Choosing Curriculum Without Evidence

by Robert Pondiscio
April 13th, 2012

If you wanted to improve medical care, would you focus on hospital administration and patient insurance?  Or would you look at the treatment doctors were giving patients?  Would you try to improve a sports team’s won-loss record by focusing on stadium layout and the team’s travel schedule?  Then why, ask Brookings’ Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst, do education policy makers focus most of their attention on academic standards, teacher evaluation, and school accountability policies?  Shouldn’t we be looking instead at instructional materials?

“There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness,” the two write in a new paper from Brookings, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.

“Whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.”

There’s one big hurdle to clear in correcting this rather obvious problem: Little effort has been made by the field to differentiate effective curricular materials from ineffective ones.  In fact, in most states, districts and schools, it’s nearly impossible to know what materials are being used at all.

“In every state except one, it is impossible to find out what materials districts are currently using without contacting the districts one at a time to ask them. And the districts may not even know what materials they use if adoption decisions are made by individual schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which has the mission of collecting and disseminating information related to education in the U.S., collects no information on the usage of particular instructional materials.”

Chingos and Whitehurst predict the blindness on curriculum will become a critical problem for Common Core Standards implementation.  “Publishers of instructional materials are lining up to declare the alignment of their materials with the Common Core standards using the most superficial of definitions,” they note.  “The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials, but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials. Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will also fall short if they focus solely on the selection and retention of teachers and ignore the instructional tools that teachers are given to practice their craft.”

The paper offers up a number of suggestions:  State education agencies should collect data from districts on the instructional materials in use in their schools.   also wants to see the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) “put their considerable weight behind the effort to improve the collection of information on instructional materials in order to create an environment in which states, districts, and schools will be able to choose the materials most likely to help students master the content laid out in the Common Core standards.”

Chingos and Whitehurst are dead-on in their critique of ed reform’s indifference to curriculum and materials.  When we focus on the mechanism by which schools are  created, managed, financed or evaluated, we are assuming that what kids learn, and with which materials, is pretty much settled, or doesn’t really matter.  All that’s left to do is figure out what works in terms of delivery of instruction and grow it, or figure out what doesn’t work and shut it down.  Any teacher who has worked with different literacy or math programs can easily attest this is not the case.