Hiding in plain sight: Leveraging curriculum to improve student learning

From the Field: A periodic reflection by Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee on the most important conversations happening today among state and district school leaders.

Over the past decade, the state and district leaders I work with have spent a great deal of energy, thought, and political capital on adopting new, higher academic standards to ensure that what students are expected to learn in their K-12 education aligns with what they need to know to be prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at colleges and universities, or workforce training. This work was — and remains — vitally important to student success in a 21st century economy. But, in nearly all cases, it was not accompanied by a similar burst of energy to ensure what students were being taught, each day, in the classroom was aligned to those higher expectations.

That wasn’t the case, however, in Louisiana, one of several states and districts profiled in a new spotlight from Chiefs for Change on the powerful, untapped potential of curricular reform. Five years ago, Louisiana’s leaders made deliberate choices to pay attention not only to high academic standards, but also to the curriculum and instructional materials teachers were using to help students meet those standards. Louisiana didn’t prescribe or mandate that certain materials be used. Rather, the state used carefully crafted incentives and leveraged teacher leaders to encourage widespread adoption of high-quality curriculum and aligned instruction.

Specifically, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) began to conduct reviews of popular instructional materials and rate them based on quality and alignment with the state’s standards, from Tier 1 to to Tier 3 — making the ratings publicly available on its website. The state’s Teacher Leader Advisors, a group of 75 educators, aided in vetting the curricular materials, recognizing the deep expertise of those charged with delivering the curriculum and bringing credibility to the work with their peers. And when few materials met the state’s high bar to receive Tier 1 status, including no complete English language arts curriculum, LDOE went a step further, asking its Teacher Leader Advisors to develop ELA Guidebooks with examples of standards-aligned instruction — which have since expanded into a fully fleshed out, freely available set of ELA curriculum units for grades 3–12 through a partnership with LearnZillion.

In addition to simply making information about curriculum alignment and quality public — which is revolutionary in its own right — LDOE helped scale this work by encouraging districts to choose only the highest-quality materials and provide professional development to teachers on how to make the most of them in their instruction. The agency only grants state contracts to Tier 1 publishers, which results in cost efficiencies for districts if they choose to use a Tier 1 curriculum, rather than a Tier 2 or 3, and brings much-needed efficiencies to local procurement processes. LDOE also publishes a guide on professional development vendors that have demonstrated they help teachers use the most effective curricular materials.

All of these policy choices — incentives to choose high-quality materials while respecting local control, leveraging teacher expertise in the work, tapping the procurement process to expand use of the best materials, and creating professional learning based on curricular content — have been instrumental in making Louisiana’s work so effective and offer lessons for other states. At an event hosted by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy last year, Rebecca Kockler, LDOE’s Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content, summed up the state’s effort this way: “We make the best choice the easy choice.” And it shows: More than 80% of local systems now use Tier 1 materials exclusively — up from 20% five years ago.

More impressively, researchers at the RAND Corporation found “large and intriguing differences” between Louisiana teachers and those in other states that implemented college- and career-ready standards, suggesting a connection between the state’s policies and teachers’ improved understanding and use of high-quality materials and standards-aligned classroom practices. These findings are striking — and have piqued the interest of other state and district leaders and national experts, given that most states have struggled to translate the adoption of new standards into changes in classroom practice. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote in Education Next: “Louisiana remains a laboratory from which other states can learn as they evaluate their own efforts to make more rigorous standards stick.”

In the continued push to raise standards, I am increasingly convinced that policymakers can no longer afford to ignore curriculum and can undertake these reforms in a way that respects local autonomy over instruction. Most of our higher-performing international competitors are clear about rigorous academic content that all students must learn, and they implement a high-quality, content-rich curriculum in their schools. Emerging research suggests curriculum can exert a powerful influence on student outcomes, and that switching to a high-quality curriculum may be a more cost-effective way to raise student achievement than other interventions policymakers more typically turn to. And now, there are examples from leading states and districts, like Louisiana, that show curricular reforms are not only possible — but powerful. Let’s learn from their example.