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What Is a 'Quality' Curriculum?

By Nancy Flanagan

Looks like Bill Gates, having totally solved the common standards problem, mastered the vexing "teacher evaluation using student test data" challenge, and designed right-sized schools, is now moving deeper into the heart of what has traditionally been teachers' core professional work. Curriculum, that is.

"Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science," Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as "an area where we feel like we've underinvested."

From the point of view of a large percentage of veteran teachers, there aren't many K-12 educational endeavors where the Gates Foundation has "underinvested." Pretty much everything that was once solidly in the purview of classroom teachers has now become fodder for outside reformers to tinker with: curriculum, instructional strategies, student assessments, selection of materials, and collaboration with colleagues.

Things that were in-district responsibilities, managed by local school leaders, like constructive teacher evaluation, reporting to parents, resource allocation, and hiring/induction/mentoring of new staff have also felt the weight and sway of reformy magic. You name the educational problem—there's a nonprofit somewhere using Gates money in an attempt to solve it without, of course, actually showing up at underfunded schools and teaching kids, year after year.

Curriculum is a special case, however. Designing and delivering lessons—a.k.a. curriculum and instruction—are what teachers do. Nothing is more central to being an effective teacher (and by that, I mean a teacher whose students are paying attention and learning) than control over the what and how of the work.

Once we've totally lost those, there is no profession left. Teachers will be technicians, dispensing pre-selected knowledge using pre-determined methods and materials. Autonomy, creativity and purpose? Gone.

When Gates was investing heavily in the creation and promotion of the Common Core State (sic) Standards, the party line was that the Standards were not curricula, that teachers could use their own judgment, knowledge of students' needs, content expertise and experience to craft curriculum following the Standards framework. Parents (and maybe even teachers), it was asserted, did not understand the difference between standards, which were uniform benchmarks, and curriculum, which could be custom-tailored.

Apparently, that's no longer true. Now, the reformers believe that there's a "best" curriculum for (you guessed it) raising "achievement:"

A significant body of research suggests that choosing better curriculum—often meaning textbooks—can lead to notable gains in student achievement.

This specious claim deserves to be prodded and dissected. If we "choose" textbooks and materials that are specifically aligned with tests, of course scores will go up—we'll be testing kids on things they've actually been taught. This is patently obvious, and one of the reasons high-poverty districts, who can't afford to dump texts and series and purchase new, test-aligned materials, often produce lower scores.

Then there are these little nuggets:

More encouraging is that—unlike other areas of education—curriculum can likely be improved relatively cheaply, since higher-quality textbooks cost about the same as lower-quality ones.

[Researcher] Kirabo Jackson: "It blows most interventions that we think of, like reducing class size or increasing teacher quality, out of the water."

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a shiny new silver bullet: Quality curriculum. Cheaper, neater, and quicker than trying to improve teaching or providing more individual attention to students. And vastly easier than investing in neighborhood safety, good health care, intact families and living wages.

In both linked articles, curriculum is defined almost synonymously with textbooks and materials, printed (and available for purchase) items. While some teachers still see The Textbook as the curriculum, pedagogical practice has moved away from reliance on a single text. Using a range of materials—and, more important, creating hands-on experiences and interactions with big ideas within a discipline—helps students construct and apply knowledge.

Teachers can and do tailor materials to match individual students' needs, developmental levels and interests. In fact, that's a better definition of curriculum: a flexible set of lessons, materials, instructional techniques, and tools to illustrate/practice an important concept or skill.

"Too often [teachers] are left to scour the internet for hours to curate and tailor instructional materials for their students."

Speaking as a person who had to scour the library, films and books, pre-internet, to curate the best targeted lessons for my students, I can assure Henry Hipps, who's leading the development of the Gates curriculum, that teachers would rather roll their own—and share their most useful ideas with colleagues. It's easy to do that now, given the plethora of on-line resources and learning networks. When Bill Gates says he's going to "work with the field," he doesn't mean tapping into these collected ideas. This is another initiative that trickles down to teachers.

All of which begs the question: Why does the Gates Foundation think they can create a monolithic, "quality" curriculum that will improve the lives of every secondary math, science and English teacher?

"Quality" is an all-purpose adjective that is used—deceptively, in education—to describe something that is deemed better than what we currently have, those functional tools of the trade that in-practice educators have honed using hard-won classroom experience. They keep using that word. But I do not think it means what they think it means. 

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