Curriculum reform: Can a higher-quality textbook alone improve student achievement?

William Woods EDU

improve student achievement through curriculum reformAccording to a recent policy paper published by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, switching to a higher-quality math textbook did not improve student achievement across the six Common Core states that were studied.

These findings refute the notion that curriculum alone — namely textbooks and supporting instruction materials — is enough to drive a measurable improvement in student achievement. More importantly, the study suggests that curriculum effectiveness is closely linked with how the materials and textbooks are implemented and adapted by teachers.

The authors of the report offer some factors to contextualize the results, especially in light of prior studies that found “substantial differences in achievement gains for schools using different textbooks.” The following factors may account for the results of this study:

  • Quality of Instruction: The quality of instruction cannot be undermined when implementing a new curriculum. Thomas J. Kane, one of the study authors, wrote in his Education Week commentary, “today, we… recognize that the benefits of strong curricula and better instruction come only from treating them as two sides of a single strategy: enabling the effective teaching of high-quality materials.”
  • Curriculum Implementation Support: Transitioning to a more rigorous curriculum requires a thoughtful approach to supporting teachers. Dr. Kane explains that oftentimes schools and districts neglect to provide updated curriculum implementation instructions to teachers, inhibiting their ability to implement the new curriculum as intended. Instead, Dr. Kane recommends that states and districts test different support packages for both teachers and principals that may include a combination of professional development opportunities such as trainings, classroom observations, coaching, practice sessions, etc.

However, it’s important to note that studies exploring correlations between particular learning materials and student achievement are subject to the limitations of existing data. Most states do not require that districts report the materials that they use; therefore, there is limited data available that could inform large-scale studies. As a result, the majority of current research on the topic, including the above study, focuses on a specific textbook.

 At William Woods University, students pursuing the Online Education Specialist in Curriculum Leadership program will learn more about curriculum reform in courses such as EDU 603 – Curriculum Auditing and Mapping. This course is designed to provide students with knowledge and awareness of the necessary steps to take to successfully implement changes to curriculum.

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