Curriculum has the potential to have a dramatic effect on student achievement and teacher quality. When teachers thoroughly learn to use a highly effective curriculum, they learn about how to teach a particular subject and have ready-made lessons and materials organized in a developmental sequence that promotes student learning.
How can you tell what makes a good curriculum? It’s not simple. People looking for simple answers will base decisions on the most superficial things: cover design, greater number of pages, special features, or that they like the sales person. But people looking to implement a quality curriculum have work to do.
First of all if it is going to improve student achievement, a quality curriculum will require changes, changes that faculty and administrators may find uncomfortable. But unless changes are made, how can anyone expect any changes in student achievement?
So, what kinds of changes?
1. Content. Content in a quality curriculum is more thorough and deeper. Instead of mentioning topics, concepts in history, math, or science are developed and explored.
2. Concept and Skill Development. Concepts and Skills are developed along student learning trajectories. One concept builds on the previous one without abrupt changes that leave students perplexed.
3. Lesson Plans. The introduction, development, guided practice, practice, and assessment of each concept and skill is rich, practical, and engages the majority of students at their level of development. Lessons are not overly complicated or too simple. They build on previous lessons and lay the foundation for subsequent lessons. They don’t introduce new skills or concepts out of the blue or drop them without sufficient development and practice.
4. Research Based Teaching Methods. The teaching methods in an effective curriculum are based in educational research or a history of effective practice. Educational research is not comprehensive, but it does provide guidance for curriculum developers. There is research about how to teach reading, beginning with phonemic awareness and developing the alphabetic principle and phonics. There is research that identifies the most effective ways to teach math facts. There is research that identifies the most effective ways to teach spelling. There is no reason teachers have to discover these methods through trial and error and implement them on their own. A quality curriculum would incorporate research based practices into the daily lessons.
5. Student Population. An effective curriculum meets the needs of a given student population. If you have a population of struggling learners, the curriculum concentrates on developing foundational skills and concepts. If you have a high achieving population, the curriculum challenges students with advanced concepts and extended learning opportunities. No one curriculum will be appropriate for all learners at all levels.
6. Standards. An effective curriculum meets the state or national standards in a comprehensive way. A standard, such as the grade 4 Common Core reading standard (“Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.” ) is not just addressed in one lesson. It is comprehensively developed throughout a grade level.
Determining whether a program meets standards qualitatively, is difficult. Most new educational materials will reflect the new Common Core standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics. But most curriculum developers will simply relabel existing curriculum with the Common Core standards and fill in any gaps. Yes, they will look as if and claim to “meet” the Common Core standards. But the curriculum will not be developed based on the Common Core.
To do this would require that curriculum developers start with each standard at each grade and lay out a series of lessons so that students build understanding throughout the year. These lessons would be interwoven so that the different strands of the subject area build together. The materials would clearly reflect each standard and how it is developed and assessed, not isolated mentions of the standard.
This would most likely require that a developer would completely revamp an existing curriculum that was not based on the Common Core, which requires a significant investment… or would start anew, which requires an enormous investment. Educational publishers will not make that investment unless they absolutely have to because customers are demanding it. And customers won’t demand it if they don’t know what they’re looking for or think curriculum doesn’t really matter. Without a real change in curriculum, we can’t expect the Common Core or any reforms to have any substantive effect on educational practices, teaching quality, or student achievement.