Whitehurst: Fund Curriculum Research

by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

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.

22 Comments »

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cassy Turner, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: No one better understands the importance of curriculum to achievement than Brookings' Russ Whitehurst. http://bit.ly/cK84NZ [...]

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  2. Whitehurst’s report makes all the sense in the world. And we might actually benefit from what it says if we could somehow find a way to overcome the anti-science, anti-testing culture that seems to permeate the educational establishment today.

    A recent report by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy looked at teacher preparation institutions in North Carolina and found that these teacher educators “…view learning how to read, write and do math as secondary to whether students find their classroom experience a satisfying one” (Stone 1998, 72).

    This mirrors the findings of the National Council on Teacher Quality which found that schools of education generally omit reading science from the core curricula of those who will soon be responsible for teaching kids to read. Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me understand how we have arrived at such a point.

    Tony Pedriana
    Author, Leaving Johnny Behind:
    Overcoming Barriers to Literacy and
    Reclaiming At-Risk Readers
    http://www.leavingjohnnybehind.com

    Comment by Tony Pedriana — June 11, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  3. Whitehurst’s report makes all the sense in the world. And we might actually benefit from what it says if we could somehow find a way to overcome the anti-science, anti-testing culture that seems to permeate the educational establishment today.
    A recent report by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy looked at teacher preparation institutions in North Carolina and found that these teacher educators “…view learning how to read, write and do math as secondary to whether students find their classroom experience a satisfying one” (Stone 1998, 72).

    This mirrors the findings of the National Council on Teacher Quality which found that schools of education generally omit reading science from the core curricula of those who will soon be responsible for teaching kids to read. Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me understand how we have arrived at such a point.

    Tony Pedriana
    Author, Leaving Johnny Behind
    http://www.leavingjohnnybehind.com

    Comment by Tony Pedriana — June 11, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  4. You’re preaching to the choir brother…let the church say “amen”

    Comment by Tamara — June 11, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  5. Standards reform has been all the rage while curricula decisions have essentially been haphazard, at best.

    Again, who is responsible for this oversight in our profession? God, it’s almost embarrassing to admit. While some in the field have recognized the importance of quality curricula, too many have overlooked it while focusing instead on “meaningful” standards.

    Erin Johnson and Margo Mom for Secretary of Education.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 12, 2010 @ 6:13 am

  6. How well students do on tests is not only dependent on the efficacy of a particular curriculum, but on how closely the tests align with the curriculum. So statistical measures suggesting that one curriculum boosts achievement (and another doesn’t) need to be need to be examined for that congruence. A good test will tell you how much students have learned *about the things being tested.* I was interested to see that Whitehurst did not identify the “winning” curricula or say much about the tests.

    RP: “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.”

    Well, yes. But this presumes that schools do not routinely adopt curricular programs–or that aligning materials and instruction to state/local standards isn’t improved by context-specific decisions. In other words, it helps to know the kids and what they can do, even when using a fairly detailed and prescriptive curriculum.

    I’m in a lot of schools–and in the last 10 years, I’ve not seen one that hasn’t put a great deal of curricular structure in place, usually to meet state benchmarks. In many schools, especially struggling schools, there is precious little flexibility or differentiation. Mandated programs, pacing charts and fidelity monitors are common.

    Teachers like a good curriculum. Nobody wants to make it up out of whole cloth. Selecting and sequencing content is key–and I’m in full agreement that policy makers are more excited by structural tweaks and incentives than they are by the prosaic building blocks of learning: a good curriculum and quality instruction.

    But I’m very suspicious of any suggestion that we should choose one curriculum because kids using that curriculum did better on a test.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 12, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  7. Nancy’s post implies that most schools have already built thoughtful curricula. Our staff has spent countless hours of prof dev time picking “power standards”, developing pacing guides (complete with a column for Bloom’s Taxonomy), aligning lessons with state standards, etc. So indeed, on paper, it looks as if we have a decent curriculum. But we don’t. It’s a bunch of garbage, I’m sorry to say. No teacher can translate what’s in those jargony, busy, professional-looking documents into actual good teaching. I’ll bet this is true in many other schools too: they have only the appearance of good curricula.

    After six years of teaching my subject I have a decent curriculum –but it’s mostly in my head. It’s the knowledge I deploy from my long-term memory banks. It would take me a month of full time work (or more) to write it all out. Whereas the official written curriculum references textbook and workbook pages, mine has juicy quotes about Hobbes, a recipe for nixtamalizing corn (for the Maya unit), memories of my visit to the Alhambra, a mental note to show my sketches from the Genghis Khan exhibit at which I spent five hours yesterday… It is way more complex and detailed and useful and effective than the document that is the ostensible curriculum for this subject.

