Pascal’s Wager on Curriculum

by Robert Pondiscio
March 14th, 2011

“Stop seeking curricular solutions to instructional problems,” urges Kathleen Porter-Magee at Fordham’s Flypaper blog.   Entering the fray over last week’s Call for Common Content, Porter-Magee’s says curriculum is essential, however, assessment and accountability matter more. 

Unfortunately her piece is a bit of a strawman-fest.  She confuses the core curriculum manifesto’s call for guidance on what students should learn with a call to pick winners and losers among published curricula, or prescribe the methods by which children should be taught.  The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to describe the common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate. 

A case can be made that a content-rich approach to the critical elementary school years is the educational equivalent of Pascal’s Wager.  The French mathematician famously argued that even nonbelievers should live as if they have religious faith.  Why?  If there is a God, your potential upside is eternal life vs. damnation.  You win.  And if God doesn’t exist you’re dead anyway.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

The former head of curriculum and professional development at Achievement First, Porter-Magee describes a misstep  in mandating Saxon Math at her schools.  “By focusing our energies on convincing teachers and principals to use a particular curriculum, we were, on some level, taking ownership over student achievement results and shouldering it ourselves,”  she recalls.  Note that Porter-Magee and her colleagues didn’t throw up their hands and decide to stop teaching multiplication, fractions and geometry.  They simply rallied around a different program.  The challenge for educators ought to be the best way to teach material to their students–not to decide whether to teach it at all. 

No one is talking about mandating specific programs, pedagogical approaches or delivery systems.  The call for a common curriculum is a call for a unified scope and sequence, nothing more.  It takes seriously the essential idea that what schools teach is critical and ought not, for reasons of fairness and equity, be left to chance.  Betting on coherent accumulation of knowledge is the safest wager and one with no conceivable downside.  As Dan Willingham has pointed out knowledge grows exponentially.  “Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning,” he writes.   Pascal 1, Porter-Magee 0.

She also argues that a curricular focus runs the risk of “distracting states from allocating their now very scarce resources towards policies that have the potential to much more dramatically impact student achievement.”  Wrong again. As Russ Whitehurst has pointed out, curriculum is a ”free good.”  Something is going to get taught, and there are no discounts for bad or ineffective curricula; the implementation costs are essentially fixed.  Thus a coherent, content-rich approach to curriculum costs the same as an inferior content-neutral approach.  Why bet on incoherence?  Pascal 2, Porter-Magee 0.

“States would do better to create or adopt rigorous assessments and a strong state accountability system, and then to devolve ownership over student achievement results—and that includes curricular decisions—as closely as possible to the classroom,” Porter-Magee asserts.  However, this overlooks the inconvenient truth that reading tests are de facto knowledge tests (“poor readers” outperform “good readers” when the topic of the reading test is familiar to the ostensibly poor readers) and at present are utterly disconnected from curriculum.   The correlation between accumulated knowledge and reading comprehension makes it irresponsible not to have some manner of content guidelines in place, at least at the district or state level.  Cumulative buildup of enabling knowledge literally cannot happen if curricular content decisions are left to chance and whim.   And as always, the ones who disproportionately suffer from a hands-off view of curriculum are those who can least afford gaps in their knowledge base.  

Worst of all, Porter-Magee implies that one must choose between improving teacher quality, accountability and curriculum.   Rather, they are mutually reinforcing–each is more likely to succeed supported by the others.  In fact, teacher quality advocates have the most to gain from a common curriculum.  Reading tests, as currently conceived, are poor vehicles for measuring teacher effectiveness, since they are not curriculum-based.  There is simply no correlation between what the teacher teaches in a given year and the reading passages on a typical state reading test.  A common core curriculum will make it much easier to measure teacher effectiveness. 

Pascal breaks the game open.

Unlike Pascal’s Wager, those who bet on the curriculum wager are already way ahead.  There’s no empirical proof of God’s existence, but there’s a mountain of data to support the idea that teaching content is teaching reading.  It costs exactly the same as a content-neutral approach, there is no conflict whatsoever with structural reforms, be they teacher quality, accountability, school type or management.  

It’s a very smart bet.


  1. Robert, well said, and I quote for the benefit of our state and district administrators who may have skimmed your blog: “The correlation between accumulated knowledge and reading comprehension makes it irresponsible not to have some manner of content guidelines in place, at least at the district or state level. Cumulative buildup of enabling knowledge literally cannot happen if curricular content decisions are left to chance and whim. And as always, the ones who disproportionately suffer from a hands-off view of curriculum are those who can least afford gaps in their knowledge base.”

    If the Common Core State Standards were not based on this principle, they have no foundation in cognitive science or research. If they were, the content scope and sequence supporting them was defined as a first step in the development process. Why then are we spending a fortune with our two RTTT state assessment consortium to repeat that initial task?

    If CCSSO and NGA will provide their ‘college and career readiness’ K-12 contents scope and sequence at the level of detail modeled by the Core Knowledge sequence, all this back and forth about what our teachers are expected to teach in the classroom can be ended and the discussion can move on to pedagogy. If they cannot provide their knowledge/skill content sequence at the Core Knowledge benchmark level, then we have a serious problem regarding the validity of the entire Common Core State Standards development process. But that is another topic for another day… Fundamentally, you have already won the argument. Game, Set, Match! Well done.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — March 15, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  2. Should we as teachers, and administrators not spend more time of “how to” deliver the material. Look, I get the standardized test plan. I understand how we need to assess our students on what they have learned. Lets put our heads together to generate more improved ways to teach this material to students so we can reach them all.

    Comment by Steven Peeler — March 15, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  3. I think most people don’t get that you see curriculum as something beyond standards, but short of a packaged instructional program (Saxon Math, etc). A separate post illuminating the differences between the Common Core standards and the curriculum you’re envisioning might bring clarity to the debate.

    Comment by Jillian — March 15, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  4. I think there’s a semantic issue here. A lot of educator have taken to referring publisher’s products as “curriculum” and see it as including encompassing not just the subject matter, but the pedagogical approach.

    It goes with the tendency of textbook publishers to want to suggest that the are providing not just books, but “solutions.”

    Comment by Rachel — March 15, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  5. Jillian and Rachel are on to an important distinction, and I agree that even smart people who claim to follow the issues closely do not understand this.

    They think, perhaps, that the teacher opens a textbook to chapter X, and simply reads along in the materials, assigns an assessment from the same book and voila, c’est finis.

    And definitely it is in McGraw Hill or Pearson’s interest to tell district purchasing managers that their books are complete ‘content delivery systems’ when in fact they are rarely so

    Comment by Matthew — March 16, 2011 @ 11:12 am

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