What Really Matters Most?

by Guest Blogger
January 23rd, 2014

This post originally appeared on Peter Meyer’s education policy blog IdeaLab, hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House.


When asked what matters most to me, I quickly answer: my family and friends. That’s appropriate, but if I were being accurate, I’d have to start with oxygen. That’s not what anyone wants to hear—but it is true.

I see a parallel situation in discussions of school improvement. In casual discussions and even serious debates, there seems to be a de facto, appropriate answer as to what matters most in creating a good school: great teachers and supportive parents. Now, I’m not going to say these things are unimportant; just like my family and friends, they are essential. But is there a more accurate answer, one that, like oxygen, is taken for granted? I think there is: the content of the curriculum, the specific knowledge and skills taught each day.

My hunch is that curriculum is glossed over in different ways by educators and policy wonks.

For educators, the content of the curriculum really is like oxygen. Teaching is always about something, and that something has to be specified before any other decisions can be made. That’s so obvious that it’s assumed, prompting educators to jump to other factors in thinking about what’s essential to a great school. Now, don’t get me wrong: the curriculum doesn’t make a school great all by itself any more than oxygen alone makes me live. Both are merely the necessary preconditions. Yet while it is possible to find a bad school with a great curriculum, it is no more possible to find a good school with a bad curriculum than a human being who can live without oxygen. When educators take the content of the curriculum for granted, they lose opportunities to coordinate and collaborate. Students may be learning something valuable in each grade or course, but they do not receive the benefits of a coherent, cumulative, cross-curricular experience.

Many policy wonks, on the other hand, seem to have no idea that curriculum matters. Some don’t even realize that standards and curricula are not the same thing. Theoretically, I could blame the educators for not explaining to the policymakers that curriculum is like oxygen—but in the real world I can’t. In the 100%-proficient-or-else era, what sane educator would encourage policymakers to mess with their oxygen? Unfortunately, omitting questions about the curriculum virtually ensures that the standards regime cannot attain its goal of raising student proficiency. Why is this?

It’s been almost five years since Russ Whitehurst wrote “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” noting that “policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, [are] people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.” Importantly, Whitehurst compared the impact of curricular improvements to that of other reforms, such as charter schools, altering the teacher workforce, preschool, and state standards. Conclusion: “Curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.”

This is why I am still trying to mess with the oxygen: it is the necessary precondition for improving schools, closing the achievement gap, engaging parents, and preparing teachers.

Trying again a couple of years ago, Whitehurst and Matt Chingos published “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.” This time, there was a cool graphic tightly focused on curriculum vs. teacher quality, the clear leader in appropriate-but-inaccurate discussions of what matters most:

Since curriculum matters, let’s start acting like it matters:

  • Researchers: do more longitudinal, well-designed studies that compare curricula.
  • Policy wonks: don’t mandate a curriculum, but support efforts—from the school level to the research university level—to constantly improve curricula.
  • Assessment developers: stop pretending like assessments are curriculum neutral. Each test question contains specific content and favors students who happened to be taught that content. So long as assessments are intentionally designed to have the content of the questions be unpredictable, the only way to prepare for them is to systematically and efficiently build broad knowledge.
  • Teacher-quality hawks: realize that sometimes good people are forced to use bad programs and practices. The surest path to better teaching is better curriculum. If a curriculum with strong evidence of effectiveness is not working in a particular classroom, that’s cause for investigation (but not for jumping to conclusions).
  • Educators: within schools, work together to adopt, adapt, or create a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that maximizes cross-discipline connections and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Across schools in areas with high student mobility, agree to a set of specific knowledge and skills to be taught in each grade; children who change schools will benefit immediately—and so will their teachers.
  • Parents: get a copy of your school’s curriculum and ask how you can supplement it at home.
  • Librarians: get copies of the curricula of the schools in your area and pull together supportive and supplemental resources.
  • Everyone: stop taking our oxygen for granted.

Everyone can and should be an oxygen hawk.


  1. Knowledge matters a whole lot and the best way for students to acquire that is by reading books and writing serious papers, but these days we don’t seem to want kids to read, for example, an actual history book, and I have recently found that some of the most “elite” U.S. private schools limit their high school level students to papers of three pages or less–-so they will not get much knowledge in those ways.

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — January 23, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

  2. Sorry, I’ll still put teachers ahead of curriculum … but below oxygen.

    Curriculum is never more than an outline put to the classroom. A good teacher will find methods to implement that and supplement with their own experiences. A poor teacher will be confused with the concepts, mix up the facts, and leave the students with the classic ideas of how the seasons come about.

    Poor curriculum is easily overcome by a good teacher.

    The author is right though that we are often steered to a poor choice of what’s a first priority. More than health care, the poor need food, clothing and shelter. Was it Einstein that said, “repeating a falsehood does not make it more valid”?

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 24, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

  3. I completely agree that an unprepared teacher can make a strong curriculum ineffective. But what really happens with the well-prepared teachers? I may be splitting hairs here, but does a good teacher “overcome” a poor curriculum or rewrite it, making it into a good curriculum?

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — January 24, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

  4. Yes, Lisa, I did that for the last 25 of my 38 years in the classroom.

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 24, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

  5. A good teacher may re-write a bad curriculum into a good one, but what will still be missing is curriculum alignment across grades and across schools/school systems.

    Comment by EB — January 24, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

  6. Hi Lisa,

    I believe that teaching students how to thoughtfully complete their work in class is as important as having a great curriculum, I think this is as important as oxygen is to an individual, making the students ‘think’ analytically in any challenging situation which they will find themselves in life. The quality of a student’s work is as important as working to finish up class works and activities. It really matters to me as a highly effective teacher to ensure that the students’ quality of work state standard and excellence, and not just completion of work.

    It matters the most for a students’ work to show persistence, revision, and creativity than a hastily finished work. Finally, I will like to say that highly effective teachers should insist that their students’ works are properly and thoughtfully completed than just quickly scaning through the work to check that the work was completed.

    Ayodeji Jekami

    Comment by Ayodeji Jekami — January 26, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

  7. Drives me crazy—I am a veteran teacher—to read all this “I believe” stuff.

    Belief is the domain of religion and politics.

    So Whitehurst is ignored and the post-Christian soldiers are in the saddle.

    What a mess.

    Comment by bill eccleston — January 28, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

  8. We have hundreds of thousands of teachers in this country, the profession has a very high turnover, especially in the poorest rural and urban extremes. I would guess that hundreds, maybe thousands of these teachers that can overcome terrible curriculum, but that is not really enough to make the difference. Do I think curriculum is everything, no, but is sure helps a mediocre or new teacher be a lot more effective. The problem is not the stars the problem is the rest of cadre that are not stars. The scale issue just can’t be ignored by a few people that are really good at what they do.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 28, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

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