    From what I’ve seen, the Core Knowledge curriculum guides come close to this level of detail and usefulness. I am sure that a rookie teacher using one of these would be far more effective than one using our fancy-looking curriculum documents.

    Comment by Ben F — June 12, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  8. Just because schools put into place those curricular maps and pacing guides does not mean that the curricula are well structured or designed to be beneficial for teachers and students alike. Thus, Whitehurst’s suggestion that we fund comparative research to determine the relative efficacy of curricula and curricular approaches. Being informed (by real comparative research) about what content, materials, techniques and approaches result in improved student learning is not the same thing as being forced to teach using a scripted, one-size fits all program. In the Japan lesson study, for each lesson there is considerable information compiled for the teacher’s use to tailor their instruction to individual student needs.

    It has been quite popular to bash tests, as they are the messenger that brings bad news (our students are not improving their learning unlike our international peer countries). It is not the tests that are at fault, but the lack of coherent discussion about what our students should be learning.

    In this testing+accountability era there has been a grossly mistaken notion that tests can be used to drive improvements. They can not. They can not be used to invent new ways of teaching or make those necessary decisions about curricular coverage and methodogical approaches. That tests have been misused does not negate their true use as a sampling tool to determine what students have learned or not.

    The AP classes use tests appropriately. The scope and sequence are delineated first and the tests are used to ensure consistency and clarity about what students should be focused on learning. The exams use multiple measures depending upon content needs. (e.g. Studio Arts uses a portfolio assessment, while Biology uses a mixed mulitiple choice and essay exam.) The AP classes, to their credit, do not dictate teaching decisions.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 12, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  9. Nancy Flanagan hits the nail right on the head: “But I’m very suspicious of any suggestion that we should choose one curriculum because kids using that curriculum did better on a test.” This is pre-Copernian thinking, and it is the mainstream thinking of almost all the people who wield the power in our American system of education. These are the gate-keepers, the priests and priestesses, the guardians of The Mystery. If we, the commonality, were to choose the successfully tested outcome over The Mystery, why, this whole class would be out of a job. Classically, they deploy fear, of which suspicion is merely the harbinger, as the ultimate defense of their privileges. Just examine the average syllabus of an “Foundations in Education” course. The readings are saturated with it. How little we’ve accomplished if fear is still regarded as the beginning of all wisdom.

    Comment by bill eccleston — June 13, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  10. I suppose my take on this is Hirschean, but I tend to think that curriculum — any curriculum — largely goes by the boards in most elementary school classrooms. I’ve observed a strong tendency to focus on standards in a content-neutral way and assume (incorrectly) that literacy skills can be taught in the abstract. To put it another way, teaching children to create a Venn diagram to “compare and contrast” (a typical standard) two randomly chosen stories may appear to be teaching to the standards, but it’s a poor substitute for a thoughtful, well-designed, and rigorous curriculum that over time familiarizes children not just with the idea of comparing and contrasting, but with a wide variety of literature across genres, and a substantial amount of domain-specific nonfiction.

    It is possible that I’m militant about this because I spent many years in a Teacher’s College “readers workshop” classroom where lesson planning was built around the “skill of the day” (teach the child, not the lesson!) and the choice of literature used to teach said skill was not important. Standards, likewise, offer little guidance and mislead us into thinking children are proficient when they’re not. I used to lampoon the NYS standard “produce a response to literature.” If I read a child a story and he puts his hands to his face like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, he has produced a response to literature. Does that mean he is on grade level?

    Despite my role working for Core Knowledge, I too would not prescribe a single curriculum for every child. But I would prescribe a curriculum for every child. It would have less to do with test scores than the understanding that broadly literate people need to be widely read and broadly competent.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 13, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  11. Robert, If it is important to carefully sequence instruction, how could you not “prescribe a single curriculum for every child”?

    And we would both agree that broadly literate people need to be widely read but how would you have schools do that without some level of guidance about what constitutes quality literature? If a student considers Sweet Valley High to be “widely read” should we accept that as literate? Teacher’s College believes quite strongly that their reader’s workshop produces students that are “broadly compentent”. Would you concur?

    My point is that the Core Knowledge sequence would be a great start to align curricula, but getting down to the nuts and bolts about what happens in the classroom is essential and we would all benefit from knowing the types of approaches and materials that do enable students to be broadly competent.

    Real curricular research might answer questions like: does synthetic phonics work better than conventional phonics at enabling students to decode? Or does learning how to use place value to explain long division helpful in developing procedural fluency and transitioning to abstract algebra?

