There are two key ingredients in providing a quality education: teachers and the content they teach, which is the curriculum. Teachers always get a lot of credit and blame for student achievement and a lot of media attention. We focus on teacher motivation, merit pay, professional development, getting rid of bad teachers, and teacher evaluations. The curriculum, whether it is teacher or school created or selected, or whether it is produced by educational publishers, rarely gets any attention. I suspect this is because most people don’t understand what it is or how to evaluate it.
If most people think about curriculum, they think textbooks and other educational materials are like references, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias, that are handed down from on high. Some people who think about it become alarmed and give more credence to educational materials than is due. Textbooks have been criticized for promoting a secular, liberal point of view by people concerned about religious values. They have been criticized for having too much commercialism or not enough diversity by people concerned about promoting good models of behavior. It seems implausible that a paragraph or picture in a textbook that most students won’t even see or understand could be so controversial, let alone compete with all of the other influences in a child’s life. Rarely are they criticized for the organization of the skills and concepts, the quality of the content, or the effectiveness of the instruction.
Very few people, including teachers, administrators, and academics know how to evaluate curriculum. Teachers tend to assess whether materials will be easy to teach and whether their students will be able to read and access the content. They are often impressed by design, special features, or components that have little to do with the presentation of the content. Academics tend to evaluate whether the content is accurate. Although both are valid, neither approach will help select the most effective materials to use in a particular school or with a particular group of students.
Having been in teaching and educational publishing for over 35 years, I have experienced using different curricula and developing different curricula. The most effective curricula, if used with fidelity, should disrupt teaching methods and practices. Otherwise, no change will occur and student achievement will not be affected.
Of course an effective curriculum is accurate and presents a depth of content and activities that meet educational standards. But an effective curriculum does a lot more than that. Developers of effective curricula spend an inordinate amount of time developing and testing a scope and sequence of skills and concepts so that one lesson builds on previous lessons and leads students through a logical, developmental progression. In an effective curriculum, there are not major leaps from one concept to another that leave students and even teachers behind.
Developers of effective curricula do intensive research in teaching methods that are most appropriate for concept development. Grouping suggestions, fact practice, explicit explanation, open-ended questions, use of games, exploration activities, inclusion of video experiences, or hands-on activities are all examples of teaching methods that can be used to present concepts in effective ways.
Effective curricula provide comprehensive lesson plans, so educators have support for introducing concepts, checking for understanding, student practice, evaluation, and remediation.
Developing a quality curriculum is not easy. After teaching middle school language arts, I was amazed at the amount of time that publishers spend developing a simple spelling program. This involved researching the most effective practices in spelling instruction. It involved selecting a high frequency word list and organizing by and verifying the sound and letter patterns and developing a lesson template to make sure that pattern instruction, as well as use of words in reading, writing, meaning, and word building activities was included. Then it involved a team of writers to write the lessons, a team of editors to review and proofread the lessons, a team of designers to lay out the lessons in an approachable design, a team of artists to illustrate the lessons, and then production companies to develop the pages and covers and publish them. No teacher or school staff would be able to do this nearly as effectively. Nor should they.
The full-time job of the school staff is to deliver curriculum, not to develop it. These are two very different careers. To deliver effective curriculum teachers must be able to identify the qualities that make one curriculum more effective than another and then select the superior materials. Otherwise, their jobs of advancing student understanding will be more difficult and their students will suffer. A curriculum that is easy to teach might not be very effective.
Following are rubrics for evaluating curriculum that any one can use to help select and implement the most effective curriculum. In future posts, I will apply the rubrics to existing curriculum.
|Content Accuracy||Content is thorough and accurate with credible authorship and reviewers.||Content appears accurate.||Some inaccuracies are found.||Many inaccuracies are found.||There is no reason to be confident about the accuracy of the content.|
|Content Depth||Content coverage is rich. Opportunities to explore depth of content are numerous.||Content is covered but there are few opportunities to explore content in depth.||Content coverage is superficial.||Content coverage is weak.||Significant amounts of important content are not covered.|
|Content Scope||Thoroughly covers foundational concepts||Covers key concepts.||Covers some key concepts.||Mentions but does not cover foundational concepts.||Does not address the majority of foundational concepts.|
|Design||Design facilitates use with appealing features and navigation ease.||Design helps in organization of content but is not appealing.||Design does not help or distract from use.||Design distracts from ease of use.||Design hinders use.|
|Ease of Use||After training, program is well laid out and intuitive. Distinctive materials are worth the time to implement because they are effective.||Program requires little or no training because it is like other programs we have used.||Some materials in the program will not be used because they are unnecessarily confusing and ineffective.||Most materials are not effective and not worth the effort it will take to learn how to use them.||Even after training, program is incomprehensible.|
|Lesson Plan Model||Lesson plan design includes effective concept introduction, practice, summarizing, and assessment of key concepts.||Lesson plan design organizes lesson into stages of introduction, development, and assessment.||Lesson plan design omits important features critical to concept understanding.||Lesson plan design distracts from the development of concept development.||Lesson plan design is nonexistent or impedes concept development.|
|Program Philosophy||Program has a sound philosophy grounded in credible evidence, research, and/or experience. The philosophy is evidenced throughout the program.||Program philosophy is sound and based on credible information, but the philosophy is only evidenced in specific locations.||Program philosophy is not strong and is not clearly evident.||Program philosophy is not apparent.||Program philosophy reflects ineffective practices.|
|Standards Coverage||Thoroughly covers all grade level standards and meets the intention of the standards.||Thoroughly covers some of the standards and meets the intention of the standards.||Addresses standards but does not meet the intention of the standards.||Does not thoroughly address the standards or meet the intention of the standards.||Does not address the standards.|
|Students Learning Trajectories||Carefully develops incremental concepts along children’s learning trajectories.||Follows children’s learning trajectories within sections or subjects.||Organizes content mostly by subject rather than children’s learning trajectories.||Does not use children’s learning trajectories effectively to organize content.||Concept development runs counter to student learning trajectories.|
|Teaching Methods||Employs effective, innovative, and engaging teaching methods that are founded in research.||Employs effective traditional teaching methods.||Employs some ineffective teaching methods.||Employs mostly ineffective teaching methods.||Employs ineffective teaching methods.|