A new report by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst offers four ideas which “offer substantial promise for improving American education, are achievable and have low costs.” The first one is to ”choose K–12 curriculum based on evidence of effectiveness.”
Little attention has been paid to choice of curriculum as a driver of student achievement. Yet the evidence for large curriculum effects is persuasive. Consider a recent study of first-grade math curricula, reported by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in February 2009. The researchers randomly matched schools with one of four widely used curricula. Two curricula were clear winners, generating three months’ more learning over a nine-month school year than the other two. This is a big effect on achievement, and it is essentially free because the more effective curricula cost no more than the others.
There are myriad moving parts in a good educational outcome, especially for low-SES and minority children. Curriculum is the least appreciated moving part and isn’t nearly as fun to fight about as structural reforms like charter schools, merit pay, tenure and accountabilty. Among the ed reformers who drive the policy agenda (and have never written a lesson plan), there is a strong tendency to see curriculum, as the National Review’s Jim Manzi put it, as “motherhood and apple pie” or simply see it subsumed within the teacher quality debate, i.e., good teachers make good curricular decisions. Less appreciated is how a sequenced, structured curriculum can improve teacher quality by allowing teachers to hone their craft, focusing on delivering instruction and differentiation, rather than the enormously difficult and time consuming work of deciding what to teach, and aligning curricular decisions with state and local standards. Curriculum, as Whitehurst has consistently argued, is critical.
“The federal government should fund many more comparative effectiveness trials of curricula, and schools using federal funds to support the education of disadvantaged students should be required to use evidence of effectiveness in the choice of curriculum materials. The Obama administration supports comparative effectiveness research in health care,” Whitehurst notes. “It is no less important in education.”
Hear, hear. Whitehurst’s paper also calls for evaluating teachers “in ways that meaningfully differentiate levels of performance”; accrediting online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines; and providing the public with information that will allow comparison of the labor-market outcomes and price of individual post-secondary degree and certificate programs.