    And with that knowledge, what should are teachers/schools do with those answers? So far, the very little real comparative studies have been largely ignored by schools as the answers do not fit in their world view.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 13, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  12. Fair point Erin. Would I be happy to see CK or something like it adopted as a national curriculum? Certainly. But given the intransigence of the education establishment, I think it’s highly unlikely to happen. If there were several competing curricula — and an understanding that standards are meaningless in the absence of a curriculum — we’d likely get further faster. This is why I like the common core ELA standards. They make it clear that standards don’t function in the absence of a curriculum. If that understanding takes root, it will make what Whitehurst wants easier to achieve.

    I wonder about TC’s overarching goals. I remember hearing quite often that it was “not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy,” and that the goal was to produce a “lifelong love of reading.” Personally, I think if you want to produce a lifelong love of reading, you need to be a good reader. Perhaps I’m odd, but I don’t very much enjoy things I’m not good at.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 13, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  13. While there is much to like in the specification of specific non-fiction in the CCSSI ELA standards (please consider this a win for all of you at CK!), how will this set of standards be any different than the individual state standards at developing and implementing quality curricula and instruction?

    So far, standards setting has had little to no effect on improving student learning. It hasn’t convinced publishers to do more than superficially change their materials (except to expound at length how their ineffective programs match individual standards). It has had little to no positive effects on improving classroom instruction. And clearly analysis of the NAEP vs the Fordham ratings have shown that there is no correlation be the quality of standards and improvements in student learning. (MA and FL had just about equivalent gains over the past 10 years and yet Fordham rates MA high and FL low.)

    I am with you on the whole lifelong love of reading thing. The kids I’ve worked with loved stories (read alouds or movies) but hated reading until they were able to fluently decode at a reasonable reading rate so that they could focus only on the story and not on the sub-skills.

    And frankly, I think this whole focus on just reading is largely a mistake. Why not a “lifelong love of writing” or a “lifelong love of thinking” or a “lifelong love of solving problems”? Do we have to limit our children to only receptive learning? I would hope at some point that they would all learn to be articulate and expressive.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 13, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  14. I’m coming along on the issue of a curriculum to drive reform, for k-8th. I still think we need to heed Nancy’s warnings and her experience, and I am just as doubtful as ever about a core curriculum’s potential in high school.

    BUT, curriculum pacing is still the evil cousin of curriculum alignment. Try that top down approach and you’ll get NCLB II with the rape of the curriculum and worsening the in one ear and out the other mentality.

    But I don’t know much about k-8th, so consider my halting opinions in that contaxt.

    But, I read this debate like I read the debates between Ravitch and Meiers when they disagreed on Standards. I’m loving it, and often siding with the person who I read last.

    Comment by john thompson — June 13, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

  15. “…standards are meaningless in the absence of a curriculum — we’d likely get further faster. This is why I like the common core ELA standards. They make it clear that standards don’t function in the absence of a curriculum.

    This being said, do all districts then adopt/provide the curricula of their choice? If that’s the case, how do we ensure some districts won’t opt for the easiest path, perhaps the most narrow one that adheres closest to the test but is not necessarily loaded with the rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children?

    Lord knows, states prostituted the adoption of the lowest hanging fruit when it came to standards, assessments, and thresholds for “proficient.” What’s to prevent them from doing the same when it comes to curricula adoptions?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 14, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  16. John, This idea that there should be one uniform core curriculum with pacing guides for high school is rather absurd. There are no countries in the world that do that. Students all have different interests and learning rates. There is no reason that high school (and as Paul would argue K-8 as well) should not support some level of individualization.

    K-8 is foundational for success in high school. If students do not have a solid education going into high school, it is unlikely (despite the tremendous energy that you and other HS teachers give to their students) that students will make up for that lack.

    Despite the “best practices” that ed schools promote, we have no evidence for our teachers/schools to use about what works or what doesn’t. This whole standards movement + curricula adoption + pacing guides + etc… is a hypothesis. There is no evidence to suggest that one set of standards, or one type of curriculum or one type of instructional approach enables students to learn well. These are all guesses at this point.

    What Whitehurst has said is that there is evidence that curricula can make a significant difference in student learning, while standards have shown no comparable evidence. This does not mean that we know what curricula is “best”. We just know that it matters: thus his call for funding real studies on what curricula and instructional approaches result in better student learning.

    Having used multiple types of both reading and math programs, I certainly have my own opinion about what types of programs work well with students. But so what. If the discussion is centered around one person’s opinion then it only comes down to a shouting match – Who can shout louder? What is needed is not just an opinion but a process for you, I, Nancy, etc… to come to an agreement based upon common evidence. This is *not* an easy thing to do.

    Paul, Curricular adoptions can mean something or they can mean nothing, depending upon what the teacher does with that material in his/her classroom. What I am hearing
    from you question is: “How can we ensure consistency and transferability of any substantially better teaching approaches from one classroom to another, without infringing on a teacher’s need for professionality?”

    Again, a very difficult problem. Other countries solve this by dictating materials and teaching techniques: a process that I do not believe would go over well in our country.

