Why curriculum matters for parents and guardians

Editor’s note: This commentary from Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, is the fourth in a four-part series that examines the importance of high-quality materials for state leaders, schools, and parents.

In the past few weeks, this column has explored why curriculum matters in general; why it matters for state policymakers; and why it matters for private schools. Now, we turn to why curriculum matters – or should matter – to parents and guardians.

For shorthand purposes, I use the term “content-rich curriculum” below to indicate a sequenced, spiraled, knowledge-building course of study in all the major subjects, including English Language Arts (ELA), math, social studies (with a focus on history and geography), science and foreign languages.

Such an approach is not primarily about “skills,” which scholars as different as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch call out as insufficient. Rather, it is about learning specific content, and through that process, acquiring the skills that are necessary to integrate and engage creatively with what one knows.

With that in mind, here’s why families and guardians should pay particular attention to the curriculum their child’s school supports.

First, a content-rich curriculum, delivered effectively across the K-12 experience, is likely to accelerate your child’s academic achievement.

To make this concrete, what if you found out that if the school switched from a run-of-the-mill curriculum to a higher-quality one, your child could add months of learning to the schoolyear? Research studies have shown precisely such effects with specific curricula (summary, here). Studies also show the opposite: When schools turn away from a content-rich approach, students lose ground.

But it isn’t enough for the school to bring in a high-quality curriculum; they have to help teachers wield it well. It takes time for teachers to “get” a curriculum from the inside and make it their own in the classroom. New teachers in particular need mentoring from more advanced peers and from instructional leaders. Research supports this finding, as well (here and here).

Ask the school: Which curriculum do you use in each subject in each grade, and why? Do you provide curriculum-specific professional development for teachers, and if so, how frequently?

Second, a knowledge-rich curriculum can help ensure that your child is actually prepared for college and career.

The “actually” is important. Many schools offer high school diplomas that do not really reflect career and college-readiness (see here and here).

How do we know? Because of the high number of high school graduates who must take remedial courses in college or trade schools. Depending on whose numbers we use (here and here), somewhere north of 40 percent of high school graduates take remedial courses in math, English, or both.

Why is that important? Because remedial coursework does not count as credit-bearing. Thus, worst-case scenario, young people end up spending hard-earned money (either their own, their parents’, or the federal government’s) on required classes that don’t count toward college completion. This hurts first-generation students disproportionately (here). As a result, some state legislatures have worked to end remedial coursework categorically, and some institutions – such as the City University of New York – offer robust academic and social-capital support, successfully, in lieu of remediation.

The good news is that students who take more rigorous courses are better prepared for life after high school (with other positive community effects, besides). Research studies have borne this out again and again.

Ask the school: (Elementary) How many of your graduates go on to selective middle and/or high schools? How many of your graduates are prepared for honors courses in middle and/or high school? (Secondary) What percentage of your graduates can take credit-bearing courses in four-year colleges, community colleges, or trade schools?

Third, a content-rich approach will help your child become a more adept adult citizen.

How so?

Think of launching an adult into the world who does not know the capitols of U.S. states, the geography of the Middle East, the belief systems of the world’s major religions, or the 20th century’s encounters with totalitarianism in various forms – but can vote. Sadly, this is, in fact, the trajectory on which today’s K-12 students (in the aggregate) are set.

Last month, the U.S. government released the results of the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, history, and geography, and the results were stunningly low: The percentage of American kids who were proficient or above in U.S. history, geography or civics did not rise above 27 percent in fourth, eighth or 12th grades. In fact, in each of these three subjects, the proficiency rates went down with every year in school. For example, only 12 percent of American seniors were proficient or better in U.S. history. Wow.

Granted, raising the next generation of citizens isn’t exactly top of mind for most of us when we enroll our children in school. But citizenship has remained the central justification for public funding for education in democracies around the world since the early 18th century (for a summary, see here).

It isn’t just content that matters; teachers can help students disagree with civility, something that researchers call an “open classroom climate” and that generates an independent, and positive, effect on long-term civic behaviors (summary, here). This, too, is something parents and guardians should ask about – particularly in middle and high school.

Ask the school: What does your history, geography, and civics curriculum look like? Do you require kids to memorize capitols and demonstrate knowledge of geography? What priority does the school place on civil disagreement? How does it support teachers in creating this space for students? What opportunities exist for students to participate in debates, Model United Nations or mock courts?

What about the case of religious schools that use worldview-specific materials? Let the parent be wise. While some religious curricula also are rich intellectually, others are decidedly not. Those of us who are religiously observant and select schools that correspond with our beliefs need to look under the instructional hood. The questions above still apply. Remember that while many democracies actually fund religious schools on equal terms, they still require these schools to provide an intellectually robust learning pathway (earlier post, here). Why should American religious schools offer less?

What about independent college preparatory schools, which seldom adopt curricula but rather ask faculty to design their course of study and select materials appropriately? Studies suggest that, in the aggregate, such schools have an outsized, positive impact on academic and civic outcomes (see here and here). But “the aggregate” isn’t every school.

In schools that have been accredited through a rigorous process (such as by an affiliate of the National Association of Independent Schools), the course catalogues often are sufficient to reassure parents and guardians about intellectual heft.  Parents should, however, be aware that independent schools can be as susceptible as their peers to pedagogical trends – not all of which are helpful. A careful examination of the programs of study before enrollment, and attentiveness to knowledge-building during homework sessions with your child, are still important.

In the end, no school is perfect; every school has strengths and weaknesses. What if the district school to which your child is assigned, or the school you chose based on other factors, has only modest academic ambitions for your child – and the curriculum reflects it? What if the school is either unwilling or unable to use higher-quality materials?

You may decide out of necessity or good conscience to stay where you are, but to supplement your child’s academic progress on your own. Here, too, knowing what your child is learning, and when, makes finding resources that are content-rich (our Institute’s suggestions here and here), easier. It also makes dinner conversations more interesting!

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BY Ashley Berner

Ashley Berner is deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. She has taught in a Jewish pre-school, an Episcopal secondary school, and an open university. In 2017 she published “Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School.”