School Board Member Toolkit - Curriculum Adoption: Promoting High-Quality Curriculum Versus Standard Curriculum

What Does High-Quality Curriculum Mean? 

As a board member, you will likely be presented with an agenda item requesting approval of a selected curriculum. It is important to request to see the curriculum well before you vote to approve it for the district. A thorough review process should take several weeks, and as a board member, you have the right to ask to table an agenda item allowing for more time. “Tabling” a motion delays a vote on that motion. 

There are many components to examine while reviewing the curriculum. Research confirms that implementing a “high quality” curriculum leads to notable positive learning outcomes for students. A high-quality curriculum; is aligned to rigorous state standards; is built on high expectations aligned with robust scholarly standards; is academically rigorous; designed to meet the needs of all learners; and provides more coherence and connection in the sequencing of learning between grade levels (Steiner, 2017). High-quality curriculum materials are created to engage students in a deeper level of learning and create a focused direction (National Institute for Excellence in Education). Curriculum considerations should include multiple research studies with evidence of positive student outcomes over a period of time. Effects on student learning over several years are one of the best determinants of a curriculum’s quality. Curricula like the 1619 Project and CRT have none of the important determinants of research-based effects on student outcomes. 

In a recent survey, only 40 percent of teachers reported using a curriculum that is “high-quality and well-aligned to learning standards” (Voices from the Classroom, 2020). When a district does not have a high-quality curriculum, teachers must fill in the educational gaps and develop their own resources and activities to help meet the state standards. A 2017 RAND Corporation survey of 1,100 math and English and language arts teachers found that almost all rely on materials that they have developed or selected themselves rather than the curriculum supplied by their school district (Opfer et al., 2017). The researchers found that 96 percent of teachers surveyed used Google to find lessons and materials, and 75 percent used Pinterest. 

Although many teachers utilize the district curriculum as adopted, many teachers lack the administrative support to implement the programs successfully. When teachers without support attempt to build their curriculum from Google and Pinterest, it is difficult to ensure transparency and accountability in the curriculum. School board members can spend time in schools and classrooms to ensure educators are appropriately teaching the adopted curriculum and receiving the needed support for professional development. Outside resources and creative teaching techniques can be effective, but it is important to ensure the curriculum’s quality and efficacy meets the needs of all their students. 

What are the Benefits of a High-Quality Curriculum? 

Standards, curricula, and instructional materials all play a vital role in what is taught in the classrooms across the Nation. A 2017 report from Johns Hopkins University provided research on the effect of curriculum regarding student outcomes. The authors concluded that a teacher’s or a district’s choice of curriculum significantly affects student learning. A high-quality curriculum is built on high expectations, aligned with robust scholarly standards, is academically rigorous, and designed to meet the needs of all learners. The report concluded that a positive impact on student achievement using a high-quality curriculum increased as much as 10 percentile points in reading and 23 percentile points in math (Steiner, 2017). Furthermore, the authors shared that with such strong evidence, policy decisions should be of “deep concern” for policymakers and require “urgent attention” (Steiner, 2017). 

How Do I Know if Curriculum is High-Quality? 

Again, curricula that provides evidence of positive impact on student outcomes over a period of time is considered the gold standard of a high-quality curriculum. There are many ways school board members can review textbooks, supplemental materials, homework, in-class activities, and digital content to determine when and where the curriculum is politically motivated rather than focused on improving student outcomes. 

It is much more likely that you will discover this content in the in-class activities and digital content versus the textbook. Thus, it is crucial that you request transparency on ALL materials presented within the district. It is also likely that these materials will not outright say “Critical Race Theory” or “the 1619 Project,” so it is important to scan the materials for keywords or phrases (like those mentioned above) that imply these teachings are inherent in the curriculum and result in revisionist history, bigotry, collective guilt, neo-segregationism, racial discrimination, race scapegoating in the classroom, and other race-centric policies. As previously discussed, textbooks should follow the adopted state standards and be aligned with the district-adopted curricula. There are no federal standards that states are required to follow, so be cautious of any explanations for chosen materials because the “federal government” or “United States Department of Education” requires it. 

It is important to remember that while politically motivated content is a flag for a low-quality curriculum, is not the only indicator of a low-quality or failed curriculum. For example, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a failed curriculum that does not directly include politically motivated content. CCSS harmed student achievement in science and social studies. Underprivileged students were negatively affected by the implementation of CCSS studies (Arold and Shakeel, 2021). It is critical always to seek data and evidence of effective curricula illustrating positive outcomes. Parents and educators have strongly opposed Common Core Math as the original standards were deemed not developmentally appropriate for the younger age groups. School board members should review standards and make sure that curriculum choices are age-appropriate and do not create unrealistic expectations for children’s natural pace of learning. 

It is difficult to find accurate data or reviews on curriculum and instruction materials, which is problematic considering the substantial difference a high-quality curriculum can make on learning outcomes and the billions of dollars spent each year on textbooks. The Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) does publish reviews of existing research on different education programs, products, and policies. According to the WWC reviews of curriculum, many curriculum plans had no research or evidence supporting effectiveness in the classroom. For example, of the 155 math curriculums made available, 108 had no associated studies as to their efficacy (Institute of Education Sciences, Results: Math, n.d.). School districts across the Nation are selecting curriculum that has no evidence of improved outcomes for students. As a school board member, you can use your voice and your vote to advocate for increased data on the impacts of curriculum to help make more informed decisions in the future.