Curriculum Matters’ recent blog post entitled “Two Administrations, Two Approaches to Curriculum?” presents some very interesting observations about the role of curriculum in education reform. Blog author, Sean Cavanagh, summarizes Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s, former director of the federal institute of Education Sciences, observations presented in a recent paper on the importance of curriculum in improving schools.
Cavanagh writes: He argues that the Bush team, in which he served, was very keen on improving curriculum. This occasionally caused problems: the administration was accused of overstepping its legal grounds on curriculum through the federal Reading First program, as Whitehurst notes in his paper. But the administration also delved into the topic in other ways: creating the What Works Clearinghouse to conduct rigorous evaluations of curriculum, and launching a number of other studies of curricula across subjects. (He also could have mentioned Bush’s creation of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which probed curriculum, as well as other issues, in its study of how to prep the nation’s students for algebra.)
Whitehurst then looks at the Obama administration and sees different interests:
“In light of the legislative prohibitions on endorsing curricula and the political taint surrounding Reading First, one can imagine high-level meeting in the Obama administration in which curriculum and third rail were mentioned in the same sentence. But one can also imagine an administration that is staffed with policy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice, people who may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing…..
“People who are trying to create more charter schools, or pressure unions to allow more flexibility in hiring and firing teachers, or transform schools into one-stop shops for community needs, do not sort with people who are trying to improve the teaching of fractions or children’s reading comprehension. The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching resolves to the question of how to get more qualified teachers into the classroom, e.g., ‘How can we remove the artificial barriers to entry into the profession so that smart people who want to teach don’t have to jump through the hoops of traditional teacher training and certification?’ For the curriculum reformer, teaching is about specific interactions between students and their curriculum materials as shaped by teachers. For a curriculum reformer, teachers with higher IQs and better liberal arts educations are desirable, to be sure. But just as people with musical talent have to work hard to develop musical skills and have available to them exceptional compositions if they are to be successful musical performers, so too bright aspiring teachers have to learn a lot about how to teach and have good curriculum materials if they are to be effective with students. Thus being smart is the starting point of becoming a good teacher for a curriculum reformer whereas it is often the end point of governance reforms.
“Let’s assume the Obama administration has ignored curriculum inadvertently because it is staffed with governance people who are simply valuing what they know. If so, then the administration would do well to heed Obama’s assertion that, ‘you do what works for the kids.’ The administration should be open to all the categories of reform and innovation that could have an appreciable impact on student learning.”