Skip to main content

Welcome, the Hub connects all projects

Voices From The Field

MSPnet Blog: “Curriculum a panacea — again?”

See All Blog Posts

posted February 26, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

In my career at TERC, I have been a curriculum developer more than anything else. I love that work, because it’s about the science, and about doing  my best to help teachers bring exciting and absorbing phenomena to their students — and become excited and absorbed themselves as they work with the material.  Because I have done some science, taught some science, and had the pleasure of observing many science classrooms, when I design curriculum I am intensely aware that [a] it needs to work “out of the box,” — so the teacher feels that our materials are an opportunity, not a problem, and so we communicate what our team has tried to do, and [b] good teachers must and will bring their “read” of their kids and their own experience to bear, so that the experience engages the students with something of value.  Curriculum development+implementation is a dynamic collaboration among designers, teachers, and students — one of the more complex phenomena in the universe.  Dewey’s Child and Curriculum gets it right:

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, underdeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these forces. Such a conception of each in relation to the other as facilitates completest and freest interaction is the essence of educational theory (Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum.  Middle Works vol 2: 273)

I came into this work in the 1980s, during a second wave of major investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in STEM curriculum (see here for an interesting timeline of science ed events over the past 60 years or so), when the panic-ripples instilled by A Nation at Risk were only just beginning to spread disturbance throughout the education enterprise.  Very soon, the intense focus turned to accountability, standards, systemic change, and (increasingly) the modern version of “reform.” After a few years of that, the message seemed to be that we had all the good curriculum we needed (hadn’t the NSF spent jillions on it since Sputnik?).  Then the Web arrived, and we all knew that Technology (of some kind) was going to fix what was broke.

Some people, including a lot of teachers, noted that science keeps marching on, so that materials from 10 years ago might remain beautiful of their kind, but still needed updating or reframing. (I am writing personally here, and science is my sphere, not STEM, so ‘science’ it will be hereinafter, and readers with other foci can translate for their own areas of interest.)  Many of the same people noted that if we were going to continue to help students get a feel for science as a creative enterprise, teacher methods need to reflect the question-driven, reflective, and discourse-rich inquiry of science as she is done.   Curriculum materials can help there, too.

It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that I learn that the Gates Foundation, as an important shaper of the “reform” idea now in the ascendent. As one story has it,

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach…The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, [a spokesperson] said. One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.   Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials. And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

As commenters on this development note, it’s not all that easy to identify what we mean by “high quality” —  because of the dynamic nature of the classroom and the students in it, because of dramatic and often unpredictable availability of appropriate resources for science, and because teachers are different, too, in ways that are fundamental to the process of education (see here for Peter Greene’s  recent passionate reflections on this point).

The research that the Gates Foundation and its allies relies upon (importantly a recent literature review by Dr. David Steiner), sets curriculum in a central role in the design of education — and therefore as a key strategic focus for “reform” efforts that have so far produced mixed results at best.

What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education: it is American education. The track record of top-performing countries, early evidence of positive effects from the faithful implementation of high-quality curricula here in the United States, and the persistent evidence that our classrooms are underchallenging our students at every level compel us to put the materials that we use to teach at the core of serious education reform.

While Dr. Steiner, and the Gates Foundation, recognize that “curriculum” is something that teachers enact, I have often had the feeling, reading through dozens of stories and think-tank reports, that “curriculum” somehow is being invested with mystic powers to effect “reform” — for example, from a story cited above:

Another analysis [BD note:  in a series entitled “Economic Studies”] found that simply allocating extra money (around $100 per student) for textbooks…can bump up elementary school test scores (though there was no noticeable impact in middle or high school).

None of the stories and advocacy pieces reflect an acquaintance with research over the past 50 years on textbook/curricula (not the same things!!) design and implementation, school culture and its effects on the classroom, the impacts of policy churn, teacher PD strategies,  and feast-famine funding cycles on classroom enactments.   Must we pretend that people only started thinking seriously about education in the past few years?

Moreover, it has been noted by commentators across the political spectrum that the metrics that will be used to identify “high quality” materials and “high quality” implementations are probably pretty poor.  As Joy Pullman of the Federalist (not a source I usually consult) writes :

The metrics for success that make the most sense to Bill Gates do not actually ensure success for children.

— the metrics being “bumps in test scores” (the linked report by Jay Greene is an interesting read).  The technocratic framing for tinkering with educational systems remains dominant (despite occasional cries of “mea culpa” from former advocates of same, see Rick Hess’s recent blog post here) .

Judging educational efficacy is just tough, no doubt about it.  Douglas Simpson and Michael Jackson write:

the curriculum is best taught, if Dewey is correct, when we view it as something that is gradually learned as novices and experts create stimulating and interactive environments that engage each student with others. The environments will need to be highly varied and variable, not created by distant spe- cialists. The outcomes of such learning will be various, too, but they will include the development of educated adults who think and act on the best available and warranted knowledge. (pg 27)

What role does curriculum play in your work?  Where are the gaps you see in educational materials?  How do you judge “quality”?  In your work on educational change, did you have to change your view of the role or importance of curriculum?

Curriculum is not “the heart” of education, but it’s close to it!

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.