How districts can improve learning through high-quality curriculum

States and districts have been slow to implement high-quality instructional materials and the training to use them, despite evidence of the positive impact on learning outcomes.
By: | May 29, 2019
high-quality curriculum

Despite evidence suggesting that high-quality instructional materials increase student achievement, most states fail to promote the use of such resources, according to a recent report from Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders.

Only 17 states exercise formal authority over curricular decisions—either by mandating the use of vetted resources or incentivizing districts to select from approved lists of materials, according to an analysis by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Maryland. Other states only offer loose guidance or none at all.

Outdated state laws and a trend toward local control contribute to the issue, according to the report.

Research shows that one of the best ways to dramatically improve student learning and engagement is to provide teachers with high-quality instructional materials and the related professional development, says Leila Walsh, chief external affairs officer of Chiefs for Change. “And we know that’s not happening nearly enough across the country,” says Walsh.

Students who don’t use high-quality resources may not gain a deep understanding of content, especially if it isn’t reinforced by well-trained teachers, says Walsh.

‘Curriculum matters’

Districts can improve curriculum by adopting the same recommendations the report makes for states, says Walsh, including defining what high-quality means for instructional materials and PD. Districts should also work with experts to create objective rubrics and find tools to evaluate instructional materials, such as those available from EdReports and the Louisiana Department of Education’s tiered-review system.

Finding and using high-quality curriculum does not require spending more money, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. A number of entrepreneurs now create challenging, engaging and thoughtfully sequenced content, says Walsh. “And in many cases, that content is not only excellent, but free.”

Districts have been looking harder for high-quality curriculum. Educators in Baltimore City Public Schools recently discovered problems with the way African American history was presented when the district’s curriculum was audited in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and other experts. Chicago Public Schools recently announced an initiative to provide high-quality curriculum and accompanying PD.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘How important is curriculum?’ and the fact is that curriculum matters a lot,” says Walsh. “Taking a hard look at the content that the district is putting in front of students is a key first step.”