In her post, “Building the Curriculum Reform Plane While Flying It,” Barbara Davidson made a compelling call for on-the-ground research in schools and districts using high-quality curriculum. Following are some suggested questions to guide this research.
Questions about student outcomes. One set of questions might look at student outcomes in schools implementing high-quality curricula across the subject areas, comparing outcomes with those in schools practicing “business as usual.”
- Once student demographics are controlled for, are test scores and student growth higher in schools using high-quality curricula? Over what time period may these effects be observed?
- Are there differences in the quality, type, and characteristics of student work products in schools with high-quality curricula?
- Are student interest and engagement higher in schools with high-quality curricula?
- Are gaps in learning and interest/engagement between higher and lower achieving students narrower in schools with high-quality curricula?
- Do students in schools with high-quality curricula ask more curiosity questions as part of their learning activities?
- Do students in schools with high-quality curricula retain information better from year to year?
- Do students who attend schools using a high-quality, content-rich ELA curriculum become more avid readers in the upper elementary and middle school grades?
Researchers may need to develop and refine measures of some of these outcomes. In addition, because some of the effects of a high-quality curriculum may become stronger over time, research studies should follow students longitudinally. For example, much of the benefit of a content-rich English language arts curriculum in the early grades may show up as better reading comprehension in later grades when students are exposed to more complex text.
Questions about educator practices. Educators and researchers may want to focus on differences in educator practices to help explain variation in student outcomes across schools. Information about such practices could include:
- When content topics are addressed, how much time is spent on a given topic?
- What kinds of curriculum materials are supplied to teachers and what do teachers have to come up with on their own?
- To what extent do teachers in different classrooms teach the same content?
- What kinds of professional learning do teachers receive? Who provides it? How much time do teachers devote to different kinds of professional learning?
- To what extent do teachers know about and consciously apply what has been learned from the field of cognitive science, e.g. about student misconceptions, conceptual organization of factual information, metacognition, distributed practice, and retrieval practice?
- How does the use of technology compare across schools?
- To what extent is learning “personalized” in different schools? (Here “personalized” refers to students working individually at their own pace on topics that may be different from what their classmates are studying versus exploring topics and solving problems in collaboration with their classmates.)
- What types of district support/engagement do different schools receive?
In short, a compelling research agenda can be developed to examine the impact of high-quality, content-rich curricula and learn more about effective practices associated with them. But educators in schools using such curricula should not wait for these valuable studies to be developed; they can collect information on a range of questions informally, in their own schools, and use it as feedback to improve instruction and encourage teacher collaboration. They can also form improvement networks with educators in other schools to share what they are learning. A combination of formal learning from research and informal learning by educator networks can provide a sorely needed boost for school improvement efforts.