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Two Administrations, Two Approaches to Curriculum?

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A couple of my colleagues have written about Grover "Russ" Whitehurst's recent paper on the importance of curriculum in improving schools. To sum it up, Whitehurst, the former director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, says the research suggests there's a greater payoff for students in addressing curriculum than on the issues that seem to be receiving the most attention from the Obama administration, at least publicly—charter schools, early childhood ed, common standards, merit pay for teachers. Whitehurst makes that analysis based on his examination of the "effect sizes" of various education policies—basically, the relationship between an ed policy and an outcome, as judged on statistical-numerical terms.

I'd like to touch on one of Whitehurst's observations that some EdWeek readers may have overlooked. In his introduction, the former IES chief says he sees a very different focus in ed-policymaking from the Bush and Obama administrations. He argues that the Bush team, in which he served, was very keen on improving curriculum. This occasionally caused problems: the administration was accused of overstepping its legal grounds on curriculum through the federal Reading First program, as Whitehurst notes in his paper. But the administration also delved into the topic in other ways: creating the What Works Clearinghouse to conduct rigorous evaluations of curriculum, and launching a number of other studies of curricula across subjects. (He also could have mentioned Bush's creation of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which probed curriculum, as well as other issues, in its study of how to prep the nation's students for algebra.)

Whitehurst then looks at the Obama administration and sees different interests:

"In light of the legislative prohibitions on endorsing curricula and the political taint surrounding Reading First, one can imagine high-level meeting in the Obama administration in which curriculum and third rail were mentioned in the same sentence. But one can also imagine an administration that is staffed with policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don't think much about water skiing.....


"People who are trying to create more charter schools, or pressure unions to allow more flexibility in hiring and firing teachers, or transform schools into one-stop shops for community needs, do not sort with people who are trying to improve the teaching of fractions or children's reading comprehension. The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching resolves to the question of how to get more qualified teachers into the classroom, e.g., 'How can we remove the artificial barriers to entry into the profession so that smart people who want to teach don't have to jump through the hoops of traditional teacher training and certification?' For the curriculum reformer, teaching is about specific interactions between students and their curriculum materials as shaped by teachers. For a curriculum reformer, teachers with higher IQs and better liberal arts educations are desirable, to be sure. But just as people with musical talent have to work hard to develop musical skills and have available to them exceptional compositions if they are to be successful musical performers, so too bright aspiring teachers have to learn a lot about how to teach and have good curriculum materials if they are to be effective with students. Thus being smart is the starting point of becoming a good teacher for a curriculum reformer whereas it is often the end point of governance reforms.

"Let's assume the Obama administration has ignored curriculum inadvertently because it is staffed with governance people who are simply valuing what they know. If so, then the administration would do well to heed Obama's assertion that, 'you do what works for the kids.' The administration should be open to all the categories of reform and innovation that could have an appreciable impact on student learning."

It's worth noting that the Obama administration has only been on the job about nine months. So a lot of work on curriculum could be coming. What do you make of Whitehurst's comparison?
3 Comments

I think that part of the problem in education is that everything gets divided and needs to compete for importance. Both governance AND curriculum are important, just as reading, science, math, social studies, music, etc are all equally important. The sooner we see the whole child, the whole system, and the whole responsibility the sooner educational reform will be both meaningful and sustainable.

I hated the Bush approach but Whitehurst is correct. You need bright people BUT you also need teachers who know what they're doing.

Right now teachers are overwhelmed by the pressures of teaching to the tests and "accountability." Frankly, I'm disappointed in Obama's approach of simply instituting a nationalized curriculum. We know that good teachers make the difference...not national standards.

This is not a one or the other kind of issue. Emphasis on one aspect does not mean exclusion of all other aspects. In other words, it is curriculum, instruction, and effective leadership together that make for better student, school, and school system performance.

We already know from researched meta-analyses that certain classroom practices improve student performance. Nevertheless, few of these practices are systemically applied in classrooms. I am as puzzled as to why, as I am by those who think that the federal government is close enough to the knitting to have the effect that we all desire.

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