Curriculum reform must be led by those who understand how schools work.
All of a sudden, the education pundits and policy wonks here in the DC area all seem to be shifting their attention from standards and accountability to curriculum. It’s as though dozens of so-called school reformers have woken up, all at once, to the same realization: The policy obsessions of the last two decades haven’t had the desired effect. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t accounted for the everyday life of teaching and learning.
Lo and behold, maybe those of us who were so critical of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were right all along! If you want to improve K-12 education, you have to think about the topics kids study, the books they read, the discussions they have, the projects they complete, the experiments they conduct . . . you know, the stuff that actually goes on in the classroom. If the policy wonks have finally realized that curriculum matters, then that’s a good thing. It took them long enough, but at least they’re beginning to think about the instructional core.
Unfortunately, though, many of the people now turning their attention to the curriculum are the very same people who championed Adequate Yearly Progress, value-added teacher ratings, and other misguided accountability schemes, and it’s not clear that they’ve learned the most important lesson of the last 20 years: People who don’t understand the complexities of life in schools have no business trying to impose simplistic, one-dimensional reforms on school practitioners.
People who don’t understand the complexities of life in schools have no business trying to impose simplistic, one-dimensional reforms on school practitioners.
Look, folks, a curriculum isn’t something you can just drop into a school from above, like adding fluoride to the water supply. It’s an integral part of the system, bound up with everything from teacher recruitment, hiring, and mentoring to governance, budgeting, and parent engagement. Ideally, designing and implementing a new curriculum is an opportunity to foster cohesion, trust, and professional learning, as well as to assess and respond to local interests and needs. So when I hear people argue that a simple way to improve our schools is for administrators to purchase high-quality textbooks or an “evidence-based,” off-the-shelf curriculum, I’m tempted to go full-on Charlton Heston from Planet of the Apes, shouting “Keep your filthy paws off our classroom materials!”
Even more pernicious, though, is the claim that the hidebound “culture” of public education precludes any real effort to improve the curriculum, and that only non-traditional schools and systems (i.e., charters and charter networks) are truly willing to make the radical changes needed (see Petrilli, 2019).
Mercifully, most school leaders pay scant attention to DC pundits. And for those many principals, district office staff, and superintendents who are busting their butts every day to improve teaching, learning, and the larger culture of K-12 education, there’s little to be gained by reading these cynical dismissals of local initiatives. Rather, my suggestion is to stay focused on the complex tasks at hand: assessing your existing curriculum, engaging people in a thoughtful discussion of how to change it, coming up with some concrete and realistic next steps, and recognizing that curriculum improvement will have to involve multiple parts of the system. At the very least, school and district leaders should take certain important issues into consideration:
The existing curriculum
When I was superintendent in Stamford, Conn., we engaged PDK to conduct an audit of our literacy curriculum. To our surprise, it revealed that among our 12 elementary schools, teachers were pursuing more than 100 distinct strategies for teaching reading, many of them in conflict. Clearly, we needed to bring our teachers and schools together around a coherent instructional model, but we didn’t fully appreciate how great that need was until we arranged for an independent, comprehensive review. Simply put, it’s always helpful to begin with an assessment of the curriculum you have, before deciding what kind of curriculum you need.
Educators can’t create a great curriculum without supportive decision makers and policies. These are intertwined, yet distinct, issues: Certain people (e.g., school board members, superintendents, department chairs) will have the final say about what gets taught, how student learning is assessed, which materials are used, and so on; but they will make those decisions within a policy environment that defines their priorities, time lines, resources, procurement processes, hiring rules, and the basic parameters of the curriculum.
It’s impossible to enact a curriculum successfully without the necessary time, talent, and funding. Local decision makers will have to consider the scheduling implications of any new curriculum, and they’ll have to decide where to place their most effective educators so they can help their colleagues teach new content in unfamiliar ways. They’ll also have to decide which tools and materials to purchase and which ones they can’t afford. And they’ll have to ensure that any proposed curricular changes comply with regulations on the use of federal funds.
Tracking and differentiation
Over several decades, our public schools were designed, explicitly, to rank and sort students into differing curricular tracks. Most schools continue to do so in one form or another, whether by placing kids into regular and honors classes, limiting enrollments in Advanced Placement courses, counseling students into (or out of) career and technical education programs, and so on, often under the guise of meeting kids’ needs for acceleration or academic support. Any effort to redesign the curriculum will have to wrestle with these long-standing practices, particularly the tracking of students of color and less affluent students into low-tier courses of study. And any changes will likely set off those parents whose kids have benefited from tracking until now.
Politics and engagement
Most parents don’t think much about the curriculum, but they do tend to see their child’s homework and grades. If the homework looks different from what they remember from their own school days, or if their kids’ grades seem to be based on new criteria, they may be tempted to complain about the school’s performance, vent their frustrations at public hearings, and lobby their board members to make the schools go back to the way things were. In short, when redesigning the curriculum, system leaders cannot afford to leave parents and other community members out of the loop.
Many schools and districts are required to purchase materials from a state-approved list, or they’re incentivized to purchase updated versions of the materials they already have. If a district wants to use more culturally responsive materials, for example, or to try an entirely new curriculum, they may to go through a long process of proposal-writing, stakeholder engagement, and pleading their case to the school board — unless the district or state is willing to give schools the authority to make their own purchasing decisions.
Curriculum redesign tends to have significant implications for teacher hiring, onboarding, induction, classroom assignments, professional development, and collective bargaining. Schools will need to identify and recruit teachers who know the given content and are prepared to teach in the given ways, and local teacher pipelines will have to align the preservice experience to the new district expectations. And principals, too, will have to learn new content, teaching methods, and organizational roles, with an emphasis on observing, assessing, and supporting teachers as they begin to implement the new curriculum.
Teachers’ roles and responsibilities
Given that they will be responsible for putting any new curriculum into practice, teachers must have clarity about how they will be involved in shaping that curriculum and how their professional roles and responsibilities are going to change. Teacher leadership is critical throughout the process of curriculum planning, but even if district leaders choose to reserve key decisions for themselves, they should not try to impose a new curriculum on teachers without seeking their input. Ultimately, teachers are the ones who will have to design lesson plans, select materials, deliver the curriculum, assess student progress, and so on — and so they need to be engaged in the planning, they need to trust the process, and they need to be personally invested in the new approach.
Wary but optimistic
The last 20 years of school reform have given us good reason to be suspicious of policies and initiatives being pushed on practitioners by those who have little to no experience in schools. Yet, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that curriculum reform is sorely needed in every part of K-12 education. Here’s hoping that it is shaped and led by people who actually know how school systems work. District administrators, central office staff, principals, and teachers need to have real ownership over the process of deciding what content to teach, what tools and materials to purchase, and what projects and activities to assign. If decision makers are careful to bring together the various parts of the school system that have a hand in curricular change, then this newest round of educational reform might actually lead to stronger teaching and learning for every child.
Petrilli, M.J. (2019, January 23). Obstacles to a culture of improvement. Flypaper.
Citation: Starr, J. (2019). To improve the curriculum, engage the whole system. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7).