    The one type of process that would seem to work is to follow the AP type model for middle and high school; where the scope and sequence for individual classes is set (possibly by a state/national board like the college board) coupled with an external evaluation, while allowing the teachers substantial room to pick texts, innovate new teaching approaches and indivualize instruction to their student’s needs.

    Elementary school is different in that the foundational subjects that students are learning are not easily testable and there are tremendous differences in preparation and learning rates. Additionally, K-5 has the biggest room for curricular improvements (more history and science a la CK; better decoding methodologies a la sythetic phonics; better mathematics preparation a la Singapore). But unless we have a process where we can test these hypotheses in a public, agreed upon manner it will matter very little that these curricular improvements could do what all other reforms have failed to do: reduce the SES learning gap and better prepare our students to be successful in high school and beyond.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 14, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  17. Erin,

    Yes, high school mandated curriculum pacing is absurd, but that hasn’t stopped some (many) localities from trying. And that leads to the key process issue you mention. If we could all bring our best guesses and best research to a curriculum planning discussion, perhaps we could move beyond hypotheses. But when this is all under the pressure of today’s accountability frenzy, its hard to imagine honest and professional discussions.

    Comment by john thompson — June 14, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  18. Erin,

    So what is preventing Teachers College, Harvard, Stanford, etc., from…”testing these (curricular/instructional) hypotheses in a public, agreed upon manner?”

    I asked when I was at two of these schools and people looked at me like I had three heads. “Huh, what did he just say?” And they then continued on their merry way(s).

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 14, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

  19. Paul, Our schools/educational systems have no tradition of handling this discussion nor of really developing new, innovative curricula/instructional techniques nor of testing whether those do better (or worse) than conventional techniques/materials.

    When publishers state that their curriculum is “research based” this is hardly what a scientist in any other field would call research. Ed folks consider “research” to be a flaky idea that someone postulated in a journal; no statistically valid evidence is necessary. So part of the blame certainly could be laid at the feet of the ed schools, but really they have little direct control over what actually happens in the classroom. Without that direct influence, ed school reform will have as much effect as standards have had on improving classroom instruction: none.

    Education today could be likened to medicine in the 1800′s. There were some good medicines and there were ineffective ones and really no one could tell the difference. If someone told you that snake oil could cure cancer, wouldn’t you try it out? It wasn’t until evidentiary-based medicine and the idea of the clinical trial was embraced that the public was able to develop any confidence in a potential treatment.

    If this analogy is valid then the question then becomes: “How do we invent new curricula and instructional techniques, introduce evidentiary based decisions into evaluting those innovations and provide methods to translate those findings into classroom practice?”

    Not easy. And certainly this will not happen under RttT, standards+testing+accountability, or any other currently popular ed reform.

    The US DoE (or any of the stae DoEs) is horrible at inventing anything new. But they could do substantial good at funding and rewarding real innovations in education.

    One possible way for the US DoE (or state DoEs as well) to stimulate this type of innovation and evidentiary based decision making is to offer substantial rewards for any school system (distict, consortium, state, charter, etc..) who can make substantial improvements in student learning and prove/document what those innovations are and how their innovations translate to other classroom settings. That way, every school/state that invests resources into improvements has the possiblity of not only improving their students’ learning but getting back their investment plus more.

    Not all innovations will work well. Hopefully some will. But isn’t that the point? We need to know what works and what does not. Until we have a documentable stable of these types of “experiments” to evaluate educational innovations how will any teacher/school really use evidence to determine what direction their school should take?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 14, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

  20. Erin,

    And we wonder why our profession is looked down upon? Talk about a civil service mentality. Talk about embarrassing for a purported academic discipline.

    Is there no one out there (other than yourself) capable of grasping the global view of this predicament?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 15, 2010 @ 6:17 am

  21. “K-5 has the biggest room for curricular improvements … more history and science a la CK; better decoding methodologies a la synthetic phonics; better mathematics preparation a la Singapore”

    This summarizes in short where we should be going. Hear, hear!

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — June 15, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  22. Andrei, Glad you agree. The problem, of course, is how to convince the rest of the world that we would all benefit from a rigorous evaluation of educational ideas. I would support any process that allowed TERC or Singapore or EM to be rigorously evaluated. To let us know, does TERC really enable students to learn as much as their Asian counterparts or is this just a hoax?

    It would be great/enlightening for us all to have the transparency that we need to evaluate these curricular approaches. Maybe with a great evaluation system we can finally be rid of those horrific programs that keep popping up in district after district that promise much and yet only serve to erode the scant quality left in our schools. But without a common evaluation system, we only have opinion which as you know has not gotten us very far in the either the math or the subject matter content wars.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 17, 2010 @ 2:26 am

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