Is Curriculum Infrastructure?

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill may be fading, but there is growing interest in instructional infrastructure in the form of high-quality curriculum. 

Last month, I argued that policymakers and education leaders ought to start treating curriculum like infrastructure. A high-quality, coherent curriculum should provide every student and educator with a solid foundation upon which excellent instruction can be built. Unfortunately, policymakers often defer responsibility to the lowest levels, creating a status quo where educators spend more than 12 hours a week creating or curating instructional materials.

What needs to be done? 

It’s an important question at the core of a podcast conversation I had on Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. We covered four key ways to develop more schools where instruction, learning, and professional development are centered around high-quality, coherent curricula. 

1. High-quality curriculum should serve as a foundation for post-pandemic teaching and learning

School systems will undoubtedly use federal recovery funding to address the wide range of post-pandemic student learning needs. We’re likely to see tutoring programs and efforts to remediate (or accelerate) student learning during the 2021-22 school year, but will they have a meaningful impact on students?

Absent a strong curriculum that clearly articulates the knowledge and skills students ought to acquire, many of these efforts will fail to produce positive outcomes for students. This is a particular risk in non-math subject areas, where there are fewer direct connections between state standards and specific content knowledge. 

If school system leaders aren’t centering their learning recovery efforts around high-quality curricula, now is the time to start moving in that direction.

2. Curriculum is an under-utilized lever for equity

There are two ways in which curriculum can serve as a lever for equity in schools. First and foremost, high-quality curricula can reduce the gaps in background knowledge for students. We have mountains of examples, from the baseball study to the works of E.D. Hirsch and Natalie Wexler, that show the immense impact increased background knowledge can have on student learning. Well-structured, knowledge-building curricula can ensure that students in different classrooms or different schools have access to a similar body of topics and content. 

Secondly, strong curricula can improve equity by increasing the efficacy of early-career educators. More often than not, schools that serve highest-needs students are staffed with less experienced educators than schools with lower-needs students. Ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend upwards of 12 hours a week on instructional materials is a big step toward improving the quality of early-career educators. Supporting educators with a strong curriculum can help them focus on instructional delivery and building a strong classroom culture — a shift that would help early-career educators the most and, in turn, their highest-needs students.

3. Policymakers should focus on transparency

When William Goldman said of the movie industry, “nobody knows anything,” he could have been speaking about curriculum in K-12 schools. It’s unfortunately rare for a state education agency to have a solid understanding of what is actually being taught in its classrooms. Even though districts and schools may have adopted curricula on paper, teachers may not have support or resources to implement it with fidelity. 

Policymakers must reduce the opacity that obscures what curricula actually get taught in classrooms. One way is by reporting adopted curricula at the district and school level, along with surveys of educators to gauge to what degree adopted curricular materials are actually used in their instruction. 

4. Everyone involved in schools can work to move the needle on curricular transparency and quality

No matter your position in K-12 schools — as an educator, a policymaker, a parent/guardian, or a concerned taxpayer — everyone can play a role in driving improvements in curricular quality. State leaders can build support for more transparency around curriculum. District leaders can more thoughtfully engage in the curriculum adoption process. Educators can advocate for more curriculum-aligned professional development. Families and taxpayers may not want to engage in the wonky details of curriculum, but they, too, can play a role by asking schools a simple question: “What books can you guarantee my child will read during the next school year in (insert grade level/subject)?” 

The school year ahead will include innumerable ongoing challenges associated with the pandemic. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers have access to high-quality curricula is one way to build back better.