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The Role of Curriculum in Education Reform

Despite a growing popular consensus that teacher quality is the most significant factor in academic achievement, as a parent and taxpayer the costs and practicality of this focus concern me. Chancellor Joel Klein focuses keenly on better teacher quality. I agree a strong teacher is crucial, especially for low-income students. But the value of our efforts to identify high-quality instructors and ease the removal of low-quality teachers is questionable.

For starters, the value-added measurements at the core of the relevant evaluation systems are nascent at best, as their developers readily admit. The Department of Education has calculated school report cards three different ways in the last three years; this is appropriate flexibility for a new concept, but not indicative of an established metric. Notwithstanding its motives, the teachers union raises a reasonable complaint that valued-added measurements are not ready for prime time. When reformers deny this, their credibility suffers as much as the union’s.

But still, let’s imagine we build the world’s best evaluation system. The Assembly rescinds the tenure provisions of the Taylor law, and the UFT cooperates.

Brave New World

Welcome to Education Utopia. The tool is applied, the data are crunched, and the teachers fall out along a normal distribution, shown at right (Wikipedia explains the math here). 

Starting modestly, we focus on 1,801 teachers two or more standard deviations below average: principals’ multi-factor evaluations are fair, and the 1,801 are removed. Now they have to be replaced with better, harder-to-find teachers, and we must also hire for the usual 20 percent annual attrition.

In year two evaluations improve and our rigor increases. Despite retraining the 10,736 teachers who fall between one and two standard deviations below the mean, only half improve: 5,400 more are terminated. Some overlap probably exists between low-quality and teachers who quit, so this 5,400 may not be completely incremental. And we still need to address attrition.

Now the biggest challenge: training those just “slightly” below average. These 27,000 are more capable of improvement. Only a third are jettisoned, about 9,000. Plus attrition. 

In a few years time, New York City is hiring tens of thousands of new (high-quality) teachers. Just like Los Angeles. And Chicago. And Washington, D.C. And every other major city in America, all of which are now on the very crowded teacher-quality bandwagon. 

The Case for Curriculum

Reform focused primarily on teacher quality raises logistical problems we’re not ready to solve. Knowledgable reformers know we cannot build and maintain an army of superteachers ready for 10- or 20-year careers in Red Hook, Mott Haven and Washington Heights. While teacher quality is important, can the city responsibly assume that it will be able to develop effective tools, win (or roll) over the unions and fix today’s Albany disaster?

Curriculum reform must play an equal role in our efforts. A recent Brookings Institution report noted curriculum’s strong impact on student outcomes. Importantly, in a system as large as ours, curriculum can be developed centrally and replicated at almost no marginal cost, earning a far greater return on investment than merit bonuses for every qualifying teacher or hiring 10,000 high-quality teachers. In short, teacher quality is a long, expensive, politically difficult fix. Curriculum is comparatively fast, cheap, and also effective. 

Chancellor Klein and Al Sharpton, sincerely and correctly, identify education reform with civil rights. And this means a good curriculum is even more critical for disadvantaged kids who get less supplemental learning and exposure. For children from non-U.S. backgrounds to succeed, we must introduce them to the common language and ideas the native-born use. Moreover, our poorest students frequently get moved around, so it’s unfair to make them also adjust to multiple curricula at different schools.

Teacher quality advocates may ask: “How does a good curriculum help a poor teacher?”  I would rephrase the question: “Does a good curriculum make a poor teacher worse?” Lesson planning, delivery of instruction and classroom management — how to teach — are daunting enough without having to develop good content every week. A solid, coherent curriculum improves the odds for new or struggling teacher, and allows master teachers to focus on their kids’ needs or mentoring colleagues.

Our school recently rewrote its social studies curriculum. Apart from being inefficient because the investment paid off for only a small number of students and because it’s likely that the work had been done before elsewhere, this involved costly overtime for several teachers. A credible, centrally-developed curriculum would save money, provide critical scaffolding for students and teachers alike, and allow for enrichment by parents by giving them a clearer sense of what their children are learning. 

Long before reformers questioned her loss of faith in accountability, historian Diane Ravitch warned of the dangers of leaving curriculum to the high priests at Teachers College and the University of Chicago, calling out their romantic theories of child-centered development for what they are: theories. More recently the final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, unsparing in its criticism of New York and national curricula and practices, cited as one example our practice of “spiraling” through topics as far less effective than “exposure, then closure” characteristic of high-performing systems like Singapore and Finland. At a well-regarded New York City middle school one math teacher told me, “I spend the first few months of sixth grade ‘unteaching’ what they learn in elementary school.”

Spending more than $20 billion annually to educate 1.1 million children, New York City should use its leverage, as we have on teacher quality, and lead the charge to promote curriculum reform. The content we want our kids to learn is the fraternal twin of teacher quality, and it is high time we stopped treating it like a redheaded stepchild.

Matthew Levey is a former president of the Community Education Council for District 2 and the parent of two elementary school children.

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.