Does curriculum matter?

Maybe not as much as previously thought, according to a recent study released by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. The study, which looked at student achievement data in six states across three school years and used a sample of nearly 6,000 schools and 1,200 teachers, found that choice of elementary math textbooks had little impact on the differences in achievement growth for students. 

New School Year, New Focus, New Textbook?

The release of this study’s findings is particularly timely since it is around this time of year that many school leaders are thinking about curricular changes for the next school year. These changes can be incredibly costly in terms of time and money, and as this study suggests, may not yield the desired results.

Quite frankly, I find that some stakeholders see curricular changes as a silver bullet or easy answer to positively impacting student achievement when existing curricula seem to be producing flat or negative results. I don’t know how many school improvement strategies I’ve seen that include curricular changes as the strategy for impacting positive change.

Textbooks are a Resource, not the Resource

Most experienced teachers and school leaders recognize that textbooks are only one of the many factors that can impact student outcomes. In this day and age teachers use many online resources to supplement their lessons or in some cases disregard the school’s curriculum. Of course, newer teachers use school curricula more often (as the article points out), but more experienced teachers pick and choose from a variety of resources. So what does this mean for school leaders, teachers, and publishers?   

Are We Talking about Curriculum, Model, or Textbook?

I must stop here to clarify terms, which seem to be used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Hopefully this example may provide clarity: While many schools use a “Core Knowledge” model (term for the educational approach the school chooses to adhere to) and follow the Core Knowledge Scope & Sequence (term used to identify the depth and breadth for which identified topics should be addressed at any given grade level), they may choose different reading or math textbooks or programs (one or more content resources that teach the identified standards) to integrate into their curriculum (the planned sequence of instruction and teaching methods which may or may not include identified textbooks).

What’s Next

So what do these findings mean for CSI’s portfolio of schools? Well, for starters, CSI authorizes 39 schools that offer 14 diverse educational models, and these findings don’t seem to contradict our reality. We have schools using a variety of textbooks, curricula, and scopes and sequences that are performing well and schools using a variety that have room for improvement.

Perhaps the biggest reminder from this survey from the authorizer perspective is that charter schools ultimately have the responsibility of choosing the appropriate inputs (curriculum, instruction, staffing) and be held accountable for its outcomes (as measured against our standards of performance). While textbooks or curricula more broadly can be seen as the answer, curricular changes should be done thoughtfully, involving a variety of stakeholders, and acknowledging the many other factors that play a role in the ultimate success of an educational program on its students.

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