the soul of our practice is to “make it our own” (whatever that means). I tend to think, however, that the highest hurdle is not *which* curriculum gets implemented, but whether we are to have one at all, at least in struggling schools. In my elementary school, we had Everyday Math. That was the only bonafide curriculum in place. For reading and writing, we had Teacher’s College, but as I observed previousy, pains were taken to make sure we did not see it as a curriculum, but a philosophy or an “approach” to teaching. After all, the homily was that we were to “teach the child, not the lesson” (whatever THAT means). Science, History, Art, Music? There was no curriculum, and no attempt to pretend otherwise.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 19, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  16. Robert, Thanks. It is remarkable that under those conditions students learn anything at all.

    The prime barrier to any substantial ed reform is the mistaken idea that curricula is unimportant in the classroom.

    So we waste so much time (30+ years) and resources ($5B+) on ideas that will never improve student learning: standards (too vague to affect classroom practice), accountability (accountable to what??!), school choice(though nice from a freedom standpoint, doesn’t improve learning)

    Student learning happens in a classroom. It is what happens in the classroom that matters the most.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 19, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  17. No, we do not expect doctors to look up every paper regarding the therapies they prescribe daily. But I do expect them to understand in what they are doing and be able to answer questions. I will expect different kinds of knowledge and understanding from general practitioners and specialists, but I will expect them all to know much more than the minimum needed to get through the day.

    I did not mean by research that teachers should “look up every paper.” But their knowledge should go much deeper than what is on the face of the curriculum, and part of their work should be indeed to make the curriculum their own, that is, think about it, extend it, consider it in many ways.

    Of course the main hurdle (or one of the main hurdles) is getting a curriculum in the first place. But it is only the beginning.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 19, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  18. Diana,
    Doctors do understand what they are prescribing and can answer questions only because that tremendous amount of leg-work has been done for them.

    Teachers do not have that same support network. The paucity of research on curricula does not allow teachers to be able to cite why they do what they do; so the fall-back rationales are: experience, anecdotes and popularity.

    Operationally, telling teachers to use a particular curricula is fairly simple. Districts do it all the time. It may be next week the NYCDOE changes it’s mind, decides that TC isn’t working and tells teachers to use a new approach. But how will they decide what to choose?

    There is little/no evidence/studies to support any rational decision on what to pick next. And so it goes with every school district out there. The number of school districts that have tried and rejected Investigations(TERC) math is high, so why do new school districts keep trying it again and again? Good marketing and a consistancy with progressive notions? Who knows.

    Operationally, schools have no way of knowing what curricula to try, how to implement it nor how to evaluate whether it is better or worse than what they had before. So the fall back is: experience, anecdote and popularity; a good way of maintaining the status quo — not a good way to improve.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 19, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  19. Erin,

    I think we’re talking about different things. It seems you’re talking about the selection of a curriculum. I’m talking about what to do once you have one.

    You can have a superb curriculum, and still the work has only begun. To teach it well you must know it deeply. That is all the more reason to have one.

    All professionals have some “leg work” done for them. They still must understand what they do. The doctor/teacher analogy is limited, because doctors administer treatments (and answer questions), but teachers offer knowledge, understanding, and insight about a subject. To have that, you need extensive background, and you need to study the curriculum closely.

    A school can botch a curriculum the way it can botch anything else. Part of the reason schools resist curricula is that they think of teachers reading from the text and not knowing anything beyond it. Most of us have had teachers like that at some point. A lack of curriculum does nothing to solve this problem, but it can obscure it. If schools saw curriculum as a starting point for thoughtful and lively teaching, they might well be more open to it.

    I am auditing an advanced intro physics class, and the professor is an astrophysicist and a brilliant lecturer. Someone with less background and insight could probably skate through teaching the course but would be unable to do anything close to what he does. He can point out when the explanation in the textbooks is faulty and explain why. He can present proofs in many different ways (the other day he proved Kepler’s Second Law before telling us what the law was.) There are many things he does that I probably don’t even appreciate, but I know that I walk away from class with the lecture on my mind. I walk away aware of what I do and don’t understand, and with a desire to understand more.

    There is no reason why schools can’t be thoughtful environments–they just have to value that. So much time and money is put into PDs–why not have some of those PDs be on the curriculum itself? So much money goes to consultants and coaches–why not instead hire more aides so teachers don’t have to monitor the cafeteria, playground, and hallways and can spend time planning, alone and with others? So much money goes into the latest gadgets–why not build up superb school libraries, organized around the curriculum but including much more?

    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 20, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  20. Diana, It would be great if our schools started with adopting superb curricula and allowed teachers time to delve into the material.

    But how do our schools/teachers know what is superb curricula and what is not?

    And do we ask our teachers to spend tremendous time and energy exploring/thinking about curricula that will ultimately be rather ineffective no matter how much time they put into it?

    As an example: Investigations(TERC) re-invented the way that math was to be taught. The developers decided to not teach computational algorithms and in particular long division. [It was one of the curricula that suffered by comparison in the Brookings Institute analysis.] The program’s foundational assumptions were that proficiency in computation was irrelevant as students can always use calculators. So the program used quite a bit of art projects trying to explore math concepts instead of mastering computation. If this were the curricula adopted by the school, no amount of teacher thoughtfulness could change the fact that long division was not to be taught.

    If we were at the point that we all had confidence that the curricula used by our schools was of superb quality, then it would be an appropriate time to focus primarily on teacher thoughtfulness as a way to improve student learning. But are we really there yet?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 20, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

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