Five years ago, Russ Whitehurst published an important paper comparing the effects of various education reforms. Better teachers and curriculum rose to the top, with what is taught being just as important as who is doing the teaching. But that finding didn’t fit with reformers’ obsession with teachers, so the paper was largely ignored. Two years ago, Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos did a more extensive look, confirming the previous findings and challenging states to begin gathering data on which materials are being used in schools.
Now, with pressure to interpret and meet the Common Core standards, curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional materials are finally getting wider attention. Much of that attention has been negative, as those who are against the standards seem to enjoy finding misinterpretations of the standards’ intent. I find that gotcha game silly; no one really expects initial stabs at Common Core–aligned materials to be terrific. Over time they will improve—and with support they will improve more quickly.
I’m thrilled to see growing interest in providing that support. The Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are leading the way by funding several efforts, the most promising of which just might be EdReports.org. Preparing to launch in the winter, EdReports.org is involving teachers in intensive reviews of K–12 math and ELA materials, and the reviews will be free online. At the same time, Rachel Leifer and Denis Udall, program officers with Helmsley and Hewlett (respectively), have penned a plea for “Disrupting the Textbook Status Quo.” Since Core Knowledge is a small non-profit trying to offer better materials for free online, I am heartened by their call for more philanthropies to support development and dissemination efforts so that “a marketplace for instructional materials that rewards quality and innovation” can be created.
For philanthropies that aren’t quite convinced that curriculum matters, here’s one more study to add to the great work noted by Leifer and Udall. In “The Role of the School Curriculum in Social Mobility,” Cristina Iannelli shows that the content of the curriculum has lasting effects.* This study is important not only because of its findings, but because relatively few studies look at the actual courses students take. Iannelli is a professor in the UK; she used the UK’s National Child Development Study (NCDS), which tracks all babies born in the UK in 1958, gathering data at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. As Iannelli writes (p. 910):
The people in the study were in secondary schools between 1969 and 1976 during the period of reorganisation of British secondary education from a selective to a comprehensive system. The coexistence of different secondary school systems at the end of the 1960s provides an excellent opportunity to study the effect of studying different curricula and attending different types of school on individuals’ chances of reaching the highest social classes of destination.
Focusing on social and occupational status at ages 23, 33, and 42, Iannelli’s findings at age 23 were what you’d expect: parental education and school selectivity had a big impact. Curriculum did too, but what’s really interesting is that the relative importance of curriculum went up—and the importance of parental education and school selectivity went down—as people aged (p. 923–924):
Selective schools, languages, English, mathematics and science subjects had a positive and significant effect on the chances of being in the top social classes and reduced the chances of entering the bottom classes…. [The] results suggest that the indirect effects of parental education via school types and curricula are stronger at the beginning of respondents’ occupational career than at later stages. The opposite is true for social class of origin: it is in the long run that school and curricular choices emerge more powerfully as transmitters of social advantages….
We tested whether the effect of curriculum and school type at age 33 and 42 was simply a result of their effect at age 23 and 33…. The results, before and after controlling for prior occupational destinations, barely change in the analysis of class of destination at 33, indicating that the effect of studying different subjects and attending various types of schools continues beyond the point of career entry. However, when analysing destinations at age 42 after controlling for destination at age 33, while the effect of subjects remains the same the effect of school types reduces and is no longer significant. These results suggest that the subjects studied at school are very good predictors of individuals’ destinations at all three stages of occupational career. On the other hand, the school type attended has a significant short-term and medium-term effect on individuals’ occupational destinations but they become less important for explaining later destinations. This may indicate that cognitive effects may be more persistent than institutional status effects…. The long-lasting effects of some school subjects may indicate that they provide skills, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning, which are useful for individuals’ future occupational careers. [Emphasis added.]
Studying languages, English, mathematics, and science does indeed enhance critical thinking and complex reasoning abilities. In fact, these crucial abilities can only be increased by developing rich knowledge. Cognitive science on how knowledge builds on knowledge, and skills depend on knowledge, would predict these occupational findings. The students who took many courses in these subjects began their careers with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that enabled them to learn and grow at work.
We won’t ever be able to predict where each young person’s career will go, but we have plenty of evidence as to the type of education that offers the best preparation: a broad, rich, academic curriculum that builds content knowledge and skills together.
Mobility by knowledge courtesy of Shutterstock.
* Many thanks to Webs of Substance for finding this study!