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Should States Collect More Information on the Curricula Districts Use?

Slowly but surely, there is increasing interest among policy folks to improve the creation, selection, and distribution of high-quality curricula to teachers.  

But, as a new brief from the Brookings Institution points out, there's a major obstacle to using this as a lever for educational improvement. And it's this: States simply don't know very much about what individual districts or schools are using or how they make purchasing decisions. Without that information, it's really difficult to help them to select stronger materials or commission research identifying which series help students learn more.

If you're a longtime Curriculum Matters reader, bear with me a minute while I lay out the background landscape a little bit. Not since the early 1990s has curriculum development been a major focus of what we might call "education reform" efforts. Instead, many efforts have tended to focus on alternative schooling arrangements, like charters, or strategies to boost teacher quality, or on testing-and-accountability regimes.

All of those things, while important, don't really deal with the everyday materials teachers use in their classrooms to structure lessons. As I've written in several recent stories, the selection of materials—whether it's textbooks or open educational resources—affects far, far more students than the number who are able to access charter schools or vouchers, for example, or who live in states affected by teachers striking for higher pay. And as educational reforms go, replacing curriculum is cheaper than things like hiring more teachers to reduce class size.

Several recent studies back up the idea that curriculum reform could be a powerful way to improve learning, and it appears that the major education groups are waking up to the promise of better materials. For example, a group of state school superintendents recently called on states to overhaul outdated, needlessly complex procurement systems for books and resources.

Reality Check on Curriculum Reform

The new Brookings Institution report falls into the "Yes, but ... " category, an attempt at a reality check of sorts. It's written by Morgan Polikoff, a University of Southern CalIfornia researcher, who is one of the scholars at the forefront of studying the link between specific materials and student learning.

The brief obviously supports efforts to improve curriculum, but identifies a number of challenges. Among them is this one: States don't collect much information on what districts currently use. 

This is not as easy as simply asking on occasion for textbook titles, Polikoff explains. That's because materials adoption is often quite political. 

"Teachers or district leaders may worry that collecting data on textbook adoptions is the camel's nose under the tent that may lead to more prescriptive state control over curriculum issues," he writes. "Until the collection is made mandatory and routine, then, there will likely be some resistance to sharing the data." 

There are technical challenges, too: Publishers print many editions of the same book, sometimes in response to differences in state standards or, as in the case of digital curricula, annual updates. One potential fix is to ask for ISBN numbers, but those can be tedious to look up. 

In the end, the report recommends that states try to routinize data collection, perhaps when districts make major purchases, across the state. States, it says, should

  • Decide which subjects, grades, and courses will be the target of its collection efforts.
  • Collect titles/publishers, editions, and adoption years for any book on which they gather information.
  • Decide what information to collect from districts or schools that claim they don't use any formal textbook, possibly through surveys or audits.
  • Plan to have collected data analyzed by qualified researchers or staff.

The rest of the report goes on to list several other challenges, including how states could inform their own textbook review and procurement processes when they have a better sense of what their districts are using, and how to help teachers actually use new books when they arrive. Read those sections in the report, too. 

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