New Lessons on Curriculum

Teacher quality matters more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling. This has been the conventional wisdom in education research for the last twenty years, dominating public policy discussions. However, in the last six months, the long-overlooked importance of curriculum and its impact on driving student outcomes has been elevated by new research and several successful case studies.

In February 2017, Charles Sahm reported in US News and World Report that a five-state study, A Compelling Case For Curriculum, found that high-quality instructional materials produced a larger effect on student achievement than the metric of experienced teacher versus novice teacher. In a March edition of Education Week, Liana Loewus and Michele Molnar spotlighted how curriculum choices are evolving and showcased the ways that private companies and districts assess the effectiveness of different curricula platforms. The reality is that everyone is struggling to respond to the challenges of functioning in an increasingly digital and constantly shifting academic landscape.

In April, the Aspen Institute published Connecting Curriculum & Professional Learning in Schools. Authors Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel argued that to improve teaching and learning, districts must align their professional development with the curriculum teachers are using in their classrooms. While demands on teachers’ time are as overwhelming as ever, the authors also strongly advocated for teachers to have more opportunities to reflect on and improve existing curriculum. In May, on The 74 website, Matt Barnum reviewed several studies for his article New Studies Suggest Choice of Curriculum and Textbooks Can Make a Big Difference for Students. The key finding from his research review was that when teachers receive professional development aligned with curriculum, they outperform teachers who receive curriculum without supports.

These articles, and others like them, have landed with enough force that districts, for- and nonprofit organizations, and philanthropic institutions are paying greater attention to the importance of curriculum to student achievement. At One World Education, we find this shift both promising and affirming. Ten years ago, several teachers and I had grown disheartened by our students’ writing struggles. Our curriculum was flat and lifeless, our students disengaged and unmotivated.

To respond, we focused on what our students needed to learn rather than what we were told to teach. Our curriculum development mantra was to create a meaningful teaching and learning experience. We designed and provided teachers with curricula aligned to proven best practices and encouraged them to make modifications with their own innovations. These innovations were then incorporated into next year’s lessons, conveying to teachers the value of their feedback. For students, our curriculum and its corresponding resources showed them the process of how skills build on each other. To engage students in following our instructional process, we as teachers learned that we had to engage in following our students’ interests by allowing them to select a topic with personal meaning and relevance.

These initial lessons led to the development of One World Education, a nonprofit that for several years has led the largest writing program in Washington, DC schools. Today, the program provides teachers with curriculum, student resources, and professional development to improve research and writing skills, while students learn about different perspectives and solutions to self-chosen social justice issues. A 2016 World Bank evaluation reported that the program generated statistically significant gains in skills aligned to Common Core State Standards. Through this program, we see the power of curricula impacting students’ lives every day.

Other notable institutions are also driving similar excitement and results with their attention to curriculum. Several years ago, DC Public Schools designed curricula called Cornerstones to serve as anchors for each unit in their Scope and Sequence (Disclaimer: The One World Program is used as a DCPS Cornerstone). According to the program’s architect, Chief of Teaching and Learning Brian Pick, Cornerstones are “meant to make the curriculum come alive, so teachers can internalize and do extraordinary things with it.” LearnZillion, an education company led by co-founder and former DC public charter school principal Eric Westendorf, offers a database of vetted lesson plans and corresponding resources for approximately 950,000 registered teacher users around the country.

These reports and successes are encouraging. Moving forward, the curriculum development community needs to focus on quality over quantity to further gain and sustain the trust of teachers and district leaders. I would like to propose three ideas to achieve this.

First, curriculum development groups, as well as districts that use their work, should establish metrics for what makes curriculum a value-add based on their own standards and goals. In conjunction with this, these groups need to dig deeper into assessing student work generated from their curricula. Second, districts and schools need to provide proven curriculum to more of their teachers. This practice of building community around a shared teaching experience contributes to a healthy professional culture and opens doors for meaningful dialogue and collaboration.

Finally, the curriculum development community should use the metric of engagement more intentionally as its starting point for curriculum design. This focus will deepen the impact of curriculum’s role in leading to achievement because a great curriculum not only helps students of all abilities boost their skills and knowledge, it provides teachers with strategies to engage reluctant learners. I am confident that in the months and year ahead, we will learn more about the role of, and strategies for, developing curriculum that will promote exceptional learning for all students.

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