Spurrier: Curriculum Isn’t Infrastructure — But States Should Treat It as Such and Build a Strong Foundation for Student Learning

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The Biden administration’s recently announced $2.6 trillion American Jobs Plan is being touted as the long-awaited arrival of “infrastructure week.” While the bill includes spending on traditional projects like roads and bridges, it also stretches the definition of the word “infrastructure” to include funding for long-term care workers and violence prevention. It’s leading many to wonder what — if anything — isn’t infrastructure.

The final version of the plan will certainly include some provisions to support physical K-12 infrastructure, including school building upgrades and expansion of broadband internet connectivity. However, the bill omits the most foundational, long-neglected and underappreciated element of instructional infrastructure: high-quality, coherent curriculum.

Curriculum should serve as a foundational organizing force in student learning, informing instruction, assessment and professional development. Well-structured, strong curricula provide educators with instructional materials and resources to cover a clear scope and sequence of the knowledge and skills students are expected to master. But in far too many cases, schools don’t support educators and students with a well-structured curriculum — or any, for that matter. Only 7 percent of English language arts teachers in elementary schools report regular use of high-quality instructional materials. And even if schools do adopt such materials, they rarely equip teachers to use those resources. A Harvard study found that in 2016-17, math teachers received an average of just 1.1 days of professional development focused on their school’s curriculum.

How did we get to this point? Part of it is certainly political. A seemingly never-ending series of skirmishes over textbook content – including “canceling the classics” like Homer’s Odyssey off schools reading lists – have taught district leaders that when it comes to the curriculum wars, the only winning move is not to play. As a result, curriculum selection is often pushed down to the school level.

But choosing curriculum requires thoughtful, systemic implementation, and there are many ways for it to go wrong. In the absence of thoughtful leadership, high-quality instructional materials can be underutilized and replaced by lower-quality materials found online.

This pernicious status quo is a lose-lose that harms students and educators alike. Teachers end up spending large amounts of their time searching for or creating instructional materials. This can undermine the quality and coherence of what students are actually taught — an outcome that has a disproportionately negative effect on low-income students, students of color and English learners.

As Robert Pondiscio observed, forcing teachers to take an “artisanal” approach to instructional materials sets them apart from practitioners in other professions: “No one expects their doctor to return to the lab every night to prepare pharmaceutical compounds on the theory that she alone knows what her patients need. The master carpenter begins his day in the lumber yard, not in the forest.” But a dearth of high-quality, well-supported curricula leaves educators stuck in

the instructional equivalent of the forest: The average teacher spends 12.5 hours per week searching for or creating instructional materials.

It’s time for education leaders and policymakers to stop treating curriculum as a political third rail and start treating it like essential educational infrastructure. Here’s how they can get started.

First, policymakers should start by better understanding their state’s curricular landscape. Some state education agencies may have approved textbook lists, but there is very little data on which curricula individual schools actually use. Policymakers should require districts to report data on school-level adoption. State education agencies should create teacher surveys — or, in the case of states like Kentucky, adapt existing statewide educator surveys — to better understand classroom use of district-adopted versus self-created or -curated materials.

Once states have improved transparency, policymakers ought to cultivate strong implementation in partnership with educators. They could follow the lead of Louisiana, which created a network of teacher leaders to evaluate and identify high-quality curricula. The state then lowered financial and procedural barriers that prevented districts from adopting strong curricula and identified high-quality professional learning aligned to those offerings — an effort states could support with their American Rescue Plan funding.

Finally, states should give families and educators more choice to enroll in or work at a range of schools with distinctive approaches to curriculum. We should want more schools to take a clear stand on the curriculum they use while also giving families an option to choose among different, high-quality curricular offerings. It’s just as important for a school to have its teaching force fully invested in their curriculum. District leaders should ensure principals can facilitate transfers of educators or administrators who disagree with the school’s approach to curriculum.

Public schools will have to overcome many challenges as they recover and rebuild in what we all hope are the waning months of a global pandemic. Ensuring they have a strong foundation of high-quality, coherent curricula can help ensure they build back better.

Alex Spurrier is a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and evaluation practice area.

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